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How Trump's bashing of The New York Times and CNN has benefited all

Kevin Lamarque, Reuters | US President Donald Trump stops CNN's Jim Acosta while taking questions during a news conference following the midterms, November 7, 2018.

Although Donald Trump has an antagonistic relationship with The New York Times and CNN, the ‘Trump bump’ has been a business boon to these outlets, while the US president has been keen to use them to pursue publicity and legitimacy.

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While Trump often rails against the US media generally – most notably as “enemies of the people” – the country’s foremost newspaper of record, The New York Times, and its oldest 24-hour news network, CNN, are frequently singled out for opprobrium as “The Failing New York Times” and “Fake News CNN”.

The acrimony between Trump and CNN reached its zenith on November 8 when the White House revoked the press access of its reporter Jim Acosta after a rancorous post-midterm news conference – only for his press pass to be restored thanks to judicial review three days later.

Meanwhile the vitriolic rhetoric from the White House has provoked considerable alarm amongst the press. The New York Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger warned on July 30 that Trump’s increasingly splenetic attacks on the news media “will lead to violence”, before its sister paper The Boston Globe led the way in launching the #EnemyofNone campaign against the president’s relentless attacks on the American press.

Despite these tensions, The New York Times – like CNN – is far from failing. On the contrary, both outlets are enjoying booming subscription and viewer figures thanks to Trump’s presidency.

New York Times reaps ‘Trump bump’

From Trump’s election on November 8, 2016 until the end of that month, The New York Times saw an increase of 132,000 in paid subscriptions – 10 times the growth rate in November 2015.

This trajectory has continued. “NYT has well surpassed initial expectations for subscriber growth […] following the ‘Trump bump’,” JP Morgan analyst Alexia Quadrani wrote to clients in April 2018. The New York Times Company’s share price outperformed those of Apple, Amazon and Facebook between Trump’s election in 2016 and the end of June 2018, soaring by 141 percent.

“When I talked to the [executive] editor of The New York Times [Dean Baquet], he told me with a smile on his face that Donald Trump has done at least one good thing – and that is that he has boosted the circulation of The New York Times,” Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and author of “Enemy of the People”, a book on Trump’s hostile regard towards the US media, told FRANCE 24.

“People who subscribe to and read [The New York] Times are for the most part people who oppose Trump, who do not think it is fake news,” explained Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, whose area of expertise includes the relationship between mass media and US politics, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

The paper has “used the facts of the Trump presidency to draw attention to the bad things that he is doing, and that’s attracted readers who want to get information to use against Trump”, Shapiro continued.

‘The salacious gets views’

The demand for coverage of Trump’s sensational utterances and actions has boosted audiences for a wide variety of other US media organisations, including The Washington Post, left-leaning cable news channel MSNBC, and right-wing cable network Fox News, as well as CNN.

“When Trump says he’s made the media a lot of money, he’s absolutely right,” said Shapiro. “He was a good asset to them during his campaign, and he has become an even better asset to them during his presidency.”

The media “will feed the public what the public is willing to watch”, added Jeanne Zinko, a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “If the public wanted to hear about dry policy, we’d see it 24 hours a day – we don’t. C-SPAN’s viewership would be tremendous – it’s not. And what gets the views when it comes to politics is the salacious, the violent.”

CNN has been a notable beneficiary of the rise of Trump. Despite the president’s incorrect statement in July 2017 that its ratings are “way down”, the cable news channel received more viewers in 2017 than in any other year since it was founded in 1980.

The network has maintained impressive ratings in 2018, with the third-highest second quarter viewing figures in 23 years (behind 2017 and 2003, the year of the Iraq War).

But it seems that Trump has also benefited from CNN.

CNN ‘allowed Trump to dominate’

In October 2016, the company’s president Jeff Zucker expressed his regrets about giving Trump’s rallies an unbridled platform during his campaign for the Republican nomination, in which he called Mexicans “rapists” and proposed a “complete and total shutdown on Muslims entering the US”.

“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did too many of his campaign rallies in the early months and let them run,” Zucker told an audience at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The CNN boss also acknowledged that Trump also got plenty of airtime on the network during the GOP nomination race simply because, unlike other contenders, he said yes to interview requests. “We never got that from other candidates,” Zucker pointed out.

“CNN’s audience share is not overwhelmingly large, but it was significant enough to allow Trump to dominate over the other primary candidates,” Shapiro noted.

Experts say that Trump knew what he was doing. During the 2016 presidential election race, he was “able to keep the cost of his campaign way down by getting free coverage”, Zinko observed. “The way to do that is to say outrageous, off-colour and unexpected things – and Trump did just that.”

“CNN and others genuinely feel that this is a problem, but they continue to give Trump extensive coverage because they have to – or risk their competition taking over,” she continued.

For Trump, The New York Times represents ‘legitimacy’

It seems that Trump has a similarly ambivalent relationship with The New York Times. Although he frequently fulminates against the paper in Twitter diatribes, Trump also seems to hold it in high regard. It is “a great, great American jewel […] a world jewel,” he told several of its reporters in a November 2016 interview.

Indeed, the president regularly returns calls and helps provide stories to several of the paper’s journalists, especially White House reporter Maggie Haberman.

“Trump’s tendency is always to get Maggie Haberman in there,” his former adviser Steve Bannon lamented to Vanity Fair. “He reads The New York Times. To him that’s the paper of record.”

“He wouldn’t talk to me as much as he does if I wasn’t at the [New York] Times,” Haberman said in a podcast. “He craves the paper’s approval.”

Analysts say that – while The New York Times’ approval remains elusive – Trump finds his interviews with the paper to be useful sources of legitimacy, providing a safer, more decorous platform than Twitter for him to vent his frustrations about, say, the Mueller probe.

“He uses those kinds of occasions to show that he is not crazy,” said Shapiro. “He is critical of his opponents without showing himself to be uncivil and disrespectful.”

This tactic goes back a long way. Trump realised “long before he became president that [The New York] Times represented legitimacy, it represented respectability, it represented the kind of person he wanted to see himself as”, added Kalb.

In the era when Trump rose to prominence as a businessman in New York, in the last three decades of the twentieth century, “if you wanted to advance in society, if you wanted to be accepted as a major real estate developer, you had to somehow get into The New York Times”, he continued.

Consequently, the president has always “respected The New York Times, at the same time as resenting its power”.

Trump believes that this power – and that of other mainstream media organisations – will work to give him the edge in his 2020 re-election battle.

Concluding his December 2017 interview with The New York Times, Trump said: “Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes […] So they basically have to let me win.”

Trump’s symbiotic relationship with the US media may well help carry him to re-election.

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