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Rachel Maddow, the top rated show on MSNBC’s prime time line-up, did a feature of significant length at the start of tonight’s program. It was focused on Donald Trump’s criticism of several top mainstream media organizations.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
She began by talking about the death of George “The Animal” Steele today. She showed pics of him and called him “one of the great lovable bag guys.” She said he died at 79. “For a pro wrestler, that’s a ripe old age. A lot of the famous wrestlers of that era – the wrestlers that I grew up watching when I came from elementary school on TV – have died in recent years at unsettlingly young ages.”
She listed that Chyna died at age 46, Randy Savage died at 58, Roddy Piper died at age 61, and Ultimate Warrior died at age 54.
She noted that Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, was sworn in as a cabinet member of President Trump’s administration this week. She said she may go on to be a great chief of the Small Business Administration “but the business she comes from really does have a dark side to it. The trail of dead performers she leaves behind at the business she ran with her husband is unsettling and it keeps coming up because wrestling is an odd side-bar interest for this new administration.”
She said one of the weird things about this administration is its connection to the pro wrestling business. A clip aired of Donald Trump punching Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 23. She noted that Umaga was involved in the match that Trump was at ringside for, and that he was dead less than two years later at age 36.
“Who knew we’d ever have a presidential administration with lots of ties to the weird, dark world of pro wrestling, but we do,” she said.
She cited Hulk Hogan’s Tweet on Steele.
George"the Animal"Steel,RIP my brother,only love,only grateful. HH
— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) February 17, 2017
She then moved on to talking about Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. She said after he faded from the spotlight, he “briefly became famous again” in 2012 for a sex tape. She said Hogan was shown having sex with another man’s wife. Maddow said when Hogan went to war with Gawker, an eccentric billionaire Peter Thiel with a grudge with Gawker secretly bankrolled Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. “The whole structure of this novel legal strategy wasn’t to make Gawker pay, it wasn’t to make Gawker feel financial pain, it was to make Gawker disappear as a publication – permanently and irretrievably.”
She said he used a legal strategy on behalf of a man – Hulk Hogan – he had no prior relationship with to take down a company. “He figured out how to disappear them as his revenge,” she said. She said Gawker went on to file bankruptcy. Thiel then went on to take a role in the Trump campaign, and helped with the transition once Trump won the election.
Thiel’s lawyer, Charles Harder, who represented Hogan in defeating Gawker is now Melania Trump’s lawyer in a lawsuit against the Daily Mail, which reported that she was once an escort. “Now they are looking down the barrel of a 150 million dollar lawsuit filed by the guy who made Gawker disappear,” she said. The lawsuit continues despite the newspaper retracting the story and apologizing for it.
At the end of the segment, Maddow asked Lee Brenner, a media and entertainment attorney, for his perspective on whether the Gawker lawsuit should be seen as connected in motivation and method to the Melinia lawsuit and Trump’s criticism of the media and perhaps a desire to take down other media entities like happened to Gawker. Brenner said he doesn’t see it as a uniform legal tactic unless more information comes out.
Keller’s Analysis: Maddow begins her shows along the lines of the famous Paul Harvey “Now you know the rest of the story” radio features where viewers aren’t quite sure where she’s going for the first five minutes or so of the story she tells, and then it ties into a current political event. In this case, the story made some rather large leaps from George Steele to Linda McMahon being added to the administration to Hulk Hogan’s Gawker lawsuit being funded by Pete Thiel who had a grudge against Gawker and used Hogan to get back at them to the same lawyer that represented Hogan now representing the First Lady in her lawsuit and then to Trump’s harsh criticism of the mainstream media. The story arc was meant to imply that if Trump’s wife is using a lawyer to sue the Daily Mail who also managed to put Gawker out of business, maybe this is a sign that Trump will take it to the next level and sue news organizations that are critical of him in an effort to put them out of business too.
The story also asserted that Hogan’s attorney wanted to punish Gawker, not just benefit themselves from a courtroom victory, because they dropped one aspect of the lawsuit that would have led to insurance kicking in to cover losses by Gawker. In other words, they weakened their case in order to cripple Gawker by taking away their insurance shield in a bit of a technicality of how the insurance was set up to kick in in certain types of lawsuits.
In the end, I agreed with Brenner’s stance that while all the figures can be weaved into a single story, the connections from one situation to another are pretty big leaps with varying circumstances and really little reason to believe they relate much to each other in any meaningful way that would portend similar ominous aggressive actions against other media entities by the administration. While Trump is notoriously litigious, the Melania Trump lawsuit seems more in line with a typical Trump lawsuit rather than the Hogan-Gawker lawsuit, even if the same lawyer who helped Hogan beat Gawker is also representing Melania. Thiel had a very specific personal grudge against Gawker that motivated his initially representation of Hogan, and that just isn’t present with Trump’s more general disagreement with or demonizing of the media, which perhaps is greater in amplitude than all past presidents, but only by degree.
That aspect of the story aside, Linda being added to the Trump administration could lead to greater scrutiny on WWE because of the McMahon family’s connections to Trump. This could also just be a blip on the media map, as there is so much else to cover other than WWE-related stories, but WWE landing on the radar for any kind of a scandal or controversy can trigger more attention because of Linda’s role in the administration. It’s worth noting that the Maddow story did not mention the death of Chris Benoit, sticking with more iconic crossover names or Umaga, who had the WrestleMania connection to Trump.