The press helped build Donald Trump's lie; now it has to reckon with that

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Donald Trump rose to prominence and the presidency on the strength of his self-proclaimed mastery of “The Art of the Deal.” It was that business acumen, Trump claimed, that allowed him to turn a paltry loan from his father into a vast empire. But last week, The New York Times revealed that Trump was not the self-made billionaire he had claimed to be but rather the recipient of at least $413 million from his father, in part through tax schemes the paper described as “outright fraud.”

The painstaking investigation by Times reporters David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner is not just a skillful demolition of the origin story Trump told. It’s also a rebuke to generations of journalists who bolstered Trump’s tale. Trump provided the myth, but he needed the press to trumpet it out to the public. The result was a lie so durable that no single story, however brilliant, can unravel it.

As president, Trump has waged war on the “fake news” press. But long before he reached the Oval Office, he depended on overly trusting journalists to burnish his reputation. To their credit, the Times reporters are up front about the role their own paper played, noting early in the piece that his self-proclaimed narrative “was long amplified by often-credulous coverage from news organizations, including The Times.” In one particularly devastating example, they highlight a 1976 Times profile -- “a cornerstone of decades of mythmaking about his wealth” -- in which the then-30-year-old Trump simply passed off his father’s businesses as his own, claims the paper’s reporters obviously didn’t scrutinize at the time.

In the years that followed, media coverage would crystallize that image of Trump as a self-made success and deal-maker extraordinaire. Some pushed back on that story -- the Times article names four journalists and biographers whose work was particularly vital: Gwenda Blair, David Cay Johnston, Timothy L. O’Brien, and the late Wayne Barrett. But on balance, reporters were taken in by Trump’s skillful manipulation, vulnerable to his understanding that they were “always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better.” The early profiles of the 1970s would generate the magazine covers, tabloid frenzy, and talk show interviews of the 1980s. By the 1990s, Trump was a pop culture icon, a symbol of wealth and power. And in 2004, NBC launched the blockbuster reality show The Apprentice, bringing Trump’s preferred persona as a respected and ever-successful mogul into the homes of millions.

“Money is at the core of the brand Mr. Trump has so successfully sold to the world,” the Times’ reporters conclude. “Yet essential to that mythmaking has been keeping the truth of his money — how much of it he actually has, where and whom it came from — hidden or obscured. Across the decades, aided and abetted by less-than-aggressive journalism, Mr. Trump has made sure his financial history would be sensationalized far more than seen.”

Now Barstow, Craig, and Buettner have provided the aggressive journalism that had been lacking. But it remains to be seen whether the facts they have mustered can convince the public that the story so many of their colleagues helped Trump tell was a lie.

Trump has a built-in insurance policy against such reporting. No longer relying on the press to burnish his image, Trump has convinced his supporters that critical news outlets can’t be trusted. As the media critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it, “Before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is gone.” Trump’s supporters instead tune in to sycophantic right-wing outlets like Fox News, where the Times story has been alternately ignored and spun as a good thing for the president. The network’s audience isn’t going to believe a story from what Trump terms the “failing New York Times over the president himself.

And even audiences that might be open to learning new facts about Trump could simply miss them. The Times report was initially met with a flurry of secondary coverage by other media outlets. But that focus quickly dissipated in the face of the GOP push to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and by the end of the week, the story had largely faded from broadcast and cable news. On Saturday, the Times itself published an analysis finding that the previous week had been the best of Trump’s presidency. The piece did not mention the paper’s own bombshell report exposing how the president benefited from tax fraud.

The next day, perhaps in an effort to regain momentum, the Times republished its story in a separate section. But that morning, Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday -- weekly talk shows that focus on politics and historically set the news agenda for the week -- all completely ignored it. (The story was brought up in passing by a panelist on CNN's State of the Union.)

But for all that Trump has been the star and producer of his own long-running soap opera, he’s not its only author. And the Times report has brought new players onto the stage: New York City and state regulators plan to review the foundations of Trump’s fortune, while congressional Democrats are promising to force the release of the president’s tax returns if they regain power. If the Times investigation turns into a long-running storyline rather than a one-off episode, it might finally break through.