For President Donald Trump, his ongoing battle with the New York Times is personal — he just wants a good story about him from the big newspaper in the city where he grew up.
Trump sat down for an interview on Thursday with Times journalists Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker as well as the newspaper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. Trump had initially requested an off-the-record meeting with Sulzberger, but the publisher declined, saying he would only agree to an on-the-record interview with Times reporters.
Haberman and Baker conducted most of the interview, but Sulzberger specifically decided to press Trump on his attacks on the media. The president, who often declares what he calls the “fake news” to be the “enemy of the people,” defended his stance that he is often treated unfairly by reporters. He took specific issue with a number of outlets, including the Times.
But what becomes clear through his comments, a transcript of which the Times published, is that Trump, who was born in Queens and spent his whole life in New York, just really craves the paper’s approval.
“I came up from Jamaica, Queens, Jamaica Estates, and I became president of the United States,” Trump said. “I’m sort of entitled to a great story from my — just one — from my newspaper.”
Trump often uses social media as a way around the media; he (often successfully) tries to shift the news cycle with a single tweet. In his Times interview, he bragged about his social media following but still indicated that, in his mind, it’s not the same as the write-up he wants in the New York Times.
Social media “gives you at least a voice,” he said. “That’s not — you know, the New York Times is the New York Times.”
At one point, when an aide tried to help wind down the conversation, telling Trump he had some important calls, he responded, “I’ll be in in a little while. What’s more important than the New York Times? Okay, nothing, nothing.”
Later in the interview, when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tried to cut things off, Trump said if the Times treats him “fairly,” he’ll do more interviews. “We’ll do it a hundred times,” he said.
Trump doesn’t think the New York Times is failing. He thinks it’s failing to give him credit where credit is due.
Trump has for years derided the “failing New York Times” in the media, on the campaign trail, and on Twitter. He often claims that stories about him are false and unfairly slanted.
Yet he keeps on talking to them.
He’s called out Haberman and Baker directly on Twitter, but during his Thursday sit-down, his exchanges with them seemed largely calm and familiar.
He brought up Baker’s book on former President Barack Obama, telling him it was a “very good book,” albeit not about “my favorite person.” When Haberman pointed out that sometimes Trump calls Times coverage inaccurate when it is, in fact, accurate, he said they sometimes miss “little things,” like his routine for watching television. At one point, they all joked about exchanging phone numbers:
Trump said that he’s “very busy” but speculated that if a subject of someone’s reporting doesn’t get back to them, maybe they would “be inclined to do bad stories.”
This is not, generally, how journalism works. Journalists often reach out to the subjects of their reporting to give them a chance to respond to their reporting. But whether someone calls back does not determine whether a story is “good” or “bad.”
But the somewhat relaxed nature of their exchanges, per the transcripts, show that a lot of Trump’s derision of the press is performative. He knows it plays well with his base — and with a lot of voters who are distrustful of the news — and that it’s easier to declare a negative story as false than to accept it and explain what’s going on.
Of course, the stakes are high: Violence against journalists is a very real thing all over the world, and the leader of the United States, which is supposed to be an advocate of free speech and press, constantly attacking media has real-life consequences. Trump said he wants to be a defender of free press but went back to complaining about bad coverage of him. He outlined what he saw as his accomplishments, in real time trying to convince the reporters to do that positive story he so craves.
Trump seems to understand the media game — long before arriving at the White House, he was spinning reporters, even as his own fake spokesperson, to try to get good stories out there.
“You’ve been dealing with the press longer than I’ve been in it, longer than he’s been in it. Longer than Peter’s been in it,” Haberman told Trump.
“I hate to hear that,” he said.
“That’s a long time,” she responded.
“Let me look at a mirror,” he joked.
Trump thrives on media attention, good and bad — and the press has largely given it to him. But the Queens guy has got his eye on a glowing write-up from the New York Times.
“I became president and I didn’t have a good story,” Trump said.
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