Revisiting Media Fear and Loathing after Trump Won
Appearance on Recode podcast six years ago reveals a bunch of good takes and some funny bad ones
I don’t watch my TV appearances or listen to myself on radio or podcasts. In fact, I say no to most appearances, and unless there’s some compelling need like a product to promote or a good friend who is under attack, I usually decline these appearances. I’m not on Twitter and I don’t Google myself, for the same reason. I am quite aware of what a bumbling, inarticulate moron I can be, and I promise, the soundtrack in my head is crueler and more sarcastic than anything Twitter or Google can use to zing me.
But occasionally, while searching for something of relevance, I will stumble upon an appearance that I made. Even more occasionally, I press play, and can endure listening to the conversation between the host and myself.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
While searching for one of the first New York Times stories I ever wrote, which was a review of Peter Kuper’s graphic novelization of Franz Kafka, I came upon a November 2016 Recode Media podcast I appeared on hosted by Peter Kafka.
I’ve known Peter since 1999. He was a cub reporter at Forbes assigned to pair with me for my cover story of the Forbes 400 issue. That’s a big deal assignment for a personal finance writer, and Peter and I worked well together. As I wrote on my personal blog, during that process, Peter “was brutal and careful and so smart it was obvious I was working with a future superstar.” We’re not really friends, but we stayed friendly over the years.
I could sense from him what I sensed from a ton of my colleagues in the media, and even friends, which is a discomfort over my conservative politics, and occasional blurring of the line between journalist and activist. It’s a tricky subject and as I’ve acknowledged in the past I haven’t always handled it adroitly. (I will observe to no one’s surprise that those who blur that line on the conservative side tend to face much harsher sanctions from journalists than those on the left, for whom advocating for, say, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden is not “activism,” but more like “heroically saving the republic from madman fascists.”)
Anyway, after Trump was elected, and before he was inaugurated, a few fair-minded New York City media types actually did try to reach across the aisle. It wasn’t quite a sincere attempt at dialogue. The tone in my experience was always more like “How can a seemingly almost decent human being such as yourself support these lunatics? Is it purely self-serving or are you secretly a lunatic yourself?” Even during those brief few months after Hillary’s shocking loss, there was never a sincere attempt to understand how her opponent might just have proposed better ways to meet the needs of American voters than she had. The tone was always, “We need to understand from you, you misled sucker, how you could have been seduced by this proto-Mussolini. A little bit because we’re concerned for you, poor dear, but mainly so we can prevent it from ever happening again.”
It was insulting, and ridiculous, but for a few months, I did agree to play the token to these people who would often concede that I was the only person in their whole world who had voted for Trump, in the hopes of possibly explaining how that could have happened.
Soon enough, I realized it was no use and went back to declining all media requests.
The set up was always the same. The producer would invite me on and there would be one fire-breathing progressive, a host who clearly found Trump worthy of contempt, if not indictment, and little old me. Here’s a panel on the Reliable Sources media show on CNN. Hosted by sworn Trump hater Brian Stelter, the three guests were Huffpo editor in chief Lydia Polgreen and NPR media critic David Folkenflik. How do you suppose it went? They don’t even try to disguise the stacked deck. On its coverage of an appearance on PBS MetroFocus, which I’d been told would be an open forum rather than a debate, the progressive group Democracy Now reviewed it as “Amy Goodman & Betsy West vs. Ken Kurson.”
Anyway, I came across the episode of Kafka’s podcast on which I appeared, and for whatever reason, I actually pushed play. He’s always well prepared and smart and articulate so that wasn’t a surprise. But a few things did leap out at me. Six years of incredible tumult in the nation’s political—and my personal—life, I thought I’d share just a couple of my observations.
For starters, there’s only one particularly embarrassing moment. I describe how the New York Observer, where I was editor in chief at the time, had really become a national publication. I mention that 18% of its readers are in New York State and remark, “That means 92% are from elsewhere.” Of course I meant 82%, and it’s to Peter’s credit as a gentleman rather than his innumeracy that he didn’t correct me with a rap on the knuckles.
(The other day, I was listening to Brian Lehrer interview Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora on WNYC. Mayor Gusciora was noting the city having 23 murders in 2022, down from 40 in 2021. Lehrer remarked that at 90,000 residents, that would mean its 23 murders would be the equivalent of New York and its 9 million residents having 230 murders, below even the recent record lows of pre-pandemic New York City. Just as my hand, and that of every WNYC listener was instinctively reaching for the phone, Brian came back on and corrected himself that 9 million is actually 100 times the population of Trenton, not 10 times, and that 23 murders would be like 2300 in New York City, which would put it near the record highs of the early 1990s. I wish I could issue a math correction for this six-year old podcast, but it don’t work that way.)
A couple other interesting things emerge from our conversation.
Naturally, Peter spent a lot of time asking me about Jared Kushner. For someone in such a high-profile position, who’d been well-covered for many years, very little publicly was known about Jared. He is a private person by nature, so it was not surprising that reporters would ask me for insight. He is my close friend, and I was also working for him at the time. So that makes sense and I accepted that math. But I always reminded them that I didn’t speak for Jared. I have my own strong political opinions, but my opinions are not his and vice versa. So whenever someone would try to say, do you Ken Kurson believe this I would say yes or no, but hastened to add that that doesn’t mean Jared Kushner also holds that point of view. I understand that rush to fill a news vacuum, and so my strong views would naturally be conflated with his, especially on issues where he had been careful not to reveal precisely where he stood. As a long time political journalist myself, I understood that game. You can hear in this interview how carefully I tried to ensure that my opinions weren’t credited or blamed on him.
Several of my observations about the politics and strategy turned out to be totally true and I’m proud of the way I articulated them. I explained Hillary’s loss as well as I’ve ever heard anyone do. I detailed exactly why her staff and Democratic partisans should have been far more worried than they were by early signs of trouble such as the difficulty she had in shaking off Bernie Sanders. I even remarked that it was even more worrying in retrospect because the DNC had rigged the fight in her favor. That turned out to be a potent observation, because after falling short in the first three primaries, Biden found his footing in South Carolina and crushed it on Super Tuesday. His early dispatch of the Vermont senator made Biden a much stronger general election candidate.
It’s also so jarring to remember just how clear and present the threat of a Trump presidency felt to these journalists who were doing the world a favor by seeking out my opinion.
Peter is a very sober guy, not an alarmist. And yet he kept grilling me about whether I was afraid that Trump would place Muslim-Americans in internment camps. That seemed so crazy to me. In all the years I spent around right-wing figures, including some pretty radical ones, I never heard anyone propose anything like that. It just seemed preposterous to me and not a real question, but it was clearly very real to Peter. The fact that it didn’t happen, and nothing like it happened, seems to have alleviated none of the fear and hatred Trump opponents feel today. It was like how a photo of migrant children in cages taken during the Obama Administration became a symbol of Trump cruelty. Or today, the way Republican politicians (Abbott, DeSantis) bussing migrants to northern cities is cruel but Democratic politicians (Polis, Adams, Leesing) doing precisely the same thing is not. Or the way two years of nonstop accusations that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia turning out to be totally untrue was greeted with a shrug by its loudest proponents. I didn’t get it then and don’t get it now. I told Peter that if anything like internment of any ethnic group were ever proposed, I’d be on the front lines to oppose it, as I’ve been a loud and pernicious advocate against genocide my entire life. I just don’t get it.
Another fascinating moment: Peter mentioned an “odd sentence” that “Donald Trump told the New York Times that Jared Kushner could make peace between Israel and Palestine. Plausible?”
Peter kind of chuckled at the notion of a peace deal between longtime enemies. To my shock, I kind of joined him in wondering how that could ever be possible. And then…
While there is not peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Jared’s signature achievement – an achievement of a lifetime, for which Jared was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and possibly the most important accomplishment of the Trump presidency — is that he was responsible for the signing of peace deals between Israel and six Muslim nations, including United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain. I forgot all about that discussion with Peter, but I was thrilled to play a tiny role in helping advance the Abraham Accords years later.
Another fascinating moment. This sounds funny now, but really underlines how unpredictable life is. Peter mused on whether Trump’s electoral success possibly opened the gate for other celebrity candidates, who had mostly fizzled out in years past (Fred Thompson, Wesley Clark). We mentioned that Mark Cuban and even The Rock had been discussed, but Peter made a strong case that Alec Baldwin might be a compelling “counterweight” to Trump in 2020. “Ideologically opposed, very smart, a lot of people like him.” That certainly seems less likely now.
Anyway, it was an excellent interview, and one of the very few in which I can tolerate the sound of my own voice. But those two assertions—mine that peace in the Middle East was beyond even the negotiating prowess of my close friend, and Peter’s that a guy who now stands accused of involuntary manslaughter might make a compelling candidate—proves the wisdom of a quote often attributed to former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Asked to name the most troubling problem his administration faced, Macmillan replied, “Events, my dear boy, events.”
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