Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth, Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz’s account of the first year of coverage of the Trump administration, opens with a now-famous episode from the administration’s very first days in office. Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds a special news conference to lambaste the media for reporting that Trump’s inauguration drew a smaller attendance than Barack Obama’s eight years earlier. In front of a disbelieving press corps, Spicer insisted Trump had actually drawn a much larger crowd. It was a staggering, preposterous lie that could be debunked with simple photographs, not to mention the National Park Service.
Kurtz, though, does not mention that Spicer’s claim was untrue. Indeed, he barely touches upon the claim at all, which occupies just one sentence, and which his readers only learn about through his quoting a reporter barraging Trump’s spokespeople with rude questions. Kurtz does not at any point quote the Spicer line — “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” — that became so notorious Spicer performed a parody of it at the Emmy Awards. The episode, in Kurtz’s telling, has nothing to do with the administration’s lying. It shows instead how unfairly the media has treated the 45th president.
It is clear enough that Trump receives worse coverage in the mainstream news media than any other president since the invention of nonpartisan news. And yet it is simultaneously true that Trump is held to a more lenient standard than any other president. His administration produces so many errors, scandals, reversals, eye-popping meltdowns, and outright lies that it would be impossible for reporters to cover each of them the same way they would cover the same behavior under a normal presidency. Terrible stories about Trump are simply elbowed out of the news by other terrible stories about Trump. If it were revealed that another president had paid hush money to a porn star shortly before the election, you’d hear about nothing else for months. The Stormy Daniels news virtually disappeared.
To Kurtz, however, the “massive imbalance” between Trump’s coverage and coverage of other presidents can only be explained by media bias. He treats this premise as definitionally true — not defending it outright, but simply building his case as though no other explanation could even theoretically exist. And so the strange mission of his book is to analyze the hostile relationship between Trump and the mainstream news media without in any way acknowledging that Trump lies on a historic scale, or has in any other way departed from the historic norms of presidential behavior.
Kurtz does note that reporters often “call[ed] Trump a liar … [and this] was repeated like a mantra, as an established fact.” Is it a fact? Kurtz does not explore the question. To the extent Kurtz offers a theory as to why it’s wrong for the media to report on Trump’s falsehoods, it’s that Trump’s voters don’t like it when they do: “What many journalists fail to grasp is that Trump’s supporters love his street talk.” Most journalists I know do realize that Trump’s supporters are willing to forgive almost anything he says or does, in part because they get their news from propaganda organs that supply them with a worldview designed to encourage such thinking. These journalists believe they should try to report as objectively as they can anyway.
Kurtz, like Trump, presents the Republican base’s distrust of mainstream media as a decisive indictment. He does not consider the theory that a decades-long propaganda campaign by the conservative movement, and his employer in particular, to discredit non-party-controlled media has had any bearing on this reality. Instead he devotes his attention instead to media bias against the president.
Kurtz had been a somewhat right-leaning journalist for CNN and the Daily Beast. In 2013, Kurtz was fired from the Daily Beast for what editor Tina Brown called “serial inaccuracy.” That same year he moved to Fox News. In Kurtz’s telling, his unmitigated embrace of the right-wing line is one he arrived at sadly and reluctantly. “The last two years have radicalized me. I am increasingly troubled by how many of my colleagues have decided to abandon any semblance of fairness,” he tells his readers. “These are not easy words for me to write.” Luckily for Kurtz, his radicalization happens to dovetail with his change of employer. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for retaining his Fox News salary. Perhaps that makes it a little easier for him to write those words.
Given how many stories have been written about Trump, statistics would suggest it should be easy to produce a fair number that clearly indicate bias. Kurtz nevertheless fails to produce them. There is only one nugget of original reporting to bolster Kurtz’s accusation, and it is almost certainly false. Citing a Republican official, he claims New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin cursed out Trump as “racist and fascist” in a private conversation. Martin (who previously worked for National Review) vociferously denies that this occurred. Kurtz conjures the image of reporters celebrating openly at the travails of Steve Bannon — they “practically broke into cheers” and then, three pages later, were “practically high-fiving.” These imagined acts of bias have to substitute for his inability to describe actual ones.
The rest of the book’s evidence consists of Kurtz expressing indignation at what is actually fair coverage. For instance, Kurtz devotes a long (for him) section on Republican accusations that Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice had improperly “unmasked” Trump campaign staffers. The charge briefly attracted a flurry of coverage, before (conservative) reporter Eli Lake discovered it to be false. Kurtz, of course, does not mention that the charge has been debunked. His takeaway is that the news media didn’t devote enough attention to spreading the accusation in the first place: “It wasn’t clear whether Rice had done anything improper, but some journalists had no interest in finding out.” (The irony, of course, is that Kurtz himself does not bother substantiating whether Rice had done anything wrong, yet accuses others of failing to care.)
Kurtz accuses the New York Times of publishing a news analysis of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord that “read like an editorial.” The offending passage in the news analysis stated Trump’s decision “would be a momentous setback.” He omits the rest of the sentence, which reads, “… for the effort to reduce climate change.” Of course, it is hard to dispute the fact that American withdrawal from the Paris agreement would be a setback for the move to reduce climate change. This result was a selling point for many conservatives who celebrated Trump’s decision.
Kurtz flays the media for reporting events he believes were unfounded, such as that Trump “allegedly mocked a disabled New York Times reporter.” (There is video.) “There was still no firm evidence,” he asserts, “that the Trump campaign had ‘colluded’ with the Russians.” Among other things, Trump’s adviser Roger Stone appeared to have advance warning of WikiLeaks email dumps, and several of his top officials had met in Trump Tower with a Russian said to be promising “dirt” on his opponent. Jared Kushner had been treated as the object of suspicion, Kurtz complains, “without any evidence of wrongdoing on his part.” That evidence of wrongdoing would include omitting multiple contacts with Russians on his disclosure forms, maintaining business interests from which he could profit through his role as Trump adviser, and setting up a secret back channel to communicate with Russia during the transition that he hid from American intelligence.
Kurtz describes the allegations that Trump hired Russian prostitutes “falsehoods” (they are actually unsubstantiated) and Trump’s claim that he really won the popular vote but for several million illegal votes in California “unsubstantiated” (it has actually been proven false).
The narrative obstacle Kurtz encounters in the crafting of his book is that he can’t list the alleged instances of reporters mistreating Trump without at least cursorily referring to the events they are covering. And many of those episodes are embarrassing, disgraceful, or otherwise impossible to brush aside. Kurtz’s solution to this problem is to treat the president as though he is responding to his critics, thus rendering his apparent failures into a projection of their irrational hatred.
So, for instance, the daily barrage of reports of internal dysfunction in the incoming Trump administration is conveyed thus: “[U]nnamed aides were out for themselves rather than worrying about what was best for the president-elect.” (Kurtz is a journalist who believes the public should know less.) Because of their selfishness, “what emerged was a portrait of a dysfunctional operation, which happened to jibe with the media’s predominant view that Trump knew next to nothing about running a government.” Kurtz blames leakers and reporters without actually disputing the accuracy of these reports.
This strange tic appears over and over. Trump’s failures are passive, and ultimate responsibility for all of them ultimately lands on the media. His grotesque insult of Mika Brzezinski “might reinforce the media indictment that he liked to denigrate women’s looks.” His demands for locking up his defeated opponent “allowed the press to depict Trump as fostering a banana republic atmosphere.” When Republican senators took the extraordinary step of charging their own party’s president with “debasing our country” (Bob Corker) and being “dangerous to our democracy” (Jeff Flake), Kurtz records the episode like so: “The media revelled in the narrative that leading Republicans were questioning Trump’s character.”
That this “narrative” was demonstrably correct — of course leading Republicans were questioning Trump’s character! Kurtz quoted them doing that very thing! — matters to him not at all. A literal description of undisputed public events is a “narrative,” and since the narrative serves the end of Trump’s enemies, describing it is biased.
Kurtz recounts one of his conversations, where Trump praises his work for its objectivity: “‘Your problem,’” he said in a friendly tone, looking me in the eye, ‘is that you’re too down the middle.’ I said that’s my job.”
Here Kurtz presents himself almost as a quiet cinematic hero who has saved the day, and humbly deflects praise — just doin’ my job — before walking off into the sunset. Perhaps the more telling takeaway from this exchange is what this tells us about Kurtz’s definition of real journalistic fairness: winning the admiration of Donald Trump.