Is the New York Times vs. the Washington Post vs. Trump the last great newspaper war?
I. Leaks and Geeks
It was wheels-up at Joint Base Andrews as Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, settled into the Air Force One press cabin on May 19 at the start of a presidential flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Then his cell phone rang with a heads-up from his boss, Washington-bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, that the paper was about to break a big story: Donald Trump had denounced James Comey—whom he had just fired as F.B.I. director—as a “nut job” during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. He had also told the Russians that Comey’s ouster relieved “great pressure” on him just as the F.B.I. investigation of the Trump campaign and contacts with Russian officials seemed to be gathering momentum.
The airplane was aloft when the two television sets in the aft cabin, both turned to the Fox News channel, flashed bulletins about the story. But moments later, the same TV sets were touting another revelation, this one from The Washington Post—Baker’s alma mater. The Post was reporting that the F.B.I. probe had identified “a current White House official as a significant person of interest.”
“It wasn’t even five minutes,” recalled Baker, who has trouble, like most people, keeping track of the competing Post–Times exclusives about the Trump administration that have dominated the media world for months. Two revived bastions of Old Media are engaged in a duel that resembles the World War II rivalry of American general George S. Patton and British general Sir Bernard Montgomery as they scrambled to be first to capture Messina. There is a sense, too, that something fundamental about the nation is at stake. The Washington Post now proclaims every day in its print and online editions, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
The ongoing tit for tat helps explain the online-traffic records for both newspapers and why they are, more than ever, the tip sheets and storyboards for cable and broadcast news. So the Post discloses that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians; then the Times discloses that Comey memorialized an Oval Office meeting in which the president allegedly pressured him to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials. In headlines, they both question the honesty of Trump, even using the once taboo words “lie” and “lies.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, traces the use of those words in his newspaper to Trump’s lies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. To have not used them, he told me, “would have been screwing around with the English language.” At the Post, Glenn Kessler’s interactive Fact Checker graphic keeps a tally of Trump’s false and misleading claims as president. (As of late July: 836.) It was a Post story which broke the news that fake Time magazine covers of a pre-presidential Trump (“HITTING ON ALL FRONTS . . . EVEN TV!”) had been hung prominently at some of his resorts. Meanwhile, a Times bombshell revealed that Trump’s son Donald junior, along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had met, two weeks after Trump’s nomination, with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who was said to be offering dirt on Hillary Clinton—leaving himself open to charges of attempted collusion with a foreign government. Both papers are windows on—and vehicles for—the animus between Trump and the intelligence community, and thus for what Baquet concedes have been unceasing leaks from a Trump-wary bureaucracy. (“Remarkably easy” is how he described some of the reporting.)
Read more at Washington Post.