Trump’s Attacks on Press Serve to Rally Public to Its Support
By Jim Rutenberg, New York Times
The answer to all the troubling new questions about the future of the news business — how to make money, stop the spread of fake news and reassert a uniform view of reality — appeared last week in a plate of “flaccid, gray Szechuan dumplings.”
That was how Vanity Fair writer Tina Nguyen described her appetizer at the Trump Grill in a review that said the joint — the flagship eatery of White House North (Trump Tower) — could be “The Worst Restaurant in America.”
Vanity Fair posted the piece late Wednesday. Early Thursday, Donald Trump did what he so often does when a news organization or private business makes him mad. He attacked its leadership and impugned its fiscal health, on Twitter.
“Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine,” the incoming president of the United States wrote. “Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out!”
Actually, the magazine reports that its circulation, its revenue and its web traffic are all up this year over last. And Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and one of the best magazine editors in the country, is in no more danger of losing his job than he was a year ago, when Trump wondered aloud whether he was on his way out.
But Carter seized the moment with a red home page banner calling Vanity Fair “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read” and imploring visitors, “Subscribe Now!”
Lo and behold, subscriptions spiked a hundredfold over their daily average, the magazine said, bringing Vanity Fair’s parent company, Condé Nast, the biggest number of new daily sign-ups in its 116-year history. (The tally had hit 42,000 by Sunday.)
As Trump tries to burn the media village down, he may just be saving it.
His running campaign of Twitter attacks, declarations of failure and vows to punish the traditional news media is threatening to do what so many years of cost-cutting and re-envisioning could not do as easily: put the industry on more solid economic footing, where customers who realize its value are willing to pay for it more regularly.
It’s early. And, in traditional media, hope is the province of masochists.
But in the weeks since the election, magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair; newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and nonprofits like NPR and ProPublica have been reporting big boosts in subscription rates or donations.
It’s as if Trump’s media attacks have combined with the heightened attention on the perils of fake news to create one big fat advertisement for the value of basic journalism.
“The fake news business is going to be great for journalism in the long run,” Carter told me Friday, referring to Trump as “the Fake Newser in Chief.” “Proper news organizations should thrive under this.”
To do so, though, journalism is going to have to find its inner Taylor Swift.
In case you can’t remember all the way back to 2015, Swift, the pop megastar, stood up to Apple after it tried to give away her songs — and those of her fellow musicians — for free, sans royalties, as part of a promotion for its new streaming service. “We don’t ask you for free iPhones,” she wrote in an open letter to the company.
The music industry might seem like an odd place for people in the hard news game to turn. But, like the news industry, it had spent the better part of this century preparing its obituary as the web made it easy for people to listen to so much music without paying for it.
Then it happened upon the streaming subscription business. People started paying again, even for vinyl, and there’s new talk of a corner turned, as The Financial Times recently reported.
Now, think of the readers as Apple in the showdown with Swift. In many cases, they’ve been getting news for free that other people pay for through subscriptions. That is because newspapers for so long gave it all away for nothing, only to face dire economic consequences when players like Facebook and Google showed up to gobble up the online advertising market. That put the onus back onto selling subscriptions.
As the country and the world head into this confusing new era, news organizations are in a position to make a newly urgent pitch: Buying a subscription is tantamount to supporting the pillars of democracy. It’s about maintaining the sort of reporting that debunks fake news, holds power accountable and keeps the nation on course in its own imperfect way.
Real reporting costs real money. But newsrooms, saddled with big losses in advertising revenue, are continuing to contract, even with huge online circulation gains.
Journalism’s ranks have dwindled as reporters’ and editors’ workloads have grown, especially in Washington, where the Obama administration has aggressively pressed leak investigations and tightened its hold on national security details. But President Barack Obama did make some moves toward transparency, like providing White House visitors’ logs online.
Now comes an openly press-hostile new president who is entering office not only attacking the news media publicly on Twitter but signaling that he may fundamentally alter the way the executive branch views its obligations to the press.
An ominous sign came a few days ago when Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, floated the possibility that the Trump administration would seize from the national press corps control of the seating assignments in the White House press room.
It would be spilled milk to most Americans, who probably don’t care which reporter sits where. But the symbolism is important. Since the early 1980s, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have left seating assignments to the White House Correspondents Association because they were “mindful of the potential appearance of playing favorites if they assigned the seats themselves,” as Jeff Mason, the association president, said last week.
Others close to Trump, like Fox News host Sean Hannity, have suggested he get rid of the White House press room altogether. That would seem outlandish until you remember that Trump kept a news “blacklist” during his campaign, refused to share tax and health records the way his predecessors did and hasn’t held a news conference in nearly five months.
One candidate for the press secretary job, chief Republican Party spokesman Sean Spicer, told Megyn Kelly of Fox News last week that Trump would not shut reporters out. But he did say a Trump White House might move away from having daily press briefings.
If it does so that would be part of a trend in which politicians and others in power try to push traditionally trained reporters out of the way.
Just look at the way Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is supporting a fast-tracked and bipartisan bill that would economically devastate newspapers in the state by ending the legal requirement that state and local agencies place their legal notices in print papers.
Calling it “Christie’s Revenge,” The Star-Ledger of Newark wrote in an editorial, “The purpose of this bill, when you cut through the clutter, is to weaken the press, to defang the watchdogs who expose their bad behavior.”
Good reporters know how to get past politicians’ information blockades. But it can take resources.
That’s where the new subscriptions come in. If they keep growing — sure, a big if — they could bring what The Los Angeles Times’ editor-in-chief and publisher, Davan Maharaj, called “a new golden era in journalism.”
“Without a doubt, citizens of the United States are valuing newspapers and trusted, verified, distinctive journalism once again,” he told me last week.
It’s probably not the result Trump is looking for. Then again, you never know.
On Thursday night, Trump’s son Eric showed up at a downtown restaurant co-owned by Carter, the Waverly Inn, Women’s Wear Daily reported.
A peace envoy?
Maybe not, Carter said, surmising that Eric Trump was there “to check the place out to see if it was empty.”
“It wasn’t, fortunately.”
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