Jonathan Karl offers new insights into the current White House in his book, Front Row at the Trump Show. And of course, that means insights on two other important subjects: the President himself, and the concept of the free press. Karl is a long-time journalist, who’s covered the White House through several administrations for a couple of news organizations.
And with all of the political reading I’ve done since 2016, this book still felt like a fresh perspective. That’s not easy to do. It’s considerably more journalistic than Fire and Fury. And not focused on the 2016 election season like What Happened. Karl has a broader lens than James Comey or Andrew McCabe. And he isn’t prone to moralizing like Dan Rather or Van Jones.
What Karl does do is consistently make the case for ongoing freedoms of the press. He illustrates why it’s dangerous to have the President constantly calling out “fake news,” or “enemy of the people.” Every one of Karl’s stories seems to lead to the reasons why reporters should be given access to political figures. He’s not afraid to ask the hard questions. For example, when his persistence got Acting Press Secretary Mick Mulvaney to admit there was indeed quid pro quo in the Ukraine phone call.
This was a compulsively readable book. I flew through it, despite the fact it covers ground I’ve read before. And that’s because Karl tells his personal experiences with clarity and shrewdness. He knows how to make a strong defense of his thesis—that the free press is a vital part of our democracy.
Karl covers a lot of ground, beginning with a story about first meeting Trump in the 1990s. Yet, he never overwhelms the book with minutiae. Instead, he picks stories that illustrate key points and offer plenty of behind-the-scenes knowledge. Karl also discusses his relationship with Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders, and Mulvaney. The way this White House “handles” the press is unique and worth examining for its merits and challenges.
At the same time, Karl isn’t afraid to share the real drudgery of a journalist’s life. He includes plenty about early mornings, late nights, last-minute plane rides, and hours of waiting for 30 seconds of opportunity. And it’s always on a deadline.
All in all, this Front Row made me wonder what the next few months and years hold for journalists and our system of free press. It shines valuable light on one aspect of life in Washington, D.C. that we need to understand. Political junkies and news mavens alike will enjoy this memoir.
Pair with the noted books above, or with Lawrence O’Donnell’s powerful book about the 1969 election, Playing with Fire.