The Media Today

Getting scoops is great, but not if they perpetuate a Trump lie

October 31, 2018

Tuesday’s news cycle started to go off the rails  before the sun had even come up in Washington, when Jonathan Swan—national political reporter for digital-media outlet Axios—posted a tweet at 5:44am promoting an exclusive scoop from his interview with Donald Trump. “Exclusive: Trump to terminate birthright citizenship,” it said, with a short video clip from the interview. In a follow-up tweet, Swan added that he was “excited to share” the clip because the interview was from the first episode of Axios’ new show on HBO, which launches Sunday. Unfortunately for Axios, few of those who saw the tweet seemed excited about the new show. Instead, they seemed a lot more concerned that the tweet and the clip both suggested that Trump could somehow unilaterally decide to remove the right for babies born in the US to be considered citizens—which a number of legal experts say is almost 100 percent false.

“This is a terrible, inaccurate headline and a credulous article worthy of a government-affiliated propaganda outlet,” said Drexel University professor Anil Kalhan, an expert in immigration law. TV producer and former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, meanwhile, attacked Swan’s tweet about his excitement, suggesting that promoting the lie was more valuable for certain outlets than sticking to the facts. “When I talk about the salivating for headlines and clicks—and why the media will never NOT rush to highlight Trump’s craziness—this is a really good example,” she said. Critics of the Axios story also noted that it quoted Trump saying no other country allows children born to non-citizens to become citizens themselves, when in fact there are dozens of other countries that do this, including Canada and Mexico (Axios later added a fact check of this claim to its story). And some pointed out that Swan’s questions seemed designed to get Trump to bolster his outrageous claim rather than challenge him on it.

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Axios wasn’t the only outlet to come under fire for what many saw as deliberate misreporting of the facts, or at the very least an overly credulous headline and/or tweet. Associated Press and Bloomberg posted their own stories and tweets based on the Axios “scoop,” and they repeated—without challenge—Trump’s claim that he could undo the 14th Amendment with an executive order. “I think when the President makes a factual misstatement the centerpiece of his argument it’s a bad idea to just uncritically quote him as if what he were saying was true,” Matthew Yglesias of Vox said about a Bloomberg tweet that repeated Trump’s claim that the US is the only country that provides birthright citizenship.

There was considerably more nuance in the Axios story than in the company’s Twitter posts about it: Swan pointed out that former Trump administration national security official Michael Anton originally floated this argument in The Washington Post in July, saying the rights provided under the 14th Amendment could be interpreted as giving citizenship only to the children of legal immigrants, not those who enter the country illegally. And Swan also noted that legal experts including Judge James C. Ho, whom Trump appointed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, say the 14th Amendment makes it clear that the law applies to all foreign visitors, and that changing the amendment would be unconstitutional. But none of that critical commentary appeared in the Axios or Bloomberg or AP tweets.

Needless to say, the heated political environment leading up to the midterm elections next week has made everyone more sensitive to missteps like the Axios tweets. But it also amplified the concern that some media outlets still don’t appear to have learned one of the central lessons of the Trump presidency: He will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem. Ironically, the news outlet that got the most compliments for the way it handled the story was BuzzFeed, which is still known mostly for light-hearted entertainment stories. Its headline stated accurately: “Now Trump Is Saying He’ll Stop Babies Born Here From Becoming Citizens, Though He Probably Can’t.”

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Here’s more on Trump and his loose acquaintance with the truth:

  • A megaphone: In one of the most egregious recent examples of a media outlet catering to Trump, USA Today gave him space on its opinion pages to talk about immigration and health care, and in the resulting piece “almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood,” according to a Washington Post fact check.
  • Simpler times: It seems like ancient history now, but remember the debate in 2016 over whether to use the word “lie” in reference to Trump, or whether to say “falsehoods” or “inaccuracies”? The New York Times finally used the word lie in a headline in September of 2017, for a story about his claims that Barack Obama was not born in the US.
  • A tricky call: Daniel Dale, a reporter with the Toronto Star, has probably done more than anyone in the Washington press corps to catalog the untruths that Donald Trump has come out with since the election. He wrote an essay about the complicated question of when to use the word “lie” and when not to.
  • The 500 club: According to a ranking by The Washington Post, in the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump made close to 500 “false and misleading claims.” The most often repeated false claims taking credit for new projects by auto manufacturers that were planned or announced before he became president.
  • Defeating norms: Outlets like The Wall Street Journal have argued we can’t use the word “lie” unless we know that Trump said it deliberately, but NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen says Trump effectively demolished that rule by breaking it so blatantly. “He blew it up,” Rosen says, by refusing to be bound by norms of political behavior.


Other notable stories:

  • Twitter just launched a new page dedicated to helping users keep track of what’s happening in the run-up to the midterm elections, and according to a report from BuzzFeed the page is already filled with trolls and false, hyper-partisan news.
  • During a CNN political panel, GQ writer Julia Ioffe said Donald Trump had “radicalized more people than ISIS,” a statement that triggered a quick response from the president, who said in an interview on Fox that Ioffe was a “sick woman.” Ioffe later apologized.
  • According to a report from Axios, sports news startup The Athletic has raised another $40 million in venture capital for its expansion, bringing the total amount raised to $70 million since 2016, and giving the company a theoretical valuation of $200 million.
  • Meg Dalton writes for CJR about a new study that looked at whether the news media helps perpetuate rape culture. The study found when media coverage of rape is biased or buys into cultural stereotypes about rape, there are more instances of rape.
  • Hate speech on a social network called Gab has been linked to the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and that has sparked renewed calls to remove the protection that online platforms have from liability for the content they host.
  • Facebook requires that anyone placing a political ad has to state who paid for it, but doesn’t seem to check too closely: Vice says it managed to buy ads on behalf of every one of 100 senators in Congress, and the social network approved all of them.
  • Tara George, a professor of journalism at Montclair State University, writes on Medium for the university’s Center for Co-operative Media about how the BBC has “quietly built one of the world’s largest collaborative journalism efforts focused entirely on local news.”
  • NBC News has an in-depth investigation into how a video clip of what appeared to be a malfunctioning voting machine (but was actually a case of user error) was weaponized by Russian trolls to try and cast doubt on the 2016 election.
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.