Did New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger make a mistake offering such a strong rebuttal to Donald Trump's unethical breach of their private meeting, which apparently also included a misleading account?
Or did the rookie publisher -- who took the helm in January, at 37, as the fourth Sulzberger to hold the post -- make a necessary move to counter a president who insists on wrongly attacking news outlets as fake and calling the news media the "enemy of the people?"
It may depend on who you ask. And on how you view presidential coverage today.
The Times has been in the cross-hairs of Trump for years, and most recently since he took office. Anyone who watched the great Showtime mini-series, The Fourth Estate -- which chronicled the paper's coverage of Trump's first year -- saw how editors deal with keeping to ethical rules while overseeing a president who name-calls, refers to them as "failing" (when circulation is actually up), and drumbeats against the overall press as the enemy.
Reporters nationwide have had to face a new challenge with this administration given not only how it lies so often, but how Trump changes his mind and facts to fit the situation. News outlets are being criticized if they do not stick to the rules they have followed for years while dealing with a president who constantly breaks the White House traditions of decorum, civility and truth.
So when Trump disclosed on Twitter that he had a private meeting with Sulzberger on July 20 to discuss coverage and Trump's claims of fake news -- and hinted that Sulzberger agreed with that stance -- the publisher shot back.
As the Times reported in a story late Sunday:
Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he and Mr. Sulzberger had discussed “the
vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake
News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”
But Sulzberger then released a statement claiming that was not the case and noting Trump disclosed contents of a private meeting -- and inaccurately it seems. His statement said, in part:
Earlier this month, A.G. received
a request from the White House to meet with President Trump. This was
not unusual; there has been a long tradition of New York Times
publishers holding such meetings with presidents and other public
figures who have concerns about coverage.
On July 20th, A.G. went to the
White House, accompanied by James Bennet, who oversees the editorial
page of The Times. Mr. Trump’s aides requested that the meeting be off
the record, which has also been the practice for such meetings in the
But with Mr. Trump’s tweet this
morning, he has put the meeting on the record, so A.G. has decided to
respond to the president’s characterization of their conversation, based
on detailed notes A.G. and James took.
It later added:
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.
I repeatedly stressed that this is
particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used
by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned
that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the
democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our
country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free
It would seem Sulzberger was left with no choice but to both correct Trump's false description of their meeting and properly chastise him for breaking the rules of the one-on-one chat being off the record.
As the Times story mentions, presidents have long met with newspaper publishers and other media heavyweights throughout history to discuss issues and concerns of coverage. The story notes examples with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and the Times.
In his 2016 book, The Tunnels, about the underground escape efforts at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, my former boss Greg Mitchell writes about the Kennedy Administration lobbying to stop the broadcasting of two news reports at the time by CBS and NBC about the tunneling.
Even further in history, Theodore Roosevelt famously sparred with William Randolph Hearst and Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, while also befriending "muckrakers" of the day that included Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell.
"Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists," Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism. "He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches."
So Sulzberger's meeting with Trump is nothing new and likely a good chance to clear the air on many issues. But, when Trump breaks the agreed silence and reportedly misrepresents what happened, the publisher needs to correct the record.
It is sad that we are in a position where the press must do so much correcting of the record and defense of our work. But when you have a president who is constantly attacking without cause and misrepresenting the facts, all of those who are affected need to point out the truth.