That comes out even more clearly in the press ad, which is a series of manifesto-like statements that don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Again, the effect is po-faced and patronising. The truth is hard. It’s complicated. It’s probably too hard for you to figure out. Leave it to us. This is important.
The maddening thing is that this is a smart publication and a smart agency falling into a trap set by Trump – not because he’s some genius of persuasion, but because he communicates in such childishly big crayon scribbles that people miss how simple they are. In calmer times, the New York Times would never claim to be about ‘truth’. It’s about facts, which aren’t the same thing. As the old line goes, it’s about ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ – i.e. that meets certain standards of editorial rigour. That’s a much more meaningful, grounded thing to say than ‘The truth is more important than ever’.
They’ve been bounced into that position by the cartoonish rhetoric of Trump. It’s difficult to keep a cool head in such heated times, but I think the job of the ad agency should have been to get them to take a breath, avoid the obvious reaction, and reframe the whole argument in their favour.
I won’t presume to provide the whole answer, but I know where I’d start.
I’d list those negative preconceptions about the media and then go the other way. Instead of elitist, go popular and empowering. Instead of out-of-touch, go down-to-earth. Instead of self-appointed authority, go modest and democratic.
It’s not about the NYT being fake or true. It’s not about Trump being fake or true. It’s about the people. Truth is up to the people to decide. The NYT is a supporter of the people. It provides people with the tools to make up their own minds. It asks the questions and reports the answers. But always in service of the people. Make them the hero of the argument – they also happen to be the target market.
That could lead to something like:
Don’t count on the New York Times to tell you the truth
Don’t count on the President either. Or CNN. Or Fox. Or everyone on Twitter (sorry everyone on Twitter).
We know you’ll make up your own mind about the truth.
Our job is to help you put some of the pieces together.
We’ll provide verifiable facts, investigative reporting, and diverse opinions.
We’ll ask questions to people in power. And the madder they get, the more we’ll keep asking.
We’ll be a voice for the silent majority and the silenced minorities.
We’ll keep publishing all the news that’s fit to publish, online and in print.
And we’ll work with you to do it.
Send us your stories.
Tell us your truth.
We’re counting on you.
Even if you don’t like the ad, it’s a better strategy. It changes the conversation, instead of just continuing it.
But you could still say it’s too defensive. Another option would be to go on the attack. Make it about Trump, not you. The comically obvious thing about his ‘fake news’ attacks is that he’s trying to undermine the credibility of the people who are most likely to bring him down. It’s a hysterical pre-emptive tantrum because he’s scared. So point that out. Something like:
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 166 years of holding power to account, it’s this. The angrier they get, the louder they get, the more hostile they get – the more interested we get. And the more questions we ask.
That’s not the whole thing, but it’s something. It’s a counter-narrative. It means the next time he shouts 'Fake news', you’ve already framed it as a distraction technique. You could print a variation of that paragraph in small type on a giant poster site and promise to make the type bigger every time Trump says ‘Fake news’.
But probably the biggest ‘take the high ground’ move would be to ignore Trump altogether and use the moment as a platform to connect with the people. Even before Trump, the NYT had a problem with appearing elitist and old-fashioned – but the sheer extremism of the Trump attack is the perfect opportunity to reposition. Use the ads as an invitation to get people to send in their stories, or to launch a new journalism prize for rigorously researched articles by young people on issues that matter. Don’t try to make the ad the answer – do something new and grassrootsy, then talk about it.
Or don’t do any of the above, because someone somewhere will have a better idea – probably someone at the NYT or Droga5, because they're smart people. I don’t think this one nailed it, but it’s useful to talk about why, before the giant political whirlwind moves on somewhere else.