Hot take: Is Trump actually a shill for The New York Times?

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The New York Times headquarters building in Manhattan.
The New York Times headquarters building in Manhattan. Credit: iStock

The conventional wisdom is that tensions between Donald Trump and The New York Times have reached a whole new level, with the president and the paper trading Twitter fire on Sunday over a meeting the president revealed he had with the paper's publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. For instance, the Times' crosstown rival, the New York Daily News, devoted a portion of its front page this morning to the headline "'Enemy' of truth: Trump spouts latest lies in Twitter war with media honcho."

But what was really going on with Trump and Sulzberger's secret summit?

First, just to review the Twitter tape, Trump tweeted this Sunday morning:

And then the Times released a response from Sulzberger via Twitter:

In introducing the statement, the paper's comms team first revealed that "On July 20th, A.G. went to the White House, accompanied by James Bennet, who oversees the editorial page of The Times" after Trump aides requested an off-the-record meeting. Sulzberger's written response reads, in part,

My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president's deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric. 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."

(Keep reading here.)

Let's consider the larger context of the meeting for a moment:

We didn't find out about it until after it happened. (Did intelligence chief Dan Coats even know about it? Probably not.) There are no known recordings of it. And look again at Trump's tweet above: He characterized the face-to-face as "a very good and interesting meeting" and then went on about "the media" and "Fake News" without specifically implicating the Times. In other words, he deferentially avoided bad-mouthing Sulzberger or his paper while still throwing red meat to his base with a general anti-media message.

Now let's consider the recent historical content of The New York Times in the Trump era. In short, it's doing incredibly well. In February, as Ad Age reported, NYT reader revenue surged past $1 billion for the first time, thanks in particular to a record-high 2.6 million digital-only subscriptions, with digital-only sub revenue rising a remarkable 46 percent in 2017, to $340 million. At the time, Sulzberger coyly referred to being "particularly pleased to be seeing strong retention from the large group of new subscribers who came to The Times late last year"—which Times politics reporter Sydney Ember then helpfully translated as "Trump bump" subscribers.

Fast-forward to now, when we've just learned that Trump and Sulzberger had a secret summit meeting that Trump was oddly deferential about, and which gave Sulzberger the opportunity to once again strongly position his paper as a champion of journalism and free speech.

What happens next? Surely another "Trump bump."

On the face of it, Trump has made a habit of acting all tough in regard to The New York Times (though conspicuously not right after meeting with its leader)—and in doing so he's just been helping the paper soar and grow ever more powerful.

By Sunday afternoon, in the wake of Sulzberger's statement (which, also conspicuously, Trump did not specifically reference), Trump suddenly remembered to refer to the NYT as "the failing New York Times" as part of a four-part tweetstorm (here's the Fox News take: "Trump fires back at 'insane' media after NY Times publisher calls rhetoric 'divisive' and 'dangerous'").

It calls to mind Trump's counterspin in the wake of the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit, when he said "We're doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia."

Now, in the wake of the Sulzberger-Trump summit, imagine that statement but with "The New York Times" in place of "Russia."

Anyway, coincentally, or not, the Times has a special 50 percent-off subscription deal on offer today.

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