The Media Today

How David Fahrenthold gets ahead of Trump stories

October 22, 2019

In a political news cycle that churns from one outrageous story to the next, David Fahrenthold and a team of Washington Post reporters told a story last week that stuck. After the Post reported President Trump’s vague plan to host next year’s G7 summit at his own struggling Doral resort in Florida, the negative public response—particularly among Republicans—led Trump to cancel his plan within days. Though the president’s decision to issue a contract to himself was “without precedent,” as the Post reported, a reversed decision from the Trump administration in response to public accountability reporting is also disturbingly rare.

The success of the Post’s reporting owes in part to the simplicity of the narrative—a product of the zealous pre-reporting and carefully catalogued business dealings that has characterized much of Fahrenthold’s work on Trump. The Washington Post’s reporting team—Fahrenthold, Jonathan O’Connell, and Josh Partlow, who all focus on Trump’s businesses, as well as others—has learned that deep immersion in Trump’s business dealings provides them with expertise that enables them to confidently boil a story down to its essentials. “You don’t have to understand emoluments or tax fraud or anything else,” Fahrenthold says of the Post’s recent G7 coverage. “It’s not complicated. This was the president giving a huge contract to himself.” The constitutional emoluments clause is part of the story, of course, but it’s not as easy to understand as, say, the resort’s financial struggles, Fahrenthold says. A story that makes a constitutional argument against the president’s actions can confuse readers. A story that says, “Donald Trump’s resort is struggling, and now he’s using tax-payer money to hold an event there” packs a punch. 

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The Post team, which had reported on Trump’s businesses for years, had already compiled considerable evidence that the Doral resort wasn’t doing well financially. They had built relationships with sources, heard rumors that Trump planned to award the G7 contract to Doral, and were able to think the story through before it hit. When the story broke, the team was confident in calling the president’s action “unprecedented,” and was able to provide evidence to demonstrate the resort’s financial troubles—hard to do when you’re chasing a breaking news story, but powerful when you break the story yourself. 

When Fahrenthold began his reporting on the Trump Organization several years ago, he noticed that finding the truth required creative and deliberate reporting, because the narrative of the organization was controlled almost exclusively by Donald Trump himself. “He’d make some great promise,” Farenthold says. “And then you’d find out two years later he was wrong. But then he was down the road, off on something else. So the key for us at the beginning was, Let’s just find as many ways over the wall as we can, to figure out what’s going on inside.” 

Fahrenthold gets ahead of some stories by trying to be ahead of all of them. He sets reporting goals for himself: ten new attempted contacts and three FOIA requests every day. He creates extensive spreadsheets and takes careful notes— “You should never rely on yourself, even if you’re not covering something as chaotic as the Trump presidency”—and turns over every stone imaginable: each financial disclosure, every property tax appeal. When his to-do list runs out, he forces himself to get creative: “Maybe I’ll FOIA the Irish government, or I’ll FOIA the Scottish government,” he says. The approach yields a lot of dead ends. “Sometimes it doesn’t see the light of day right away,” says Fahrenthold of his reporting’s products. “Sometimes it never sees the light of day.” Other times, Fahrenthold will receive an unexpected phone call, or a fulfilled FOIA request. “It’s like a gift from heaven,” he says. “This thing comes in that you forgot you even asked for.”

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While Fahrenthold’s approach for cultivating expertise applies to all sorts of beats, it seems to steady his work covering the tumultuous Trump presidency. “Whatever I learned today, I’ve codified it and written it down and made it easier to find again,” he says. “Today’s story helps me tomorrow.”

Below, more on responsible political reporting:

  • Donald Trump is campaigning, too: While a considerable amount of media coverage has been devoted to Democratic presidential campaigns, the Trump re-election campaign is centering its strategy on digital advertising—particularly on Google, YouTube, and Facebook—and capitalizing on outrage, as the New York Times recently reported Sunday. “That campaigns are now being fought largely online is hardly a revelation,” wrote the Times, “yet only one political party seems to have gotten the message.”
  • Zuckerberg & Mayor Pete: On the same day that USAToday and Suffolk IOWA released an Iowa caucus poll identifying Pete Buttigieg as a leading Democratic candidate, Bloomberg reported that Mark Zuckerberg has recommended hires to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. It’s an unusual move for Zuckerberg, who says his recommendation shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement. As other Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren criticize Facebook’s power and influence over public discourse the Buttigieg campaign will have questions to answer regarding their relationship with the Facebook founder and CEO. 
  • Toobin’s mea culpa: Jeffrey Toobin expressed regret on Twitter (not for the first time, WaPo’s Erik Wemple noted) for his participation in the media firestorm surrounding Hilary Clinton’s use of a private email account while she was Secretary of State. Politico reported on responses to Toobin’s tweet, and considered the media lessons to be learned. Toobin told Politico that reporters “can make mistakes in news coverage without making factual mistakes.”

Other notable stories:

  • A New York Times story sought to put a face on American news deserts by writing about an Ann Arbor student paper, originally calling it “the only paper in town.” After local Ann Arbor reporters and readers protested the description, the Times updated their headline to “the only daily paper” and issued a correction, noting that it had “mischaracterized in some instances the closing of The Ann Arbor News’s daily print operation.” 
  • More on news deserts: Local-news access is harder to come by in rural America, according to a story by April Simpson for Pew’s Stateline blog.
  • Australian media is calling for better protections for reporters and whistleblowers, in a coordinated cry for press freedom organized by the Right to Know coalition, a group of media outlets and their supporters. On Monday morning, coalition-member newspapers ran redacted front pages, and broadcast networks ran ads to highlight barriers against public-interest reporting within the country. (ICYMI, Jon Allsop wrote about troubling police raids on Australian journalists in a CJR newsletter earlier this year.)
  • Responding to outcry from listeners, staff members, and musicians, WNYC walked back cancellation of its music program New Sounds. “John Schaefer’s work is distinct, inimitable, and intrinsically New York, and we agree with you that he and his beloved program must stay with us,” wrote New York Public Radio CEO Goli Sheikholeslami in a letter that New Sounds posted to Twitter. The program will continue to air seven nights a week, Gothamist reports.
  • Sil Lai Abrams wrote for the Daily Beast about NBC News killing her reported story about rape allegations, echoing Ronan Farow’s claims about NBC in his new book, Catch and Kill.

From archives: We talked to NYT’s executive editor about the headline that prompted the #cancelnyt hashtag

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites