Things are not always as they seem.
By now you undoubtedly have heard of the controversy over whether Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbed Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields with sufficient force to cause her bruising on her arm. And whether Breitbart News sacrificed her so as to maintain pro-Trump coverage and good relations with Trump’s campaign.
If you have not heard of it, welcome back from the rock under which you’ve been hiding the past few days.
I’m going to focus on why it has been such a big deal.
I see four main reasons: (1) good faith concern for Michelle Fields’ well-being, (2) a desire to defend the freedom of the press, (3) trying to gain political advantage against Trump, and (4) a dislike of Breitbart News.
1. Concern for Michelle Field’s Well-Being.
As to a good faith concern for the well-being of Michelle Fields, I presume this is a concern by some people, particularly those who know her. But beyond that circle, her injuries were not so extensive as to generate a medical concern for her. I don’t minimize her surprise and disgust at being grabbed on the arm, but I’m not seeing this concern being a primary motivating factor sufficient to justify the news coverage. As the saying goes, I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.
2. Concern for Freedom of the Press.
I think this is more of a motivating factor. Trump may not be a government actor yet, but he wants to be and the way he treats the press matters.
Trump’s aggressive, belligerent and demeaning style creates worry in itself. Trump is on record bragging that he sued a reporter just to make the reporter’s life miserable and run up legal fees. Couple that with his threat to try to ease libel law standards so he can sue the media more often and more effectively, and people are right to be concerned that rough treatment of a reporter may portend a bad future. As I’ve commented a number of times, just wait until Trump controls the IRS, FBI and other powerful government agencies.
So on this point, I do think the fact that it is Trump and the press colliding adds interest and makes it a more legitimate story for the press to cover. But, that alone wouldn’t warrant the coverage it has received.
3. Gaining Political Advantage Against Trump.
We are getting closer.
There is no doubt that this story has legs because it feeds a political narrative of Trump being a dangerous demagogue whose supporters enforce their wills with fists when need be. So the Trump campaign manager allegedly roughing up a reporter is bound to be a thing. And the fact that the reporter was a woman makes it more so.
Don’t be so surprised that there’s politics being practiced in politics. Just like when Trump expressed outrage that Ben Carson, who Trump said had an uncontrollable temper and was incurable like a pedophile, might have had his Iowa campaign hurt by some Ted Cruz mailers and rumor-mongering. Seriously, did anyone actually think that Trump gave a rat’s ass about Ben Carson?
So Trump and his supporters have no credibility to complain about politics in a crowded primary.
4. Dislike of Breitbart News.
Bingo! This is an angle not really covered by the mainstream media accounts of the controversy.
Perhaps because Fields is a Breitbart News reporter, it is counterintuitive for the uninitiated to consider that dislike of Breitbart News would be a motivating factor. But people who live in our world know that there is a great deal of ill-will towards Breitbart News among other new media news operations, including conservative media and bloggers.
Part of it is jealousy that Breitbart News has parlayed money and a Drudge connection into big-time traffic. And if you don’t think people watch traffic (not me of course), you were born last night.
There’s also a sense that the organization has lost its way and exploits Andrew Breitbart’s name to promote things (like big bully government advocate Donald Trump) and to act in ways contrary to his memory. I don’t think that’s fair, even if it’s true. Andrew is dead, and many of the people complaining didn’t know him half as well as the people who now run Breitbart News. I think it’s presumptuous for anyone to purport to speak for Andrew’s memory. We can each honor his memory in the way we see fit.
But it’s more than that. Breitbart News has a reputation for having particularly sharp elbows as to employees. And many of us know those employees and former employees and have heard stories. That doesn’t mean Breitbart News does anything it’s not legally entitled to do, but, for example, people being locked into strict contracts seems pretty rough in a business where people float around a lot for relatively little pay. The Dana Loesch lawsuit created a lot of ill will among conservative bloggers.
Those sharp elbows extend to treatment of other media. Breitbart News coined the phrase “Ben Smithing,” which has gained mainstream news coverage and its own Urban Dictionary entry. Ben Smithing refers to former Politico blogger Ben Smith, and his alleged penchant for early framing of a story so as to favor Democrats so effectively that it misdirects subsequent coverage. Guess which news outlet is leading the charge against Breitbart News on the Michelle Fields coverage, including obtaining leaked internal Breitbart News emails and chat conversations that paint Breitbart News management in a bad light? Buzzfeed. Guess who is the Editor in Chief of Buzzfeed? Ben Smith. Payback is a bitch.
So there you have it. My take on the Michelle Fields but not really Michelle Fields controversy.
UPDATE: Buzzfeed just broke the story that Fields and Ben Shapiro have resigned from Breitbart News.
[Note, the second sentence of the first paragraph was added shortly after publication to clarify the nature of the controversy.]