There will be no questioning the benign motives of A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times. He received a request to meet with President Trump. “My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric,” notes the 37-year-old Sulzberger in a statement. “I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous. I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.” James Bennet, the New York Times editorial page editor, also participated in the meeting, which took place on July 20.
There’s a reason Sulzberger’s statement came a week and a half after the meeting, and it all boils down to @realdonaldtrump:
That tweet, as the New York Times noted in the statement, changed the footing of the meeting from off the record to on the record — freeing the newspaper to tell its side of the story. Back and forth this post-meeting bickering went, as Sulzberger pushed his version of events into the public, and Trump continued tweeting:
The New York Times on Sunday published an account of the meeting, complete with input from Sulzberger himself. Key stuff:
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.
At another point, Mr. Trump expressed pride in popularizing 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.
Surprise, surprise. Back in 2016, after all, Donald Trump the presidential candidate took credit for a Gallup poll indicating that public trust in the media had dropped to an all-time low. “I think I had a lot to do with that poll … because I’ve exposed the media. If you look at the New York Times, and The Washington Post, and if you look at others: the level of dishonesty is enormous,” he said in a radio interview at the time.
The New York Times appropriately strains to ensure that people know: Previous publishers of the newspaper have met on and off the record with Trump’s predecessors. For instance, President Bill Clinton pressed Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. on critical editorials in the Times, and it’s well documented that President George W. Bush also met with Sulzberger to pressure the newspaper over its reporting on warrantless eavesdropping. And those are just a couple of the famous and high-level instances: Complaints from the White House and feedback from media organizations are quite commonly handled on a continuous, off-the-record basis.
Continuity, however, should find its end point in Trump. Granting his request for a meeting feeds his imperial ego, especially if you’re the publisher of the New York Times. It also does nothing else. Trump doesn’t listen; Trump doesn’t change; Trump doesn’t care.
The off-the-record meetings of yore between presidents and members of the news media were based on a common measure of good faith. Publishers could proceed with full confidence that the White House viewed their organizations as essential democratic machinery. That is gone now. Trump exults in the degradation and diminishment of the press. If there is one through line in Trump’s “policies,” it’s hatred and contempt toward the news media. Attempting to dissuade him from this plank would be like telling President Barack Obama to bag health-care reform, asking George W. Bush to cool it on his anti-terrorism program, or lobbying Clinton to abandon family and medical leave reforms.
Forget it, in other words. Sulzberger would be better off studying reader habits; meeting with his newsroom leaders; taking a call from a media reporter; having an al fresco lunch; or just taking an afternoon off. What he has learned is that if you accept an off-the-record with Trump, he’ll surely burn you. Every time.