Eye of the storm.

Photographer: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Trump and the Media Play the Blame Game

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."
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A richly reported New York Times account on Sunday of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign -- and his refusal to stick to the script his advisers have written -- struck a chord with the Republican nominee.

As Trump is wont to do when he feels attacked, he took to social media, launching a tweetstorm of criticism at the Times that included this entry:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

Two days earlier, on the heels of other media dissections of Trump’s serial errors and outrages (including his Second Amendment comments), the developer was more playful about his back-and-forth with the press:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
I love watching these poor, pathetic people (pundits) on television working so hard and so seriously to try and figure me out. They can't!
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

Yet however much Trump takes the media to task, and however much he revels in pretending to be inscrutable, he has spent several decades cultivating the attention of reporters, writers, talk-show hosts, and just about anyone else with a pen, camera, microphone or keyboard.

Trump’s rise in the 1970s and 1980s -- from son of an outer-borough New York real-estate developer to one of Manhattan’s most talked-about builders -- relied in large part on his incessant courting of the press. The more he engaged with the media in those early years, the more he realized how eager some interviewers were to repackage his lavishly embroidered pitches.

“One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better,” he advised readers of “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 autobiography. “The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”

Trump’s deals, no matter their size, got reams of media attention back then, as did his marriage to his first wife, Ivana. When that world started to become unglued -- when Trump gradually lost control of some prized real-estate holdings, a hotel and an airline; when he and his casino businesses slipped toward bankruptcy; when his marriage unraveled into divorce -- the media’s focus became much more critical.

Trump’s response to those troubles was to blame them, in part, on the media and its sharp edges, rather than on himself. 

“I thought I knew a lot about the press -- nobody controls the press and only a fool would say they do -- but I thought I knew a lot, I thought I understood the press, and I really realized that I didn’t,” he told Larry King in a TV interview in 1990. “The press is very dishonest.”

More than a decade later, revived by the success of “The Apprentice,” Trump still blamed the media for being too hard on him during his earlier business debacles.

“I think I get the worst press of any human being in the world,” he told an audience of PR professionals in 2004. “I take it very personally.”

I’ll note here that Trump has taken my coverage of him very personally, too. He sued me for libel in 2006, saying a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” unfairly described his business history and wealth. The suit was dismissed.

Trump’s ability to work the press has always been impressive. Ask any reporter who covered Trump before the election, and he or she will tell you that getting on the phone with the man was remarkably (and refreshingly) easy. You would call Trump Tower’s main number, identify yourself as a reporter, and in short order you would find yourself on the line with Trump himself, often for lengthy chats.

And it wasn’t just a one-way street.

Trump stayed in touch, sending letters and press clippings to reporters he was courting, just to keep them up to speed on cool developments. (He doesn’t use e-mail.) Clips he sent to me were often annotated in big block letters with helpful guidance like “Interesting!” or “See!” in the margins. Letters, bearing Trump’s seismograph-like signature, would bring tidings about “The Apprentice” and its ratings; magazine photos of Trump’s third wife, Melania, in skimpy, revealing outfits; and even copies of advertisements Trump was proud of (one for a laundry detergent Trump was being paid to promote bore a note from him to me reading: “Big Bucks!”).

Trump once told me that he forged such strong media bonds because he enjoyed the sense of power it gave him -- particularly the power to promote himself and fire back at critics.

“I have one asset that I think nobody else has. And that’s that if somebody writes about me badly, I sort of own my own newspaper in a way,” he told me a decade ago. “I do have the ability to fight back in the media.”

Trump made that observation in the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter era, and the power he spoke of has only grown since then. The Donald Trump who barreled into the presidential arena in the summer of 2015, and then began shredding his Republican opponents, was someone borne aloft and emboldened by social media and the attendant frenzy of free and sometimes lackadaisical media coverage -- much like the young developer and media creation who began making a splash in New York real estate in the 1980s and found himself fawned over by some talk shows and gossip writers.

“I use the media they way the media uses me -- to attract attention. Once I have that attention, it’s up to me to use it to my advantage,” Trump wrote in “Crippled America,” a book he published last fall. “I learned a long time ago that if you’re not afraid to be outspoken, the media will write about you. ... So sometimes I make outrageous comments and give them what they want -- viewers and readers -- in order to make a point. I’m a businessman with a brand to sell.”

During the 2016 presidential race, most media outlets haven’t been entirely accommodating of Trump, nor have they been entirely critical. Instead, a large swath of the media spent the better part of a year getting its footing and waiting to see how seriously to take the phenomenon. Now that Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for president, he’s being subjected to a level of media scrutiny he has never experienced before.

A significant portion of the Trump campaign’s damage is self-inflicted, and inflicted by Trump himself. Voters may have been content to watch Trump beat up unloved figures like politicians and reporters during the GOP primaries, but it appears that they drew the line at Trump’s attacks on more sympathetic targets, such as a judge, a reporter with a disability, and a grieving military family.

If Trump’s problems continue unabated, expect him to step up his media attacks -- much as he did in the early 1990s when his real-estate and casino businesses began imploding.

In fact, those expectations have come to pass. Last summer, when Trump was criticized for suggesting that a reporter, Megyn Kelly, had questioned him aggressively because she was menstruating, he said the scrutiny was “fueled by the press.” When he lost the Iowa caucus in February, he said the media didn’t cover his loss “fairly.” When reporters questioned in May how much money he had actually donated to veterans, Trump said he had “never received such bad publicity” and that the press was “unbelievably dishonest.” In June he told the “Today” show that the “press is treating me unbelievably unfairly.”

What not to expect amid all of this? Trump admitting that he and his campaign have made any mistakes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net