Mad as hell
A warning to journalists going to war against Donald Trump
Reading Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press, And The War over The Truth is like scrolling through 2017 Twitter on hyperspeed.
It jumps from trending topic to trending topic — all related to Trump. The book starts with Sean Spicer castigating the media about the inaugural crowd size, and ends with Trump backing accused child molester Roy Moore.
The greatest hits are covered: Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and “Bowling Green Massacre,” Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live skits, the Russia investigation, Trump’s public feud with Jeff Sessions, the Muslim travel ban, and of course one chapter related to the surreal 11 days of the Mooch.
There’s not much new at all in the book. It’s like one big Timehop memory for Trump headlines, columnists and cable news talking heads.
So without breaking new ground, what’s the point? Do we need to relive 2017 in painstaking detail in 2018?
Howard Kurtz devotes his book about obsessive and negative Trump coverage to prove one simple point. His main thesis is that the media is too obsessive and negative in its Trump coverage.
No one comes out looking good in what Kurtz calls “the war over the truth” — Not journalists, not Trump. In chapter after chapter, Trump says or does something inflammatory or over-the-top — which aids call his “defiance disorder” — like tweeting a GIF of him body slamming CNN or feuding with Morning Joe and accusing Mika Brzezinski of bleeding from a facelift. The media predictably overreacts with “overheated rhetoric” and equally inflammatory headlines. Then the news cycle repeats itself.
But the two sides seem equally drawn to each other. Trump craves attention and the media needs the attention. “We can’t quit each other,” is the way that Chuck Todd puts it in Kurtz’s telling.
But ultimately, Kurtz says, this love-hate relationship’s sniping and vitriol only ends up self-inflicting wounds. Kurtz says it undercuts their credibility and effectiveness:
The media were Trump’s codependents, addicted to the drama of fighting him at every turn. And Trump’s presidency was increasingly only consumed by an assault on the press that was intended to neutralize criticism of his agenda, but too often overshadowed the agenda itself.
Kurtz is a veteran journalist with a career that spans The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News. He doesn’t talk about himself much in the book, but when he does it’s to portray himself as balanced and objective. He says twice that Trump tells him that he’s too “down the middle.”
And I have to say, Kurtz does seem fair and evenhanded, both in this book and in his current reporting as a media critic for Fox News. I’d never heard of him before, so I visited his Twitter account while reading this book. There he takes on the left and the right in an evenhanded manner. Some examples:
Kurtz is old school. He believes media should be objective and devoted to uncovering the truth, not making pronouncements or blatantly displaying bias against a Trump presidency.
Kurtz also does his reporting homework. He includes example after example throughout the book of what he calls “overheated rhetoric” from news outlets. Some of these are from predictable sources like the Huffington Post, but he also implicates the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post in going too far in embracing knee-jerk anti-Trump narratives.
Kurtz’s cautions are well-intentioned. He wants to preserve media credibility. As he writes, “Donald Trump will not be president forever, but the media’s reputation, badly scarred during these polarizing years, might never recover.”
He’s got a point. More Americans are feeling “new fatigue,” according to Pew Research Center. They report in the new State of the News Media in 2018 that almost 7 in 10 Americans have news fatigue, more among Republicans:
Do you feel worn out by the amount of news these days? You’re not alone. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) are feeling news fatigue, and the share of Republicans who feel this way is even larger.
Why are people experiencing news fatigue? Take a guess.
According to Pew Research, 59 percent of Americans said it is “stressful and frustrating” to talk politics with people who have different opinions of President Trump, compared with 35 percent who described the experience as “interesting and informative.” Disagreement is wearing most of us out.
These statistics might suggest that a temporary Trump Bump only leads to Trump Burnout.
But here’s my question: What is the media supposed to do? There has been no shortage of media self-reflection about how to cover a president who deviates so far from the norm in a media environment that is characterized by filter bubbles.
Traditional objective and down-the-middle journalist values are facing two big obstacles:
One problem is Donald Trump really is an unconventional president. Regardless of his policies, he says and does things that make traditional straight reporting feel strange and antiquated. I mean, where do you start when the leader of the free world tweets something like this?
Another problem that traditional journalism faces is… us: The news audience. We have shown that we increasingly want our news sources partisan, or at least explained to us like a friend. We watch and reward Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and Breitbart. Partisanship is good for ratings and web traffic. Objectivity — or the semblance of objectivity — is a tougher sell.
So ultimately, Kurtz seems to leave us with no clear answers or solutions. He chastises the media for its dramatic reactions to Donald Trump.
But what else what he have them do?