Donald Trump is not a fan of the New York Times. Maybe you noticed.
With the possible exception of the Washington Post (which Trump has taken to calling the “AmazonWashingtonPost”, all one word), the Times is the media outlet that bears the brunt of the President’s ire when it comes to his ongoing campaign against the “Fake News”.
The irony of the “Fake News” characterization is that the derisive label was originally applied to various manifestations of propaganda that proliferated across alt-Right websites and blogs starting in 2015 and coinciding with the rise of populist sentiment across Western democracies. Arguably, Steve Bannon’s “greatest” achievement was his successful effort to turn the tables, on the way to convincing large swaths of the electorate that it was in fact the mainstream media that was “fake”, not the propaganda.
All of this started to take a dangerous turn when Trump took things up a notch by eschewing the “Fake News” label in favor of branding the media “the enemy of the people.” As ever, it’s unclear whether he appreciates the historical parallels, but that’s right out of the authoritarian playbook and it represents a truly disconcerting turn in American society, which is built in part on the notion that the free press is sacrosanct.
On Sunday morning, the President tweeted the following in reference to a meeting with New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger:
Had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of the New York Times. Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, “Enemy of the People.” Sad!
Now for one thing, there is no “explaining” how the “Fake News” label “morphed into the phrase ‘Enemy of the People'”. The “explanation” (if that’s what you want to call it), is that Donald Trump is becoming more authoritarian by the month. The only other possible explanation is that he’s simply so oblivious to how dangerous his own rhetoric is that he sees nothing inherently nefarious about encroaching on the free press.
That latter point (that Trump is oblivious) shouldn’t be given short shrift or at the very least, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. It’s certainly tempting to just call Trump a dictator and leave it at that, but I’ve said on too many occasions to count that the President’s express affinity for authoritarianism (exemplified by his admiration for Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte and, more recently, Kim Jong-Un) has an almost childlike character to it that lends credence to the idea that Trump isn’t entirely cognizant of the peril inherent in attempting to reshape the American presidency in the image of dictatorial regimes.
Whatever the case, Trump’s attacks on the press are beyond the pale and the “enemy of the people” label is simply something that shouldn’t be tolerated by Congress.
Well as it turns out, the meeting with Sulzberger that Trump referenced in his Sunday morning tweet was supposed to be off the record.
“[It’s] worth understanding the context here: Earlier this month, the White House asked the publisher of the NYT, A.G. Sulzberger, to meet with POTUS [and] they met July 20 along with editorial page editor James Bennet”, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted on Sunday afternoon, adding that the “agreement was that the meeting was off the record.”
Of course Sulzberger probably should have known better. Trump has a habit of making everything on the record and more often than not, “the record” ends up meaning his Twitter account.
In response to Trump’s tweet, Sulzberger has released a statement which you can read in full below. It speaks for itself, but one thing I would add is that it took Trump four days to approve Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley’s request to have American flags lowered to half-staff across the country in honor of the victims of the Capital Gazette shooting.
Just hours after (finally) acquiescing the Buckley’s request and just hours before Independence Day, Trump tweeted this:
Statement of A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher, The New York Times, in Response to President Trump’s Tweet About Their Meeting
July 29, 2018
Earlier this month, A.G. received a request from the White House to meet with President Trump. This was not unusual; there has been a long tradition of New York Times publishers holding such meetings with presidents and other public figures who have concerns about coverage.
On July 20th, A.G. went to the White House, accompanied by James Bennet, who oversees the editorial page of The Times. Mr. Trump’s aides requested that the meeting be off the record, which has also been the practice for such meetings in the past.
But with Mr. Trump’s tweet this morning, he has put the meeting on the record, so A.G. has decided to respond to the president’s characterization of their conversation, based on detailed notes A.G. and James took.
Statement of A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher, The New York Times:
My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.
I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.
I told him that although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.
I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.
Throughout the conversation I emphasized that if President Trump, like previous presidents, was upset with coverage of his administration he was of course free to tell the world. I made clear repeatedly that I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.