The Media Today

Omarosa and the challenge of the unreliable narrator

August 13, 2018

How much should readers trust a juicy look at the inner workings of the Trump White House by an author with unprecedented access but a history of stretching the truth? Omarosa Manigault Newman is offering journalists and members of the public who dealt with this question around Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury another chance to wrestle with the thorny issue.

Wolff, of course, brought several more helpings of credibility to the table than the former Apprentice contestant turned presidential aide who defended Donald Trump for years, right up until she signed her book deal. That book—Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House—is out Tuesday from Gallery Books. CNN’s Kevin Liptak snagged an early copy, and writes that Manigault Newman portrays Trump as “a mentally waning, racist and lewd, charismatic but emotionally abusive, man overseeing a conniving cast of aides and family members whose varied goals rarely include the betterment of the nation.”

Though Manigault Newman is an unreliable narrator (George Conway and Frank Luntz have already denied statements she attributes to them), she does have evidence to back up at least some of her claims, having secretly recorded conversations in the White House with Trump and others. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, she shared one of those tapes with Chuck Todd, playing a recording of chief of staff John Kelly dismissing her from the White House. She also made several unverified claims during the interview, including that she has heard a tape of Trump using the n-word during filming of The Apprentice.

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Noting that Manigault Newman has known Trump for years, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb writes, that “her realization about Trump’s [racial] outlook appears to have emerged at some point during her book deal. That’s not a gradual awakening, it’s a glacial, self-interested one.” Cobb’s observation gets to the heart of the trouble with reporting on Manigault Newman’s words: she has long been nakedly self-interested and willing to lie for personal gain. After years of covering for Trump, she now wants the public to believe that she has seen the light and is ready to tell the truth.

The questions for journalists covering the claims in Unhinged center around credibility. It’s difficult to ignore the accounts of a woman who has spent so much time close to President Trump, but it’s also tough to trust someone with Manigault Newman’s history who, in her own words, admits, “I was complicit with this White House deceiving this nation.” So as Manigault Newman’s publicity tour rolls on, the question she will, and should, continuously face when making a claim is simple: Does she have tape to back it up?

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Below, more on the Omarosa show.

  • A lack of representation: Interviewing Kellyanne Conway on ABC’s This Week, Jon Karl noted that Omarosa was the most prominent high-level African-American in the West Wing. He asked Conway who that person is now. She did not have an answer.
  • Burning bridges: Politico’s Annie Karni and Eliana Johnson write that “hell hath no fury like Omarosa scorned.”
  • Trump’s view: Asked Saturday if he felt betrayed by Manigault Newman’s turn, the president responded, “ She’s a lowlife.
  • White House contradictions: WaPo’s Josh Dawsey neatly sums up the challenge for Trump staff trying to discredit Manigault Newman. “‘How could you trust a word she says?’ one White House official asked me today. ‘Why did she make $180,000 a year, have among the highest titles in the government and attend senior staff meetings and visit the Oval?’ I replied.”
  • Buying silence: Dawsey reported Friday on Maingault Newman’s claim that she was offered $15,000 per month by the Trump campaign to refrain from any disparaging remarks about her time in the White House. The Post has a copy of the document she said she was offered.
  • No blockbuster: Despite an onslaught of media attention in the midst of a slow week, Unhinged has yet to crack Amazon’s top 10. As of this morning, it sits at #27 among books on the site.


Other notable stories

  • The white supremacist march in DC on Sunday, planned for the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally, fizzled, with counter-protesters and media members far outnumbering the two dozen or so rallygoers. As part of a deluge of media attention in the run-up to the weekend, NPR aired an interview with organizer Jason Kessler that received instant and widespread criticism for its soft approach. “Sorry, NPR didn’t do its job on Friday,” writes Karen Attiah in The Washington Post. “When it comes to handling racist and white-supremacist subjects, the job of a responsible media outlet does not end at simply letting figures like Kessler speak unchallenged, in the name of neutrality and balance.” NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik addressed the controversy this morning.
  • Fox News exec turned Trump advisor Bill Shine gets dual profiles by the AP and The Washington Post. Despite lacking a permanent office or personal staff, Shine is already making his mark on the White House, write Jill Colvin and David Bauder. “If Donald Trump is running his own touch-and-go reality show from Pennsylvania Avenue, he has finally found in Shine his executive producer,” add the Post’s Sarah Ellison and Philip Rucker.
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan examines the pros and cons of tactics used by online activist group Sleeping Giants, who “hit hatemongers like Alex Jones where it hurts the most—in the wallet.”
  • For CJR, Chava Gourarie reports on the many difficulties journalists attempting to report on ICE face. “The Trump’s administration ‘zero tolerance’ policy has put the agency, and its lack of transparency, on display,” Gourarie writes. “Reporters say that ICE’s tendency to conceal has intensified since April, when the zero tolerance policy went into effect, and children were forced to separate from their parents.”
  • Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul died Saturday at 85. “In many ways embodying the contradictions of the postcolonial world, Mr. Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad, went to Oxford University on a scholarship and lived the rest of his life in England, where he forged one of the most illustrious literary careers of the last half-century,” writes Rachel Donadio for The New York Times. Naipaul’s contradictions also were also the subject of one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is.

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