In June, the celebrity magazine Us Weekly (6/7/17) ran a cover story on Ivanka Trump not-so-subtly titled, “Why I Disagree With My Dad.” Relying on carefully chosen anonymous “sources” and “Ivanka insiders,” the story cast the First Daughter as a key player inside the White House who has “battled” her more conservative father over “everything from LGBT rights to the North American Free Trade Agreement,” and who was “disappointed” by his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords just days earlier.
It was standard celebrity tabloid fare, which is to say it was a public relations coup for Ivanka Trump and her husband, real-estate developer Jared Kushner, who were given a sympathetic platform to polish their personal brands.
But most notable about the Us Weekly story was how little it differed from the supposedly serious coverage of Trump and Kushner by news organizations like the New York Times, CNN and Politico. Almost as soon as Donald Trump won the election last November, corporate media began to concoct a collective narrative that the couple would exert a strong moderating influence on the new president, regardless of all Trump’s reactionary, xenophobic and hateful rhetoric during the 2016 campaign.
This phenomenon arose yet again last week during the coverage of Trump’s decision to end the Obama administration’s DACA immigration rule. In the days leading up to the announcement, the New York Times (9/3/17) took care to point out that Ivanka and Jared supported extending the DACA protections. But as often seems to be the case, their policy disagreements with Trump weren’t public or even on the record, but instead landed unbidden in the press with little to no explanation of how they got there. (For all its flaws, Us Weekly at least bothered to offer some kind of attribution.)
Once Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, officially announced the DACA revocation on Tuesday, the Times (9/5/17) again took a detour from its breaking news coverage to dutifully register the dissent of the First Daughter and her husband:
But on the opposite side are two formidable foes—the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are both White House advisers and encouraged Mr. Trump to extend protections to the estimated 800,000 people protected under DACA.
Casting Kushner and Ms. Trump as “formidable foes” to any policy choice that contrasts with the president’s preference is, by now, absurdly wrong. After ten long months, there has been almost no evidence that Ivanka and Jared can muster any moderating policy influence on Trump. One of the rare claimed victories involved Ivanka getting a paid family leave plan inserted into her father’s federal budget proposal this summer. Her initial rollout was ridiculed as absurdly insufficient, however, and her follow-up plan was likewise criticized as “amateurish.” What’s more, there is still no guarantee that her proposal will even make it into the final budget passed by Congress this fall.
Ivanka has also made a public push for eliminating the gender pay gap. But her messaging shows no signs of having been received inside her own father’s White House. A July 2017 AEI report studying median salaries in the current administration found the gender pay gap was more than three times higher than under President Obama last year.
Then at the end of August, the Trump administration announced it was scrapping an Obama-era rule that would require companies to report wage data—in addition to gender and race information—to the federal government, in an effort to identify gender wage biases. Equal-pay champion Ivanka took the time to make a public statement about this policy move, which she supported. Her explanation for this about face was transparently flimsy, and she offered no alternative ideas for solving this intractable injustice, which costs US women $840 billion a year, according to one estimate.
So she’s made almost no tangible progress on family leave or equal pay, but she’s helped push her father to be more accepting of LGBT rights. Or, at least, that’s what the press wants you to believe. Just weeks after the Inauguration, Politico (2/3/17) hailed Jared and Ivanka as “help[ing] lead the charge” to sink a drastic rollback of Obama-era LGBT protections.
But this bold claim, too, was mostly a PR-driven mirage that shrivels under closer scrutiny. Less than three weeks after that story, Trump publicly rolled back Obama administration guidelines for transgender students’ use of public restrooms. And when the president called for a ban on transgender military service members at the end of July—a few weeks after Ivanka had publicly tweeted her support for LGBT rights—Politico (7/30/17) reported that the First Daughter and her husband were “blindsided” by the move, without ever bothering to mention how its narrative about the couple’s earlier, supposed policy triumph on LGBT rights had unraveled.
The most inexplicable example of the press’s overindulgence in the narrative of Ivanka’s vast influence came in early June—not from Us Weekly, but from CNN (6/3/17). The cable network crafted a long, fawning story about the First Daughter’s Jewish faith, complete with Hallmark-card photos of her and her kids from her Instagram feed. To top it off, CNN shamelessly bestowed upon Ivanka the moniker of “America’s most powerful Jewish woman”—summarily disappearing two Supreme Court justices, the chair of the Federal Reserve and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to name but a few actual women wielding actual power.
Even more jarring, CNN’s June tongue bath came just days after Ivanka’s arguably biggest policy defeat. During her father’s presidential transition, she’d held high-profile meetings with Leonardo diCaprio and Al Gore, which garnered dozens of favorable news stories, and she’d said climate change was an issue that would be a big focus of her official White House job as assistant to the president. Nonetheless, Ivanka still failed to persuade her father to keep the United States in the Paris climate accords. She was notably absent from the Rose Garden party Trump held—with brass band, no less—to announce the pullout.
Despite all these failures, the press still consistently covers Ivanka and Jared as if they were key policy advisers. And after each major policy decision by the White House that hasn’t gone their way, the corporate press makes sure to report on the couple’s discreet “disappointment” or “disagreement,” just as the Times did this week. But all this does is provide a convenient dose of plausible deniability to Ivanka’s brand, without requiring her or her husband Jared to register a direct, public statement of dissent.
For example, a New York Times article (4/26/17) on Ivanka and her father’s positions about the US accepting Syrian refugees did most of the work of dissent for her. The Times cast Ivanka as having “a pointed public departure from one of her father’s bedrock populist positions.” Her comments, in fact, were much less clear and more circumspect:
“I think there is a global humanitarian crisis that’s happening, and we have to come together and we have to solve it,” Ms. Trump told NBC when asked about the refugee crisis in Syria, which has created a nativist backlash in European countries.
Asked whether that would include admitting Syrian refugees to the United States, she replied: “That has to be part of the discussion. But that’s not going to be enough in and of itself.”
In fact, the First Daughter’s own spokesperson demurred when asked if her remarks were meant to pressure her father—so not quite a “pointed public departure” after all.
This disingenuousness was also evident in how Politico (6/1/17) played Trump’s Paris climate pull out for the couple, offering up a sub headline that reassured its readers Ivanka and Jared “have taken the defeat in stride.” (No mention of the millions of people whose lives will be forever altered thanks to more intense hurricanes, droughts and other catastrophes wrought by climate change.) And while there is some mild criticism of Ivanka’s unsuccessful effort, the story also includes this ridiculous bit of Ivanka-camp spin in an attempt to rewrite history (emphasis added):
People close to the first daughter and her husband now claim that while the pair wanted the president to stick by the Paris deal and tried to bring voices on all sides of the issue to the table, climate change was never their focus. Ivanka Trump has spent most of her time focused on women’s issues and has been credited internally with including paid family leave in a Republican budget for the first time.
Politico then went on to helpfully note—“via two people familiar with their thinking”—that the couple is “playing the long game, helping the president to be successful. And they don’t tally their own influence day by day or bill by bill.” It’s hard to see how Ivanka’s publicist could’ve done a better job in burnishing the duo’s personal brands than with this meaningless statement. It certainly doesn’t belong in a serious news organization’s coverage.
It’s clear that this “long game” the couple is playing really involves manipulating the corporate media into providing them political cover for the atrocious policies of the administration they’ve chosen to be full participants in. How else to explain Ivanka’s reality-defying comments on Fox & Friends (6/26/17), where she actually said, “I try to stay out of politics”—despite having an official (unpaid) position within the White House as assistant to the president. Once again, Politico (6/26/17) wrote up this event with a kind eye toward the president’s daughter, running a paragraph-long, expectations-recalibrating quote about “being at the table” and “dialogue” that Ivanka served up to excuse for her utter lack of policy efficacy.
Protecting their reputations so Ivanka and Jared can survive the Trump administration’s already toxic legacy is really what’s going on, and Politico seems to be more than willing to oblige. A late July story (7/30/17) on how the pair is “find[ing] their limits” centered on their struggles to survive in Washington. And though both declined to comment, the story gave plenty of space for a publicist and Trump family friend to plead her case.
“She’s in there doing what she can,” said R. Couri Hay, a publicist and a longtime friend of the Trump family. “It’s unrealistic, unfair and cruel to expect her to change climate policy and pre-K and women’s issues in six months.”
Meanwhile, she desperately wants to lower expectations of what she can achieve in an administration where she views herself as one person on a large team—even though other White House officials said she still has access to the president whenever she desires it. Allies have bucked up her spirits by telling her that her legacy will look better in hindsight if she is successful in moving the needle on her stated issues. And as she navigates the unique role of working-daughter-in-the-White House, she is reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography for guidance and inspiration.
The degree to which Politico—along with many others in corporate media—is willfully carrying Ivanka’s water here is an embarrassment and a gross ethical transgression. That’s because the point about Ivanka’s “legacy” is not a small or symbolic one. On her husband’s 2017 financial disclosures, Ivanka valued her personal brand’s business trust at over $50 million. So, she has an eight-figure incentive to spin the press into helping her insulate her post–White House earning potential from the fallout caused by being associated with the discriminatory and exceedingly unpopular decisions of her father, the president.
Indeed, there are no longer any valid reasons for the press to report on how Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner think or feel about the latest policy decision by the Trump administration. Their opinions are simply no longer newsworthy because all available evidence says they bear as much impact on the president’s actions as yours or mine. To keep pretending otherwise is to merely propagate a false media narrative about the couple’s power, without holding them in any way accountable for their repeated failures to exercise it. It amounts to little more than comforting the ridiculously comfortable and is among the worst cases of personality-driven, access journalism.
Eat your heart out, Us Weekly.
Top photo | Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Donald Trump, her husband White House senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and their son Theodore Kushner walk on the South Lawn of the White House Washington, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, to Marine One en route to Camp David, Md. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Reed Richardson is a media critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, AlterNet, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies).
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