Donald Trump was furious when a New York Times story chronicled his unsavory behavior with women. “False, malicious and libelous,” he tweeted. “No wonder” he added, the paper is failing.
Yet during the first presidential debate, Donald Trump cited no less than the same New York Times to bolster his argument that NATO is obsolete.
It’s not just the Times. Trump has a seesaw relationship with the news media that he works relentlessly in ways largely unnoticed by voters, all designed to help his campaign.
He frequently and publicly complains about negative coverage – which appeals to his anti-establishment base.
Yet he also loves to cite the news media, which helps give legitimacy to his arguments on issues like the economy or national security to other voters. Since his wife Melania’s ill-fated and plagiarized Republican National Convention speech, the Trump campaign routinely releases annotated versions of his remarks with dozens of citations from the media. And his campaign now frequently distributes articles from the same media that question or criticize rival Hillary Clinton.
Throughout, he gobbles up free airtime on cable news networks.
“He’s making them hostile witnesses, like reluctant validators,” said former Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin speechwriter Lindsay Hayes, a Republican who does not support Trump.
“In other words, if even The New York Times will say ‘We’ll kind of admit the truth on this one’ then, gee, it must be true.”
Trump skips most media outlets. Fewer than 20 have been subject to a negative tweet from the Republican nominee. Two outlets, CNN and The New York Times, regularly face Trump’s wrath, brand names that a relatively uninformed voter can recognize.
“He’s a guy that treasures or values earning media as much as earning votes,” said former Al Gore speechwriter Eric Schnure, a Democrat. “In the primary that became one and the same: You had Bush and Rubio spending millions, and media attention centered on Trump. Whether by design or default, part of it is strategy.”
He’s a guy that treasures or values earning media as much as earning votes.
Former Al Gore speechwriter Eric Schnure on Donald Trump
Hayes said Trump’s use of positive media coverage to bolster policy arguments wasn’t new among presidential candidates. Every fact she used writing speeches for George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney cited three different sources, ideally with a range of political viewpoints.
The difference is Trump cites them publicly, and repeatedly.
During their first debate, Trump named-dropped The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and McClatchy to bolster policy arguments or claims about Hillary Clinton.
“If you’re The New York Times and he’s giving a speech and he either references you and gets it right or references you and gets it wrong, now you’ve got to engage it,” Hayes said. “You see this on CNN a lot: He’ll call out CNN, and then they spend an entire panel talking about it.”
Certain presidential candidates “succeed by articulating a sense of grievance, and Trump fits into that category,” said former Bill Clinton speechwriter Andie Tucher, a Democrat. “Nixon was the one who invented the term ‘media’ rather than ‘news’ because media sounds conspiratorial. It allows anybody, no matter who, to have a scapegoat.”
The difference between Trump and candidates who frequently criticized the media, such as Nixon, is that Trump uses the same media scapegoats he bashes publicly to bolster policy arguments and claims against his opponent.
In his Republican National Convention speech, Trump used 12 different sources to back up a sentence that says, “When a secretary of state illegally stores her emails on a private server, deletes 33,000 of them so the authorities can’t see her crime, puts our country at risk, lies about it in every different form and faces no consequence – I know that corruption has reached a level like never before.”
Only one of the 12 sources used to back up that sentence is from a media outlet friendly to Trump.
Breitbart, formerly run by Trump’s campaign chief executive, is cited five times in the speech. The New York Times was cited 15 times and CNN appeared 26 times.
“Whether it is the primary candidates on the stage with him or the media that is covering him, nobody really knows what to do with him,” Hayes said. “It’s smart strategy, but it’s not good.”
Schnure said Trump hdsn’t changed his media approach since appearing on television as the star of “The Apprentice.”
“He’s running a presidential campaign relying on the same tools, devices and techniques that have helped him become a pop icon,” Schnure said.
Hayes likened Trump’s use – and misuse – of the media to the turning point of presidential coverage in the 1970s when Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace.
“We’re now in a situation which is basically the new Watergate, the new post-Watergate, which is what do you do with candidates that aren’t tethered to the facts? Do you cover them? Do you not cover them?”