Trumped: The President-Elect Keeps Media Heads (And Their Stories) Spinning


Ten weeks before Donald Trump takes the oath of office, the President-elect has sent one consistent message, which is that he won’t be bound by consistency post-election any more than he was before November 8. Depending on your preferred news source, this is either a terrifying prospect or overdue comeuppance for the Fourth Estate.

Indeed, even within the mainstream media, the outlook for the next four years is deeply confusing as pundits, reporters and editors contemplate a leader who’s made it clear he thinks we’re all a whining bunch of losers. As a result, the message from Trump, as conveyed through his Twitter broadsides, public pronouncements and his spokespeople, is that he will continue to control the conversation through bluster, diversion and shape-shifting that have left more heads spinning to keep up than any of corps of dancing Wilis in the ballet Giselle.

Last week, for example, Trump agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $25 million to end a class-action lawsuit over charges that his laughably named Trump University was a fraud. That night, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, where he was directly addressed during the curtain call with this admonishment: “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

Mike Pence Hamilton, New York, USA - 18 Nov 2016

To be sure, both events were covered heavily by the press. But Trump was either smart enough or thin-skinned enough — again, depending on your POV — to attack Hamilton, the actor delivering the message and Broadway in general. Which story dominated the news cycle over the next few days? Having learned little, it seemed, about the the scandal of false equivalency that so often “balanced” the perceived misdeeds of Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two stories were on Page 1 of the New York Times, while the Hamilton story carried the tabloids. Trump 1, press 0.

On Monday, Trump met with the news chiefs from the major networks, along with anchors and reporters including NBC’s Deborah Turness, Lester Holt and Chuck Todd; ABC’s James Goldston, George Stephanopoulos, David Muir and Martha Raddatz; CBS’ Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson, Charlie Rose, Christopher Isham and Gayle King; Fox News’ Bill Shine, Jack Abernethy, Jay Wallace and Suzanne Scott; MSNBC’s Phil Griffin; and CNN’s Jeff Zucker and Erin Burnett. According to Trump’s chief mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway, it was “an excellent meeting.”

Nuh-uh, said many of those at the meeting — anonymously, of course. It was a “total sh!t show,” one said, complete with personal dressing downs by Trump of various individuals he felt had not shown him due respect throughout the campaign. Trump was a monster, was the message. The next day, he was scheduled to meet with a New York Times contingent, first privately with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and then for an on-the-record conversation with executive editor Dean Baquet and a contingent of editors, reporters and columnists. This time, Trump came to them, though not before canceling the meeting via a Twitter message falsely accusing the Times of changing the terms of the gathering.

Earns New York Times, New York, USA

According to accounts of that meeting, which was live-blogged by Times reporters, no excrement was flung. Indeed, the Times reported that Trump, while yielding no ground on his right to use the White House as a selling point for his business interests, confessed he no longer had the fire in the belly to lock Clinton up, as he’d repeatedly promised during the campaign. He averred that climate change might have some roots in human behavior, with no mention that it was a hoax perpetrated by China, as he had during his campaign. He disavowed the ugly pronouncements of anti-Semitism and racism promulgated by his supporters on the alt-right and defended Steve Bannon, who took a leave as head of alt-right megaphone Breitbart News Network to lead Trump’s advisory team. He called the Times a “world jewel,” in some contrast to his anti-Times Twitter drumbeat that more typically included the words “failing” and “dishonest.”

“I hope we can all get along,” Trump said.

Perhaps most significantly, at least to the cowering mainstream press, Trump said we had nothing to worry about, indicating he will respect the First Amendment. “I think you’ll be OK,” he said — again, in contrast to his actions during the campaign, which included cutting off reporters, having his security throw them out of rallies and excluding whole news organizations from access to his campaign.

A story in Forbes magazine credits Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner with steering the Republicans’ campaign away from traditional advertising and putting all its marbles in social media, where the real power lies. That will be the preferred narrative moving forward. In one of the best columns to date on this subject, the New York Times‘ Amanda Hess today described precisely how the Hamilton incident, along with celebrity garment-rending over the election, plays into the opposition’s m.o.:

“Lefty celebrities have long been preaching to the choir, but they are increasingly galvanizing the other side when their chatter is rerouted into an online conservative echo chamber,” Hess wrote. “These right-wing aggregators make sure that any leftist celebrity’s political reach will be neutralized by a backlash from people who don’t idolize and agree with them.”

A strong argument can be made that the inauguration of someone who lost the popular vote by 1.75 million votes and counting demands protest and vigilant activism. What’s clear, however, is that for now, Trump remains the top dog, wagging the tail of a shell-shocked media establishment in desperate need of new models — not only for business, but for journalism itself. It’s revealing that Hess’s counter-intuitive dispatch, which should be read as a clarion call, was featured on Page 1 — of the culture section.

And now for something completely different, two culture notables to consider over the Thanksgiving weekend that have everything, and nothing, to do with politics:

1. The election is clearly on the minds of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, who are giving their best show ever this week and part of next at the Café Carlyle. The set is called “The Arc of a Love Affair,” which it is, but it’s also so much more, as any program beginning with Jason Robert Brown’s “Hope” must be. The song is less than two weeks old and was written in response to the election:

“Though I’m beyond belief depressed, confused and mad / Well I got dressed. I underestimated how much that would take / I didn’t break. Until right now / I sing of hope — and don’t know how.” And that’s just for starters.

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Cafe Carlyle. David Andrako

They are the Nick & Nora of the cabaret set, Jessica the polished chanteuse, John the eager-to-please perfectionist. Their taste and incomparable virtuosity are suffused with affection and spontaneity — she always ready with a sideways glance or an arched eyebrow; he seemingly amazed as his scatting keeps up with the fingers flying up and down the neck of his guitar.

The set list includes a couple of beautifully wrought Joni Mitchell covers (“Help Me,” from Court And Spark, and “A Case Of You,” from Blue), a poignant nod to Leonard Cohen (“Everybody Knows”); Jessica’s gorgeous rendition of Yip Harburg and Burton Lane’s “Look To The Rainbow” and a wild ride through the jazz standard “Perdido,” with cunning accompaniment from Konrad Paszkudzki on piano and Jay Leonhart on bass.

But the highlight of the evening was the least flashy number: John’s achingly tender delivery of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s never-timelier song from South Pacific, “(You’ve Got To Be) Carefully Taught,” written in waltz time but sung here — James Taylor-style, as John noted — as a ballad. As with “Hope,” the inclusion here of a quietly caustic lament about the poison of racism couldn’t have struck a more sensitive nerve, even among the supremely well-heeled Cafe Carlyle crowd. It was all perfection.

2. Thirty-five years ago this month saw the opening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Broadway flop that ended the spectacularly fecund partnership of lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince. Based on a Kaufman and Hart play that tracked the lives of three friends in reverse chronology, the score has since become one of Sondheim’s most beloved, though the show itself continues to defy attempts to make it work, for reasons I considered in my Soho News review at the time: “Drama depends on the accumulation of motives to achieve its ultimate payoff…Merrily‘s book falls from a cynical present to its heroes’ innocent past, from denouement to climax to setting out. There’s nothing for an audience to achieve in this set-up and nothing for an actor to build in the way of character. It is, instead, a continuous dressing down.”

Still from 'Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.'
Still from ‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.’ Best Worst Thing

Lonny Price was a child actor cast as one of the leads in that production, which also included an equally young Jason Alexander (none of the cast members was over 25, another problem). Price has gone on to become a writer-director (I still have a soft spot for A Class Act, the story of A Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban, which Price co-wrote, directed and starred in, and which also was a Broadway flop, opening against a small item called The Producers).

Price recently found a trove of film footage shot for a TV profile of the making of Merrily that was killed when the show closed after 16 performances. That footage, including auditions, home movies and interviews with Prince, Sondheim, book writer George Furth and others, forms the basis of Price’s moving documentary, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which is in theaters now.

Most poignant are the interviews with the actors three decades after the debacle that had begun with so much hope and enthusiasm. Time has treated each differently: Alexander, of course, would go on to stardom in Seinfeld and return to win a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway; performer Abigail Pogrebin would eventually become a prolific journalist; female lead Ann Morrison is seen working with learning-challenged folks in Florida.

A concert version of the show reunited Prince and Sondheim, who had gone their separate ways. The post-Merrily period for Prince was especially devastating, a series of spectacular flops that included A Doll’s LifeGrind and Roza … and then came The Phantom Of The Opera.

Of course, Best/Worst does the opposite of what Merrily attempted, telling its story in mostly chronological order. Some of the sequences are difficult to place in time, and it has its share of indulgences and longueurs. But for Broadway buffs in general and Sondheim fans in particular, it’s as indispensable — and entertaining — as Craig Zadan’s oral history, Sondheim & Co., and D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company.

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