The media today: New book looks at Trump’s White House through a media lens

In the early pages of Howard Kurtz’s Media Madness, published yesterday by Regnery, the Fox News host makes it clear where his sympathies lie. Relating the incident in which White House counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” to defend the administration’s demonstrably false position regarding Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd size, Kurtz writes that Conway “had meant equally accurate explanations, like ‘two plus two equals four’ and ‘three plus one equals four.” Nevermind the fact that, in this equation, three plus one would have to equal “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” For the remainder of the book, Kurtz sticks to this game plan: minimizing administration abnormalities and casting the media as hyperbolic and mean-spirited.

“My greatest fear,” Kurtz writes, “is that organized journalism has badly lost its way in the Trump era and may never fully recover.” The press has gone off track, according to Kurtz, because it has collectively decided to throw away old approaches in response to a president who breaks every political norm.

The host of Fox News’s media analysis Sunday show, Kurtz portrays himself one of the few honest brokers in the business. “I don’t like either party,” he informs his readers. “My brand has always been fairness.” To reinforce the point, he quotes Trump—twice—needling him for his supposed neutrality. “Your problem is that you’re too down the middle,” Trump says at one point. Later, “You’ve gone neutral on me.”

Kurtz certainly had plenty of juicy source material to work with, but his “neutrality” paints a different picture of the White House than we’re used to. Presidential advisors are generally cast as beleaguered, slightly overmatched, but ultimately hard-working civil servants. Journalists and pundits—“media sharks”—are irresponsible aggressors. Trump himself is largely just playing a strategic game. In a representative example of the harshest criticism Kurtz aims at the Oval Office, he describes Trump’s reaction to a terror attack in London in which the president responds by attacking the city’s first Muslim mayor. “It was not Trump’s finest hour,” Kurtz writes.

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While Kurtz focuses on the coverage by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and even conservative publications like National Review (as well as a bizarre fixation on Keith Olbermann), he largely abstains from interrogating the relationship between Trump and the media outlets most sympathetic to his positions. Fox News gets glancing mentions and no substantive analysis, and far-right outlets Breitbart and the Daily Caller receive little attention.

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What’s exasperating about the book is that the relationship between the administration and the media deserves an in-depth study. There was an argument to be made here—that the mainstream press has erred in it calibration of outrage and concern, focusing more on Trump’s style than the substance of what he attempts—but Kurtz tracks too far in the anti-anti-Trump direction and his criticisms ring hollow.

Below, more on the reaction to Kurtz’s book.

  • Betrayal of the profession: In a critical review, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan says that Kurtz’s book is based on the false premise that the press is at war with the administration.
  • Pushback: At least one piece of Kurtz’s reporting was called into question when The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin denied calling Trump a racist and a fascist, a remark that Kurtz attributes to him.
  • Presidential obsession: The Guardian’s David Smith sees Media Madness as a window into Trump’s fixation on press coverage.
  • Missing person: CNN’s Hadas Gold notes that Rupert Murdoch, Fox News CEO and presidential confidante, receives only a handful of mentions throughout the book.


Other notable stories

  • A top Reuters editor was fired after sexual harassment allegations, then he got an even better job at Newsweek, reports BuzzFeed’s Rossalyn Warren. Dayan Candappa left Reuters under a cloud of rumors, but news of the allegation against him didn’t become public until Warren reported it yesterday. He was named global editor-in-chief of The International Business Times and Chief Content Officer of Newsweek Media Group last May. Shortly after the story broke, Candappa was placed on leave pending an investigation.
  • As part of the Tronc shuffle that will see Jim Kirk taking the helm of the LA Times, Jim Rich returns as editor in chief of the New York Daily News. Rich previously led the paper for just over a year during 2015 and 2016, a period in which the News won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism.
  • Vox’s A.J. Chavar writes that National Geographic Deputy Director of Photography Patrick Witty was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and abusing his position of power before being quietly let go last month.
  • For CJR, Byard Duncan offers lessons from the intersections of the opioid crisis and foster care. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to reporting on a national epidemic, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of the impact.
  • Bad news from West Virginia, where the Charleston Gazette-Mail announced that it is declaring bankruptcy and widespread layoffs are expected. The paper recently won a Pulitzer for its early reporting on the opioid epidemic.
  • Get ready for wall-to-wall State of the Union coverage. Talk of “pivots” and “presidential” behavior are expected. Politico has a comprehensive preview of what you need to know going into this evening.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.