The media today: Shifting stories on Rob Porter expose White House credibility gap

Nearly six days after The Daily Mail broke allegations of domestic abuse against staff secretary Rob Porter, the White House has failed to provide a consistent timeline of events, leaving reporters to put together the pieces. The West Wing’s contradictory response once again demonstrated credibility issues that have consistently plagued the administration’s attempts to shape the media narrative.

ICYMI: FBI text “bombshells” demonstrate parallel media worlds

In John Kelly’s preferred version of the story, the chief of staff learned of allegations against Porter last Tuesday night, and demanded Porter’s resignation within 40 minutes. But Kelly’s own public statements from the middle of last week, and the press office’s on-the-record comments, provide a different version of the story. Kelly initially told The Daily Mail, “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.” On Wednesday afternoon, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was still defending Porter’s character from the briefing room, and claiming that no one asked Porter to resign. She said that Porter would remain long enough to ensure a smooth transition, but by Thursday he was gone.

“Either the White House spokespeople or the president’s chief of staff is lying,” Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote Sunday night. “It’s a stunning display of incompetence that five days after the initial story broke, they still can’t get their stories straight.” This is a change for Kelly, who has been portrayed as the adult in the room since he was brought in last summer to establish order in a chaotic West Wing. His response to the revelations about Porter have reportedly led to Kelly offering to resign from the White House. Meanwhile, President Trump weighed in on the broader #MeToo movement, tweeting Saturday that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”

FROM THE MAGAZINE: One dangerous year

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that the Porter saga is an important moment for journalism in the Trump era. In this case, definitive evidence, in the form of photographs tweeted out by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, overcame denials and support for Porter from the highest levels of the administration. Though, Sullivan notes, evidence, such as the Access Hollywood tape, doesn’t always produce results.

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The Porter story, like previous examples of shifting explanations from the White House, raises concerns about how the administration will respond when events demand a definitive, truthful message. It’s been said before, but while every administration spins stories to present them in the most positive light, the current occupants of the West Wing appear unable or unwilling to speak with a unified voice. When a major crisis arises, this means that the pressure is on journalists to set the story straight.

Below, more on the White House’s response to Porter’s resignation and the media’s coverage of the story.

  • Big picture: CNN’s Jake Tapper stepped back from the details of the story to remind his viewers about the larger issue. “I just wanted to once again note a further erosion of standards for what I thought we had all agreed was not okay, not acceptable, not moral. White supremacist rallies, child molesters, domestic abusers,” Tapper said.
  • Kelly’s crisis: The New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman write that the abuse allegations and inconsistent responses reveal an administration in turmoil.
  • “There is no White House”: Media critic Jay Rosen has been saying this for a while, and he argues that the Porter story illustrates the way those in the West Wing have rejected the assumption that the administration needs to speak with one voice.
  • An especially blatant defense: On her Saturday Fox News show, Jeanine Pirro ignored the shifting responses, sided completely with Kelly’s belated explanation, and bizarrely suggested that those searching for someone to blame look at Barack Obama. 


Other notable stories

  • For CJR, Steve Friess explains why he failed to follow up on a tip about Steve Wynn more than a decade ago, and reflects on how the news environment has shifted in the #MeToo era. “It’s time for journalists everywhere to dust off those old notebooks and dig through those old emails,” he writes. “I cannot be the only reporter who received a potential bombshell but didn’t detonate it because of the climate of the times.”
  • In this week’s peek at our terrifying digital future, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel profiles technologist Aviv Ovadya, who predicted the fake news crisis of 2016, and warns that it’s only the beginning.
  • The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani argues that American media can’t resist North Korea’s propaganda at the Olympics. Focusing on the reception to Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and the country’s cheering squad, Tani writes that the North Koreans, “managed to pull one over on some American journalists, who seemed enthralled and entertained by the ‘charm offensive.’”
  • CJR Press Freedom Correspondent Jonathan Peters has mixed feelings about a bill that would make it a federal crime to assault a journalist. What’s really needed, Peters writes, is a federal shield law that would protect journalists from compelled disclosure of their confidential sources and unpublished materials.
  • Vice’s Eve Peyser analyzes “a good illustration of what happens when an inane internet comment is combined with incredible bad faith and a toxic media ecosystem.” In this case, a joke on Twitter was turned into a storyline through a deliberate misreading and a hyperbolic response.

ICYMI: New York magazine’s David Marchese offers a behind-the-scenes look at that crazy Quincy Jones interview.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.