More than three years after Donald Trump rode the down escalator inside Trump Tower to announce his radical campaign for president, more than three years after he began waging a vicious war on the free press in the United States and around the world, and years after he adopted dictator rhetoric and began smearing hardworking journalists as “enemies of the people,” the New York Times still doesn’t have the collective spine to stand up to the Oval Office bully.
Signaling once again that the paper cherishes access above all, Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger on Thursday joined Times White House reporters Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker for an on-the-record interview with Trump. Sulzberger was present ostensibly to press Trump on his use of "fake news" and his dangerous, unprecedented, and relentless attacks on the news media.
“The effects are not just being felt with the outlets who you feel are treating you unfairly,” said Sulzberger. “They’re being felt all over the world, including folks who are literally putting their lives on the line to report the truth.”
But in the end, as so often happens with the Times in the Trump era, the interview became a wasted opportunity as Sulzberger toothlessly made his objections and Trump pretended not to know his words were having consequences. Then Trump just lied his way through the Q&A, and also complained about his press coverage.
Astonishingly, in an Oval Office conversation about the mortal threats Trump's anti-press rhetoric now poses to journalists worldwide, the name Jamal Khashoggi was only mentioned once, and then just in passing. A Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor, Khashoggi, a longtime critic of the Saudi royal family, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey last year. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely gave the order for the gruesome execution.
Yet Trump to this day won't accept his own CIA's assessment of the Virginia journalist's assassination, as he covers for the murderous Middle Eastern regime. If Sulzberger were serious about his commitment to battling Trump's "fake news" crusade, the publisher would have spent 20 minutes discussing the Khashoggi case, demanding action from the administration, and raising his voice on behalf of journalists worldwide who remain horrified about the killing and Trump's pathetic response to it.
But that's not what Sulzberger did.
He didn't pound on any desks, and he didn't raise his voice. In fact, Khashoggi was barely mentioned. Instead, the publisher basically pleaded with Trump, as if logic and nice words work with this tyrant.
The sad reality is that the Times is just another powerful media institution that has utterly failed to stand up to this radical president. Fearful of a brutal economic environment that puts all media players at risk and afraid to offend, while already historically nervous about getting dubbed part of the “liberal media,” the Times, like so many other media outlets, has opted for a get-along strategy with Trump. The paper is choosing to cling to its role as insider White House chronicler.
Trump traffics in nonstop gibberish, and on days like today the Times sees its jobs as making sure it scoops up all the gibberish for a front-page interview. Oh yeah, the Times also published a separate sidebar to detail the "misleading statements" in the interview—because the newsroom isn't allowed to call them "lies."
But the take-away from the interview was the sad spectacle of the Times publisher, in 2019 (!), basically beseeching Trump to be nice to the press because it's really, really dangerous for the president of the United States to attack the free press on a daily basis. (Ya think?) But to what end? Does anyone living on planet Earth today think that Trump, after hearing the pleas from Sulzberger, will suddenly stop attacking the press, will stop calling damaging news revelations "fake news," and will start considering the deep harm his words do to democracy?
Meanwhile, imagine if President Barack Obama had made it his goal to completely undercut the public's faith in the free press. Do you think that the Times publisher would be showing up at the Oval Office three years later, basically begging the Democrat to stop?
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.