Donald Trump has a few thoughts — well, a lot of thoughts; this is Donald Trump, after all — about the news media. He likes reporters, he says. Except the ones he doesn’t.
“There are some very dishonest people in your profession,” Trump says in an interview. “You learn very quickly who’s fair and who’s a professional. I’d say 50 percent of the reporters I’ve talked to are good people. Twenty percent are totally dishonest. Thirty percent are okay, they’re fine.”
Despite Trump’s recent run-ins with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, Univision’s Jorge Ramos and other media figures, it’s fair to say that many of the reporters who’ve interviewed Trump tend to like him back. That’s not necessarily a comment on his politics or his outsize personality but on his unfiltered style of dealing with the press.
Few candidates have been as open or as direct with the news media — or have thrived on it for as long — as Trump. The billionaire businessman gives so many interviews, and says so many controversial (and often erroneous) things, that it’s a full-time job keeping up with his latest outrages, contradictions and misstatements. The constant barrage seems not just an extension of Trump’s in-your-face persona but also may well be strategic, a way to keep his competitors constantly off-balance.
Unlike most public figures, Trump doesn’t set time limits on his interviews or make elaborate pre-interview demands. He rarely goes off the record or “on background,” the way people in power often do when they offer disparaging comments they don’t want traced back to them. Trump disparages plenty, but he does so openly and without apology.
In the course of a 25-minute conversation on Monday, for instance, Trump dropped in shots at Hillary Rodham Clinton (“She’s afraid to talk to press. She’s got no confidence”), Mitt Romney (“He had too many pollsters telling him what to do”) and Jeb Bush (“low energy”).
He is fully aware that he is what old-school newspaper reporters called “good copy” — a colorful character who makes news. But Trump seems to crave the media just as much as it wants him.
“He really loves attention,” says Time magazine’s Michael Scherer, who wrote last week’s cover story on Trump (“The Donald Has Landed. Deal with It”). “Deep down, it really soothes him. Getting attention from the press and the crowds, being in the spotlight, talking an hour or so without notes, knocking people down — it clearly makes him very happy. There’s a joy there.”
Scherer says Trump’s campaign media strategy is an extension of the business-building methods he’s employed for the past two decades: “His business empire doesn’t exist separate from the attention” he’s garnered for himself. “He’s a brand. He sells his name, [and puts it on] buildings or bottled water or ties. The more attention he gets, the more value there is for him.”
Trump grants interviews (to favored reporters, at least) with a minimum of bureaucracy and delay. Most of his media requests — “I have hundreds,” he claims — are answered promptly by Hope Hicks, 26, his campaign communications director. She connects her boss with reporters with minimal vetting of topics to be covered. No adviser sits in on the conversation.
Contrast this with the often tortured negotiations between other presidential candidates and journalists. New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich described his lengthy efforts to land an interview with Clinton for a profile in July. His eventual meeting with the candidate was ground-ruled and caveated to near suffocation by Clinton’s staff; one demanded that Leibovich treat Clinton’s entire 40,000-square-foot campaign headquarters as “off the record.”
In an interview, Trump can be charming, disarming and personal, soliciting your opinion about this or that. (“You think Hillary is in trouble with these e-mails?” he asked at one point the other day.) He can slip-slide from one topic to another, heedless of continuity or logical sequence.
“Trump doesn’t really sit for an interview, calmly answering question after question,” wrote The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, who has interviewed Trump more than a dozen times since January. “Instead, he plunges into a roiling, tangential and humor-spiked conversation from the moment his assistant, Rhona Graff, connects you with his line at Trump Tower.”
“He’s always rarin’ to go,” says Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who has interviewed Trump several times over the past decade, including in August for a series of columns. “He listened to my questions and answered them,” including whether he considers himself a narcissist (his answer: “I am a man of great achievement. I win, Maureen, I always win”). Dowd says her experiences interviewing Trump over the years leads her to one conclusion: “It’s remarkable how little he’s changed.”
Although he has held fewer campaign events than some of his rivals, Trump has maximized his media profile by calling into, rather than appearing on, many TV news programs, notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies campaign communications. The tactic greatly increases his visibility without the time-consuming demands of appearing in person, she says.
“He’s probably calling in his pajamas,” says Jamieson, who oversees Factcheck.org, which vets candidate statements. “It’s as if he’s using the national media as his personal channel of unpaid communications. If he calls, he’s confident they’ll take his call.” (Indeed he is: “You’ve seen the ratings I get,” Trump says. “It’s all about ratings. I double, triple and quadruple the ratings on CNN and Fox.”)
The upshot is that Trump has been “winning” the news cycle on a nearly constant basis since announcing he was running in mid-June. A search of “Donald Trump” in the Nexis database for just one day at random, Aug. 15, returns 630 mentions of him in the news media. This is far more than Republican challengers such as Jeb Bush (372 mentions), Marco Rubio (204), Scott Walker (139) or Ted Cruz (101). The only candidate who approaches Trump in sheer media tonnage is Clinton (581 mentions), the Democratic front-runner.
Trump’s relationship with the media can be testy, as his theatrical throw-downs with Kelly and Ramos attest. It’s not always clear, however, whether his grudges are real or just concocted. He’s said some nasty things on Twitter, for example, about ”Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. (“pathetic,” he called him in July). Yet there was Trump on “Meet the Press” on Aug. 16, being amiably grilled by Todd.
For his part, Todd says he’s let Trump’s insults slide off his back. “Five years ago, I might have cared,” he says. “My feeling is if you as a journalist decide to internalize the criticism, you end up losing focus. If you internalize it, this is not the environment you should be in.”
As for Fox host Kelly, Trump says the feud is over. “As far as I’m concerned, it is,” he declares. “Megyn probably doesn’t like me, but that’s okay.”
Besides, he suggests, he can get along with Fox — supposedly the Republican kingmaker — without Kelly. Sean Hannity “did a show with me, and he got the highest ratings he’s ever had,” Trump says. “The [GOP candidates’] debate was the biggest thing ever on Fox. If I’m not in the debate, the ratings are nothing. They know that.”
Trump, 69, is a bit old-school when it comes to his own media consumption habits. He reads newspapers (The Post, the Times and the Wall Street Journal), newsmagazines (Time) and news sites voraciously, particularly what’s being written about him. Before campaign appearances, he’ll bone up on regional issues by perusing the local newspaper, as he did before a recent appearance in Alabama. He also likes the three leading Sunday-morning news programs — “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “This Week” — and “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
Curiously or not, he doesn’t mention any Fox programs.
“I’m very busy,” he says of his media intake. “I don’t have time to read authors writing great fiction.” But he does have time for social media, particularly Twitter. Trump, a relentless tweeter, tends to dictate tweets to his assistant during the day and does it himself at night on an iPhone. He notes proudly that he has more than 4 million followers — all of them presumably attuned to the thoughts of Donald Trump.