Donald Trump Jr. abandons the practice of fair comment

Donald Trump Jr. speaks after the third U.S. presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

For the past three days, The New York Times has focused an uncomfortable spotlight on Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign. After last night’s scoop that the president’s eldest son was “informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy,” speculation quickly turned to what that email actually said.

At 11 o’clock Tuesday morning, we got our answer. But it was Trump Jr. himself who first provided it, not the Times team that had doggedly pursued the story. “To everyone, in order to be totally transparent, I am releasing the entire email chain of my emails with Rob Goldstone about the meeting on June 9, 2016,” Trump Jr. wrote in a statement attached to images of the exchange.

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Of course, the president’s son wasn’t really being transparent. He had been backed into a corner by Times reporters, who had independently obtained the emails and then contacted Trump Jr. for comment. As Jo Becker, Adam Goldman, and Matt Apuzzo write in the story, “After being told that The Times was about to publish the content of the emails, instead of responding to a request for comment, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out images of them himself.

CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Trump Jr. had asked the reporters for more time to respond before commenting, and then published the email chain on his Twitter feed. The result of all of this is that important information is now available to the public; indeed, Trump Jr. is likely to regret his attempt to outflank the Times, given that it was his own tweeting of the emails that gave such fuel to the story Tuesday morning that the stock market tanked in response. But Trump Jr.’s bad-faith action will no doubt be noticed by journalists covering an administration that already ranks as the most hostile to the press in modern history, marking yet another attempt by the White House to manhandle the messenger.

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In this case, the paper made clear that it had reached out to Trump Jr. for comment, as is standard procedure in critical pieces (and a practice, it should be noted, that doesn’t always apply to outlets attacking reporters or their news organizations). The haste with which the story was published was evident in an editing note buried in the story (it was later removed).

The question now is whether Trump Jr.’s move will tempt reporters to forgo the usual request for comment, the standard operating procedure for responsible journalists. The Society of Professional Journalists’s Code of Ethics states that reporters should “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” At the very least, Trump Jr.’s preemptive action suggests that reporters and editors should have a version of their piece ready to go before contacting figures in the Trump orbit.

“The truth is that there is really no way around the possibility that a journalist or news organization in the modern era may be scooped on social media by a well-known source,” SPJ Ethics Chair Andrew Seaman tells CJR. “The best thing journalists and news organizations can do is to be prepared for that possibility. The New York Times did a good job under the circumstances. The whole situation is a cautionary tale for other journalists and news organizations.” The anti-media crusade that has played out on the president’s Twitter feed and in statements from White House officials signals that journalists shouldn’t expect good-faith responses from these subjects.

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Pro-Trump media figures seized upon Trump Jr.’s disclosure, celebrating his “transparency,” repeating the favored talking point that the entire story was a “nothing-burger,” and playing the “but her emails!” card.

Meanwhile, Trump Jr. is scheduled to appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program this evening. No doubt the friendly confines of Hannity offer a softer landing spot for the eldest Trump son’s response than the pages of The New York Times.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.