Donald Trump often professes to be doing battle with the mainstream media, frequently lambasting it as “fake news” and specifically calling out the “failing New York Times” by name. But for a clearer view of how Trump actually feels about major media institutions, it’s more useful to look at what he does.
For example, he sat down today for an exclusive interview with Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of the New York Times. Access is one of the coins of the realm of journalism, and an exclusive interview with the president of the United States is always a big story that delivers solid web traffic and other tangible benefits to the reporters and organizations that land them. Trump courts the Times and the Washington Post fairly assiduously, going so far as to pay a visit to the Times’s headquarters during the transition. At the crucial moment when the American Health Care Act was collapsing, Trump broke the news with unprompted calls to Haberman and to the Post’s Robert Costa.
This is not stuff a politician would do if he genuinely wanted to damage the institutions in question. And, indeed, though during the campaign it was suggested at times, including by Trump, that he would seek to enact actual, specific legal and policy changes that would be bad for the media, Trump has never gone there as president.
He enjoys the political pretense of a war with the press, and much of the press has used the pretense of conflict with the Trump administration as a marketing gimmick. But the whole conflict has a kayfabe aspect to it, in which the appearance of a feud is entertaining for the audience and mutually beneficial to the practitioners.
Trump’s exclusives are a win-win
The New York Times is not, ordinarily speaking, in the business of writing up random lies or slanders of somewhat prominent political figures. But when delivered in the form of an exclusive interview with the president of the United States, the rules are a bit different, and Trump earned himself the following lead to a major news story:
President Trump said on Wednesday that he thought that the former national security adviser Susan E. Rice may have committed a crime by seeking the identities of Trump associates who were mentioned on intercepted communications and that other Obama administration officials may also have been involved.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office, declining repeated requests for evidence for his allegations or the names of other Obama administration officials. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”
He declined to say if he had personally reviewed new intelligence to bolster his claim but pledged to explain himself “at the right time.”
When asked if Ms. Rice, who has denied leaking the names of Trump associates under surveillance by United States intelligence agencies, had committed a crime, the president said, “Do I think? Yes, I think.”
This is, for better or worse, the media strategy that the Trump White House has been trying to implement for a while. Under pressure from FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee probes of his campaign’s ties to the Russian government, Trump pushed back with the false allegation that Barack Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower.
Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends. "Spied on before nomination." The real story.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2017
He’s now retreated to a smaller, but equally wild, charge that Susan Rice committed some kind of crime, and that this is the “real story” that people should be focused on. There is no evidence that this is true. And because there is no evidence that it’s true, presentation of the “controversy” had been largely confined to the dedicated ideological conservative media.
Both Haberman and Thrush are aware that there is no evidence to back up Trump’s charge against Rice. They are also both aware that Trump routinely says things that aren’t true, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes in a deliberate effort to secure political advantage. Nonetheless, by shopping his charge in the venue of an exclusive interview with the Times, Trump succeeds in pushing his story deeper into the media mainstream.
The media uses Trump as a marketing tool
A presidential interview is in many ways its own reward, but what’s particularly striking about Trump’s relationship with the mainstream press is the extent to which the pretense of an oppositional relationship with the White House has become a marketing tool.
The Times, a for-profit, publicly traded company, is soliciting money from readers with a quasi-charitable pitch, emphasizing the idea that buying gift subscriptions is a means of supporting the company’s “mission.”
The Washington Post, meanwhile, adopted a new Trump-themed slogan — “Democracy Dies in Darkness” — pitching reading the Post as not only a way to be informed or entertained but also a form of civic duty and obligation.
Trump’s war on the media hasn’t materialized
In this context, it’s worth noting that once upon a time Trump seemed to genuinely threaten a crackdown on press freedoms.
He spoke of a desire to “open up” libel laws, and threatened regulatory retaliation against Amazon for Post articles he didn’t like as well as lawsuits against the Times. There are very real things that a president could at least try to do to coerce media outlets into delivering favorable coverage. Lyndon Johnson, for example, appears to have used a proposed bank merger as leverage with the owner of the Houston Chronicle to gain the Texas newspaper’s support for his legislative agenda.
But Trump does not appear to be doing any of these things. There is no indication that his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has any unusual opinions on the First Amendment’s limitations on libel lawsuits. The regulators he has thus far appointed seem to be very conventional pro-business Republicans who are inclined to make business-friendly rulings without a lot of interest in disciplining companies for editorial content. Trump, for example, signed a very unpopular bill rolling back broadband privacy regulations rather than using it as leverage to try to get Comcast to deliver more Trump-friendly coverage on NBC properties.
And, indeed, in a purely commercial sense, Trump has been generally good for business — Rachel Maddow’s ratings are up, as is Vox.com’s traffic and subscriptions to a range of magazines. And he’s been very willing to give big newspaper and television networks the exclusive interviews they crave.
What matters to Trump isn’t any actual crushing of the media, but simply driving the narrative in his core followers’ heads that the media is at war with him. With that pretense in place, critical coverage and unflattering facts can be dismissed even as Trump selectively courts the press to inject his own preferred ideas into the mainstream.