News analyst Howard Kurtz argues that press misjudgment has upended
coverage of the White House and boosted the president's agenda in this
exclusive excerpt from his new book, 'Media Madness.'
Jan. 8, 2017, days before Donald Trump was to assume the crushing
burdens of the presidency, he faced a very different kind of problem:
iconic actress slammed him in her speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille
lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, attacking him for,
among other things, having allegedly mocked a disabled New
York Times reporter during the campaign. The
next morning, Hope Hicks, the president's loyal young assistant who was
almost always by Trump's side, pulled out her phone to play footage of
Kellyanne Conway on the CNN and Fox morning shows.
said that charge had been repeatedly refuted and added that if Streep
were so concerned about the rights of the disabled, she should have
spoken out about a disabled boy who had been badly beaten by young thugs
shouting anti-Trump epithets in a video that had been posted on
Facebook. Trump loved that answer and started venting about his media
retreated to a nearby desk, where she spoke to Times reporter
Patrick Healy. He had called Trump's cellphone during the Globes and
then quoted the president-elect as saying he wasn't surprised by
criticisms from "liberal movie people." Hicks took Healy to task.
not a confrontational person, but calling the president-elect of the
United States at midnight over an entertainment program is crossing the
line." If he wanted a comment from the president-elect, he should have
called her. Hope ended on a conciliatory note: "It's not the end of the
world, we'll move on."
was a sneak preview of what would become a constant state of warfare
between the new president, his closest aides and the media world — not
just journalists and commentators but actors, singers, entertainers and
pop-culture figures who often viewed him with outright scorn.
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. This is not just a feud or a fight or
a battle. It is scorched-earth warfare in which only one side can
achieve victory. To a stunning degree, the press is falling into the
president's trap. The country's top news organizations have targeted
Trump with an unprecedented barrage of negative stories, with some no
longer making much attempt to hide their contempt. Some stories are
legitimate, some are not, and others are generated by the president's
own falsehoods and exaggerations. But the mainstream media,
subconsciously at first, has lurched into the opposition camp and is
appealing to an anti-Trump base of viewers and readers, failing to grasp
how deeply it is distrusted by a wide swath of the country.
are not easy words for me to write. I am a lifelong journalist with ink
in my veins. And for all my criticism of the media's errors and
excesses, I have always believed in the mission of aggressive reporting
and holding politicians accountable.
the past two years have radicalized me. I am increasingly troubled by
how many of my colleagues have decided to abandon any semblance of
fairness out of a conviction that they must save the country from Trump.
first got to know Donald Trump three decades ago and never made the
blunder of underestimating him during the campaign. I saw all his
weaknesses — the bluster, the bullying, the refusal to admit mistakes —
but I also saw strengths that most of my colleagues missed, especially
an ability to channel the anger of millions of voters who despise the
press — including the old-guard conservative press — and other elite
is, at bottom, a battle over the truth. Who owns it, who controls it,
who can sell their version to a polarized public that increasingly
cannot agree on basic facts. Everything you read, hear and see about
Trump's veracity is filtered through a mainstream media prism that
reflects a lying president — and virtually never considers the press'
own baggage and biases. Everything you read, hear and see from the Trump
team is premised on the view that media news is fake news, that
journalists are too prejudiced, angry and ideological to fairly report
on the president. Trump and his acolytes use these attacks on the Fourth
Estate to neutralize their own untruths, evasions and exaggerations.
What many journalists fail to grasp is that Trump's supporters love his
street talk and view the media critiques as nonsense driven by
negativity. They don't care if he makes mistakes. As paradoxical as it
sounds, negative coverage helps Trump because it bonds him to people who
also feel disrespected by the denizens of the mainstream press. The
media take everything literally, and Trump pitches his arguments at a
gut level. It is asymmetrical warfare.
president gets pounded by the press. But no president has ever been
subjected to the kind of relentless ridicule, caustic commentary and
insulting invective that has been heaped on Trump. I have a name for
this half-crazed compulsion to furiously attack one man. It's called
days after Donald Trump was inaugurated, Kellyanne Conway dived into a
media maelstrom with an appearance on Meet
the Press. It did not go well.
the Press host Chuck Todd had a history. NBC's
goateed political junkie had texted her after 4 a.m. on election night,
congratulating her on what he called the greatest upset in the history
of American politics. Conway said she was "euphoric." But their
relationship took a bad turn when she taped a Meet
the Press interview in late November. When she
got home that Sunday morning and told her husband, George, that it had
gone smoothly, he said, "What do you mean? You weren't on for even a
minute." Conway called Todd and asked what happened. The anchor — who
had booked Conway under pressure from the Trump team — realized there
had been a miscommunication. He explained that he had told a staffer the
show was packed and the most they could do was run sound bites.
don't give sound bites. I don't speak in sound bites," she said. Todd
asked how he could make amends. "It's only 8 a.m. on the West Coast,"
Conway said. "You can run the whole interview. You've done eight minutes
with Ash Carter," Barack Obama's secretary of defense, "and I'm falling
asleep." Conway was steamed. NBC News president Deborah Turness called
to mend fences, but Conway did not respond.
Kellyanne was doing a live interview with Todd from the North Lawn of
the White House. Todd demanded to know why Trump Press Secretary Sean
Spicer had made a "ridiculous" statement that was "a provable falsehood"
about Trump's inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama's. Things turned
personal when Todd laughed at Conway's explanation that Spicer was
providing "alternative facts." "Your job is not to call things
ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president,"
Conway said. "You're supposed to be a newsperson. You're not an opinion
columnist." Conway was disgusted and knew her pushback against Todd
would not get replayed on any network. Conway was sympathetic toward
journalists, but here she was, trying to talk about Trump's policy
agenda and getting ripped by a guy she had known for two decades. She
thought it was "symbolic" of "the way we're treated by the press." Todd
regretted letting his emotions show, but not the substance of his
questions. He thought Kellyanne had simply run out of talking points,
and he was laughing at the absurdity of the situation. The fact that it
was a satellite interview, lacking the conversational cues provided by a
face-to-face sit-down, made his interruptions look overly
confrontational. The president called Conway to congratulate her on her
performance against Todd. Vice president Mike Pence later joked to her:
"Does Chuck Todd have any teeth left?" But the unfortunate phrase
"alternative facts" stuck to her like tar paper. 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. One viewer, however, liked the
phrase. "In a way, that was genius," Trump told Conway. "And in another
way … ?" she asked. The president was too busy sympathizing. "They do
that to me all the time, take one word," he said.
days later, Todd texted her with an offer: "Would love to chat when you
have time. I also think we should do a face to face sit-down on cam.
Maybe something more extended for my cable show sometime next week. Just
a thought. All about reminding folks we both prefer cordial back n
forths." Kellyanne happened to be meeting with the president.She asked
him how to respond. "Tell him I thought you were treated with great
disrespect," Trump said. Conway tapped the words into her iPhone:
"President Trump said you treated me with great disrespect." Todd
quickly replied: "I respectfully disagree. Of course, I've taken a lot
more disrespect than most reporters and never make it public. I'm sorry
this was your response." Kellyanne texted, "That was his response. I
typed what he said." "Well. Let me know what YOU think of my pitch."
put the phone down. She was done with Todd. She eventually relented, and
Turness came to see her and Hicks. Conway did not hide her disdain for
how NBC and MSNBC were treating the administration. "This is a side of
me you never see," she said. "I'm usually kind and gracious. Your
networks are a hot mess." Turness said that MSNBC was the province of
its president, Phil Griffin. "No, it's your stepchild," Conway said.
"And you've got SNL,"
Hicks added, the show on which Alec Baldwin was brutally mimicking
Trump. Turness delivered an overall apology. NBC wanted to continue a
50-year tradition of spending a day trailing each new president with a
camera crew. Fat chance, Conway thought, if this is how we're going to
be covered. "I let you guys into the White House and this is what
Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth by
Howard Kurtz (Regnery Publishing, Jan. 29), copyright Regnery
story appears in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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