How did so many newsrooms ‘confirm’ a story that isn't true?
It’s one thing if a single news outlet publishes a bogus anonymously sourced “scoop.”
It’s another thing entirely if multiple newsrooms claim they independently “confirmed” the bogus “scoop” with anonymous sources of their own.
The former can reasonably be explained away as a simple error; the latter is not so simple. It's unrealistic so many sources would be wrong about the same thing. It's more likely competing newsgroups spoke with the same anonymous individual or individuals, which leads to uncomfortable questions about whether the media were intentionally manipulated and whether this is a regular occurrence.
In January, the Washington Post scored a humdinger of a “scoop.” Then-President Donald Trump, still reeling from the results of the 2020 election, “urged Georgia’s lead elections investigator to ‘find the fraud’ in a lengthy December phone call, saying the official would be a ‘national hero,’” the Washington Post reported, citing a single anonymous source who supposedly “confirmed” the details of the private conversation.
But recently released audio of the phone call shows Trump never said these things. He never urged the investigations chief to “find the fraud” in Georgia’s presidential election results. He never promised the investigator would be a “national hero.”
Rather, Trump said, “If you can get to [Fulton County, Georgia], you’re going to find things that are going to be unbelievable, the dishonesty.” He followed this by saying the official will “be praised” when, not if, she produces the evidence of wrongdoing. There is a significant difference between saying “you’re going to find things that are going to be unbelievable, the dishonesty” and saying, "Find the fraud." One represents the president notifying an investigations official of voter fraud in a specific county in Georgia. The other represents the president pressuring an investigations official to do whatever it takes to find him the votes, regardless of the facts of the matter.
Further, the Washington Post report alleges Trump’s part in the private conversation meandered "from flattery to frustration and back again." The story alleges also the president "pressured" the official. The article then speculates Trump may have committed a serious crime. However, with the exception of flattery, a review of the audio doesn't appear to support these characterizations of the call.
The Washington Post got it wrong, plain and simple.
The newspaper’s supposedly eye-opening “scoop” has since been updated to include a 130-word editor’s note, which reads:
Correction: Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator. The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to “find the fraud” or say she would be “a national hero” if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find “dishonesty” there. He also told her that she had “the most important job in the country right now.” A story about the recording can be found here. The headline and text of this story have been corrected to remove quotes misattributed to Trump.
If you can believe it, the Washington Post getting it wrong isn’t the most scandalous thing about this episode in media malfeasance. No, the most scandalous thing is: Several newsrooms claimed they independently “confirmed” the most damning details of the Washington Post’s since-corrected "scoop.”
NBC News reported it “confirmed The Post’s characterization of the Dec. 23 call through a source familiar with the conversation.”
USA Today claimed a “Georgia official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters confirmed the details of the call.”
ABC News reported: "President Donald Trump phoned a chief investigator in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office asking the official to 'find the fraud' and telling this person they would be a 'national hero' for it, an individual familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News."
PBS NewsHour and CNN likewise seemingly claimed they independently “confirmed” the story through their own anonymous sources.
But Trump never said those things. The sources either were mistaken or lying.
The most likely scenario is the Washington Post, ABC, and others shared the same source or sources (you'd be surprised how easy it is for a single operative to act as both primary and secondary "confirmation" for multiple news outlets). It’s either that or a bunch of people managed somehow to be wrong about a very specific claim, which is highly unlikely.
In a follow-up report published this week, the Washington Post revealed Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, was its anonymous source for its January report on Trump’s phone call with the investigations official.
The uncomfortable questions we are left with now are: To whom did these other news outlets speak? Did they all speak to Fuchs? How did the source or sources for NBC, ABC, USA Today get the details of the phone call wrong? Are there additional examples of the media reporting bad information provided by anonymous sources we don't know about, merely because there's no contradictory audio or video? Just how many anonymously sourced stories are false? If it can happen this easily, who is to say it doesn't happen often? Further, how many of these anonymously sourced stories have enjoyed the backing of supposed independent corroboration when, in fact, newsrooms most likely talked to the same person or people?
How does one “confirm” something that is not true?
This is exactly what we warned about during the Trump years when the press dropped all hesitation and standards regarding the usage of anonymous sources. We warned it would lead to a glut of dubious or flat-out false allegations, immune to any reasonable standard of verification. We warned competing newsrooms would feel inclined anyway to “confirm” the anonymously made allegations with their own nameless sources. We warned if even one widely “confirmed” report based on anonymous sources turned to be false, it would lead only to the further erosion of trust in the news industry.
Now we know false reports based on anonymous sourcing can enjoy equally fraudulent corroboration, who is to say there are not more examples of this type of thing?
The whole thing is a mess, and it's entirely of the press's own creation. But, hey. At least the journalists who got it wrong can say they "resisted" Trump.