The Media Today

The media today: The press does due diligence on the Stormy Daniels story

January 18, 2018

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, reporters from several outlets knew that a former adult-film actress had a story to tell. Journalists from Fox News, ABC, Slate, and The Daily Beast all came close to publishing what would have been a bombshell story. But it wasn’t until last Friday, that the public learned the story reporters had been chasing, when The Wall Street Journal reported that a lawyer for then-candidate Donald Trump arranged a $130,000 payment in 2016 to Stormy Daniels, a former adult-film star, to buy her silence about an alleged affair ten years earlier.

During an era of chaotic news cycles and intense battles to break scoops, especially when it concerns President Trump, journalists have faced criticism for rushing stories that lack attention to detail or proper vetting. But the autopsy of the Daniels saga that’s played out over the past week is a rare glimpse at the care and caution the press puts into nailing down the facts.

ICYMI: Reporter’s terrible error on a tech story goes viral

In the days since the Journal’s story published, we’ve learned a great deal about how close some of those other outlets came to breaking that bombshell just days before the presidential election. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg spoke to Daniels—her given name is Stephanie Clifford—for three months, but decided he couldn’t publish after she stopped all communication a week before the election. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Fox News’s Diana Falzone filed a story in October 2016 that included on-the-record comments from Daniels’s then-manager confirming the alleged affair with Trump. But that report was never published. “In doing our due diligence, we were unable to verify all of the facts and publish a story,” Noah Kotch, who became editor-in-chief and vice president of Fox News digital in 2017, told CNN. The Daily Beast was engaged in talks with Daniels about arranging an interview, but she backed out just five days before the election.

Coming on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, a story like that would have been huge news. All of these outlets had some level of confidence that Trump had engaged in an extramarital affair with Daniels in 2006 (he married current First Lady Melania Trump in 2005). They knew that she was negotiating with Trump’s lawyers over a potential settlement. But none published. In an excellent analysis of the situation, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes the reason for that caution was that the story “failed to rise to journalistic standards, never mind that it involved a man who regularly attacks the news media for lacking standards.”

ICYMI: Not the best look for the New York Times… 

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Below, more on Trump, Daniels, and the fallout from the Journal’s report.

  • Official denials: Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen denied the allegations in the Journal’s report. “These rumors have circulated time and again since 2011. President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels,” Cohen said in a statement. He also provided a letter from Daniels, dated January 10, 2018, in which she claims the story is “absolutely false.”
  • Daniels speaks: On Wednesday, celebrity magazine InTouch published excerpts from a 2011 interview with Daniels in which she details the alleged affair. The Daily Beast reports that there is more to come.
  • Never gained traction: In October 2016, the website The Smoking Gun did publish allegations that Trump and Daniels had an affair, but the story didn’t receive much attention.
  • UPDATE from Fox News: After this story published, Fox News reached out to point me to former Senior Vice President of Digital Ken LaCorte’s explanation for why the site didn’t run Falzone’s story. “In the end, it was an easy decision, and no legitimate news organization would have published what we had,” LaCorte writes.


Other notable stories

  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that Europe’s attempts to deal with hate, harassment, and fake news on social media platforms (which are more far-reaching than the US’s) “run the risk of stifling free speech and putting dangerous restrictions on freedom of the press.”
  • Michael Wolff was granted a free hand by White House officials, at least in part, because of the working title of his book. The work that became Fire and Fury was initially called The Great Transition: The First 100 Days of the Trump Administration, reports Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs in her look at Wolff’s path to access.
  • Jason Rezaian is returning to The Washington Post’s newsroom, joining the outlet’s WorldViews team. Rezaian was released from captivity in Iran, where he had served as the Post’s Tehran bureau chief, two years ago.
  • I spoke with Nishita Jha, BuzzFeed News’s new global women’s rights reporter, about her plans to expand the scope of gender coverage. Jha says she hopes to move beyond the binary portrayal of women “as victims of terrible circumstances or victors despite those circumstances.”
  • Celebrating its first anniversary, Axios plans to expand its global coverage while maintaining its concise style. Co-founder Jim VandeHei writes, “Axios is not, and will not be, a place for popping off or for mindless argument. It will continue to be a place to get people quickly informed on as many topics as possible.”
  • The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports that staffers at The Hill have voiced concern over the partisan bent of stories written by John Solomon. “There’s frustration that Solomon appears so tight with [Sean] Hannity, the prime-time Trump apologist,” Wemple writes.
  • President’s Trump’s “fake news awards,” a serious undermining of the press dressed up in frivolity, was notable mostly for its failed execution.

ICYMI: The subject of a news site’s seven-month investigation commits suicide

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