(Chip Somodevilla (Trump), Paul Morigi (Conway), iStock (Camera, Microphones, Background)
by Howard Kurtz
January 24, 2018
Fox 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.’
On Jan. 8, 2017, days before Donald Trump was to assume the crushing burdens of the presidency, he faced a very different kind of problem: Meryl Streep.
The 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.
Kellyanne 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 coverage.
Hicks 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.
“I’m 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.”
It 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.
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. 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.
These 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.
But 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.
I 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 institutions.
This 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.
Every 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 Trump Trauma.
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