The most telling passage from Media Madness, Howard Kurtz’s new book on President Donald Trump and the press, is not a blow-by-blow account of how the White House communications team handled some bombshell report. It’s not a description of Kurtz’s conversations with Trump, or one of his predictable lectures about how reporters have forsaken objectivity.
No, Kurtz—who is Fox News’ lead media analyst—reveals his game with his portrayal of Sean Spicer’s first day as White House press secretary. The page-and-a-half-long scene lays out how Spicer responded after cable news “denigrated” the attendance of Trump’s inauguration. Nowhere does Kurtz point out that Spicer was obviously lying. His framing instead suggests there were sides in the “crowd debate.”
“This wasn’t really about the crowd size; it was a proxy fight in a larger battle,” Kurtz writes. “Reince Priebus, Spicer’s mentor, believed the press was actively trying to delegitimize Trump’s presidency at the outset.”
Kurtz tacitly accepts those terms, even though he reports that Trump eventually conceded Spicer’s tantrum was a mistake. But a full year later, the author still doesn’t share his own verdict on the crowd size—a knowable fact and the crux of this proxy battle. Instead, he reserves value judgments for the journalists who rightly pounced on a clear falsehood. Throughout Media Madness, Kurtz paints them as the out-of-control variable, rather than grappling with the nature of the subject to which they’re responding.
“Many [journalists] are misguided in their belief that they are doing the right thing,” Kurtz writes, “and myopic in their rationalizations about why it’s perfectly fine to treat Trump differently than other presidents.”
It’s this sly weaponization of gotta-hear-both-sides journalism that drives pro-Trump media criticism, and Kurtz uses it to package his book as a sweeping indictment of a press corps gone astray in the Trump era. Trump and the media are locked in “scorched-earth warfare in which only one side can achieve victory,” Kurtz writes. “To a stunning degree, the press is falling into the president’s trap.” It’s impossible for them not to by Kurtz’s standards, which demand journalists show deference to Trump.
Kurtz isn’t a cartoonish press-hating blowhard like his Fox News colleagues Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity. He doesn’t target media norms and standards in bad-faith strikes on specific reporters or commentators, a la Mike Cernovich. Kurtz’s brand is much more subtle—and maybe just as effective in delegitimizing journalists breaking news about Trump.
He’s an aging former newspaperman who uses the style and language of an aging former newspaperman: Kurtz worked at The Washington Post for 29 years, much of it as a solid media reporter, and hosted the CNN program Reliable Sources for more than a decade.
But Media Madness reveals the extent to which he’s since transformed into a font of Fox News hackery. Kurtz fashions himself as a straight-shooting political outsider from the “non-trendy part of southern Brooklyn,” even though he went to Columbia and has worked in Washington for decades. He demands that Trump and his aides—whose incompetence and lies are off the charts in historic proportions—be covered with studious neutrality.
“I believe I’m standing up for the fundamental values of journalism, which have gotten sadly twisted in the Trump era,” he sighs.
The pose helped Kurtz gain access to top officials looking to launder their own complaints about press coverage through a supposedly fair-and-balanced “media analyst.” It also affords readers plausible deniability about those subjects’ intentions. Kurtz’s book, just like his Sunday show on Fox, MediaBuzz, thus stands as an important artifact of right-wing media grift.
It’s not that Kurtz shies away from any negative news about the Trump administration. That would be so shameless as to give the game away. He strings together anecdotes that illustrate how the White House is not a singular, unified actor. The president himself can’t live without media attention—much as he publicly derides it—fueling negative storylines with off-the-cuff remarks and impulse tweets. Overwhelmed aides attempt to keep up with what they term Trump’s “defiance disorder.” Plans change, if they existed in the first place. Leaks are a constant. Everyone and everything is reactive to the news.
But despite officials’ incompetence and infighting, it’s the media’s motivations that Kurtz more consistently interrogates. He may use milder language, but the core of his message could fit comfortably on Breitbart.
Kurtz quietly aligns himself with his sources’ view of the world. He tut-tuts the press reaction to Trump’s remarks on neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, for instance, allowing that the president “had made at least some reasonable comments” about Confederate statues. “But to the media, he was on the wrong side of a cultural civil war,” Kurtz writes. “And once again, his own administration was at war with itself, with some aides using leaks as a vote of no-confidence in the president.”
Journalists justify a more aggressive approach, Kurtz writes, “by telling themselves and the world that they had a duty to push back—perhaps even push out—a president they viewed as unqualified, intemperate, and insistent on pursuing harmful policies.” He provides a massive clip-job of various headlines reinforcing that point rather than a sustained argument for Trump’s qualifications, temperament, and policies. He points out that Trump’s coverage is overwhelmingly negative without examining why that might be. He portrays aggressive reporting on the president as if it is occurring in a political vacuum, with no nod to Trump’s historic unpopularity. He doesn’t ponder the potential reasons aides leak so often. He over-polices tweets. He fuses the likes of Saturday Night Live, CNN, and The New York Times into a single monolithic entity. And he cites an incident when a reporter allegedly called Trump racist as evidence of bias (the incident probably didn’t happen).
I have little doubt that his argument will prove commercially successful. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury cornered the Trump-is-a-wacko book market. Conservative columnist Salena Zito is currently under contract to attempt something similar with the dispatch-from-a-diner genre. Kurtz’s one-sided critique of why the media don’t get Trump—and might never—has a readymade constituency long cultivated by Fox News and its offshoots.
Kurtz’s eye for bias somehow glosses over his own network. The cable news giant receives just two paragraphs of extended analysis in a 271-page book. “Fox News was increasingly seen as in the pro-Trump camp, but the reality was more complicated,” he writes. Even if that were true—if Kurtz really believes it—it’d require more explanation than can be jammed into any 210-word passage.
This might be a mere oversight toward Kurtz’s employer. More likely is that it’s evidence of intellectual dishonesty, the need to use the channel as a marketing springboard, or some combination of the two. To borrow an old slogan with which Kurtz himself may be familiar: I report; you decide.