BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
[FAKE MOVIE TRAILER CLIP]:
NARRATOR: Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity, a story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance that may never be repeated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Tuesday, the 2500 (give or take) journalists in Singapore to witness the big summit were treated to an opening video trailer commissioned by the White House.
NARRATOR: Featuring President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un in a meeting to remake history. One moment, one choice, what if? The future remains to be written.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, the future does remain to be written because the 40-minute private meeting followed by a working lunch, of the two national delegations yielded an agreement that Trump described as “comprehensive” but which was less an agreement than a statement agreeing to embark on an agreement at some time in the near future. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided the press for asking questions, with a degree of moral outrage usually reserved for people who would, for instance, tear a baby from the breast of a nursing mother in a Texas detention center.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: So the first question, Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about verifiable and irreversible. The day before you said, it’s our only objective, it’s clear we want that. It’s not in the statement. Why is it not in the statement? And the president said, the reporter continues, Secretary Pompeo then interjects, mm-hmm, it is in the statement. You’re just wrong about that. Question: How is it in the statement? And the exchange goes back and forth, concluding with the secretary saying, because “complete” encompasses verifiable and irreversible…let me assure you it’s in that document. He goes on to say, I find the question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous. I just have to be honest with you. It’s a game and one ought not play games with serious matters like this.” Of course, we all agree with that. So let’s just be clear here on the fact. This is his statement. The word “verification” simply is not there.
[END CLIP][MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: So what happened in Singapore as the cameras clicked and whirred? President Trump saluted a North Korean general. He praised Kim Jong-un’s love of his people, referring, presumably, to the people Kim hasn’t jailed or starved or murdered. He spontaneously and unilaterally canceled the military exercises that ensure readiness for regional security, always conscious of the lenses and the lights and loving it all.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Getting a good picture, everybody, so we look nice and handsome and thin?
WOMAN: It’s beautiful.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Perfect.
BOB GARFIELD: Ad libs, pronouncements, ceremony, self-congratulation, in short, just another day covering Trump, only much farther away and at a far higher cost, all to document a moment of Trump diplomacy that would have been unnecessary if Trump, himself, had not tweeted us into nuclear confrontation with the ruthless dictator.
As that movie promised, the event was full of expectation and undetermined outcomes, a kind of Hollywood thriller come to life. But here’s the thing.
NARRATOR: Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity…
[AUDIO UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: The real Hollywood production company, Destiny Pictures, had nothing to do with that trailer. The name, coincidentally, it seems, was dreamed up by the National Security Council. The drama was ginned up by a reality TV president. The press showed up to see the dawn of a new relationship. But the show was over. The 3-D glasses were dumped in the bin, leaving the public and the press squinting into the cold light of day.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think, honestly, I think he's gonna do these things. I may be wrong, I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, “Hey, I was wrong.” I don't know that I'll ever admit that, but I'll find s -- I’ll find some kind of an excuse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Los Angeles Times White House correspondent Noah Bierman was among the journalistic multitude in Singapore earlier this week and he was one of the lucky ones, since he was able to report from the summit as a member of the White House press pool.
NOAH BIERMAN: You know, you’re in this large conference center- style hotel, which is somewhat disconcerting in itself because you've got the Disney World-like topiaries, there's Universal Studios as you're driving over to this island and here they are to talk about nuclear disarmament with a guy who is accused of all sorts of atrocities. So that's all running through your head in this --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a place that has human rights problems of its own, Singapore.
NOAH BIERMAN: Yeah, exactly. Nobody brought chewing gum on the trip there, but --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m not sure what that means.
NOAH BIERMAN: They’re known for heavy penalties for people who spit chewing gum on the sidewalk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh!
NOAH BIERMAN: Caning, in fact. But yeah, even those of us who weren’t in the main pool but in the full pool, we did get some very close-up looks at Kim. We were very close up for that signing where we saw some interesting things like a, a man spending quite a while in special white gloves inspecting the pen that Kim was going to use before signing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given his own penchant for poisoning relatives and so forth, that might be a wise thing to do.
You were one of the first American journalists to ever lay eyes on him. Did you get anything from the close-up and personal view you may have gotten? I mean, what did you learn?
NOAH BIERMAN: Yeah, that’s an interesting question because we do get a sense of maybe a little bit more normalness of him in the flesh, and some of the Korea experts I spoke with before the trip in my research said that we do have this exotic or mysterious idea of them and then when they turn out to maybe be funny or smart or practical in person, people get thrown off guard and they end up, in the case of Americans maybe, giving away too much when they negotiate. So you don't want to read too much into the appearance of someone, but we were, in several events, including on a balcony across a moat, from Trump and Kim. A lot of the restrictions placed on the pool were heavily weighted to have photographers, sound people, still photographers, TV photographers -- those were the ones who were the most -- allowed the closest views, in general, and those of us who spend our time with words were not given as much access. You know, our job fundamentally is to try to hold people accountable, so when you're standing across a balcony with a moat in between you, you’ve got to be able to fire the question off quickly and make sure he can hear it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In this tape, you can’t quite hear Noah asking, quote, “Chairman Kim, will you denuclearize?” twice. Then CNN’s Jim Acosta asked it louder.
NOAH BIERMAN: Chairman Kim, will you denuclearize?
JIM ACOSTA: Mr. Kim, will you give up your nuclear weapons, sir?
NOAH BIERMAN: And so, I think that was an important witnessing and reporting act that we needed to do, even if, in some ways, it might be symbolic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re challenging someone who’s never been challenged, even though you had to be pretty sure you weren’t gonna get a response.
NOAH BIERMAN: Pretty sure but you never know. He seemed excited to be there. We knew the night before he had hit the town. Maybe he wanted to send a message to the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He “hit the town”? What does that mean [LAUGHS] in, in terms of somebody who has bodyguards running along the side of his vehicle?
NOAH BIERMAN: Well, he went to one of the more famous landmarks of Singapore to see it and that was disconcerting for a lot of people, that here is somebody accused of really extensive human rights violations and when he was wandering around, people were shouting his name and the foreign minister of Singapore was taking selfies with him like he was a celebrity. So I was very conscious of that. But what I was saying was that he was showing a certain amount of engagement and interest in Western culture and in the outside world that is not the North Korean world, so maybe he was interested in sending a message through the American press, or maybe he would answer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the tourist attraction he went to?
NOAH BIERMAN: He went to the Sands Hotel, interestingly
-- owned by Shel Adelson who’s a major Republican donor who helped President Trump get into office. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how about that!
NOAH BIERMAN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Noah Bierman covers the White House for the Los Angeles Times.