President Trump rails against “fake news.” But just what is this so-called fake news, exactly? Let’s take an in-depth look at one piece that — in my opinion — perfectly exemplifies fake news.
“Trump Needs a Target to Stay Interested in His Campaign. For Now, It’s Biden,” said a New York Times headline on Monday.
The story was right on the mark: The next day, both Mr. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden lashed out at each other as they both stomped through Iowa, the first state in 2020 to vote on who will inhabit the White House.
But it was much of the content that was highly suspect: anonymous sources — or sometimes, no citation of a source at all; flat-out statements that were biased and steeped in opinion. Mind you, this was not a commentary or analysis piece. It was a news story written by esteemed news reporters, Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, that ran on A16, in the news section of the paper.
“Late at night, using his old personal cellphone number, President Trump has been calling former advisers who have not heard from him in years, eager to discuss his standing in the polls against the top Democrats in the field — specifically Joseph R. Biden Jr., whom he describes in those conversations as ‘too old’ and ‘not as popular as people think,’” said the lead.
Interesting, but where did that info come from? Who told the reporters what Mr. Trump had said, and why did the writers put the president’s words in quotes without attributing a source?
But the next paragraph was even more interesting.
“After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And when top-line details of the polling leaked, including numbers showing the president lagging in a cluster of critical Rust Belt states, Mr. Trump instructed aides to say publicly that other data showed him doing well.”
Well. Fascinating, right? But why no source at all for the information — which, we’ll note, quickly spread across the internet. “Trump is reportedly in denial about his campaign’s bleak internal polling,” Vox wrote.
Like the Times, Vox also didn’t bother with attribution: “During campaign rallies since he’s become president, President Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed polls that reflect poorly on him as somehow representing ‘suppression,’ or not including the 10 percent of people he thinks support him but refuse to say so publicly. But his denialism about bad polling now reportedly extends to polls conducted by his own campaign.”
Ah, they slipped in the new standby word, “reportedly.” Somebody said something, so we’re saying the same thing and fobbing it off on the first guys who said it. That’s good, right?
But I digress. Let’s go back to the big Times piece.
“In a recent overarching state-of-the-race briefing in Florida with Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, Mr. Trump was consistently distracted and wanted to discuss other things, according to people familiar with the meeting,” said the Times.
“People familiar with the meeting”? What does that mean?
In the next paragraph — citing no one, again — the writers say Mr. Trump doesn’t speak to aides “about what he hopes to accomplish” in a second term.
“Mr. Trump has griped about traveling too much, but then lashed out at aides, demanding to know, ‘Why am I not doing more rallies?’ He insists on having final approval over the songs on his campaign playlist, as well as the campaign merchandise, but he has never asked to see a budget for 2019.”
Again, a direct quote. Who said it? Someone “familiar with the things Trump says”? No clue. It’s just hanging there. Careful readers would no doubt wonder, but then, the readers of the Times mostly hate Mr. Trump, so they’ll swallow it hook, line and sinker.
The piece goes on and on, both with unsourced material and flat-out opinion that lacks any attribution. “But with a limited policy agenda and little interest in governing, Mr. Trump has been running for re-election virtually since the day he won.” Ouch.
That’s where journalism is today — and that’s why Trump complains about “fake news.” This is Journalism 101, people. As a reporter, say what you want, just back it up with sources — on the record, if you can. If you can’t, tell me why the reputed source knows anything.
“People familiar with the meeting”? That’s bush league, and you know it, New York Times.
So does President Trump.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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