Almost as soon as Donald Trump wrapped up his ostensibly off-the-record meeting with TV news executives and anchors last week at Trump Tower, the New York Post’s scrappy gossip column, Page Six, had the first inside account.
“It was like a f---ing firing squad,” an anonymous source told the column about Trump’s combative remarks. “The meeting was a total disaster.”
Hmm. “Total disaster.” Now who does that sound like?
And when Melania Trump decided she was staying in New York City rather than moving to the White House so that the Trumps’ young son, Barron, could finish the school year, the Post was first with the news, too. It was sourced to two unnamed people “familiar with the Trump transition.”
So far, so good in the Age of Trump for the 215-year-old tabloid. The paper and Trump go way back, to his days as an up-and-coming New York real estate developer and man about town. Long before he ran for president, long before “The Apprentice,” Trump was the star of hundreds of Post news stories, Page Six items and pieces by the paper’s longtime gossip columnist, Cindy Adams.
During the soap-opera drama of his adulterous romance with Marla Maples in the early 1990s, for instance, Trump appeared on the paper’s cover for eight straight days. It was during this stretch that he was the subject of one of the most famous headlines in the paper’s history of famously colorful headlines: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had,” based on an oversharing quote supposedly uttered by Maples.
The paper’s long-standing relationship with Trump may now be paying off with some inside tips about — or possibly even from — the new president-elect and his inner circle.
“It’s his hometown paper,” says a source in the upper reaches of Trumpworld. “He was an eccentric billionaire living in Manhattan. They’ve always had a sort of mutually beneficial relationship. It was proximity and convenience.” But this source, speaking anonymously so as not to get crosswise with either Trump or the paper, said a past relationship doesn’t guarantee a future one: “I don’t think one paper is better positioned than any other.”
In fact, in his first encounter with print journalists as president-elect last week, Trump met with reporters and editors from the New York Times, the strait-laced graduate student to the Post’s rambunctious undergrad in the New York media firmament. The Post doesn’t seem likely to get a visit anytime soon.
Nevertheless, the Post can count among its advantages an owner, Rupert Murdoch, who has long wielded political power through his New York media properties (the Post, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the TV station WNYW) and has a long relationship with Trump of his own.
The Post was among the first major American media assets Murdoch bought when he arrived on these shores from Australia in 1976. He took what had been an afternoon daily under former owner Dorothy Schiff and quickly turned it into a sensation-seeking morning tabloid (“Headless Body in Topless Bar” is perhaps the greatest tab headline ever) resembling his Australian and British papers. Its editorial page morphed from liberal to conservative, in line with Murdoch’s politics.
Even as Murdoch’s horizons expanded globally, the Post remained something like his American Rosebud. He gave up control of the paper in 1988 when federal cross-ownership rules forced him to choose between it and his New York TV station license. But Murdoch reacquired it five years later, saving it from bankruptcy under a special waiver from the Federal Communications Commission.
Before and since, Murdoch has carried the paper through many money-losing years, including recent ones. Like all newspapers, the Post’s print circulation has slid precipitously; it was down to 231,000 last month, according to its own account, or less than half of the figure of five years ago. It does far better online, having attracted 28.8 million unique visitors online in October, according to ComScore, or roughly the same as its arch tabloid rival, the Trump-loathing New York Daily News.
As the “firing squad” story of last week suggested, the Post is still wired into Trumpworld through Page Six, the gossip column that Murdoch started upon buying the paper. (The column no longer appears only on Page 6 of the print edition and is no longer a single page.)
Trump’s earliest fame came from his semiregular appearances on Page Six starting soon after the column’s debut in the late 1970s. Many of the items about him were fed to the paper by Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer and his mentor in the dark arts of media manipulation.
“I think Page Six definitely played a role in helping push Donald Trump to the first round of his never-ending whatever,” commented Susan Mulcahy, one of the column’s earliest reporters and editors, in a 2004 oral history of it for Vanity Fair. “It definitely helped create his first level of celebrity hell. I wrote about him a certain amount, but I actually would sit back and be amazed at how often people would write about him in a completely gullible way.”
Emily Smith, the British expat who now edits and writes for Page Six, has reported from within Trump Tower before. In addition to last week’s “firing squad” story, she scored a mini-scoop last week by reporting that Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the organizer of the glamorous annual Met Gala, has been brought on by Melania Trump to help organize inaugural events. (Smith did not respond to requests for comment; a spokeswoman for the paper said it would “pass” on commenting for this story.)
One of the Post’s big scoops during the campaign was its publication of nude photos of Melania (cover line: “The Ogle Office”) in late July. But Trump quickly extinguished any controversy over the photos, taken while she was a model in 1995, when he told the paper, “In Europe, pictures like this are very fashionable and common.”
One veteran New York journalist said it was plausible that Page Six could enjoy improved access to a Trump White House. “Old habits die hard,” he said. “I would not be surprised if Donald Trump has Emily Smith’s landline and cell number memorized.”
Then again, maybe not.
“I think Page Six was the monster gossip column of all gossip columns at a time when the Post and other papers were voraciously consumed in the dead-tree format,” says Lloyd Grove, an editor at large at the Daily Beast who once wrote The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column and later a gossip column for the Daily News. “Like every other newspaper brand, it has suffered from the Balkanization of the media landscape. It’s now such a fractionalized environment. You hardly need Page Six when you can get all the news, fake news and gossip you want from your Facebook feed.”
Some things may not have changed. In her reminiscence about Page Six in 2004, and in a piece she wrote for Politico this year, Mulcahy recalled numerous instances in which Trump misdirected or lied to her as she was reporting on him.
“He was a great character,” she told Vanity Fair, “but he was full of crap 90 percent of the time.”
To which Trump himself replied to Vanity Fair: “I agree with her 100 percent.”