‘Down the Middle’
The Media Backlash Against Howard Kurtz’s Media Madness
The journalist who says ‘the past two years have radicalized me’ didn’t do much to talk to colleagues he claims ‘have decided to abandon any semblance of fairness.’
Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz’s latest book—Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth—is inevitably prompting eye-rolling, if not raising hackles, among journalists he condemns, as he writes, for “target[ing] Trump with an unprecedented barrage of negative stories, with some no longer making much attempt to hide their contempt.”
Kurtz’s book reproaches the Fourth Estate for “relying too heavily on anonymous sources, who had obvious agendas to push” even as it relies almost exclusively on anonymous sources who have obvious agendas to push. As the author explains, “Most of the interviews were conducted on a not-for-attribution basis to achieve the most candid and accurate account possible of Donald Trump’s election and presidency.”
The book contains scant evidence that Kurtz spent much time soliciting the journalists’ points of view. But it does include a couple of scenes in which President Trump calls him “Howie” and acts as validator-in-chief.
“With everything swirling around him, Trump was keeping an eye on my coverage,” Kurtz writes. “‘Your problem,’ he said in a friendly tone, looking me in the eye, ‘is that you’re too down the middle.’ I said that was my job. In my world, of course, that was a compliment.”
Among the many print, web, and television types dinged in the book is CNBC Editor at Large John Harwood, whose tweets and comments criticizing the president—for “selfishness, impulsiveness, inattention, ignorance,” as he asserted in one instance—Kurtz cites as evidence of generally unfair media bias.
As with several journalists who were name-checked in Media Madness and were interviewed for this story, Harwood said he never heard from Kurtz, the host of the Fox News Sunday analysis show Media Buzz. (Others said that they had declined to speak to him.)
“I don’t object to him not reaching out when he’s quoting stuff that I said,” Harwood told The Daily Beast. “And I’m not embarrassed by any stuff that I’ve said. He can frame whatever conclusions he wants about the reporters. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like most of the things he’s citing are accurate commentary and accurate analysis.”
Also among the scores of journalists in Kurtz’s sights is New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, whom he mentions unfavorably for stories detailing Trump administration intrigues and rivalries, a time-honored staple of White House coverage going back many decades.
Kurtz seems especially censorious of a deeply reported and ultimately prophetic May 5, 2017, front-page profile of Reince Priebus—based on interviews with two dozen West Wing aides and Republican Party officials—that suggested that the embattled chief of staff’s days at the White House were numbered.
“Priebus thought the piece was phony,” Kurtz writes in apparent agreement. “Its sources were what he liked to call straphangers, people from outside the inner circle.” Kurtz added that “the paper still trashed him” despite Priebus having granted the Times an interview “in front of the PR people.”
Less than three months after its publication, Priebus was out the door.
In another passage, Kurtz writes about a supposedly “off the record” exchange in August between Haberman and chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, in which Bannon allegedly informed her that he was resigning.
It would have been illuminating, and perhaps journalistically advisable, to have tried to get Haberman’s take on her reporting process and her attitudes, to say nothing of Kurtz’s general anti-media thesis.
“He never reached out to me,” Haberman told The Daily Beast. “I never heard from Howie Kurtz for the reporting on his book.”
In another section concerning Bannon, Kurtz reports without comment an incident from last August suggesting that the former executive chairman of Breitbart News was continuing to direct the Trump-friendly, angry-populist media outlet even though he was supposedly hands-off while working as a top presidential adviser and Breitbart was claiming to be an independent news organization in its (unsuccessful) application for a Senate Press Gallery credential:
“Steve Bannon had been having his regular Saturday coffee meeting with Robert Costa when the Washington Post reporter glanced up at the office television and said, ‘Man, this Charlottesville thing.’ Bannon, who grew up in Virginia, didn’t know what he was talking about. He quickly called the editor of Breitbart and told him to dispatch a team there.”
Costa wouldn’t address the issue, and a publicist for Breitbart News—which indeed sent a team of reporters to the lethal mayhem between white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their opponents—didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Bannon, however, called Kurtz’s account “fake news” in a text to The Daily Beast.
To which Kurtz responded in his own text: “It’s an absolute fact provided by a definitive source”—most probably Bannon, given the author’s guidance in his “Note on Sources,” that “In describing scenes and conversations where I was not present, I have spoken with one or more people with first-hand knowledge of what happened.”
Oddly, Kurtz writes credulously that during the last three months of the 2016 presidential contest, when Bannon served as the Trump campaign’s chief executive and was daily schmoozing with political journalists, especially with his Boswell, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green, “He was proud of the fact that he went through the entire campaign without granting an interview.”
While the book portrays Washington journalists as members of a faceless media-elite monolith, disconnected from—and condescending toward—real Americans, it contains compelling evidence that Kurtz spent quality time with the likes of Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and especially with presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, whom the author lionizes as “a New Jersey girl raised by a single mother [who] felt she understood ordinary Americans in a way the elite media did not.”
“The running joke is that the book was actually written by Kellyanne,” said a member of the White House press corps, who didn’t wish to enter into a public quarrel with the Fox News personality.
A second White House journalist, who asked to remain unnamed for the same reason, told The Daily Beast: “I love people who are demonstrably, exponentially, more wealthy and privileged than me calling me fucking media elite.”
“Poor Howard, that book is so terrible,” said a prominent cable anchor.
Speaking of Conway, Kurtz’s book includes personal text-messages between her and NBC News’ Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press, in which Todd is attempting to make peace with her after their infamous on-air exchange over “alternative facts.” Conway has privately denied giving the texts to Kurtz—which Todd is said to consider a betrayal of trust, according to sources—but it’s difficult to fathom who else could have leaked them. Todd declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Kurtz writes as fact that then-NBC News President Deborah Turness “delivered an overall apology” to Conway and Hicks for the critical treatment accorded President Trump by NBC News, MSNBC, and even Saturday Night Live.
Turness couldn’t have apologized for for an entertainment division show like SNL, and Kurtz never called NBC News to ask if it was true, according to a network insider.
Nor did Kurtz reach out to Rachel Maddow, another target of his criticism for, among other infractions, “[leading] off her show with the less-than-startling news that Kushner had hired a criminal lawyer.”
Kurtz’s conservative publisher, Regnery, claimed he was too busy to speak to The Daily Beast.
But in response to a few emailed questions, he wrote back: “All my interviews were conducted on a confidential basis, but I can assure you that I spoke to numerous journalists and reflected their point of view, and reached out to others who declined to talk to me. The criticism is rather predictable, since the book is tough on the mainstream media and has also made news for being tough on the Trump White House. Media critics are rarely popular, but this is a heartfelt attempt to understand why the business I love is losing so much public trust.”
Kurtz—a longtime colleague of this writer at both The Washington Post, where he was New York bureau chief and then a well-regarded media columnist, and at The Daily Beast when it was attached to Newsweek (for which Kurtz served as Washington bureau chief)—writes in his book that “the mainstream media, subconsciously at first, have lurched into the opposition camp, are appealing to an anti-Trump base of viewers and readers, failing to grasp how deeply they are distrusted by a wide swath of the country.”
However, The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, for one, writes that Kurtz, unwittingly or not, “confirms and expands upon media accounts of the chaos happening behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” including the president’s impulsive tweeting—ordering a ban of transgender people from the military without consulting the stake-holders, or accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower without a crumb of evidence—and his “tendency to do whatever his advisers most strongly advise him against, and they even have a term for such behavior: his ‘defiance disorder.’ ”
Kurtz continues in his book that “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.”
What he doesn’t explore is the potentially radicalizing role of his employer, Fox News, whose top-rated cable morning show, Fox & Friends, and prime-time anchors—especially Sean Hannity—are reflexively, even ridiculously, cheerleaders of the president, and harsh critics of any person or institution that might question him, notably the Justice Department, the FBI, and special counsel Robert Mueller.
In June 2013, the late Roger Ailes hired Kurtz from CNN, where he had helmed the Reliable Sources program for more than a decade, as he was weathering the consequences of embarrassing journalistic gaffes at The Daily Beast (from which he separated in May 2013) and questions about his relationship with another website, The Daily Download. It was a circumstance that threw the renewal of his CNN contract in doubt and compelled him to submit himself to an intense grilling, on his own show, by media reporters David Folkenflik and Dylan Byers.
Kurtz claims in Media Madness—and during numerous appearances over the past week on the Fox News Channel and the Fox Business Network to promote it—that he is an independent-minded journalist who feels free to disagree with his Trumpkin colleagues. Yet in his book, Kurtz approvingly quotes his fellow Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson as “accus[ing] the media of ‘hyperventilating,’ which he blamed on newsrooms where every single person has exactly the same political views… They’re destroying themselves”—a fair distillation of Kurtz’s own thesis.
Midway through, he minimizes the significance of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey—largely because of the agency’s bothersome investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interests, as the president acknowledged to NBC anchor Lester Holt—and burlesques the coverage of that event:
“So for dismissing the head of the FBI, who serves at the pleasure of the president, Trump was called a fascist dictator who threatened the foundation of democracy and who could be impeached. If he was not a fascist, Trump was at least Richard Nixon, with the press likening Comey’s ouster to Nixon’s firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Never mind that Cox was investigating real crimes while the Russia allegations remained murky.”
John Harwood retorted: “It seems to me pretty clear that Mueller is investigating something real and substantive.”