Media can't fall into 'opposition party' trap in covering Trump, argues White House reporter Jonathan Karl

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Jonathan Karl writes in his new book that President Trump is waging “an assault on truth,” but also details the ways in which the celebrity star turned commander in chief strategically baits the press into personal grudge matches that undercut the credibility of the media.

“Too often in the Trump era, the press has looked like an opposition party,” Karl said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

Karl is chief White House correspondent for ABC News, and first interviewed Donald Trump in 1994 as a reporter at the New York Post. Since then, Karl said, he has lost count of how many times he has interviewed Trump. “It’s probably a couple dozen times and might even be more,” Karl said.

What’s clear from the book — “Front Row at the Trump Show” — is that Karl and Trump know each other well, and have something of a working relationship, even though Trump called Karl “a third-rate reporter” earlier this month during a press briefing.

“He knows that even as he gets irritated by my questions or my reporting, he knows that I treat him with respect and I treat the institution of the presidency with respect. I think he appreciates that,” Karl said.

Karl uses his long track record with Trump as an effective backdrop to illustrate the way that Trump, as president, has conducted a “Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde routine … with the news media since the early days of his presidential campaign.”

The 52-year-old journalist describes multiple occasions when the 73-year-old president has switched on a dime from friendly and magnanimous toward him in private to hostile and angry in front of a crowd, or vice versa. At a Florida rally in the fall of 2018, Trump praised Karl to others backstage after an interview and then minutes later encouraged a large crowd to jeer at Karl and others in the press pen.

Jonathan Karl. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Heidi Gutman/ABC via Getty Images, Alex Brandon/AP)
Jonathan Karl. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Heidi Gutman/ABC via Getty Images, Alex Brandon/AP)

In December 2015, Trump was enraged by Karl’s questions during an interview moments before he took the stage in Iowa. Once Trump was out of view of any TV cameras, he began to scream and curse at Karl backstage. Moments later onstage, he joked with the crowd about how Russian President Vladimir Putin has reporters killed. “I would never kill [journalists]. But I do hate them,” Trump told his supporters. “And some of them are lying, disgusting people.”

And then, backstage again, Trump took more questions from Karl and persuaded him to pose for a photograph afterward together.

The artifice of it all, Karl argues, demonstrates that it is part of Trump’s intentional strategy. “He wants to define the media as the opposition party,” Karl writes in his book.

“He may be at war with the news media, but he is also in love with the news media. ... He sees the public jousting with the press as a critical component of the Trump show’s success,” Karl writes.

Karl describes a conversation with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who told him that the media is a better opponent for Trump than the Democrats, because many voters who were key to getting Trump elected in 2016 — white working-class people from union households in the Rust Belt — still have some loyalties to Democrats.

And Karl relates a comment Trump made to Lesley Stahl, a CBS journalist for “60 Minutes.” Trump told her he attacks the media “so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Karl’s book argues that the press plays into Trump’s hands when reporters take his attacks on them personally. “The attacks can be unnerving,” writes Karl, who details several that Trump has made on him. “It’s tempting to respond or hit back. If you do, it becomes a story about the conflict between a reporter and the president — in other words, exactly what he wants.”

Karl specifically criticizes CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who is a pariah to Trump supporters, for “personalizing” Trump’s attacks on the press and making himself part of the “Trump show.” Karl argues that this essentially benefits both Trump and Acosta. It gives Trump a villain to fight, and it makes Acosta famous. Acosta has declined to comment publicly about Karl’s criticisms, and did so once again when asked by Yahoo News to respond.

A White House staff member reaches for the microphone held by CNN's Jim Acosta as he questions U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference following Tuesday's midterm U.S. congressional elections at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A White House staff member reaches for the microphone held by CNN's Jim Acosta as he questions President Trump during a 2018 news conference. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

But in an interview, Karl said that “it’s not really so much any individual. It’s kind of the cumulative effect.”

“If you turn on cable news at any point over the past three years, you can be guaranteed … you're going to be seeing a story: ‘Look at that, can you believe what he just did? Oh, my God, this is the worst thing,’” Karl said. “Some of those things have been really awful and terrible and they needed to be talked about, but there’s no sense of variation. Some of the stuff’s been pretty trivial and it’s been crazy tweets.”

The effect of playing into Trump’s hands, Karl said, is “really dangerous.”

“You have basically a third of the country, maybe more, that essentially won’t believe anything that they see in a newspaper or in a television news report,” he said.

In his book, Karl writes that “for all the spinning and stonewalling I have encountered in a career covering politics, the disregard for the truth I have witnessed at the Trump White House is qualitatively different.”

“The president himself has waged a sustained campaign to make people think the truth is a lie whenever he doesn’t like the truth or it makes him look bad,” Karl writes. “This isn’t the dodging and weaving you expect to see from politicians, including presidents. This is an assault on truth itself.”

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