Front Row at the Trump Show, the new book by Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, warns that the press corps risks becoming the “opposition party” instead of an unbiased source of news.
Of all the reporters who cover Donald Trump at the White House, few have known him longer than Jonathan Karl, who was a 26-year-old reporter for the New York Post when he met the flamboyant real estate developer.
The story that day in 1994 was not about politics, it was about Michael Jackson, who was on his honeymoon in Trump Tower. Trump himself gave Karl the grand tour of the building, agreeing to share details if Karl attributed everything to a “source in the Trump Organization.”
Years later, a somewhat bemused Karl was sitting with Trump, who was on the phone and lying his head off about something not at all important. It was then that Karl realized, “Donald Trump lies for comic effect, he lies to make himself feel good, he lies to make you feel good, he lies because he likes to, he lies because he can.”
It probably won’t surprise people that the chief White House correspondent for ABC News says that Trump lies, but Karl does not think Trump alone should be blamed for the toxic state of relations between the Trump administration and the news media.
“It may be silly for somebody who goes to work in the Oval Office every day to feel insufficiently appreciated, but the truth is that the mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump is relentlessly and exhaustively negative,” Karl writes in his new book Front Row at the Trump Show. “His accomplishments – and there are accomplishments – are either ignored or overshadowed by the drumbeat of outrage fueled by his own outrageous behavior.”
Karl writes, “…all too often reporters and news organizations have aided and abetted the effort to undermine the free press by openly displaying how much they detest this president – his policies, his blatant disregard for the truth, or his vilification of the press – and behaving like anti-Trump partisans rather than journalists striving for fairness and objectivity. We are not the opposition party, but that is the way some of us have acted, doing as much to undermine the credibility of the free press as the president’s taunts.”
One reporter Karl singles out is Jim Acosta, the CNN White House reporter known for his combative exchanges with Trump. During one presidential briefing, Acosta shouted over another reporter to get a reaction from Trump. “Acosta was portraying himself as some kind of righteous advocate for the free press,” Karl writes, “but to most of the reporters in that room, he was just rudely interrupting a colleague . . . ”
The current president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Karl has strong feelings about the White House press secretaries – he’s worked with 13 different press secretaries under four presidents, so far – especially when they lie deliberately. Karl actually has less patience with them than he does with presidents who lie, because he believes the job of a press secretary is to tell the truth.
Nor does he spare the self-proclaimed “grownups” who have joined Trump’s inner circle supposedly to protect the country from the president’s impetuousness. Karl’s method of criticizing is not to give his own opinion, but to quote directly from people like John F. Kelly, Trump’s short-term chief of staff, in a way that makes Kelly come off like a self-important, and ultimately impotent, jerk.
One Trump official who was vilified in the press, Kirstjen Nielsen, is portrayed sympathetically by Karl as misunderstood and a victim of cutthroat White House politics, when she unfairly became the face of Trump’s immigration policies. The policies were not hers, but as secretary of Homeland Security she tried to carry out the president’s wishes, and was sharply criticized before she resigned.
Karl points out that Trump’s attacks on the news media have a calculated purpose. Trump himself has said that by attacking reporters, he casts doubt on everything they say. Perhaps more importantly, the Trump Show needs a villain to spar with the hero, and reporters happily play the role. Trump has effectively, and unfortunately, branded the news media as the “opposition party.”
“But a free press is not the opposition party,” Karl writes. “Our role is to inform the public, seek the truth, ask tough questions, and attempt to hold those in power accountable by shining a spotlight on what they are doing. We are not the opposition, but in the Trump era, the free press has sometimes appeared like the opposition.”
There is a place for opinion journalism, Karl writes. “But there is a crucial role for reporters and news organizations who strive for objectivity and balance. Our opinions – and we all have opinions – should be irrelevant.”
One of Karl’s interesting observations is that reaction to violent protests led by racists in Charlottesville was a turning point for Trump. In one of Trump’s comments about the 2017 violence, the new president clumsily tried to blame “both sides.” When even his Republican allies attacked him for equating racism with anti-racism, Trump reversed himself. But then that change of tone was criticized, too.
All his life, Trump believed he never should back down or admit a mistake, but on the unanimous recommendation of his advisors, he tried to change course about Charlottesville, sort of, and it backfired. Karl writes that Trump vowed never again to correct himself or apologize.
Reporters at the White House should remember that about Trump. Reporters frequently ask Trump – about every perceived error, misstatement, falsehood, or errant Tweet – if he will admit to making a mistake or apologize. No, he won’t, and the insistent reporters appear to be badgering and shaming him. There must be more effective ways to hold the president accountable, without expecting Trump to go against his nature and admit a mistake.
“The Trump show will eventually become a distant memory,” Karl concludes. “The question is whether America will ever be the same again, whether we have become a nation of people who define truth in relative terms, accepting as true only what we want to believe, yelling ‘fake news’ at everything else, a nation so thoroughly divided we cannot agree on what is real.”
Fortunately, we have people like Jonathan Karl – reporters with good memories, even dispositions, and a relentless desire to be in the front row.
Peter Copeland is a former foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief who occasionally occupied the Scripps Howard seat in the White House briefing room. He is the author of Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.