MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The publisher of The New York Times is denouncing President Trump for saying the paper had committed virtual treason. The publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, contends the president has crossed a line. And he's arguing his case on the opinion pages of the Times' rival, The Wall Street Journal. NPR's David Folkenflik spoke to Sulzberger earlier today and has the story.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Trump loves to denounce the media. And he especially loves to denounce The New York Times. It's kind of his move.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Failing New York Times.
The failing New York Times.
Not that I respect The New York Times. I call it the failing New York Times.
FOLKENFLIK: New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger says he's fine with that and says he told the president so at an Oval Office meeting earlier this year. But Sulzberger says he asked the president to stop calling the press the enemy of the people. Trump kept doing it with sobering implications, especially abroad.
A G SULZBERGER: I told him we are already seeing the effects there. World leaders were literally citing fake news in justifying sweeping crackdowns on the press. So that's censorship. That's harassment. That's jailing and even murder.
FOLKENFLIK: As a stark example, take the murder of The Washington Post's Jamal Khashoggi by forces linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This past weekend, Trump tweeted that the Times had committed virtual treason.
SULZBERGER: The more I sat with that word, the more I felt like it demanded a response.
FOLKENFLIK: Some of Trump's critics say his rhetoric is better ignored. Sulzberger says treason is one of the few crimes in the federal code that carry a death penalty.
SULZBERGER: To me, accusing The New York Times of treason is more than an attack on a single news organization. It's an attack on the institution of a free press in this country.
FOLKENFLIK: It's a precarious moment, as Sulzberger says, for journalism, with the bottom falling out of budgets for local newspapers, attacks on journalists here in the U.S. and the use of the Justice Department to challenge CNN's parent company. And yet the Times has prospered in the age of Trump, adding millions of subscribers as it leans into the conflict with investigative stories, yes, but also tough rhetoric and glamorous TV series about its reporting. Some critics argue it's embracing the fight for financial, as well as principled reasons.
SULZBERGER: I really reject that characterization.
FOLKENFLIK: Again, A. G. Sulzberger.
SULZBERGER: This is not a time when journalism is easy or prosperous. And Trump is a norm-shattering president who has already transformed a lot of what politics looks like in this country, and that's an important story.
FOLKENFLIK: In this case, Sulzberger says, The New York Times checked with Trump administration national security officials before reporting that the U.S. is conducting cyberattacks on Russia's electrical grid. None said the nation's security would be compromised by the story. The funny thing is that, for decades, Trump has sought favorable press treatment, especially from the Times. So as Trump opens his re-election campaign, he's granting interviews to ABC News, Time Magazine, Telemundo, NBC's Meet the Press. And yet he's also launching his campaign with anti-press rhetoric like this...
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TRUMP: That is a lot of fake news back there. That's a lot.
FOLKENFLIK: Sulzberger says that after Trump's treason line, there's nowhere else for the president's rhetoric to go. The Times' publisher says he fears that words will become official action and that that's why he re-entered the fray. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.