No sooner did the new publisher of the New York Times promise his readers to uphold the principles of independent journalism yesterday than President Trump took a giant whack at the paper.
Welcome to 2018, which is shaping up much the same as 2017 when it comes to the president and the press.
A.G. Sulzberger, who just took over the job from his father, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said in a full-page letter:
"Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press."
Well, he’s right about the declining trust part. And it’s not hard to figure out which "inflaming" politician he had in mind.
That person quickly got on Twitter and said: "Get impartial journalists of a much higher standard, lose all of your phony and non-existent 'sources,' and treat the President of the United States FAIRLY, so that the next time I (and the people) win, you won't have to write an apology to your readers for a job poorly done!"
(Actually, Sulzberger Jr. had written a public letter after the 2016 election asking: "Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?" There was no apology.)
Just last week, President Trump told the same newspaper that he has an ace in the hole for 2020: the press.
Now this might seem a tad counterintuitive, since he has been lambasting the news business for more than two years as a bastion of bias, a fortress of fake news. And much of the media have responded with aggressive coverage that every study has found to be predominantly negative.
If there's any entity out there that is not exactly disposed to give this president the benefit of the doubt, it’s the fourth estate.
Yet Trump believes that, when it comes to the bottom line, the media need him.
This is not based on unnamed sources, whose very existence is often challenged by the president, but from the newsmaker-in-chief himself.
As Trump told Times reporter Michael Schmidt:
"Another reason that I'm going to win another four years, is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I'm not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes ...
"So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they'll be loving me because they're saying, 'Please, please, don't lose Donald Trump.' O.K."
Well, let’s just say I’m skeptical about the "have to let me win" part. But I’ve been saying for a long time that Trump, as a political phenomenon, has been a gold mine for the media business.
Fox News was the highest-rated cable network in 2017, for the second straight year. But MSNBC and CNN also had record-breaking years. The Times is not so failing, enjoying a mammoth surge of digital subscriptions.
In fact, there are very few media outlets that haven’t benefited from Trump’s nonstop newsmaking. Those openly opposed to Trump are marketing themselves to the resistance, those openly backing Trump appeal to his loyal supporters (who don’t trust the MSM), and those that are trying to position themselves in the middle benefit from a hyped-up atmosphere in which everyone is debating politics, from the coffee shop to Twitter and Facebook.
That’s the great irony of this new era: the media, targeted and taunted by Trump, are also riding the financial wave he’s created.
And the president, in turn, feeds off the constant media attention to drive his agenda.
As a businessman, it's not surprising that Trump believes the press will want to keep the cash registers ringing after 2020. He thinks in terms of monetizing assets. He once threatened to pull out of a CNN debate, noting the soaring advertising rates, unless its president Jeff Zucker donated the profits to veterans' causes.
But most journalists don't think like corporate suits. The notion that they would go easy on Trump in the next campaign to avoid killing the golden goose strikes me as far-fetched (though they have a responsibility to be equally tough on the Democratic candidate). In fact, I could imagine many pundits taking a victory lap if they felt they had contributed to sending the president back to Trump Tower.
Donald Trump undoubtedly knows this. I suspect he's trolling the media, having a little fun at their expense. But he's also right that the constant combat has been ringing their cash registers.