All the problems the media has in conveying a true picture of Donald Trump’s presidency were on display in Singapore on Monday night.
They were just writ larger than usual.
And the stakes, never low with this president, were higher than ever.
Although every legitimate news organization made efforts, some better than others, to bring context and even a measure of skepticism into their mix of stories, the event overall was a triumph of Trumpian stagecraft.
And the media played its accustomed role.
On Tuesday morning, the New York Times offered this main headline on its home page: “Trump and Kim See New Chapter for Nations After Summit.”
Neutral enough, accurate enough, but was its undeniable positivity really warranted?
Mark Landler’s accompanying article was nuanced — it noted, high up, that any agreement is “short on details.” Would denuclearization really come to pass? Here came the vintage Trump quote: “Working together, we will get it taken care of.”
Far beyond the words, it was the photographs and visuals that spoke volumes: The smiling leaders walking together or simultaneously signing a document of their cooperative intent.
And, of course, the historic handshake of an American president and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un — who happens to be a despot with a history of terrible human rights offenses, which apparently went undiscussed in the summit.
Some observers were disgusted.
“What did Trump get? He got the media to normalize him and his stagecraft. What did Americans get? Gaslighting and normalization of a dangerous man who has seized control of our government and alienated our former allies,” wrote author and activist Amy Siskind Tuesday morning on Twitter.
But those voices were far from the loudest or most dominant.
To their credit, news organizations tried to bring context to the pageantry, but it was largely lost. Jeff Glor of CBS News, for example, offered in his Monday night broadcast an short interview with a young North Korean-born woman who movingly told of how members of her family starved to death in the years before she emigrated to the United States and became a citizen.
Nice try — but didn’t stand a chance against the main emphasis of the broadcast: the summit itself in its glitzy setting, awash in top-name journalists often reduced to interviewing each other.
Granted, many individual journalists or commentators did their best to bring some needed perspective. On that same Times homepage, for instance, an opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof was given prominent display under a headline that read: “Trump Was Outfoxed in Singapore.” A subheadline told it straight: “The United States Made Important Concessions and Got Nothing Tangible.”
And a well-respected expert on these matters, Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote on Twitter early Tuesday: “This is very disappointing. Each of the four main points was in previous documents with NK, some in a stronger, more encompassing way. The denuke bullet is weaker than the Six Party Talks language.”
And he noted, there was not only no discussion of human rights, but apparently no attention given to verification of denuclearization either.
But the mainstream media seems to simply lack the tools — or possibly the will — to get that kind of dissent across.
On Tuesday morning at CNN, a chyron read: “Trump: U.S. to Stop ‘War Games’ with South Korea.”
To the casual, or low-information news consumer, that might seem pretty good — another Trump win! War games are bad, right?
But as Washington Post reporters explained in their main article about the joint military exercises: “The United States has conducted such exercises for decades as a symbol of unity with Seoul and previously rejected North Korean complaints as illegitimate. Ending the games would be a significant political benefit for Kim, but Trump insisted he did not give up leverage.”
Thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage, carefully choreographed visuals, and the usual Trumpian bluster, the Singapore summit largely came across as a triumph of personal diplomacy by the president.
Meanwhile, the problems with the summit — the legitimacy given to a regime with terrible human rights abuses, the concessions given that can never be given again for greater gain, and the disrespect to longtime ally South Korea — weren’t exactly ignored.
But they were largely lost.
Ironically, the American president himself offered some of the most searing self-commentary. If Kim doesn’t live up to his promises, Trump said, “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that I was wrong. I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
If and when he does, one thing is more certain than ever: Most of the news media will buy it.
Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for the Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she was the New York Times public editor, and previously the chief editor of the Buffalo News.