On Sunday, Donald Trump tweeted.
Most of the time, the president’s tweets are occasions for any day ending with the letter “y.” But Sunday’s missive was particularly notable for what he said. Or didn’t say. Honestly, it was kind of confusing.
Trump’s tweet revealed the fact that he’d recently met with New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger at the White House. Their discussion apparently focused on the challenges facing journalism and journalists in 2018, but like much of what Trump tweets, the meaning is open to interpretation.
Read it for yourself:
Had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of the New York Times. Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, “Enemy of the People.” Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2018
“Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into the phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,'” Trump wrote, concluding the note with one of his presidential trademarks: “Sad!”
Is he saying it’s a bad thing that “Fake News” media has become synonymous with the phrase “Enemy of the People”? Does he not realize he’s almost entirely responsible for both of those terms being applied to mainstream media? No one expects Trump to actually own some bad thing that he’s done, but it’s not at all clear what’s “Sad!” here.
Sulzberger himself swooped in a short time later with some clarity. Just a few hours after the president’s tweet surfaced, the New York Times issued a statement explaining what the White House meeting was about — it was originally an off-the-record chat, but Trump’s public mention of it prompted the NYT‘s corroborating response — and offering some insight into what Trump might have been saying.
Here’s Sulzberger’s full statement on the July 20 meeting, where he was joined by the Times Editorial Page editor, James Bennet:
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.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.
I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.
Throughout the conversation I emphasized that if President Trump, like previous presidents, was upset with coverage of his administration he was of course free to tell the world. I made clear repeatedly that I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.
Given this additional context, it seems at least possible that Trump’s tweet might be agreeing with Sulzberger’s point (also made by plenty of others), that the “enemy of the people” rhetoric fosters a dangerous environment for those who work in the media. Don’t take my word for it; just look at what happened with the Capital Gazette.
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, I hope we can all agree that people being murdered just for doing their jobs is a bad thing. Dropping the “enemy of the people” rhetoric wouldn’t magically fix things overnight — damage has been done already — but at least it would be a start.