Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.
Howard Kurtz’s book “Media Madness” is fast-moving and lively, but it’s based on a false premise: that President Trump and the national press are at war with each other. Kurtz, a Fox News host, asserts this with hyperbolic drama in the opening pages: “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media; and the media are determined to do the same to him.” He elaborates: “It is scorched-earth warfare in which only one side can achieve victory.”
I don’t buy it, and I suspect that Kurtz — a seasoned newsman who spent decades at The Washington Post — knows it’s not true.
This isn’t really war, but at times it is something almost as unappealing: co-dependency. What’s actually going on between Trump and the press is that he — like politicians before him — needs a convenient enemy to keep his base of supporters fired up. With no Hillary to threaten to lock up (though don’t try to tell that to the author’s Clinton-obsessed colleagues at Fox News), the news media will have to suffice. But Trump also craves press attention, enjoys schmoozing with reporters and is, in some ways, far more accessible than some of his predecessors.
As for journalists, they may worry about the damage that Trump’s constant cries of “fake news” do to their craft — and that’s a legitimate concern. For the most part, though, they are trying to cover him, not take him down. (As Post editor Martin Baron put it, “We’re not at war; we’re at work.”) But here’s the co-dependency part: They’re taking full advantage of the way Trump brings attention to their work; in his own words, he is a “ratings machine.”
Kurtz’s allegiance to his masters at Fox News is evident right from the start, when he offers something I never thought possible: a heartfelt defense of Kellyanne Conway’s coining of the infamous phrase “alternative facts” as she attempted to justify Trump’s evidence-free insistence that his inaugural crowds were the biggest in history — “period,” as his spokesman said. Speaking to NBC’s Chuck Todd, Conway argued: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And . . . Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts.”
Todd pointed out that there is no such thing as alternative facts. What Spicer had delivered, in Todd’s words, was “a provable falsehood.” But Kurtz manages to see it differently. He takes Conway’s side (as he does so often and so sympathetically that you may be tempted to look for a Conway co-author’s credit), explaining, “She had meant equally accurate explanations, like ‘two plus two equals four’ and ‘three plus one equals four,’ but it quickly became journalistic shorthand for White House exaggerations and falsehoods.”
Of course, no one had an “equally accurate explanation” to offer. Trump’s aides were just trying to defend the indefensible, which turns out to be something that provides full-time employment in the current administration.
Kurtz lets the media’s worst perpetrators of inaccuracy and unfairness off the hook. Fox News’s conspiracy-mongering Trump toady Sean Hannity, for example, gets no harsh words, but the reality-based press is slammed mercilessly. “The journalistic sharks smelled blood in the water,” is how Kurtz characterizes coverage of two White House resignations. And reporting on then-chief strategist Steve Bannon? “It was all so juvenile.” Trump coverage, for Kurtz, is too many hot takes and “a constant stream of inflammatory invective” from celebrities woven into the larger news culture.
And even as the book criticizes (correctly) the news media’s fixation with White House palace intrigue, it has the same problem. If there’s anything you want to know about the anguish of Reince Priebus, flip through Kurtz’s pages. (Priebus, reports Kurtz, “felt he had laid down strict rules against leaking, but that he was being a Boy Scout while all his detractors dumped on him in the press.”)
Despite its bias and its flawed framing, Kurtz has produced an engaging read that makes some valid points. He notes that as Trump’s attacks on the media took on clockwork predictability, they became “less newsworthy even as they intensified.” He has collected scores of startling examples of harsh, sometimes over-the-top criticism of Trump from media people (many of them entertainment figures or cable pundits). He cites reporter Julia Ioffe’s tweet speculating about an incestuous relationship between the president and his daughter Ivanka, quotes ESPN’s Jemele Hill calling Trump a white supremacist and includes NBA star LeBron James’s insult: “U bum.”
Some of the book’s reporting is already being challenged. New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin has disavowed statements Kurtz asserts he made in a phone call with a Republican National Committee staffer: “Donald Trump is racist and a fascist, we all know it, and you are complicit.” (Kurtz and the publisher are standing by the quotes.) And there are small errors: For example, Slate is not owned by The Post, as Kurtz states, though it once was.
Overall, you can understand “Media Madness” best by considering the source: Despite his long history in journalism, Kurtz is a creature of Fox News now, as the host of a show called “Media Buzz.” (Disclosure: The book mentions me twice in passing, and I was once a guest on his show.) The book’s pro-Trump tone, its stark criticism of the national press and its hands-off policy toward Fox’s faults reflect his position at the network. Kurtz is playing to a specific crowd: the vast right-leaning audience that has been told relentlessly for 20 years that the mainstream media can’t be trusted.
And, notably, that crowd includes the president, an inveterate Fox News watcher. Kurtz, a native New Yorker who has known Trump for decades, is careful not to get too tough on him. Describing some disastrous miscalculation, such as Trump’s terribly insensitive reaction to a deadly terrorist attack in London, Kurtz swats him mildly: “It was not Trump’s finest hour.”
Kurtz’s book is being compared to Michael Wolff’s best-selling “Fire and Fury” because it depicts a chaotic White House and a president who refuses to be controlled by his keepers. Kurtz dubs this Trump conduct “defiance disorder.” But despite a similarity to Wolff’s book and a sharing of a few obvious sources — Bannon and Conway, in particular — “Media Madness” is far kinder to the Trump administration. Kurtz, apparently, is much more interested in preserving access, and, unlike Wolff’s book, this one is likely to be celebrated throughout the pro-Trump media landscape.
Although Kurtz emphasizes that he is a journalist through and through, with printers’ ink running in his veins, “Media Madness” clearly is meant to reinforce Fox Nation’s disdain for legitimate journalists who are trying to hold a norm-busting president accountable. The author gives only glancing nods to the crucial role of the press in America’s democracy or the high quality of the journalism done over the past year.
Maybe Kurtz felt he had to blame somebody to make his book viable. It’s too bad he chose the members of his lifelong profession.
By Howard Kurtz
Regnery. 273 pp. $28.99