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How The Media Bungled The John Kelly Story

Last March, in an article describing the various power centers in the Trump administration, I listed then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as part of the “McCain Wing.” Kelly, I suggested, was one of several former generals in Trump’s orbit who might push the president to embrace more traditional Republican stances, particularly on national security policy.

In October, even after Kelly falsely described Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson’s comments at an FBI event that Kelly had attended, I stuck with this general view of Kelly as a figure with the perspective of a Washington-establishment-type. In a television appearance, I said, “I think of him [Kelly] as someone who reins in the president,” and added, “I would be surprised if Kelly does something like that again.”

I was not alone in casting Kelly as a kind of anti-Trump. “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as a Beacon of Discipline” was the New York Times headline on the day in July when Kelly replaced Reince Priebus. Later that month, The Washington Post wrote: “Instead of a deft political sense, he will bring some plain-spoken discipline to an often chaotic West Wing.” “It’s the end of the chaos. Not with John Kelly around,” an unnamed Kelly friend told the Post.1

The media narrative around Kelly’s appointment had two central ideas, one outward- and one inward-facing: He would calm and professionalize the White House, and he would provide a more measured leadership style than his boss. Kelly’s views on policy were largely downplayed — he would simply be implementing Trump’s agenda and was “non-ideological” and “apolitical” anyway.

But the media got it wrong, myself included. Kelly seems to have deeply held views, particularly on immigration, that he has asserted — and they are not those of the McCain-like GOP establishment. Unlike past chiefs of staff, he hasn’t been careful to avoid bombastic comments. There was the attack on Wilson. But more recently, Kelly suggested that undocumented immigrants who had not yet signed up for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were “lazy.” He has also praised Confederate general Robert E. Lee. You might even call Kelly’s rhetoric Trumpian.

And the ongoing debacle around former White House staff secretary Robert Porter is the latest illustration that Kelly not only hasn’t stopped the chaos and internal turmoil at the White House but also at times is driving it. The chief of staff was a leading force in the administration’s initial, uninhibited defense of Porter amid allegations that Porter had assaulted his two former wives. White House advisers have suggested that Kelly stopped defending Porter only after pictures emerged of one of Porter’s ex-wives with bruises on her face. Again, you could call Kelly’s response Trump-like, emblematic of how Trump has approached recent issues around the #MeToo movement: skepticism toward the claims of women.

The press got some things right in covering Kelly. His arrival, as reporters predicted, helped lead to the departure of then-White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, a highly divisive figure. White House leaks that appeared aimed at attacking other staffers seem to have somewhat abated, at least in my impression. It’s also possible that the White House since last August would have been even more chaotic if Kelly were not there. “It’s real progress that a lot of the early White House clown show has ended,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein wrote last week.

But Kelly’s effect on the White House so far is still a far cry from what press accounts suggested it might be. I don’t think media navel-gazing is always helpful, but the broad misfire by the press corps in initially describing the top aide to the president and arguably one of the most powerful people in the country is important. How did I and others get it so wrong? I don’t have any data to provide an answer, but here are some ideas drawn from my own exploration of this question and from talking to people who study media coverage.

1. A lack of real knowledge about Kelly

Who were the people who raised questions about the initial portrayals of Kelly? Reporters and lawmakers who had looked closely at his tenure as head of the U.S. Southern Command during the Obama administration and then as homeland security secretary under Trump. Two Miami Herald reporters, in describing Kelly’s time at the Southern Command, wrote that Kelly was “a lot like Trump,” from “his sometimes foul language to his disgust for Washington politics and his disdain for the press.”

The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer wrote that Kelly’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security had made “the talk of moderation look naïve” after Kelly was portrayed as a non-ideological general during his January 2017 confirmation process. At DHS, Kelly was “one of the most aggressive enforcers of immigration law in recent American history” and used “Trumpian” rhetoric on issues around immigration, Blitzer wrote.

California Sen. Kamala Harris harshly criticized Kelly’s approach at DHS during hearings on Capitol Hill, denouncing him for being too supportive of raids targeting undocumented immigrants.

Kelly, these writers and lawmakers argued, was implementing Trump’s immigration agenda like someone who believed in it, not simply a Cabinet official who felt compelled to follow the president’s vision.

Why were these experiences not a dominant feature of the initial coverage of Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff? Well, the reporters who cover the White House are often people who previously covered other presidents, Congress or presidential campaigns. I haven’t done a full survey of Trump’s press corps, but I don’t think many of the reporters covered DHS under Kelly before moving to the White House or were following the U.S. Southern Command during Kelly’s time there. I personally hadn’t covered Kelly in his previous jobs. In contrast, I knew a lot about Trump’s first chief of staff, Priebus, who had been chair of the Republican National Committee.

“Journalistic norms among the political press favor treating politics as a game,” said Carole Bell, a communications studies professor at Boston’s Northeastern University. “Research shows that far more coverage is devoted to the horse race and the process of politics than to public policy. So it was easy to focus on Kelly’s appealing appearance rather than the potential pitfalls of his lack of political experience and the problematic substance of some of his policies.

“Kelly is very different in style to President Trump, but similar in terms of the substance of his beliefs and positions on national security and immigration,” Bell said. “Kelly’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security should have made that clear.”

2. Kelly’s military background

What did reporters know about Kelly? His long record of military service, which started in 1970 and extended until 2016. In a time of declining support for other institutions, the U.S. military remains well-respected by the public, and I suspect by political journalists as well. It was a simple narrative: A four-star general would bring military-style discipline to Trump’s chaotic White House.2

“Americans — not just journalists — hold military figures in high regard, so Kelly as a four-star general was given the benefit of the doubt in a way that civilian politicians wouldn’t have received,” said Pete Vernon, a writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. He wrote an August 2017 piece titled “The John Kelly Narrative Takes Hold” that presciently predicted Kelly would not live up to the press’s hype about him changing the Trump White House.

Indeed, in the same way that many reporters just couldn’t imagine Trump winning the 2016 election, perhaps we had trouble envisioning a decorated general hailed as a “beacon of discipline” as someone who thought and acted like the president, who is often cast as essentially a know-nothing buffoon who watches cable news for hours each day.

“Kelly seemed like a far more disciplined character than Trump,” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said. “This contrast in outward impression fooled journalists into thinking he was more moderate politically than Trump. In reality, he shares the very instincts of the president that are chaos-creating.”

3. Political Washington’s lack of racial diversity

In many instances, the people forming that early narrative about Kelly — the reporters writing the profiles and the sources they quoted — were white. That’s not a determinative fact, but it was likely a factor in which parts of Kelly’s résumé were focused on and which aspects of his personality were prioritized.

Here, for example, is a picture of the staff of Axios, an influential outlet in the Beltway that closely covers the Trump administration:

There are few nonwhite faces among what appears to be several dozen people. The New York Times’ White House team for the start of the Trump administration had six reporters — all of them white. The hosts of the shows on MSNBC from 4 p.m. to midnight, the hours that tend to have the highest-viewership, are all white.

And yet, one of the defining issues of Kelly’s tenures as homeland security chief and White House chief of staff has been immigration, particularly the status of DACA recipients, who are overwhelmingly Latino. I’m not saying that all Latino reporters should be or are well-versed in immigration policy (or that all white reporters are not) — I’m black, but other reporters, including some white ones, are better-versed on racial policy issues than I am — but it’s likely that the Kelly coverage would have been different if more Latinos reporters were involved in leading it.

Then there’s the issue of who is viewed as having authority to comment about people like Kelly. In the midst of the Porter controversy last week, The Washington Post published a detailed story headlined, “John Kelly’s credibility is at risk after defending aide accused of domestic violence.” It quoted four people, all white men. One was Leon Panetta, a Democrat and former defense secretary on whose staff Kelly served as a military aide in the early 1990s and who is frequently quoted in Kelly stories. Panetta has largely cast the chief of staff as someone who wants to push Trump toward behaving more like a traditional president, even though Kelly’s current behavior has often not fit this description.

I wonder if reporters felt compelled to interview and quote a broader set of voices whether a more accurate picture of Kelly would have emerged earlier.

4. Insider journalism

I was part of the White House team at the Post in 2011 when then-President Obama named William Daley his chief of staff. Early in his tenure, Daley invited the Post team, including myself, to a private meeting. I remember that we considered this a coup, getting a personal sit-down with the new chief of staff so soon.

Political reporters at outlets like the Post and the Times really prize this access to Washington powerbrokers. These kinds of sources can leak you a story that breaks news and makes you look smart. They provide quotes that make it appear that you have access to the people in the White House who matter. Editors and hiring managers in Washington value such access and scoops, in my experience. So it’s worth considering whether the early coverage of Kelly, even if not done intentionally, reflected a desire among reporters to have Kelly read stories describing him as the man who could fix the Trump White House and then grant them more access.

After all, it’s a tried-and-true practice of reporters to write favorable stories about sources on their beats in the hopes that the source provides scoops in return. There’s even a term for it, the “beat-sweetener.” Reporters at the White House, in my experience, also tend to assume — perhaps logically — that the best information about what is happening at the White House comes from people who work in the White House.

“The narrative that Kelly and others in the White House are the adults in the room is one, in part, promulgated by insiders and those supposedly close to the president,” said Kathleen Searles, a professor of communications and political science at Louisiana State University who studies the media and its effects on politics. “It’s a convenient story, and one that doesn’t withstand a lot of sunlight, but oftentimes such frames dominate because reporters rely on official sources.”

5. An attempt at balance

A Pew Research Center report released last year found that the news coverage of Trump’s first 60 days was far more negative than that of the first 60 days of the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. My bet is that most journalists think that that negativity is warranted by the facts, but based on my conversations with editors and reporters, political media are still deeply concerned with being cast as biased against Republicans.

Kelly’s ascension provided the press an opportunity to write positively about a Trump aide and hint that the president and the administration’s more controversial qualities might dissipate. “John Kelly might have gotten less scrutiny when he became chief of staff because, at the time, it seemed like an easy way for media to suggest they’re not anti-Trump all the time,” said Fuzz Hogan, a one-time Chicago bureau chief and executive producer for CNN who is now managing editor at the Washington think tank New America.

“This is less true more than a year into his presidency, but for so long, there seemed to be a yearning for a ‘pivot’ from Trump. I think that comes back to the understandable struggle of journalists trying to adapt to a president and an administration unlike any that we’ve seen before,” Vernon said. “Even last summer, there was still some level of expectation that his administration would somehow become more like those that preceded it.”

Journalists have now, to some extent, stopped covering Trump in this way, Vernon said. “I think we’ve seen the vast majority of media members recognizing that this is an unusual presidency and adapting their coverage accordingly,” Vernon added.

Vernon might be right that the media is, well, pivoting in its approach to covering Trump. I’m not so sure. I think some of the structural elements described here, particularly the incentives for reporters to get access to power players in politics and look for partisan “balance” in coverage, remain fairly strong. So even if the coverage of Kelly is likely to be more accurate in the future, the key question is whether we reporters can be accurate — or at least less wrong — in our first assessments of other major political figures in the future. I’m not optimistic.

CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 6 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a study of news reports in the early days of recent presidencies covered the first 100 days of those administrations. It covered the first 60 days.


  1. That the Post reporters quoted Kelly’s friend saying this suggests that the reporters believed it, too.

  2. The media’s expectation that a general, when promoted to a civilian role, would echo the policy views of the Washington establishment was logical, too. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — to take two recent examples — both went from the military to top civilian roles and generally hewed to the Washington establishment’s view and perspectives.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.