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Trump And 'New York Times' Publisher Clash Over 'Fake News'


President Trump has made attacks on the media part of his presidential identity. He lashes out at the so-called fake news at every turn. He has particular ire for CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Over the weekend, the president got into a public spat with the Times, specifically the publisher of the paper A.G. Sulzberger. The conflict follows a private meeting that the two had on July 20. Yesterday President Trump tweeted about that meeting. And the publisher of the Times has responded with a blunt statement of his own saying President Trump mischaracterized that meeting.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is here to tell us more. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, so this meeting was supposed to be off the record, then it wasn't because the president tweeted about it. And then it launched this whole tit for tat. What's the gist of it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the president sort of sent off this missive yesterday morning. He said, had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, spent much time talking about vast amounts of fake news being put out by the media and how that fake news has morphed into the phrase enemy of the people. Sad. So A.G. Sulzberger is the younger Arthur Sulzberger. He took over as publisher at the beginning of the year. He was invited earlier this month to the White House. He took along the editorial page editor James Bennett. And also Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, was there.

You know, that wasn't quite the full account of what had happened. Sulzberger both put out a statement - I've also learned what he said privately in the 24 hours since the president tweets. Sulzberger says he told the president about 20 minutes in, look; the phrase fake news is untrue, and it's harmful. And then he also went on to say, I'm really more concerned about your using the phrase the enemy the people. And Sulzberger said, you know, I warned this is contributing to rising threats against journalists and will lead to violence.

After that statement was put out, Trump lashed out, sent out a series of tweets, talked about Trump Derangement Syndrome, talked about the press wasn't covering him fairly or positively and then talked about, as he often does, the failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post as though the Times is failing, which - actually, its financial circumstances are improved. So then it sort of unleashed this barrage from the president.

MARTIN: I mean, the whole - the crux of the president's arguments when he makes them is that, hey, I'm not sowing the distrust. The American people just don't trust the media. He says it's at an all-time low, America's faith in the press. Is that true?

FOLKENFLIK: There is truth to that in the sense that mistrust in the media is at pretty much peak highs. And there is, you know, strong belief of bias by the press. Let's not take the president as an independent observer of that circumstance. He has been picking up on longstanding and simmering trends and tensions about the press and driven them sky-high because he's made identification of mistrust of the press in some ways a very partisan issue.

Certainly if you look at self-identified Republicans, they tend to be just way off the charts in terms of mistrust of the press. But that's really a surrogate for how much they believe in the president himself. You know, he's been trying to very intentionally drive that mistrust all along, as he's told aides over the years.

MARTIN: So you mentioned that Sulzberger brought up the idea that the president's language, how he talks about the press being the enemy of the people, is undermining democratic norms not just in America but around the world. Is there any evidence to that? I mean, how do you make that connection?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's fascinating. Sulzberger's told people privately in the last 24 hours that Trump perked up as he raised this because Trump in some ways thought he was going to make an ask, like, hey, you should go easier on us. And Sulzberger has said that he said, no, no, don't go easy on us. You can attack me by name, attack The New York Times by name. That's fine. What you're doing is dangerous both domestically and particularly abroad.

You are giving cover to not really allies of America but autocrats - you know, the leaders of Russia, Syria, you know, Strong in Egypt, Philippines and other places - to attack journalists and not just people who are doing so irresponsibly but people who are providing scrutiny and, you know, an independent check on those people's regimes as best they can. Trump said, according to what Sulzberger said, you've given me a lot to think about.

MARTIN: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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