“Every time Trump says ‘failing New York Times’ the number of digital subscribers rises”

Jon Sopel, the BBC's North America editor, argues that getting on the president's bad side is good for business

Donald Trump (Getty, EH)

There’s a scene early on in a new documentary series about the Trump presidency where a group of reporters are huddled around a computer screen in the New York Times Washington office. The journalist at the keyboard wants a word other than “extraordinary” to describe the latest goings-on in the White House. Up pipes a colleague: “But everything is extraordinary.”

Oh, I know how he feels. It’s what every journalist in the nation’s capital feels as we cover a story that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

And this four-parter captures every twist and turn of a head-spinning, white-knuckle ride at the interface between politics and journalism. The New York Times is Donald Trump’s bête noire, variously described by him as failing, sad, dishonest, fake news, phoney. This newspaper more than any other comes in for repeated tongue-lashings and Twitter blasts, revealing a boiling and bubbling rage of presidential displeasure. His hometown newspaper enrages him like nothing else.

And that is because, somewhere in that complex psyche, Donald Trump, it seems, wants to win its approval. It is the girl he’s always wanted to impress and seduce. The boy who grew up in Queens with ambitions on the “grey lady” of Manhattan, as the NYT is nicknamed. But this is a paper whose head is not easily turned, and so it keeps rebuffing his advances, keeps printing “all the news that is fit to print” – and that makes him mad.

But while Trump does his best to denigrate the title, film-maker Liz Garbus goes out of her way to show the human side of the staff tasked with covering him. “When you are demonised by the President, and called ‘the enemy of the people’, I thought it was important to pull back the curtain. They are ordinary people, going to work and doing their jobs” says Garbus.

Maggie Haberman, White House Correspondent, gets a phone call from Trump (BBC)
Maggie Haberman, White House Correspondent, gets a phone call from Trump (BBC)

The “enemy of the people” jibe was – arguably – the most shocking of the accusations made against America’s free press. The phrase has echoes of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, when a declaration of that nature meant a knock on the door, and your disappearance to a Siberian salt mine. The event at which Trump made this accusation was a conservative political conference, attended by a polite young New York Times correspondent. He was given the sort of welcome a Manchester United fan would be given if he turned up in his side’s kit on the Kop at Anfield.

The documentary has exceptional access. At one point a reporter is sitting at her desk waiting for the President to call. He does (so much for him never talking to The New York Times). At another moment we watch as the same journalist, while covering a Trump speech, is phoned with a tip that the President is about to fire his Chief of Staff – via Twitter. And so it comes to pass. The reporter in question is Maggie Haberman, one of the superstars of Trump-era journalism. The former tabloid hack from the New York Post has been following Trump long before he decided to run for president. She describes herself as an “accidental journalist” who ‘“fell in love with the exquisite adrenaline rush”.

In other scenes you see her wrestling with conflicting demands, guiltily talking to her kids on the phone as another promise to be home early is broken. She says her biggest mistake was telling her children they’d get their mother back at the end of the election campaign.

As for fake news – you see reporters checking their sources and fretting over how far they can go. Failing? You see the paper’s executives having conversations about the latest rise in digital subscriptions and making painful decisions to reallocate resources away from print journalism to digital. Dishonest? We hear from one reporter earnestly telling us that it is more important to be right than first. Good on him.

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In another political age, the stories The New York Times has broken would have brought down a president, and rocked Washington to its core. The paper has exposed lies and wrongdoing, and some pretty serious political chicanery. It’s been accused of making things up, and invariably been vindicated. This is a presidency like no other, where normal rules don’t seem to apply. With an apparent coating of perma-tan and Teflon, Donald Trump carries on – nothing sticks. And, undeterred, so does The New York Times.

The CEO of the NYT Company is my former boss at the BBC, ex-director-general Mark Thompson. We had lunch at the paper a little while back, and he told me that every time Trump says “failing New York Times” the number of digital subscribers rises.

I came away wondering whether there was a conspiracy between the paper and the White House: “Please could you get the President to call us failing again?” But maybe there is a symbiotic relationship. Trump seems to need to have the NYT to rail against; it gins up his base. The NYT is in an absolute purple patch for its journalism as a result of the peculiarities of this presidency, something this documentary captures brilliantly.

It’s an incredible time to be a journalist in Washington. You might even say extraordinary.

Reporting Trump’s First Year: the Fourth Estate airs Sunday 24th June 9pm on BBC2

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