Fox News commentator Howard Kurtz begins his new book, Media Madness, conceding that “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media . . .” And then he proceeds to devote nearly all of the book’s 256 pages attempting to prove that the media is doing Trump’s job for him, undermining its own credibility. In other words, this book is just about what you might expect to come from any but the most rabidly reactionary Fox News host.
Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth by Howard Kurtz
@@@ (3 out of 5)
A questionable claim to be neutral
Kurtz goes to considerable lengths to make the case that he does not support President Trump. He professes to be neutral. He frequently cites Trump’s egregious lies, insults, and grossly exaggerated claims. But his case is weak. Again and again, Kurtz makes clear that he regards the media’s reports on those lies, insults, and claims to be inappropriate. The implication is that, since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, he should be immune from any but the most restrained and polite criticism. Yet Kurtz insists that the coverage of the president represents “the most catastrophic media failure in a generation.”
Donald Trump’s over-the-top behavior
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s over-the-top behavior is so far from what any thinking person has a right to expect from the occupant of the Oval Office that I am amazed some of the coverage has been as mild as it is. When, in more than two centuries since the founding of the republic, have we had a president who:
- shamelessly used his office to promote his own private business interests;
- repeatedly insulted private citizens in the grossest possible way;
- broadcast his own unfiltered and uninformed thoughts to the public at large;
- demonstrated a near-total lack of knowledge about public policy;
- insisted on personal loyalty from officials whose job it is to uphold the law, not support the president;
- attacked the FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department, not just once but again and again;
- openly campaigned to shut down an officially-sanctioned investigation into him and the people around him; and
- undermined decades of bipartisan foreign policy by cozying up to the criminal regime that controls Russia.
Given these facts, it hardly seems legitimate for Trump’s leading media spokesperson to cry, “We get no forbearance. We get nothing! We get no respect! We get no deference!” I’d always thought respect needed to be earned. And Kurtz writes, almost approvingly, that Trump “didn’t carefully weigh his words as other politicians did.” But how can this be a good thing in the President of the United States?
From a Fox News host: chaos and dysfunction in the White House
Media Madness is better written and less hysterical than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Yet the two books paint very similar pictures of how the White House operates. Here, the term “madness” seems appropriate. Back-biting and leaks to the press are a daily occurrence. Trump’s tweets and his frequent direct calls to reporters frequently contradict set policy or statements by his communications staff. And in off-the-cuff remarks or unscripted outbursts in press interviews, Trump undercuts his staff and his own high-level appointees.
Clearly, much of the content of Media Madness comes from the two White House staff members who are most familiar to the media: Presidential Counsellor Kellyanne Conway and former Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer comes across as pathetic, stumbling over words and forever finding himself contradicted by the boss. After Trump repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama had bugged Trump Tower, “Spicer had to keep deflecting questions about whether Trump should admit he was wrong and apologize to Obama.” If there is a hero in this story, it’s Conway. “She wasn’t the one saying that major media organizations were ‘fake news.’ She wasn’t out there talking about the ‘dishonest media.’ She wasn’t the person who had called the press the ‘opposition party.’ That was all Trump and Bannon. But she took the heat.”
Kurtz’s book was not well received
I am far from alone in my negative view of Kurtz’s book. In The Guardian (January 29, 2018), Lloyd Green’s review, “Fox News host Kurtz stacks deck in favor of Trump,” concludes that the book “succeeds as another window on the dysfunction that characterizes Trump’s White House. As a critique of the media, it comes up short.” And Margaret Sullivan’s review of the book for the Washington Post is headlined, “Fox News host’s hyperbolic take on the ‘war’ between Trump and the press.” Sullivan rejects Kurtz’s thesis that “war” in underway between the media and the president. She terms the relationship “codependency.” As Trump himself insists, he’s a “ratings machine.” Kurtz seems to think that the news media should just ignore Trump’s more outrageous outbursts!
I’ll close this review with a confession: I read only somewhat more than half of this book before giving up in disgust. My blood pressure was rising dangerously. This is the ONLY one of the nearly 1,000 reviews I’ve written for this blog without reading the book to the end. If you’ve gotten to this point in this review, I think you’ll understand.
For further reading
I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump, including Fire and Fury (Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House) and Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum (A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy). In fact, this is one of 14 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.
Like to read books about politics and current affairs? Check out Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up).
For your convenience, I’ve also listed all The nonfiction books I’ve reviewed here in 2018.