Is Trump losing his grip on the narrative?

Donald Trump is a master of the media narrative. Sending the press scrambling after an outrageous tweet, lie, or policy has been a hallmark of his political style. By flooding the zone, he has managed to muffle damaging press and exhaust journalists and readers. And his base, fed by a relentless cycle of boosterish right-wing media commentary, has largely stayed on side.

It’s interesting, then, that the latest news cycle—involving the Russia probe, high staff turnover, sparring with Congress, fevered immigration rhetoric, and foreign policy convulsions—feels less responsive to Trump’s touch. Last week, The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott noted, the president’s Apprentice-style search for a new chief-of-staff successfully deflected some media attention from encircling investigators. But as the story dragged on with no appointment in sight, the narrative became that no one really wanted to work for him—especially when, last Friday, Chris Christie publicly snubbed Trump. And the Mueller/Russia/Cohen story, which never really went away, was back with a kick over the weekend: major news organizations reported that almost every aspect of Trump’s pre- and post-election life is under official scrutiny.

ICYMI: A journalist exposes the systemic failures that led to his wife’s death

This week, as headlines turned to the impending shutdown of the federal government, even Trump’s most reliable media backers revolted. Many in the right-wing press argued that a budget deal without funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall would be unacceptable. Standing in for Sean Hannity (who, just when Trump needed him most, was absent) on Fox Wednesday, Dan Bongino told the president that his base demands a wall. Yesterday morning, Fox & Friends, usually a hub of sycophancy, lit into Trump, too. Elsewhere, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Drudge were equally unsparing. Trump, watching in the White House, “seethed and panicked about the stream of invective he’s hearing from allies on television,” according to Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Burgess Everett. Finally, he did a U-turn, signaling that he wouldn’t sign the package he’d settled on with Congress after all. “This is government by infotainment,” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch tweeted.

In the middle of the domestic chaos, Trump announced on Wednesday, to wide surprise and alarm, that the United States would be withdrawing its troops from Syria, having “defeated ISIS.” A partial drawdown will also take place in Afghanistan. It looked like a signature Trump gambit to shift media attention. He succeeded in turning heads, but soon this story, too, got away from him. The Times reported that no Pentagon official would publicly support the approach, leaving Trump by himself in a video message. Yesterday, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that he would resign, making clear in his letter to Trump that the choice to do so was over philosophical differences with the president’s worldview. This marked “the first resignation of a Cabinet official in the Trump administration over a matter of principle that exploded into public view,” the Post reported. The letter dominated coverage, as did the sense that the last grown-up in the room was on the way out. “James Mattis just cut the world’s safety net,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote.

This morning, the word “chaos” is splashed across the mediasphere. There’s nothing new about that, on its face. But it’s hard to remember a week when Trump looked so embattled on so many different fronts—including among the outlets that tend to support him. Put together, the latest developments, and the way the media has covered them, portray a president who’s finally losing his grip on the narrative.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on chaos:

  • “Going wobbly”: Politico’s Jason Schwartz has a good rundown of the right-wing media reaction to Trump’s border compromise. “It was a remarkable turn of events for conservative media, which has by and large excused nearly every bit of trouble that’s cropped up around Trump since he took office,” Schwartz writes.
  • Media Mattis: Coverage has almost universally cast Mattis as a welcome restraining influence on Trump’s worst foreign-policy instincts. That’s understandable, but Mattis is a complicated character with foibles of his own. This 2017 New Yorker profile by Dexter Filkins remains instructive.
  • That was this week? Part I: On Tuesday, Trump’s charitable foundation agreed to dissolve after New York’s attorney general accused it of “a shocking pattern of illegality.” In a different week, that may have got much more attention. Then again, maybe not.
  • That was this week? Part II: Also on Tuesday, the Senate passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill after intense lobbying by the White House. CNN’s Brian Stelter tracks the helpful role Fox played in the process, including a rare official statement of support aimed at wavering GOP lawmakers.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, after Der Spiegel outed Claas Relotius, its star reporter, as a fabulist, its editors apologized, including to their media colleagues: “We are aware that the Relotius case makes the fight against fake news that much more difficult. For everyone,” they write. In a widely shared Medium post, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn dismantle the astonishing lies Relotius told about their hometown of Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Pete Brown updates a 2017 study of how news organizations use push notifications. “While the basic form and appearance of push notifications may not have evolved dramatically in the intervening 12 months, it’s the strategic thinking around newsroom usage that has,” he writes. As one Times staffer told Brown, “Push is its own platform. It deserves to have all of the intention and critical thinking that the front page does, that the home page does.”
  • James Wolfe, the former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who lied to the FBI about his contacts with reporters, was sentenced to two months in prison yesterday, BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman reports. Wolfe had been in a romantic relationship with Ali Watkins, an intelligence reporter for HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Politico, and, most recently, the Times, which reassigned her after the Wolfe controversy came to light this summer.
  • Last year, two rival morning shows, NBC’s Today and CBS’s This Morning, lost star male anchors to #MeToo scandals. Since then, the AP’s David Bauder reports, Today’s ratings have held up better without Matt Lauer than This Morning’s have without Charlie Rose. “Today is hardly problem-free—remember Megyn Kelly?—but it has the steadiest audience of all three network morning shows,” Bauder writes. “The elevation of Hoda Kotb into Lauer’s role is widely perceived as a winner.”
  • For CJR, Umer Ali writes that austerity measures in Pakistan have hit the media hard as the government fails to fulfill its advertising obligations—part of a worrying climate for the country’s press. “The cut-off was seen as part of a broad effort by Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who was elected prime minister in August, to slash government expenditures,” Ali writes. “Yet many journalists and free-press activists believe the motivation was more sinister. In their view, the government has attempted to financially squeeze dissenting voices among the news media.”
  • The UK’s governing Conservative Party opted not to discipline Boris Johnson after he used his weekly column in The Daily Telegraph (which earns him nearly $350,000 a year) to compare burka-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Separately, researchers Erik Bleich and A. Maurits van der Veen write in the Post that US newspaper portrayals of Muslims are disproportionately negative, even when the articles don’t mention terrorism or extremism.
  • And finally, a housekeeping note: The Media Today is taking a Christmas break. I’ll be back in your inbox January 2. In the meantime, check out our website, CJR.org, where we’ll be posting new content across the holiday season. Among other things, we’ll be looking back at a packed year for media news. To start, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke about the year with Amanda Darrach, Andrew McCormick, and Zainab Sultan, our Delacorte fellows, on our podcast The Kicker You can listen here. Have a great break. I’ll see you in 2019.

ICYMI: Sinclair fires reporter as she battles cancer

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.