It’s come to this: Donald Trump has accused the New York Times of venturing into Jayson Blair territory.
As the guy who exposed Blair’s serial fabrications, I don’t take this lightly.
I get that Trump was outraged by the Times front-page piece yesterday, exploring the frustrations on his campaign team, and he’s perfectly entitled to punch back. He’s also entitled to question, as media critics often do, the heavy reliance on anonymous sources.
But Trump went a step further in tweeting: “The failing @nytimes has become a newspaper of fiction. Their stories about me always quote non-existent unnamed sources. Very dishonest!” He repeated a version of the charge at a Connecticut rally.
I don’t believe for a minute that the paper made up these sources. But let’s consider why such Trump advisers would leak such detailed accounts to the paper’s reporters.
Sources always have a motive, and in this case they may just be venting about their inability to get their candidate to stick to a disciplined message. But according to one Trump insider, they may also be sending a message of their own: distancing themselves from the possibility of a loss in November.
If only he had listened to me, they suggest, the campaign would have fared better. And that's not exactly loyalty.
There are two simultaneous realities here: The media are in the midst of the most one-sided reporting and analysis I’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign. And Trump keeps giving them ammunition. Even if they are overplaying and misinterpreting his comments on “Second Amendment people” and “founder of ISIS” and the like, these are his words, on videotape, that stir the constant controversies that have overshadowed the coverage of Hillary Clinton.
The Times report is similar to other recent stories, and my own sources say inside and outside advisers have in fact tried to keep the nominee from wasting time with sideshow battles that distract from building the case against Clinton. But the Times sometimes uses language that signals its disdain for Trump:
“Advisers who once hoped a Pygmalion-like transformation would refashion a crudely effective political showman into a plausible American president now increasingly concede that Mr. Trump may be beyond coaching.”
Crudely effective. Not a plausible president.
The paper also said that in private Trump is often “sullen and erratic,” and “brooding about his souring relationship with the news media.” And it had the scoop on a private session in which Trump aides, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner told him that too many people were telling pollsters he was “unqualified” and “racist,” “according to four people with detailed knowledge of the meeting.”
In fairness, the Times also quoted, on the record, Trump’s communications director and three top supporters, including Rudy Giuliani.
Another Trumpian tweet yesterday was revealing: “If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%.”
He sounds frustrated. Slamming the press worked for him in the primaries, but he has to appeal to a broader electorate now. And even though unbalanced coverage is hurting him, that is among the obstacles of running for president.
By the way, Trump now says he may yank the credentials of the New York Times. He told me the same thing nearly two months ago. But Trump cares deeply about his hometown paper, which first profiled him in 1976 (“tall, lean and blond…He looks ever so much like Robert Redford”). It will be hard for him to sever the relationship.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.