Jonathan Karl is the kind of dweeb you gotta love.
The Chief Washington and White House Correspondent for ABC News since December 2012 when he succeeded Jake Tapper, Karl is the affable assassin.
His boyish bespectacled face, slightly receding hairline and engaging smile mask his fierce desire to get to the bottom of whatever it may be and dig out the truth while subconsciously begging the viewer to think. Then he goes in for the kill.
It is subtle and it is nuanced but it is there, sometimes lurking behind that crooked, wry and sly facial expression.
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, unveiled on July 11, 2007 is a small rather nondescript theater in the West Wing of the White House which hosts the White House Press Secretary briefings to the news media and also occasionally the President when he addresses the press and the nation.
From the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson until 1969, communications from the President and general press news conferences were held in one of three venues. Either the Indian Treaty Room (originally known as the Navy Department Library and Reception Room, so renamed in the 1930s because the War Department stored papers there, including treaties with the American Indian nations); the State Department auditorium; or the White House East Room were the chosen three.
In 1969, so as to accommodate the swell of reporters assigned to the White House, President Richard Nixon had the indoor swimming pool — installed by the March of Dimes for FDR — covered then replaced and reconfigured, converting the space into press offices and a lounge doubling as a briefing room.
In 2000, that room was renamed the “James S. Brady Briefing Room,” in honor of Press Secretary James Brady who was shot and permanently disabled during John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.
The room currently seats 49 reporters and each seat is assigned to one news gathering organization, the most prominent members of which typically occupy the first two rows.
A common and not unjust criticism of the White House news briefings is that top reporters — identified and selected incidentally by the White House Correspondents’ Association and not the Press Secretary or White House staff — are given priority access to the Press Secretary and are allowed great freedom in asking follow-up questions, while those sitting in the back rows or standing are rarely if ever acknowledged.
The list of current White House Television Correspondents numbers between fifteen and twenty and of course there are Radio, Print and Internet representatives galore.
Suffice to say that Jonathan Karl, sitting front row center, has earned his stripes and proven his mettle — and had done so — well before his exchange last March with then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer during which Spicer asserted that Paul Manafort had played a “limited” role in the Trump campaign.
Barely able to conceal his incredulity, Karl simply parried that unadulterated claptrap with, “But he was the chairman,” reducing Spicer to a familiar bout of sputtering, stammering and mild defense mechanism-based scolding.
(Spicer weakly admonished Karl for “interrupting.”).
Not that hard to flummox Spicer perhaps, but Karl’s follow-up was immediate, concise, poignant, professionally assertive and well done just the same.
“A free press isn’t the enemy of America, it is a big part of what makes America great.”
— -Jonathan Karl, reflecting on White House press relations throughout history, citing Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Trump — -
As Karl posits in an attempt to lend perspective, there is nothing new about the president “criticizing or even vilifying the press.”
He notes that even Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence (as the leader of a five-man founding committee which included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston) and who conceded ten years later that our liberty depended on the freedom of the press, did a bit of an about-face afterward.
A few years into his own presidency and clearly upset by what he felt was unwarranted criticism of his administration, he flatly declared that nothing seen in a newspaper could be believed.
TR, a vocal proponent of the value and necessity of free speech a decade after his presidency (1901–1909) coined the term ‘muckrakers’ while in office to denounce investigative journalists whom he felt were so obsessed with the negative that they were missing what was good in the world, including the good he was doing as president.
Such negativity in the press Roosevelt said, “was one of the most potent forms of evil.”
And then there is Trump whom Karl actually commended for being more media-friendly and accessible than any other major candidate during the Republican Primary — no surprise by the way — before he got right down to it.
Trump, says Karl, has taken the issue of presidential criticism by the media to an historic new level, calling the press the enemy of the American people.
This infuriated Karl.
“We are not about to stop doing our jobs because yet another president is unhappy with what he reads or hears or sees on TV news. There is a reason the founders put freedom of the press in the very first amendment to the Constitution.
As long as American democracy remains healthy, there will be reporters willing to pursue the truth, even if that means incurring the wrath of the most powerful person in the world. A free press isn’t the enemy of America, it is a big part of what makes America great.”
A little more than a year ago ABC News President James Goldston promoted Jonathan Karl to Chief Washington Correspondent and Chief White House Correspondent as part of the team (along with Cecilia Vega and Tom Llamas) covering the Trump administration. All three had covered the campaign.
Karl, the senior member of the triumvirate both chronologically and in terms of industry experience (which usually go hand-in-hand) was a card-carrying member of the conservative right — the conservative media movement — early in his career as a political journalist.
As Peter Hart of FAIR.org, (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) the national progressive and pervasive media group dedicated to challenging corporate media bias, spin and misinformation has revealed, Karl is one of the most famous alums of a conservative media training program which prepares right-leaning journalists for that road fraught with peril known as Beltway media.
Karl graduated to mainstream journalism with a background in part furnished by the Collegiate Network, an organization primarily devoted to promoting and supporting those right-leaning newspapers on college campuses.
The network was founded in 1979 as one of several projects of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute dedicated to advocating and encouraging campus conservative ideology. William F. Buckley was the ISI’s first president and several right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter, Rich Lowry and Laura Ingraham began to carve out their respective niches at Collegiate-affiliated newspapers.
Karl is perhaps the program’s highest profile alum and is known today as a fierce government watchdog with a focus on government spending, prompting Diane Sawyer to remark that “Jon Karl is really a Sherlock Holmes of waste in Washington.”
He’s more than that.
And that is because over time Karl has gradually and ever-so-slightly shifted his position toward the middle and maybe even a spec more to the left-of-middle on occasion.
Sure he’s still sniffing around with a trained eye homing in on Washington and White House malfeasance. That’s his job and he’s good at it. And his conservative bent is so deeply and firmly entrenched that it’s unlikely to ever be washed away.
But you don’t cover every major beat in D.C., including the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the State Department; report from more than 30 countries; cover foreign policy and the military in addition to U.S. politics; and interview subjects ranging from the 14th. Dalai Lama to Ted Cruz without understanding both sides of the equation.
There is a certain symmetry between the LHS and the RHS; the two sides have the same value, expressed differently.
Karl’s passion for history and journalism, cultivated during his adolescent years in South Dakota where he and his family moved, surely kindled a nascent interest and offered a strong foundation. (He tagged along while his parents recorded the oral history testimonies of many of the workers who helped Gutzon Borglum sculpt Mount Rushmore. “Old-timers,” young Karl admiringly called them).
But it was his grasp of math, however limited — particularly his ability to study and solve equations — which also helped launch him to the lofty perch he enjoys today.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in February 2018.]