Trump, Fauci, and the conditions of anonymity

Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been sidelined—both internally, in terms of his access to President Trump, and externally, in terms of the media appearances he’s permitted to make. The Post’s story contained many concerning details, including that officials banned Fauci from going on Meet the Press, PBS NewsHour, and a CNN town hall last week after he strayed from the administration’s preferred line during a virtual event with Doug Jones, a Democratic US senator. The story also contained a statement, released by an unnamed White House official, claiming that “Several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things,” and listing examples from early in the pandemic.

The statement—which the White House also circulated to other outlets (some of which, confusingly, referred to it as a “leaked memo”)—drove a mini news cycle as well as an ongoing furor. The New York Times, CNN, and others noted that the statement looked like a dossier that a political campaign might prepare on an opponent; it also closely resembled White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s habit of quoting news organizations’ early covid coverage back to them during briefings. At a briefing yesterday, CNN’s Jim Acosta confronted McEnany about the statement. “Why is the White House trashing Dr. Fauci and sending out opposition-research-like memos to reporters?” he asked. “Why not have the guts to trash Dr. Fauci in your own names?” McEnany denied Acosta’s characterization; the Post, she said, had asked about Trump referencing Fauci’s “mistakes,” and so the White House had “provided a direct answer to what was a direct question.” (Presumably, the other outlets were sent the same statement out of generosity.)

ICYMI: Do journalists pay too much attention to Twitter?

Amid widespread outrage about the anonymous statement, news outlets were criticized, in some quarters, for going along with it. “The media is ‘covering’ the anonymous trashing of Fauci,” Brian Schatz, a Democratic US senator from Hawai‘i, tweeted, “and by ‘covering’ I mean ‘participating in.’ ” BuzzFeed’s David Mack argued that if administration officials want to discredit Fauci, “they should come out and put a name to it. There is no journalistic reason to grant them anonymity. This serves no one, spreads confusion, and is actively dangerous.”

Throughout the Trump era, White House officials have insisted on anonymity in all sorts of scenarios—from routine press briefings to laundering dishonest talking points to writing a Times op-ed and subsequent book about the internal “resistance” to the president—and media critics have argued that reporters shouldn’t allow the practice, especially in light of Trump’s media-bashing claims that anonymous sources are often fabricated. Last year, Dan Froomkin wrote on his blog, Press Watch, that granting anonymity to sources is “a show of faith” on the part of the press. “Publishing what anonymous sources say is essentially vouching for their credibility, because readers have no way of judging it on their own,” Froomkin wrote. “It also means the sources can avoid accountability of any kind for what they said, including if they lied. And if there’s one thing we know about Trump and his enablers, it’s that they lie all the time.”

As Froomkin notes, anonymity is complicated. When properly granted, it can enable journalists access to information of genuine importance that would otherwise remain secret; recently, for example, the Times used anonymous sourcing to report on intelligence linking Russia to attacks on US troops in Afghanistan, and Trump’s non-response to it. As Jonathan Swan, of Axios, reported on Sunday, that leak so infuriated Trump that he tasked Mark Meadows, his chief of staff, with hunting down the leaker; so far, Meadows—who has been feeding information to suspected leakers to see if it ends up in the press—has not been successful. Trump is famously obsessed with leaks, to the extent that he’s had staffers’ phone records searched, used “authorship attribution software” to try and identify the op-ed writer, and even suggested the use of lie detector tests. Under such conditions, it’s not hard to see why sources would insist on anonymity. But there’s no doubt, too, that officials use the same shield to disseminate useless gossip and palace intrigue. In 2018, Swan asked prolific administration leakers why they do it; one said they were concerned with the historical record, but also cited “personal vendettas.” (“I’m also told leaking is pretty fun,” Swan wrote. “Give me a call if you’d like to try it out.”)

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By any metric, the Fauci statement looks like as clear an example as any of an occasion when anonymity should not have been granted. It consisted of disingenuous score-settling utterly inimical to the public interest, and it wasn’t an unauthorized leak with an attendant fear of retribution, but rather an official statement of the White House’s position. In response to Schatz’s critical tweet, Adam Nagourney, of the Times, argued that it was “newsworthy” that the White House was smearing one of its top public health experts, and that the challenge was to communicate that “in a way so it’s about the fact of the attack without amplifying it.” But some reporters fell short of that goal—and, as is always the case with disinformation, even critical coverage of the statement couldn’t help but amplify its central claims. And was it really newsworthy? At base, yes. But we already know Trump doesn’t listen to Fauci. And there are better, more urgent ways of illustrating the key newsworthy point here—the administration’s disastrous assault on science—that don’t involve allowing the assault’s perpetrators to land a free hit, without even having to own it by attaching their name to it.

Instead, this looked very much like the press getting played again. Yesterday, after Trump insisted that he gets along fine with Fauci, CNN’s Acosta said on air that the White House “appeared to be backing off” its prior claims. Perhaps it was. Still, the anonymous statement, and our reporting of it, allowed officials to pump poison into the discourse, then retreat, with a wink and a nod, to a place of plausible deniability. That isn’t new.

Acosta’s question to McEnany—“Why not have the guts to trash Dr. Fauci in your own names?”—was a good one, and we can only hope reporters are as assertive asking in private as they are in public. The next time an official insists on anonymity, reporters should consider just walking away. In addition to the unsigned statement, the Post’s weekend story included an attributed quote from Peter Navarro, Trump’s über-hawkish trade adviser, impugning Fauci’s credibility. The news value of Navarro’s opinion to that story is questionable. But at least readers got the chance to weigh whom, out of Navarro and Fauci, they’d rather trust.

Below, more on the Trump administration and the pandemic:

  • A milestone: If we needed a reminder that Trump lies all the time, the Post’s fact-checking team reported yesterday that the president has made more than 20,000 “false or misleading” claims since he took office. It took Trump 827 days to reach the 10,000 mark, but just 440 additional days to hit 20,000, on July 9—an average of 23 false or misleading claims a day over a 14-month period. (ICYMI, I wrote last year about the 10,000 milestone, and Ana Marie Cox, CJR’s former public editor for the Post, declared the fact-checking effort an exercise in futility.)
  • Good morning, Mary: A tell-all book by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, will be published today. Yesterday, a judge in New York lifted a temporary restraining order on Mary Trump—which had been imposed following a legal challenge from Robert Trump, the president’s brother—allowing her to talk about her book in the press. She’s set to appear on Good Morning America tomorrow. CNN’s Oliver Darcy has more.
  • You’re so vane: Yesterday, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff, wrote an op-ed for CNBC in which he accused the administration of an “inexcusable” failure on coronavirus testing, and cited the difficulty his own children have had in getting tested. In February, when he still worked in the White House, Mulvaney accused the media of exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus because “they think this will bring down the president,” bragged about the administration’s travel restrictions on China, and said, of covid-19, “This is not Ebola. It’s not sars, it’s not mers. It’s not a death sentence.”
  • Help at hand: Yesterday, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University launched “Documenting covid-19,” an open repository of searchable documents about the pandemic that were obtained under open-records laws. Brown is inviting contributions to the repository. Last week, I wrote about the patchwork covid data picture, and what projects similar to Brown’s have been doing to improve it.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.