According to PBS and the New York Times, the Democratic Party will be holding a convention this weekend to vote on leadership and future courses of action. A national organization of conservatives is just finishing such a session.

The Democrats are being pushed, in part by their more strident members, toward declaring all-out war against the current administration and all its pomps and shows (as in “the Devil and all his pomps and shows”). Moderates are having a problem withstanding this storm, as are moderates (few as they may be) on the other side. I can understand their dismay all around.

So it’s with some relief that I’ve been reading the local newspaper columns of John Krull, my successor as director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College. The headline today was “Search for Good Sense Among Screaming.” (Yes, of course the headline writer should have made it “Amid Screaming.” But moving on . . . .) John hosts a talk show on an Indianapolis radio station, and he was making a point: Some participants whom he expected to throw an on-air fit didn’t. Instead they spoke calmly about real problems. John concluded: “Polarization won’t help us meet our challenges or solve our problems. But listening to each other might.”

John’s patient stance reminds me of a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times. David doesn’t scream either, but the column described at length some of the real and troubling problems our country faces, from a loss of economic dynamism to widespread social alienation. Then he wrote:

“The central task for many of us is not to resist Donald Trump. He’ll seal his own fate. It’s to figure out how to replace him—how to respond to the slow growth and social disaffection that gave rise to him with some radically different policy mix.”

Wise words, indeed. And not a scream anyplace in it.

 

Do words matter? Not always, but then sometimes . . .

The president, at his Florida rally Saturday, was talking about terrorist attacks around the world. Then he said, “You look at what happened last night in Sweden.” The problem was that nothing—no terrorist incident—had happened the previous night. The president apparently was referring to something from Fox News about Swedish crime and its purported connection with immigration.

So he seems to have misspoken. No big deal. Presidents have misspoken before. A statement to that effect might have dampened the immediate outrage from the Swedes. The president responded instead by doubling down, in Twitter messages, on his statement and blaming the mainstream news media for the whole brouhaha.

This made it a major story for another day at least, during which a former prime minister of Sweden tweeted the president to say, “Just some friendly advice. When you’re in a hole, don’t keep digging.” By tonight things had calmed down. The evening news channels I watched were divided. NBC was still covering the story, but PBS left it alone.

Later this evening I had a call from someone near and dear who was deeply shocked at the hateful social media messages aimed at Melania Trump for opening Saturday’s rally with the Lord’s Prayer. I had missed this story entirely, but tracked it down. NBC had a video of Melania reading the prayer, but the reports of a twitterstorm of outrage at her, using vile language, were not carried, as far as I could tell, on mainstream media. But if you Googled “Melania Trump Lord’s Prayer,” as I did, there was plenty of coverage on various specialized news sites. “Leftists Flip Over Melania’s Prayer,” one site headlined, before repeating the noxious tweets. And without question, many of the tweets were hateful, vile, and at least borderline obscene.

Should mainline media have reported these tweets as well as Melania’s performance? It’s a little hard to see where this ends. What about pro-Melania tweets in response to anti-Melania ones?

Before I get further into a hole, I think I’ll stop digging.

By all sober accounts, yesterday’s presidential news conference was an odd affair—77 minutes of self-congratulation and verbal assaults on presidential foes, from the courts to the news media. PBS let it run at unusual length, presumably so viewers could see it without filtering.

My own interest is the media. It should always be noted that “media” includes everything from the soberest mainstream analyst to the most demented late-night ranter and the supermarket tabloids, which are currently inventing an Obama plot to impeach his successor.

The White House reporters gathered in the East Room yesterday are foot soldiers—beat reporters—who show up on call for briefings and presidential appearances. They must be professional to get where they are. They can’t afford to lose their cool (and their jobs) by blowing up on camera.

The president continues to call these men and women “dishonest” to their faces. As Neal Gorsuch said of similar attacks on judges, this could be “disheartening and demoralizing” if the reporters let it. But neither they nor judges are likely to do so. The reporters will continue to do their job, which is to report calmly from a White House that is a long way from the “finely tuned machine” described by its occupant, in perhaps his oddest words of all yesterday.

 

At 9:34 last night, the New York Times posted, at the top of its website, a story headlined, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” The story was written by Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo, leading me to call it the Three-M Story.

The lead read: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.”

The story struck me as a type I’m familiar with from working with investigative reporters. One might call it the “80 percent there” story. The reporters are sure they’re on to something big, and can see the smoke, although the gun is not quite in sight yet. So they, abetted by the newspaper, go with an incomplete story, in hopes of shaking more out of the bush. It’s a classic genre. Sometimes it’s a damp squib. Sometimes it’s Watergate.

It’s also a hard story to read and understand. “What in the tunket is going on here?” my old journalism prof, Harvey Jacobs, might have said.

The first thing to remember is that the Three-M Story has little if anything to do with the much-publicized post-election conversations between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn, the now-fired national security boss. What it concerns is an ongoing sifting by the FBI of “a trove of information” (the reporters’ words). This information covers at least the last year, and consists of phone logs and intercepted calls, gathered by (according to the story) “American intelligence and law-enforcement agencies” and eventually turned over to the FBI.

The “four current and former American officials” cited as the story’s sources are not identified, and the only Trump associate named by the four is Paul Manafort, the onetime Trump campaign aide and wheeler-dealer in Russia. The story also suggests Michael Flynn as a subject of investigation, along with Carter Page, a campaign adviser, and Roger Stone, identified as “a GOP operative.”

So is the Three-M Story the start of something bigger, or is it a damp squib? The Times placement suggests the editors think it’s important. There has been no immediate White House comment or Twitter feedback.

When I started writing these occasional blogs a few weeks ago, it was with the resolve not to comment on political leaders themselves. There are plenty of pundits doing that. My intent was, and is, to comment on media performance, which is the only place I can claim even limited expertise. I’ve managed to stick reasonably well to that resolve, and hope to continue doing so.

One phrase that keeps coming up is “adults in the room.” Some media people are doing that well, and a few are going nutso. There are columnists, even on the hallowed New York Times, whom I avoid assiduously, just because they’re too far one way or another, or have abandoned the basic idea of civility.

One I continue to read (and watch) is David Brooks of the Times and (on Friday nights) PBS. Last night he was talking about just this theme of civility. He mentioned favorably the remarks yesterday of Sen. Marco Rubio, who urged disputants to follow some basic rules of civil discourse.

Brooks at times has been highly critical of the new administration. But last night he was urging a step back, to look at things fairly. He mentioned several Cabinet nominees, including Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos. Sessions, he noted, has performed capably as a senator. And Brooks said he has heard DeVos make presentations and been impressed by her intelligence. Neither these two nor some other Cabinet picks are beyond the parameters of such choices in the past, he said.

Give them at least a bit of a chance, he was saying. Be civil. Be the adults in the room.

As Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was approached by a woman who asked, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?
“A Republic, madam, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

Was talking to my banker today about the march of progress, and she mentioned the likely demise before long of the personal paper checkbook, with all transactions going electronic. I laughed and said it was sometimes hard for me to believe that in journalism graduate school I had taken a class in hand-setting type. She looked blank. Turned out she had no idea what I meant by “hand-setting type.” I am now officially a dinosaur.

On the press front, I was able today to read Glenn Thrush’s New York Times story on White House staffing, then hear the president denounce the story on TV as “fake news” by “the failing New York Times,” then hear Thrush on PBS, explaining the accuracy and thorough sourcing of the story. Wotta world!

I hope the press will continue to do its job and not feel it has to respond to every unsupported White House attack. Be the adults in the room, folks. I was also reminded that Ruth, my German landlady post-World War II, used to laugh about Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, who responded to western reports of German food shortages by denying them totally. “They say we have no eggs,” JG stormed. “Of course we have eggs. We’re just not letting you see them.” Ruth, who heard this while cooking without eggs, thought it was pretty funny.