Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for the Washington Post. As a professional news consumer, she can confirm Noah's observation that the coverage of the big event was tilted toward the visuals. The wordsmiths never had a chance. Never mind who won the negotiation, when it comes to the optics Sullivan says pageantry won, skepticism lost.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: The overall impression was that this was a moment in history, you know, the historic handshake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In front of our flags intertwined with that of probably the worst totalitarian dictatorship on the planet.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: This was pageantry and stagecraft and something to be very, very proud of. The other iconic image was the dual signing of this document, which, days afterwards, we know, really, there's not much in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did the media respond to what turned out to be --
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Not so much?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not so much, not so much appropriately?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, I saw the coverage turn not the day of the summit, not really the day afterwards but the following day. Then all of a sudden it was sort of, like, oh wow, you know what? There's really not much in that document. And now cooler heads were starting to prevail and you would see different words and headlines and a much more questioning, a much more skeptical tone. And this is an overall impression, it's not about any particular front page or any particular broadcast. But, on balance, it took 36 hours for that to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And before it did, there were a few headlines that I think you found nettlesome.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Trump says there will be no more wargames. That does actually sound pretty good, doesn't it? But when you realize that this was something that the United States did in support of its ally, South Korea, and that ending that would undercut that alliance, it takes on a different tone. So the words do matter. I mean, I even saw a, an AP tweet that said something like, Trump says the nuclear problem is over.
I mean, those weren’t exactly the right words. When you report something like that straight, even in a tweet, you’re really lacking in context, and that’s not so good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think the legitimate news business should have ordered its priorities?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, we can't control the imagery and we can't control what is said but what we can control is how much attention we pay to it. Not that it should be ignored, it’s a big, big story, but there are so many other important things that are happening. And we do the same thing too often when Trump makes an outrageous statement or does a tweet storm; he says, jump and we say, how high?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so now we’re at the event, all right? Cue the music. How would you have liked it to have been covered, ‘cause a lot of that was just waiting around?
MARGARET SULLIVAN: More historical context, less excitement, more perspective. We could look back, for example, at the history of North Korea and its leadership and how its people have suffered. And there was some of that. On the CBS Evening News the night that the summit was happening, they had an interview with a young North Korean woman, who had become an American citizen, talking about how members of her family had starved to death. But then it was right back to the flags and the signing and the handshakes and all of that. And, meanwhile, you had Trump saying, this is such a talented man, he loves his country and I can tell you his country loves him. So it was a little bit of a reality check, but did it really make an impact? No, not really.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We are now in the after-aftermath [LAUGHS] of this event. I, for one, want to know more of what is known about North Korea.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Well, you’re out of luck, I’m afraid, because we’ve moved [LAUGHS] on to other things. There’s a blast of information, some of it too credulous, and then afterwards not much. A quick peek and then it’s over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As everyone knows at this point, there is a bifurcated nation and a bifurcated media. Fox is making fun of the left for being in an awkward position because of this enormous triumph, while the left and center media say, you know, they’re not talking about killing each other anymore, so that's a good thing.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Right. They took us to the brink and pulled back from the brink and so that's supposed to be a huge triumph. You know, I don't really buy this idea that we’re bifurcated. Of course, we are very split as a country and our media present different stories but, actually, what there is, is the Fox News ecosystem, what's built around them, and a lot of other places that try to present a more realistic view of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, try but not very hard because we've just seen this event, which could have been presented much more clearheadedly.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Part of it is that we’re used to covering presidents a certain way. We have norms. The president makes a big historic visit, we take the statement for what it is and then we do the fact check afterwards.
One of the things we need to do as much as possible is challenge and context and fact check as these things are being said, in real time. We don't seem to have the right tools for it or maybe we don't have the will for it. I don't know which it is. But we end up covering Trump like a normal president, and he’s just not.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Margaret, thank you very much.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post’s media columnist.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the trumpeted threat from the “Great White North.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.
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