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Barbershop: Leadership And Followership

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, today it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. We're going to talk about a couple of big stories this week that have to do with leadership - actually, leadership and followership - about what it means to be part of a group. And we're going to be looking at those issues through the lens of politics after a week that saw the conviction of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of Mr. Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.

Also, on this first weekend of the college football season, we want to take a look at the scandal at the Ohio State program where head football coach Urban Meyer was suspended over allegations that he mishandled domestic abuse allegations against his former assistant coach Zach Smith and was dishonest about what he knew about them. And in both cases, we have top leaders accused of making bad decisions, not just once, but over a period of time, not telling the truth when given the chance. And there don't seem to be any consequences. And if there are not, we're wondering what this says, not just about the people directly involved, but about us.

So we gathered a group of journalists to give us their take. Kevin Blackistone is here. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, a frequent ESPN commentator. Welcome back.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Megan McArdle is here. She is a columnist at The Washington Post. Welcome back.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And last, but not least, Joe Vardon - he's been covering politics in Ohio. More recently, he's been covering LeBron James' story in Cleveland for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. He's with us from WCPN ideastream in Cleveland. Joe Vardon, welcome to you, as well.

JOE VARDON: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So at this point, let's start with the politics story. Five of President Trump's key advisers have admitted to various crimes or have been convicted. I don't need to go through the list. I think most people know. But all of this - and let's just give one example - you know, financial crimes, paying mistresses to keep quiet - alleged mistresses to keep quiet - using a friendly media outlet not just to demean opponents, but to funnel money. What is swampier than that?

Crickets from congressional Republicans and Republican voters. I mean, there's a new poll from The Associated Press that has the president's approval rating holding steady at about 40 percent. And according to a Pew poll, an average of 84 percent of Republicans say they approve of Trump's job performance compared with an average of just 7 percent of Democrats.

And the thing that the Pew Research Center said that was noteworthy to them is that it's not just that there's a stark partisan divide, but it doesn't really seem to change - hasn't really changed very much at all. So I just wanted to ask you all about that. What do we think is going on? Kevin, I know you have a theory about it, so why don't you just tell us what it is?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I think it has to do with fanaticism. And I think, as we have this discussion today, I think that holds true for fans of Donald Trump, for fans of Ohio State University, for fans of the Catholic Church, which is going through another round of trials dealing with sexual abuse by priests. So, you know, we have a - we seem to have, as a people, as human beings, a hard time to break away from institutions and people who, for whatever reasons, we have attached ourselves to like umbilical cords for a very long time.

MARTIN: Megan, you have a theory.

MCARDLE: I have a couple theories. I mean, one is just that there's an increasing partisan divide in the country, and people are increasingly, as I think Kevin has said - they're acting like they're rooting for a team. But I also think that, you know, you look at the history of it. And I was sort of astonished in 2016 when Trump - when people were pushing Trump so hard for the nomination and when so many evangelicals, especially, went over to him. And, you know, what I heard from them when I talked to them is they said, we're under existential threat from Democrats; I don't like him; I think he's not a good person. It's amazing. Like, the majority of Republicans hate his tweeting and want him to stop.

But, you know, Obama - under the Obama administration and in other Democratic states, the incursions against churches had - in terms of gay marriage and so forth - had convinced these people, I think, not - I think it was exaggerated, but I don't think it was also - don't think it was entirely unfair - that their schools, their institutions, their workplaces - that it was going to become harder and harder for them to live their life as Christians in America. And therefore, they said, you know what? Like, if I have to accept the guy who does everything un-Christlike but is not going to come after me, then I'm going to pick that guy. And that is a big part of why people don't move. They just hate the other side so much at this point and are so afraid of them...

MARTIN: Joe, what do you think?

MCARDLE: ...On both sides.

MARTIN: Joe, what do you think? And you have the advantage of being in a, you know, swing state. And what do you think?

VARDON: I was going to say, as an American and Ohioan, a Catholic and a fan of Ohio State football...

BLACKISTONE: Wow.

VARDON: ...It's been a hell of a week.

BLACKISTONE: (Laughter).

VARDON: No, I've been thinking about this today and actually talked with a couple of my Republican friends that I grew to know in Columbus, just to talk about Trump and then also, is there a connection with how we feel about Urban Meyer? And I think what's going on, it's more of a what-can-you-do-for-me mentality in politics, in our sports. It's kind of an end justifies the means.

And if you look at Trump, I mean, he's got this wild coalition of conservatives, and evangelicals, and the white working class and racists. And there are things that he does that undercuts almost every group. But what he says and some of the policies that he has espoused has touched on sort of the very key component of what is most important to them. So, you know, he - the way he's lived it personally has set the institution of marriage ablaze, but when you talk about evangelicals and their support for him - he's promoting justices to the Supreme Court that may overturn Roe, and so that's why they stick with him.

And you look at Ohio State; it's the same idea. You have, basically, proof that Urban Meyer was neglectful in the hiring of an assistant coach and in keeping him on board while all sorts of bad stuff was going on. But since Urban's been here, Ohio State's won a national championship, been to the playoffs a number of times. And every game matters here because Ohio State is always good. So I was listening to the radio here today locally, and fans just don't care. They don't care about this because they win. And so I feel like it's much more of a results-based, like I said, politics and sports. And it's - I think it's all connected.

MARTIN: Well, I couldn't help but notice that there was a demonstration in support of Urban Meyer, but even more than Urban Meyer, it was against ESPN, which, you know, didn't even break the story - no disrespect, Kevin - didn't even break the story, but it was against ESPN. And it reminded me - it wasn't as ugly and as outright vicious as some of the people who've attended these Trump rallies and are screaming at journalists and threatening them, and there have been online threats against, you know, conservative journalists who have not supported Donald Trump and his - their children and things of that sort. And OK, so I could see that you like a team, and you can see that you like a person, but threatening people's children, wishing them dead, wearing T-shirts saying - I don't even - I'm not even going to say what the T-shirts said. And so Megan, I wanted to ask you, what - why is that OK? Or why - you know, is there any point at which people just say, you know what? That's not OK; that's just not OK.

MCARDLE: I don't know, you know? I've been now a journalist online for 17 years, and for basically all of that, I've been getting people whose stated ideals differ so wildly from the invective they send me. And I think that, you know, the 2016 election was the first one where I got it more from the right than the left, and some of the stuff I got from the right shocked me. And yet, there has always been this seamy underside of our personality. And what I wonder is why it's coming out so much more strongly and so much more shamelessly. And I think that's really been the big change.

It's not that there were never people who said things that were terrible. There always have been. But this kind of instinctive - like, the rest of the crew just looking around and being like, so? - and I think you see this on both sides of the political spectrum, and it deeply disturbs me. And we've kind of completely dehumanized the other half of the country that doesn't look like us, and there - and we don't even accord them the kind of very basic respect of not making death threats to their kids.

MARTIN: So Kevin, I have to ask you again about - to go back to Ohio State story. Now, what if this - Zach Smith's wife had died? What if he'd killed - I mean, thankfully, she didn't. But the testimony is that she was, you know, manhandled while pregnant...

BLACKISTONE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...That she was physically assaulted while pregnant with their child. I mean, women have died in these encounters. And, you know, would that have made a difference? Would somebody have said, well - you know, what...

BLACKISTONE: You know, I - you know, fortunately, we - not to my knowledge - we've reached the point where we've had to wrestle with that question other than hypothetically. But I don't know. You know, as Joe pointed out, Ohio State football is the state of Ohio. It is the largest moneymaking athletic department in the country, the largest moneymaking football program in the country, the most watched college football team in the country, whether they're at home, away or at a neutral site. And Ohio State has arguably the largest alumni association of any college and university in the country.

So I don't know what it would take for those people to - for their faith and fanaticism in Ohio State athletics to be shaken. They're also going through the situation with the wrestling team that Jim Jordan was involved in. And now there's another report out about a doctor that has nothing to do necessarily with athletics but with training of students on campus. So, you know, I don't know what would shake people from their death grip of these institutions.

MARTIN: We only have a minute left, but I do want to point out one other data point, which is that the Manafort jury - one of the jurors has spoken. Mr. Manafort was convicted on eight counts. The jury was unable to decide on 10. She has come forward to say that - as a Trump supporter - there was one holdout. And one of the reasons she said she wanted to come forward is she wanted people to understand that, as a Trump supporter, she followed the law and the facts, and she wanted people to know that that was possible. Megan, I don't know. I'll give you the last word here.

MCARDLE: I - you know what? I still believe in America. I think, like, right now, this is the worst political moment of certainly my adult lifetime that I remember. And yet, I believe that there is a decency and a love and a kind of patriotism that is about loving your fellow citizens that is still there underneath America. We just need to dig for it a little bit.

MARTIN: Juror 11 for president. I don't know. Maybe she can...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Maybe she's available. That was Megan McArdle, columnist at The Washington Post, Joe Vardon of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, Kevin Blackistone, journalism professor at the University of Maryland. Thanks, all, so much for talking to us. Wish we had more time.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

MCARDLE: Thank you.

VARDON: Yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.