The Media Today

The tedium of the Trump-books news cycle

July 14, 2021

“The Trump books are coming.” Late last month, Katie Rogers, a White House correspondent at the New York Times, warned us that we could soon expect a raft of new titles about Trump’s final months in office to hit bookstores, written by big-name reporters from her beat and the wider world of political journalism: “Frankly, We Did Win This Election”: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost, by Michael C. Bender, of the Wall Street Journal; I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, of the Washington Post; Landslide, by Michael Wolff, of himself. At least the first two books claim to be “definitive.” The simultaneity of these titles, Rogers reported, triggered “a war of the excerpts among writers who are realizing their juiciest material may not hold.” Snippets from Bender’s book appeared in the Journal, Politico, Axios, Vanity Fair, CNN, and the Mail; Wolff landed a New York cover story. ABC’s Jonathan Karl, whose own Trump book isn’t due until November, got in on the game with a splashy excerpt in The Atlantic. Matt Latimer, a literary agent, told Rogers that competition between the authors is “like The Godfather.” Rogers did not disclose that Latimer is representing her own book project, about Jill Biden. The Times removed his quote. The Post’s Erik Wemple noted that a “more classic Washingtonian conflict of interest would be hard to concoct.”

As the weeks have gone by, excerpts from the excerpts have rippled through the news cycle and invaded our attention. We learned from Bender that Trump once praised Hitler (he “did a lot of good things”), that Trump threw a balled-up newspaper article at Mike Pence during a row about Corey Lewandowski, and that Trump thinks Mitch McConnell is stupid; we learned from Wolff that Trump thought the Democrats would ditch Joe Biden for Andrew Cuomo on their ticket and that Trump feels betrayed by Brett Kavanaugh; we learned from Bender again that Trump wanted the military to “beat the fuck” out of racial-justice protesters and that Trump wanted the person who leaked his retreat to a secure bunker at the height of those protests to be “executed!” for “treason!” Yesterday, we learned from Leonnig and Rucker’s first excerpt that Trump tried to get Fox to reverse its election-night call of Arizona for Biden, and that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Trump’s political advisers to simply declare victory in states that had yet to be called—details that topped Politico’s agenda-setting DC Playbook newsletter.

ICYMI: Dark clouds gather over press freedom in Europe

Yesterday was publication day for Bender (his book was originally slated for August, but his publisher brought it forward to beat the competition), and he and Wolff have been touring cable news, racking up at least five appearances between them (without counting all the third-party chatter about the books). “We know well the story of the chaos of this administration,” Bender told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday. “I think what’s different about this book is not the chaos, but how dangerous it was inside the West Wing for a lot of the people right around this president. A lot of these people told me for the first time that they feared for the safety of the country.” When Lawrence O’Donnell asked Wolff, also on MSNBC on Monday, what he learned writing his book, Wolff replied that Trump is “even crazier” than he thought. Last night, Wolff told O’Donnell’s colleague Brian Williams that he “rushed” the book to publication, “first because I’ve had quite a bit of practice writing books about Trump, but also because I thought this was incredibly important for people to know: that the president of the United States—and let me be very specific about this—that the president of the United States is deranged.”

The Trump administration—and its denouement, in particular—was a crucial and unique moment in US history; it’s vital that writers document it in as much detail as possible, and these books (which, to be clear, I haven’t yet read, beyond the excerpts) will clearly bolster the ongoing construction of that historical record. Treating such books themselves as urgently newsworthy items in the present, however, is a different proposition that lacks the same inherent value. A big story is a big story, irrespective of whether it was reported in a book or on Twitter. But it’s unclear to me that the scoops that have thus far flowed from the new Trump tomes reach that threshold; those that I have seen seem either to be new but relatively unimportant (Trump throwing a newspaper at Pence hardly matches his supporters’ calls for Pence to be hanged), or relatively important but not really new, or at least not surprising. (To my knowledge, Trump has not previously been quoted as saying that a leaker should be “executed,” but he strongly implied it during his first impeachment.) It’s obvious that Trump is deranged, and those who don’t think so aren’t likely to be convinced otherwise by Michael Wolff. And, unlike with previous Trump-book news cycles, he is not the president of the United States, in the present tense.

Our relationship to behind-the-scenes presidential books, in 2021, is not what it was in the days of, say, Woodward and Bernstein, not only because political culture has changed, but because the information ecosystem has, too—then, a book could act as a useful compendium of beat reporting that readers otherwise might have missed, or had a hard time tracking down; now we have Twitter and Google. To the extent that it’s easier to miss things today, it’s a function of the overabundance of noise in the mediasphere; political books can usefully cut through that, but by stitching together cohesive narratives at a remove from the daily news cycle, not by driving more noise into the daily news cycle. (Sadly, you can’t easily sell the former without the latter.) When it comes to Trump coverage, specifically, the noise can be especially hellish—a never-ending cycle of awfulness, on his part, and empty questions, on ours: Is he actually this crazy or is it an act?! Just how dangerous was/is he?! As I’ve written repeatedly in this newsletter—including last year, after a book by Bob Woodward demonstrated the intentionality of Trump’s pandemic negligence, and drove widespread outrage—we don’t need behind-the-scenes details to see the worst of Trump, because he has consistently committed that in full public view. (How is Giuliani advising Trump to simply declare victory newsworthy in light of all that followed?) This reality has butted, time and again, against the Watergate-era instinct that there’s always more in the shadows. Trump is (sort of) gone, but the instinct lingers.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

So, too, does the threat of future Trump-books news cycles—and not just because Trump might yet subject us all to a presidential comeback. As Rogers noted, many more late-Trump titles are in the works, including one by Woodward and Robert Costa, of the Post. Trump refused to speak to Woodward again, but he did talk, often at length, with the authors of at least seventeen other books, including two sit-downs with Wolff, who, like Woodward, has burned Trump before. On Friday, Trump called those interviews a “total waste of time,” adding that the new books about him are “pure fiction,” and their authors “bad people.” (Amid such general complaints, he took specific issue with Bender’s claim of a fight with Pence; Bender stood by his reporting and tweeted a link to his book’s Amazon page.) Trump getting the attention he craves then pretending to be mad about it is, itself, a familiar cycle that too many commentators are still all too willing to indulge. “If you read Fire and Fury, as I did, you’ll be amazed they chose to sit down again with Michael Wolff,” MSNBC’s Williams said last night, referring to Wolff’s first Trump book. Then again, “the president said, ‘that guy Wolff gets ratings.’”

Below, more on Trump and books:

  • Crying Wolff?: The releases of Fire and Fury, in 2018, and Wolff’s second Trump book, Siege, in 2019, both occasioned much commentary as to the reliability of Wolff’s narration; after Siege was published, for example, media critics seized on an unlikely-sounding anecdote about the Mueller probe (the Post’s Wemple tallied eight reasons to doubt the anecdote and only one in its support) and the fact that Wolff didn’t ask Trump for an interview despite reporting a new allegation of sexual misconduct against him. (The Journal’s Ted Mann noted that failing to seek comment “would get you fired from a high school newspaper.”) Such commentary has been mostly absent around the launch of Betrayal, and the book has garnered some positive reviews. “The third is the best of the three,” The Guardian’s Lloyd Green wrote, “and that is saying plenty.”
  • Media nuggets: Several of the excerpts have focused, in part, on Trump’s media habits and relations in his final days in office, in particular his growing antipathy toward Fox. (Wolff reports that Rupert Murdoch personally signed off on Fox calling Arizona for Biden; Fox says this is “completely untrue.”) One interesting nugget came in Leonnig and Rucker’s excerpt: on the eve of the election, they write, NBC’s Courtney Kube planned to report that Mark Esper, Trump’s defense secretary, feared his imminent dismissal and had updated his resignation letter for such an eventuality, only for the story to be held as Esper tried to warn Kube that publishing it “could result in a more compliant acting secretary of defense, which could have worrisome repercussions.”
  • The heart of Texas: Trump’s election denialism, of course, continues to have implications in the present day, not least in that Republican officials nationwide are still using it to justify passing new restrictions on voting. Earlier this year, Democrats in Texas successfully derailed a voting bill in that state by denying Republicans a quorum in the state legislature; Greg Abbott, the governor, called a special session to ram the bill through, so Democrats moved this week to flee the state for Washington, DC, once again leaving their opponents short of quorum, albeit with longer left, this time, on the legislative clock. Since arriving in the nation’s capital, Democratic state lawmakers have toured cable news to hammer home their defense of voting rights. Yesterday, one of them, James Talarico, accused Pete Hegseth, of Fox News, of enriching himself by “spewing lies and conspiracy theories” about the election, and challenged Hegseth to acknowledge that Trump lost. Hegseth declined to address that point.
  • Based knowledge: The Post’s Dave Weigel makes the case that we should reframe our understanding of the US political landscape around “based” and “cringe”—terms co-opted by Trump supporters to mean, respectively, “behaving how you want to behave, confident in the belief that you’re right,” and “following rules that you did not write.” Weigel argues that while these terms may be “ungainly,” they’re potentially more useful than “the endless redefinitions of standard political terms”—like liberal and conserative—“that consume so much time in political media.”

Other notable stories:

  • Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, on a “contentious summer of labor battles” at the Times, where management is negotiating a new contract with the NewsGuild, which represents hundreds of editorial staffers at the paper. “One issue that has come up amongst Times employees is that the company has increased dividend payouts to shareholders, while employees have yet to see substantial wage increases in the wake of rising profits,” Fischer writes. Yesterday, Amanda Hess, a critic at the Times, criticized management for limiting a new, equitable parental-leave policy to “a class of non-union employees.”
  • Three more updates from Fischer: the Observer (formerly the New York Observer) is planning to relaunch under a new editor in chief, Meg Marco, in a bid to “reclaim its identity as a chronicler of powerful people and influence.” Gabriel Snyder (who has written for CJR) is launching Off The Record, a daily newsletter that will “chronicle the inside workings of media companies in New York City.” And Insider named Barbara Peng as its president. She was previously president of the company’s research arm.
  • After Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, acquired Tribune Publishing earlier this year, it spun off the New York Daily News, a Tribune paper, as a separate entity. Keith J. Kelly reports, for the New York Post, that Alden is now considering putting the Daily News into bankruptcy, possibly to “help get Alden out from under the paper’s burdensome pension obligations.” Alden dismissed Kelly’s reporting as “entirely false” and built on “lies.”
  • Last week, as part of a broader executive order on competition policy, Biden urged the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on employers’ use of non-compete clauses “that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” For Poynter, Al Tompkins assessed the directive’s possible impact on the news business: TV journalists, in particular, are often bound by clauses that bar them from moving between stations in the same market.
  • On his show Monday, Stephen A. Smith, a host on ESPN, intentionally mispronounced the names of several Nigerian basketball players and expressed doubt that Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese baseball star for the Los Angeles Angels, will boost the sport’s popularity given that he doesn’t speak English in interviews. Yesterday, after colleagues publicly rebuked him, Smith apologized. The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss has more.
  • Federal prosecutors in New York charged an Iranian intelligence official and several co-conspirators with plotting to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist who lives in Brooklyn, and return her to the country. Alinejad has been strongly critical of Iran’s government. According to the indictment, Iranian officials aggressively surveilled Alinejad and her family, including via live, high-definition video footage of her home.
  • The family of Danny Fenster, an American journalist who was imprisoned in Myanmar in May, is increasingly concerned about his health; his brother told CNBC that Fenster has symptoms of COVID-19, but has been denied access to testing and treatment. COVID is currently surging in Myanmar—and the recent coup there has exacerbated the problem.
  • Regulators in France fined Google nearly six hundred million dollars for failing to negotiate “in good faith” with publishers around revenue-sharing deals for news content that appears on Google’s platforms. The regulator ordered Google to detail how it plans to compensate publishers, or risk further fines. Google pushed back on the ruling.
  • And Zenia Mucha, Disney’s powerful head of communications, is leaving the company. “When reporters write stories that she thinks are unfair, she comes spinning at them like teeth on a chain saw,” Brooks Barnes writes, for the Times, yet “in the next breath” she can “turn gentle.” She also banned Bob Iger from being photographed wearing Mickey Mouse ears, fearing the media would use the image to “make him look silly.”

ICYMI: Nikole Hannah-Jones on the use of power

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.