In the morning hours of his first Saturday as president-elect, and just days after saying his public posture would change because “It’s different now,’’ Donald J. Trump logged into his Twitter account and posted a message denigrating The New York Times.
“Wow,” he wrote. “The @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena.’” In fact, The Times was at the start of what would be the biggest increase in subscriptions in its history. If anything, the “failing” New York Times was failing at failing.
And so, The Times did something that broke with more than a century of tradition: it hit back. Addressing @realDonaldTrump directly, it wrote on its own Twitter account, “fact: surge in new subscriptions, print & digital, with trends, stops & starts, 4 X better than normal.”
That response came only after urgent, high-level discussions between the newspaper’s top editor, Dean Baquet; its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.; his deputy (and son), Arthur Gregg Sulzberger; and several other executives at the paper.
They decided to reply to Trump’s tweet, knowing that doing so might look like a violation of the promise Sulzberger’s grandfather, Adolph Ochs, made when he bought the paper in 1896: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” A public spat with a president was not part of that mandate.
The Twitter exchange in question
The senior Mr. Sulzberger cautioned the communications team crafting the message that tense morning: “Don’t get in an unnecessary pissing match with an incoming president.” The statement, he told his executives and editors, should be “simple, true, and not aggressive.” Following up, Arthur Gregg, who took control of the paper at the start of this year, cautioned against being “needlessly adversarial,” reminding the group, “The facts speak for themselves.”
Those five words – the facts speak for themselves – continue to be the driving principle of The Times’s coverage in the Trump era, just as they are for its primary competitors. But, as the decision to respond to the president’s pre-inaugural slur showed, The Times’s longstanding credo now comes with an addendum: the facts speak for themselves, sure, but in the Trumpian “fake news” era, they need robust amplification and a swift defensive if they are to survive.
With Trump’s tweet, there was more on the line than the paper’s reputation or its stock price. The president was using The Times as an avatar for the news media in general, and, therefore, as a stand-in for the reality-based reporting that, for all its flaws, has provided so much of the factual foundation of America’s political discourse for so long.
'Suddenly, Our Mission Got Really Clear'
In comparing notes with bosses and colleagues for this piece, I found that all of us can remember precisely where we were when that first post-election Trump tweet hit. (Okay, mine’s not all that interesting: I was drinking coffee at home in my living room and nearly spit it out when I saw it). His message brought us all to the realization that The Times was going to be in the presidential crosshairs as never before – along with CNN, The Washington Post, and a rotating cast of others, including The Wall Street Journal, NBC, ABC, and CBS (but never Fox News).
It was one thing to come under attack from a candidate, but entirely another to come under attack from a president, a person with power to control the flow of executive-branch information and the Justice Department, which oversees leak investigations. In the weeks and months that followed the election, the executive branch’s attacks against mainstream, fact-based reporting increased to levels I’d never seen in my career – and I’ve been at this more than 25 years now.
But a funny thing happened inside The Times’s headquarters and in its bureaus throughout the world: an early sense of trepidation was quickly replaced with a new sense of mission. There was palpable excitement over the chance to show traditional journalism’s true worth in the face of an administration that was clearly going to use misdirection, misinformation, and barbs against the press as governing tools. For as cynical lot as there ever was, idealism rushed in.
It was not as if we had a staff meeting to come to that conclusion. Baquet didn’t need to give his reporters a pep talk or warn them about the treachery of a president who calls them dishonest and their reportage fake. As the media columnist, for instance, nobody had to tell me over inaugural weekend that I needed to scrap my column on the death of investigative journalist Wayne Barrett and instead weigh in on Sean Spicer’s audience size lie and Kellyanne Conway’s newly coined “alternative facts.”
Nobody needed to tell White House correspondent Maggie Haberman to dig aggressively into the hard-to-believe machinations inside the West Wing, just as nobody needed to tell Justice Department correspondent Michael Schmidt to break news on the Russia investigation. Nor did anybody have to ask any of us to switch to what has effectively become a seven-day workweek.
The staff simply rallied as reporters are programmed to do during big stories. As Baquet told me during an on-stage interview at the South by Southwest Festival last March, “We’re preparing for the story of a generation.” Baquet also said at the time that Trump’s election had helped remind the press of its role – just as it was starting to doubt its place following the digital upheaval that gave it new competitors online, drained its advertising budgets, and made its leaders scramble (at times, fumble) for new ways to draw audiences. “Suddenly, our mission got really clear – our mission is what it always was, aggressive coverage of government,” he said.
It didn’t mean everything was peachy, of course. The president of the United States was regularly rallying his Twitter mob against us. While the newsroom reaction was mostly either gallows humor or eye-rolls, every now and then the conversation turned to what was lurking in the backs of all of our minds: somebody’s going to get hurt. “Enemies of the people” personally infuriated me, and I was able to share that fury in a column (as well as in a conversation with one of the president’s top aides, who didn’t have much to offer by way of explanation). But Baquet cautioned the straight-news reporting staff to avoid taking the bait, lest they give Trump ammunition to call them “the opposition.”
The Best Defense
Baquet was at South by Southwest largely to help promote The Times’s new television advertising campaign, “Truth is Hard.” The spot first ran during the Oscars telecast – a rare and (at more than $2 million for the placement) expensive move for a paper that has generally approached advertising with a pinched nose and tight wallet. With a stark white backdrop and black lettering flashing competing claims on truth, it ended with the tag line, “The Truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” In part, the newspaper felt compelled to address the president’s smears, if not to defend the very concept of a shared version of reality, at a volume equal to that of his Twitter account.
But the ad was also devised to goose The Times’s unexpected success in selling new subscriptions. It appeared to have helped, given that the paper hit record increases in paid readership last year (as of the third quarter of 2017, it had 3.5 million subscribers, nearly doubling its digital paid readership from the same period a year earlier). Those new subscriptions have, in fact, been vital in combatting fake news by giving The Times the budgetary cushion it needed to marshal what it and other mainline news organizations have found to be the best defense against “alternative reality”: more reporting.
As late as November 2016, we in the newsroom were girding for a large number of buyouts and possible layoffs. But in one of his first big moves of the Trump era, Baquet beefed up his Washington bureau with more investigative reporters. With the White House and its allies ever ready to promote whatever false notions it believes will forward its agenda, and to use any mistake – no matter how small – to cast doubt upon a story’s entire premise, Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller has added two full-time fact checkers to complement her newly enlarged investigative team. One of them, Emily Cochrane, back-reads stories before they are published to catch errors that the writers and their editors may have missed. Unlike magazines, newspapers do not generally employ fact-checkers in this fashion. This represents a significant shift in the editorial process.
“It’s always bad to make a mistake in The New York Times – you pay a big price for it,” Bumiller told me. “But in this era, it’s actually worse to make a mistake.”
Several days before we spoke, Trump had held his so-called “Fake News Awards,” a stunt that fizzled as the Republican Party website on which he posted the “winners” crashed. The journalists and organizations the president cited were primarily guilty of making factual errors and then correcting them.
“That’s not fake news. That’s responsible news,” Bumiller said. “It’s a problem because Trump is conflating the two. It’s politics, and it’s playing really well with his base.”
It’s also especially ironic, given that the news Mr. Trump regularly praises – from Fox & Friends, The National Enquirer, and the pure conspiracy website InfoWars – almost never acknowledge mistakes without legal threats. The latter, especially, makes up its news from the word “go.”