President Trump complains often about critical news media coverage, but he predicts journalists will be “loving” him by mid-2020 — just in time to help reelect him.
Trump's theory, laid out in a New York Times interview, is that news outlets cannot survive without him and will therefore soften their coverage to make sure he wins a second term. Here's his thinking:
We’re going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we’re being respected again. But 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. Without me, the New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.”
It's true that Trump's foray into politics has benefited the media business in some ways. Recall that the first debate of the most recent Republican presidential primary, in August 2015, smashed a cable TV viewership record with an audience of 24 million. CBS chief executive Les Moonves said in February 2016 that the rancorous campaign season headlined by Trump “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
When Trump won the presidency, some news outlets enjoyed subscription spikes. The Times, for example, added about 132,000 subscribers in the three weeks after Election Day. The newspaper continued to report subscription and revenue gains during Trump's first year in office, although it is hard to say how much those increases can be attributed to the president. The Washington Post also saw an increase in a segment of subscribers, surpassing 1 million digital-only subscriptions this year.
There is a sense of self-importance in Trump's conclusion that the Times's continued existence hinges on him. When Richard Nixon lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962, he told reporters to “just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.” But Nixon didn't say any outlets would go out of business without him.
Moreover, Trump failed, in the Times interview, to account for the reputational damage wrought by his constant “fake news” attacks. In an April Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent of Americans said they think the media “regularly” produces false stories. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently noted that foreign dictators have picked up Trump's “fake news” cudgel to help discredit reporting on their regimes.
Trump's theory that news coverage will turn in his favor in 2020 rests on the premise that media companies view him as a net-positive for the journalism industry. In reality, it's unclear whether the good outweighs the bad.
In any case, Trump misunderstands the way most mainstream outlets make coverage decisions. In the past, he has vented his frustration that NBC does not reward his years of strong ratings on “The Apprentice” with positive political coverage.
“I was very good to NBC, and they are despicable — despicable in their coverage,” he told Fox News's Tucker Carlson in March.
The businessman president seems to think it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis or quid pro quo. He expects his relationship with the media to work the same way that relationships worked in the business world.