It is 10:30 a.m. and Maggie Haberman already looks like she’s put in a full day’s work. She is pale and has rings around her eyes, her hair is tied up in a ponytail. Haberman is a workhorse, but even so, she is “tired, very tired.”
The 43-year-old is a reporter at the New York Times. She has three children — and Donald Trump. Her day began at 6 a.m. and since then, she has written half a dozen tweets and her most recent story has already been online for a couple of hours. Now, on the way through the lobby to the elevator, her eyes and her fingers don’t leave her smartphone. Twitter, Facebook, email: Haberman reads, writes and talks all at the same time.
Haberman these days is one of the stars at the New York Times. She has known Trump personally for some time and covered his campaign, but she assumed that her life would quickly return to normal once Hillary Clinton moved into the White House. Instead, her days now sometimes include 20 hours of work, up to 130 tweets sent — and a new mission. “We are all exhausted,” she says. But this is the story of their lifetime.
Why are they working themselves to the bone? Why are journalists needed? Donald Trump provides an answer every day. For the 1,300 journalists who work for the Times, this president is a nightmare and a dream-come-true all at the same time.
In the morning, Haberman wakes up with the president. Like many of her colleagues, she has set up a Twitter alarm on her mobile phone. When Trump once again blasts the New York Times as “fake news,” as he so often does, the probability is high that they once again hit the mark: with exclusive stories and facts. Or perhaps just with details.
Together with a fellow reporter, Haberman wrote an article in early February about the first two weeks of the Trump administration. The piece discussed the chaos that reigned in the White House, the frustrations of his staff and the lonely president who watched TV in the evenings in his bathrobe. Hardly any article has enraged the president to such a degree. His spokesman, Sean Spicer, accused the Times of lying and claimed that the president didn’t even own a bathrobe. Trump himself tweeted that the “failing New York Times” was inventing facts and sources. That it was “fake news.” Haberman, though, is familiar with such accusations. It has become the standard tone between the Trump administration and what is perhaps the most important newspaper in the world.
No other media outlet has become the target of Trump’s rage to the degree that the New York Times has. Since announcing his candidacy in summer 2015, he has directed at least 70 tweets at the paper, calling it “disgusting” and “dishonest,” a “dying newspaper” that “writes total fiction.” It is “irrelevant,” “failing” and “a joke” with “dwindling subscribers and readers.” It is, in short, “the enemy of the American People.”
The newsroom itself keeps close track of the attacks and even ran a widely shared piece in which every single one of the tweets — along with those pertaining to other news outlets and sundry Trump targets — was listed and linked to. Each one of them is a badge of honor, proof of the newspaper’s relevance and of the fact that Trump reads it and takes it seriously.
A month ago, when his health care reform plan failed and Trump looked like the emperor with no clothes, he called two reporters from the Oval Office to share his side of the story. One of those was Haberman.
Six days later, though, the Times once again “disgraced the media world.” Trump even threatened the paper with strengthening the country’s libel laws — only to again approach Haberman three weeks ago, this time to receive her for an exclusive interview in the White House.
It is a constant and repeating cycle, clearly illustrating the passionate love-hate relationship that exists between the Times and Trump. The president hates the paper yet yearns for its praise. The Times, meanwhile, isn’t shy about criticizing Trump, yet the president has presented the paper with a unique opportunity for digital success in the future.
Sign up for our newsletter — and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.
Trump behaves not unlike a small child that bites and scratches to get the loving attention it wants. But it isn’t the Times‘ job to praise the president. “The truth doesn’t have sides,” says Haberman.
Thus, Trump’s next Twitter attack is no doubt just around the corner — and that has proven to be the best thing that can happen to the paper. Its subscriber base grows with each new tweet and it sold more than a quarter-million new digital subscriptions in the last quarter of 2016. It’s widely referred to as the “Trump bump.”
As such, Trump has unintentionally answered a question that the Times has been asking for years: What must the 165-year-old Gray Lady do to survive in the fickle world of digital media? The boom in digital subscribers has provided the paper with a welcome answer: It doesn’t have to blow up watermelons on Facebook to find success on the internet, nor does it have to resort to light-hearted listicles.
“With the journalism we are doing — the big news stories, the investigative reporting — readers are coming to us in dramatic numbers. That fires people up,” says Dean Baquet, 60, who has been editor-in-chief of the New York Times for the past three years and the first African-American to ever run the paper. As a schoolchild, he used to mop the floor of his parents’ restaurant in New Orleans — and now he runs a newspaper that is synonymous with the New York elite.
His small corner office lies on the edge of the newsroom on the third floor, his desk covered with books and notes. Baquet quickly grabs a bottle of mineral water from the minibar before sinking into his black leather sofa. He has a gentle, distinguished appearance, with a lavender pocket square highlighting his dark suit and polished shoes. He has a warm, friendly voice.
Nothing, Baquet says, has motivated the newsroom to the degree Trump has. “The size and scope of this story are unique. And we are uniquely set up to cover it.” A president who is loose with the facts is something of a test of the paper’s fortitude. With 1,300 journalists, the New York Times is one of the largest news producers in the world, with the Washington Post employing just half as many. Following the election, the paper’s publisher freed up an additional $5 million to hire more journalists in Washington, D.C., with an emphasis on investigative reporters. “Trump gets the aggressive, tough coverage as is warranted by his position,” Baquet says. “It bothers him.”
Its critical reporting alone, however, isn’t enough to explain Trump’s fury with the Times. CNN and the Washington Post are likewise aggressive in their reporting on the president, and even the otherwise conservative Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Trump clings to his false assertions “like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.” And yet Trump’s most hated enemy remains the New York Times.
Baquet has his own explanation, one that perhaps only he can relate without sounding arrogant. “Donald Trump grew up in Queens, he moved to Manhattan. He was not raised in the New York elite, but he wants the approval of this elite. And the New York Times is part of the New York City elite.”
Trump, though, has never received the recognition he expected from his hometown newspaper. Indeed, the Trump-Times relationship is a long story of unrequited love.
To trace that story, it is helpful to visit Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the Times who lives in an Upper West Side apartment with a view of Central Park. A chaise lounge chair is sitting at the windows and orchids bloom nearby. There is a grand piano in the living room and an office crammed with books. Goldberger embodies everything that Trump scorns because he doesn’t possess it himself: style, elegance and intellect.
Goldberger worked for the Times for 25 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his architecture criticism. When Trump published his book “The Art of the Deal” in 1987, in which he gloated that he was New York’s biggest real estate developer, Goldberger wrote that Trump Tower symbolizes the greed, the glitter and the superficiality of the Trump world, one in which money is mistaken for taste.
Trump wrote a furious letter to the New York Times in response, as he so often did in the pre-Twitter era. Goldberger, he wrote, had no taste whatsoever and was the laughing stock of the New York real estate scene. Plus, he added, Goldberger’s books hadn’t sold nearly as well as his “because they are unnecessary (and boring).” But Trump’s “greatest disappointment” was in the New York Times itself for granting Goldberger a platform. Trump extended a couple of invitations to the journalist to come to his Mar-a-Lago club, but Goldberger declined to accept. He did, however, once go out for a burger with the real estate tycoon. Trump flattered him as “the most important critic” and as a brilliant writer — the whole palette of compliments. “When he realized that he could not charm us into saying something nice and that he could not control what I might write, I would be the stupidest idiot in the world.”
That, however, did not prevent Trump from printing two nice lines Goldberger had written about the Trump Tower on an advertising poster and hanging it in the lobby — clearly labeled so that everyone could see it came from the New York Times, the highest authority whose verdict was important in New York high society.
A Laughing Stock Trapped in an Oversized Ego
Trump expected gratitude from his hometown paper. In the 1970s, New York was in bad shape, with an extremely high crime rate. Those who were able, left the filthy metropolis. It was Trump, though, who was the first to invest in the city and build, being rewarded with tax subsidies and special permits. But even as city leaders and tabloid papers like the New York Post idolized the real estate investor, he remained little more than a rich clown for the Times, a laughing stock trapped in an oversized ego.
Part of his disappointment with the paper may have been informed by the expensive ads he bought in the Times to sell his luxury apartments and office buildings. Those with money in the city read the New York Times — and not the yellow press.
In 2010, Trump even sacrificed his ego for a marketing campaign in the Times. In an ad, he is quoted as saying: “It is well-known that one of the first things I do every day is read the New York Times.” The paper “has consistently delivered the right target audiences for our projects, and has helped us build the world-renowned Trump brand.”
Journalists at the Times proved insusceptible to the flattery. But Trump found an audience in the tabloid press. His weddings, his divorces, his wealth: for the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Trump was a star. He would call their reporters to hand feed them stories, pictures and quotes — and all of it was published. Among the reporters responsible for the city’s most important gossip page, the New York Post‘s Page Six, Trump was known as “President of Page Six.”
“Trump had near control of the tabloids,” says Jim Rutenberg. “Because of the access, he could almost dictate where the story went. He never quite had that at the New York Times.”
Rutenberg is a media critic for the New York Times. He began his career in the tabloids and got along well with Trump until he wrote a story in 2002 for the Times about the falling television ratings for Trump’s Miss Universe pageants. Trump’s agent called Rutenberg with Trump in the room, who yelled that the Times journalist was a “scumbag.” “I was just accurately reflecting the television ratings, nothing more,” says Rutenberg.