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Trump is news media's No. 1 salesman and threat

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/19/2017 Paul Brandus
President Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talk to reporters at the White House on Oct. 16, 2017. © Jim Lo Scalzo, epa President Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talk to reporters at the White House on Oct. 16, 2017.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

And the award for Salesman of the Year goes to (drumroll): Donald Trump! Heckuva job!

No, really: The president, ironically, deserves credit for helping to boost the economic fortunes of parts of the ailing journalism industry that he so loves to malign. His attacks, charges of “fake news” and calling journalists “enemies of the people” plays well with his base — which may be even more antagonistic toward the media than Trump purports to be. But they’re backfiring everywhere else.  

Call it the Trump Bump. Big media organizations — frequent targets of the president’s wrath — have been adding subscribers and viewers at a rapid clip over the past year. For example, what the president loves to call “the failing” New York Times now has more than 2 million digital subscribers (as of July 27). Data provided by The Times shows growth rocketing in fall 2016, coinciding with Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

The Washington Post, located in a gleaming new headquarters just blocks from the White House, crossed the million-subscriber milestone earlier this year. In an internal memo obtained by CNN, publisher Fred Ryan said the paper — now owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — has seen “exceptionally strong” growth, “with digital-only subscriptions more than doubling since Jan. 1,” and triple from September 2016 to September 2017.

Over in cable news land, where Trump coverage is practically 24/7, the perennial leader Fox News remained #1 in the third quarter — its 63rd quarter on top. But MSNBC, ground zero for the anti-Trump crowd, is now nipping at its heels — and on some nights, even passing it. Thanks to liberal voices like Rachel Maddow, MSNBC saw its key prime time audience jump 43%, posting the biggest numbers in its 21-year history.

Meantime, CNN (often called the “Clinton News Network,” though it has several pro-Trump commentators on the payroll) also said its third-quarter was its best ever in terms of total viewers (despite slipping in prime time). It seems that for better or worse (mostly the latter), viewers and readers can’t get enough of Trump’s reality show, and cable nets and news “papers” are only too happy to oblige. CBS executive chairman Les Moonves put it best in 2016: ”It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." 

It’s worth noting that tension between a president and the press is natural and healthy, and old as the republic itself. George Washington often complained about the newspapers of his day, some of which actually called him a traitor. Opposition press to Barack Obama labeled him in terms that were no less harsh, and to varying degrees, the 41 men in between had complaints of their own.

Speaking of Obama, in fact, people today forget how bad relations with the press were during his presidency. Here’s a reminder from the late, great New York Times media reporter David Carr, who wrote the following in 2013: 

"If you add up the pulling of news organization phone records (The Associated Press), the tracking of individual reporters (Fox News), and the effort by the current administration to go after sources (seven instances and counting in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the news media), suggesting that there is a war on the press is less hyperbole than simple math.”

That’s bad stuff, outrageous stuff. But Obama never called news organizations “fake.” He never called reporters “enemies of the people” or called on Congress to investigate the industry. He never said “It’s frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want,” as Trump did this week. And he never suggested, as Trump also did this week (and Richard Nixon did in the 1970s) that the government should look into whether a TV network (in this case NBC) should continue to have a government-issued operating license. Obama hated the press’s efforts to uncover his administration’s secrets. But he never questioned the institutional and constitutionally protected role that it plays in our country.

That’s what makes Trump different — and dangerous. This is not some academic issue. Just this week, Reporters Without Borders said press freedom in the United States ranks just 43rd in the world, down two spots from a year ago. The First Amendment is under assault in this country, from leaders who swore to “preserve, protect and defend” it.

A Gallup survey released in June said trust in media, while still low, is on the rise. That’s a reflection of the fact that more Americans — Trump supporters excepted — distrust this president, don’t buy what he's peddling, and are flocking to well-respected brands like The Times and The Post for the truth. We can thank not just the men and women who report each day with neither fear nor favor, but the president himself for inadvertently reminding us what a treasure we have in our free press. 

Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport.

 

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