Trump clashes with New York Times publisher over attacks on media

AG Sulzberger says US president expressed pride in popularising the phrase ‘fake news’

New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger, who raised concerns with US president Donald Trump over his attacks on the media. Photograph: Damon Winter/New York Times via AP

New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger, who raised concerns with US president Donald Trump over his attacks on the media. Photograph: Damon Winter/New York Times via AP

 

US president Donald Trump and the publisher of the New York Times, AG Sulzberger, have engaged in a fierce public clash over Mr Trump’s threats against journalism.

Mr Sulzberger said the president misrepresented a private meeting between the two at the White House, while Mr Trump accused the New York Times and other papers of putting lives at risk with irresponsible reporting.

Mr Trump said on Twitter that he and Mr Sulzberger had discussed “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!”

In a five-paragraph statement issued two hours after the tweet, Mr Sulzberger said he had accepted Mr Trump’s invitation for the July 20th meeting mainly to raise his 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,” said Mr Sulzberger, who took over from his father as publisher of the New York Times on January 1st.

“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labelling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’” Mr Sulzberger continued. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

This was particularly true overseas, Mr Sulzberger said, where governments were using Mr Trump’s words as a pretext to crack down on journalists. He said he warned the president that his attacks were “putting lives at risk” and “undermining the democratic ideals of our nation”.

Mr Sulzberger’s lengthy, bluntly worded rebuttal was a striking rejoinder to the president by the 37-year-old publisher of a paper with which Mr Trump has had a long, complicated relationship. And it apparently touched a nerve: The president fired off a series of angry tweets on Sunday afternoon, accusing newspapers of being unpatriotic.

“I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry,” he wrote. “The failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements – and they will never change!”

‘Enemy of the people’

Mr Trump, in his initial tweet from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Sunday morning, described the meeting with Mr Sulzberger as “very good and interesting”. But in referring to the phrase “enemy of the people”, he did not make clear that he himself began using that label about the press during his first year in office.

He has continued to assail the news media at rallies and even at more formal presidential events, encouraging his audiences to chant “CNN sucks!” and to vent their anger at the reporters assembled in the back. Speaking to veterans in Kansas City, Missouri, last week, Mr Trump said: “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” As members of the crowd booed and hissed at the press corps, he added, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

The president invited Mr Sulzberger to the Oval Office earlier this month, according to the New York Times, continuing a tradition of meetings between presidents and the paper’s publishers. James Bennet, the editorial page editor of the paper, accompanied Mr Sulzberger to the meeting.

In a statement, Mercedes Schlapp, a White House communications adviser, said, “The president regularly meets with members of the media, and we can confirm this meeting took place.” She did not provide any further details of the meeting or explain why the president chose to publicise it.

The White House had requested that the meeting be kept off the record, according to the statement from the newspaper. “But with Mr Trump’s tweet this morning,” the statement said, “he has put the meeting on the record, so AG has decided to respond to the president’s characterisation of their conversation, based on detailed notes AG and James took.”

In a telephone interview, Mr Sulzberger described the meeting with Mr Trump, whom he had met only once before, as cordial. But he said he went into the Oval Office determined to make a point about what he views as the dangers of the president’s inflammatory language.

Mr Sulzberger recalled telling Mr Trump at one point that newspapers had begun posting armed guards outside their offices because of a rise in threats against journalists. The president, he said, expressed surprise that they did not already have armed guards.

Tensions

At another point, Mr Trump expressed pride in popularising the phrase “fake news”, and said other countries had begun banning it. Mr Sulzberger responded that those countries were dictatorships and that they were not banning “fake news” but rather independent scrutiny of their actions.

Still, Mr Sulzberger said, by the end of the session, he felt that Mr Trump had listened to his arguments. The president, Mr Sulzberger recalled, told him he was glad that he had raised those issues and would think about them.

Mr Sulzberger said he bore no illusions that his comments would prompt Mr Trump to curb his attacks on the news media. He said he encouraged the president to complain about news coverage in the New York Times that he viewed as unfair. But he appealed to him not to systematically attack journalists and journalism around the world.

Tensions between New York Times publishers and presidents are nothing new. Early in Bill Clinton’s presidency, ¨Mr Clinton complained to Mr Sulzberger’s father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, who was then publisher, about the paper’s editorials.

Mr Sulzberger told the president he liked to think of them as “tough love”, according to Susan E Tifft and Alex S Jones, who wrote a history of the Sulzberger family. “Well, just don’t forget the love part,” Mr Clinton replied.

A decade later, Mr Sulzberger and top editors of the New York Times were summoned to the Oval Office by then president George W Bush in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the paper from publishing a long-delayed article about the National Security Agency’s monitoring of phone calls without court-approved warrants.

“Generally speaking, presidents, in their dealings with newspaper publishers, have wanted to court them,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime expert in the relationship between the press and the White House. “They think if they bring the publishers in and explain their goals and intentions, that would be helpful.”

Mr Trump regularly mocks “the failing New York Times”, but he has also visited its offices and spoken to its journalists. At the weekend, the New York Times published an article about Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, which noted that they had invited the younger Mr Sulzberger to a dinner at their home in Manhattan in honour of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. – New York Times