This is a familiar beat. The Washington Post (or just as easily, the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Vogue, Tiger Beat, or Sports Illustrated) breaks some blockbuster story about a smoking gun that will surely put Trump behind bars (or before the second impeachment acquittal, out of office forever). The story gets legs all over the media. The End gets nearer, the Walls close in, yada yada.
It turns out the story is fake and poorly sourced.
Trumpists pounce. The Trump hunters sheepishly retreat, while cable news executives urge editors on with chants of “more Trump, more Trump!” And we do it all over again. You might have heard about the latest version of this, but if you haven’t, here’s a quick summary.
The story du jour is a conversation then-President Donald Trump had with Frances Watson, the chief investigator who works for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
The Washington Post reported on this conversation based on a source’s recollection of the call. Then all the media Trump hunters “independently confirmed” this information. The reports mentioned that Trump told Watson to “find the fraud” and that she’d be a “national hero” for exposing it. But Trump never said that, and now a recording of the call has surfaced.
WaPo printed a rare correction. Usually they just let these things hang there for years.
Correction: Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator. The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to “find the fraud” or say she would be “a national hero” if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find “dishonesty” there. He also told her that she had “the most important job in the country right now.” A story about the recording can be found here. The headline and text of this story have been corrected to remove quotes misattributed to Trump.
They, of course, ran a fresh story about the recording, with an interesting twist.
When The Post first reported on the call, state officials said they did not believe that a recording existed. Officials located the recording on a trash folder on Watson’s device while responding to a public records request, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal process.
Now the questions, conspiracy theories, and typical tut-tutting of media critics, both inside and outside of journo world.
Strieff from RedState got out his big hammer and swung it at Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.
Fuchs is Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s former campaign manager, both for his successful 2015 run for the Georgia legislature and his 2018 run for Secretary of State. She’ll have to answer for her own motives in making up a conversation and seeking out a national media outlet to distribute the falsehood. Just joking. Of course, she won’t have to answer for squat because “believe women” and #OrangeManBad. I’d just note that if you check the story archive of Amy Gardner, it looks like Gardner was using Fuchs for stories for some months. And there is also the small matter of how the only recording of this call was deleted and discovered in a computer “trash” folder. Because you delete copies of phone calls from the President of the United States to state election functionaries all the time, but, I suspect, any innate sense of curiosity over this will be suppressed.
The Federalist’s Mark Hemingway focused his laser gun on the “fabricated quotes” printed in the media, and its link to the (gasp!) evil Democrats.
In sum: The Washington Post anonymously printed fabricated quotes they knew were from a second-hand source in the office of a political enemy, couldn’t confirm the quotes with additional sourcing, still attributed them to the sitting president of the United States, used those quotes as a basis to speculate the president committed a crime, and the Democratic party would later repeatedly cite the bogus article when attempting to impeach Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Points to Hemingway for using “The Washington Post” as the correct title of the newspaper. I rarely capitalize the “The” because who does that? The article wasn’t bogus, because the call did happen. It’s just sprinkled with factual errors and sensationalized political fan fiction. Any why wouldn’t a WaPo editor not believe that Jordan Fuchs’ version of the story would be as good as anyone else’s? I mean, there’d have to be a recording of the call to debunk it, right?
I think it’s an editor’s job at a national newspaper to assume there’s a recording of the call before printing a story with an unnamed source with such explosive accusations. But hey, it’s about eyeballs, subscribers, and advertisers, so Democracy doesn’t Die in Darkness, and Jeff Bezos gets a return on his investment.
Becket Adams got around to the question needing no answer, because we know. “How did so many newsrooms ‘confirm’ a story that isn’t true?”
The uncomfortable questions we are left with now are: To whom did these other news outlets speak? Did they all speak to Fuchs? How did the source or sources for NBC, ABC, USA Today get the details of the phone call wrong? Are there additional examples of the media reporting bad information provided by anonymous sources we don’t know about, merely because there’s no contradictory audio or video? Just how many anonymously sourced stories are false? If it can happen this easily, who is to say it doesn’t happen often? Further, how many of these anonymously sourced stories have enjoyed the backing of supposed independent corroboration when, in fact, newsrooms most likely talked to the same person or people?
If I had to guess, reporters passed around Fuchs’ phone number like high school boys sharing the combination to coach’s chest full of old issues of Playboy magazine. One by one, they called her, and checked off the “confirmed” box for their editors. It didn’t matter if she told them she never heard Trump say what WaPo printed; they’d just ask if she thought he might have said it.
Nobody asked “what if there’s a recording of the call?” Or if they did, editors yelled “don’t question the plot!”
I suspect Matt Taibbi got close to the real answer.
Across the next three years of a Trump presidency, Fox ratings mostly held in the 2.5 million range, CNN settled in at around a million viewers, and MSNBC continued rising, to about 1.8 million. Then in 2020, another election year, ratings soared again: Fox jumped to 3.62 million, MSNBC went to 2.15 million, and CNN gained nearly 800,000 viewers, to 1.79 million.
By January and February of this year, with the January 6th riot and impeachment dominating coverage, MSNBC briefly jumped ahead and became the top-rated cable network overall, prompting Rachel Maddow to do a rare on-air end zone dance. Five and a half years of the Trump experience crested in both political insanity and unimaginable ratings highs. MSNBC nearly quadrupled its pre-Trump audience, CNN roughly tripled its own, and Fox, which was starting from a stronger position, still managed a nearly 100% increase in viewership.
Now it looks poised to roll back. Both TV and print news companies made devil’s bargains in the Trump years, and it’s now either time to pay up, or somehow cheat the ferryman to avoid that “depression.”
This tweet speaks volumes.
Cable News has become a parody of itself: a “Spy vs. Spy” of Mad magazine where the networks make each other the enemy, trying desperately to capture the chaos energy of pro- and anti-Trump positions. Brian Stelter vs. Tucker Carlson is a poor substitute, and viewers yawn, turn the channel, and watch WandaVision.
Similarly, Trump has been an incredible boon to newspapers. Axios reported that the NYT and WaPo tripled their subscriber count during the Trump era.
The bottom line: The two news giants must chart a path forward in subscriptions without the news momentum from Donald Trump’s presidency.
It was such easy pickings for Trump hunters to go out into the field and get trophy shots at him. It didn’t matter if the quotes were manufactured, as long as there was a juicy anonymous source to “confirm” them.
Now the media is having trouble putting down their smoking guns, while the suits who sign their paychecks are screaming, “get me more Trump, or find a replacement!” Trouble is, there’s only one Trump.
If we strip all the breathless drama from this story, it becomes very simple. Trump was fishing for anyone—literally anyone—who could deliver him a victory from the inside of Georgia’s election officials. Raffensperger would not bend, and neither would Watson. Fuchs acted to protect her boss, who put himself way out over his skis by giving a recording of Trump’s call to WaPo. She threw the newspaper the raw meat it craved.
Trump is experienced enough to know, within an angstrom, how close he can get to the “line” where he incriminates himself beyond salvage. As it stands now, Fulton DA Fani Willis is going to have a challenge putting a case together to prove Trump tried to illegally influence the election. I’m not saying she has no case (I think she does), but it’s not open-and-shut.
Yet everyone who listens to these phone calls can discern what Trump wanted. There’s no other reason the President of the United States would call an unknown investigator at a state agency. But that doesn’t make the call illegal. If Watson wanted to proffer herself to Trump, she knew exactly what he was asking for. And so did he. And so did the reporters at WaPo and all the other media that shared the fabricated quotes so easily. They just wanted to push things over the line that Trump so carefully approached, which now makes it harder to prove he intended to cross.
In their zeal to find a smoking gun, these reporters may have introduced more doubt than certainty.
Why the recording ended up in Watson’s trash folder is a genuine cause for speculation. But the simplest reasons most times turn out to be the most believable, and in fact many times they are the truth. My guess is that Watson threw away the recording because Fuchs had given her account to the media, and everyone in the know knew she did it to protect Raffensperger, their boss (and by extension, Gov. Brian Kemp, and the State of Georgia’s government as a whole).
Finding the recording would be a potential embarrassment with Trump still in office and Fuchs’ anonymous account raging through the media. And once Trump was gone, why fish it back out? Except DA Willis sent a letter to all state agencies asking them to preserve everything related to the election. And someone in the Secretary of State’s office, complying with that and probably other similar requests, went through Watson’s device, and voila, there’s the recording. Once found, it had to be shared before it was leaked.
There you have it. It’s not innocuous or innocent, but it’s not some wide-ranging conspiracy either. Trump went fishing, came up with an empty hook, Raffensperger and his staff acted out of self-protection, and the Trump-hungry media consumed whatever was thrown at them.
For all the drama, now the media gets at least one more news cycle of Donald J. Trump, who can no longer be relied upon for a random tweet to brighten their day.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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