Tom Burton: how the gray lady narrates Trump's world

By Tom Burton

May 5, 2017

Donald Trump may want to describe the New York Times as failing, but love or hate the “gray lady”, its role as recorder and interpreter of American national life has never been so important. 

Trump derides the paper as a promulgator of fake news, but the reality is it is arguably the primary form of daily information and insight for the world’s vast diaspora of US watchers. As Trump has fulfilled every prediction he would be unpredictable, the Times has seen its readership soar with record jumps in subscriptions and visits.

Several years ago the Times took the determined position that it would become a global news outlet and has been methodically expanding its geographical footprint, this week launching its Australian edition. While the Times’ powerful brand has made our local papers — whatever is left of them — anxious, it is the forensic coverage of the Trump regime that is making it THE window through which many of the world’s foreign policy intelligentsia are getting much of their understanding of the often bizarre maneuverings of the Trump White House.

Australian anthem being sung at Coral Sea commemorations
Coral Sea commemorations in New York today. Source: ABC.

And today with Trump finally meeting Prime Minister Turnbull for a truncated and impressively ceremonial catch up in New York, it will be the Times’ version of events and important background details that will frame the impact and understanding of the meeting for the large group of alliance watchers in Canberra, and elsewhere around the region.

Talk to any senior foreign affairs official and it is stark how indispensable the Times has become for professional diplomats as their primary source of information about the arrival of the Trump dynasty in Washington, DC.

Trump is a true outsider, and most DC embassies, including Australia’s, were caught surprised when Trump pulled off an unlikely win, sending their diplomats scrambling to make connections with new administration.

The revamped Washington Post (now owned by Amazon’s Steve Bezos) and specialist political players like Politico offer quality reporting of everything inside the DC beltway. But at a time where most media brands have shuttered their foreign offices, it has been the Times’ global focus and vast international network of bureaus and stringers that have made it indispensable for the large group of professional observers, whose job requires them to have an accurate view of the US.

As Trump has flexed his international muscle and opened up large uncertainties about US policy across multiple hotspots and continents, it is the Times’ local coverage, combined with its powerful and voluminous reporting of the Trump administration, that has made it so influential.

It may irk the president publicly that the global narrative of his tyro government is being scripted by his liberal nemesis, but the reality is the Times has remarkable private access to Trump and his office.

Politicians the world over will publicly deride media brands they say are against them, while openly dealing with their local reporters in efforts to influence coverage. Reporters such as Maggie Haberman and her colleague Glenn Thrush clearly have a direct line into all levels of the White House and both are must-reads for serious DC observers.

And as Trump has begun to apply his idiosyncratic muscular style to various international hot spots it has been the Times’ detailed on-the-ground coverage that has really stood it apart. Witness this report about the location of the USS Carl Vinson, the massive aircraft carrier that was meant to be spearheading Trump’s so-called “armada” that was heading to North Korea in a very public show of force by the new administration.

Days later a trade publication had noted an image of the Vinson steaming far south of Singapore, where it had been part of long-planned exercises with the Australian Navy. With impressive detail and obvious professional craft the Times report detailed the facts from multiple parts of the globe and the obvious political implications of the Vinson going AWOL, infuriating local Seoul media, and leaving Trump’s team scrambling yet again, in the type of Keystone cops behaviour that has accompanied much of the early administration’s actions.

But it was this week’s report by Pentagon reporter Helene Cooper about US Navy patrols being ordered to defer freedom of navigation exercises in the most sensitive parts of the South China Sea that demonstrates just how influential the Times, with its mix of forensic on-the-ground reporting and intelligent analysis, is to a world scrambling to make sense of what some have called the “mad king”.

Australia has long asserted the right to steam its ships freely through what the alliance claims to be international waters, but here was a detailed report about the US, in practice, deferring to Chinese sensibilities in the disputed areas. The regional interplay of the US and China is foundational for Australia’s strategic positioning, with Canberra perennially anxious it will be forced to take sides between its dominant military partner and its principal economic partner. The NYT report detailing the front line of US-China relations as it is really being played out punctured Trump’s claim that he is standing up to China over its territorial expansionism.

In the US the Times has long been derided by conservatives as a liberal propagandist institution, the epitome of east coast elites seeking to impose their leftist views on the rest of the country. Trump gleefully joined this bandwagon during his campaign and has continued to deride the Times, taking it to task yet again in his weekend west Pennsylvania rally to mark 100 days as president.

Like many, the Times did not pick a Trump win, confirming its bias for many of his base supporters. Many of the Times’ commentators openly proselytise a global liberalism that goes to the heart of the deep divide between Trump’s neo-nationalists and those who push for a continuation of the proud internationalism that has served the US largely well since World War II.

That it is the much-hated Times which is now writing for the world the history of the 45th presidency is an irony not lost on anyone.

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