Media Exploited Anonymous Sources to Lie About Trump’s Georgia Call

 

Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth, Not To Become A Tool

After a 40+ year relationship, I ended my Washington Post subscription last year. Their (and the New York Timeswholly undeserved Pulitzer Prize over breathless and largely discredited reporting of the Trump-Russia collusion hoax and overreliance on anonymous sources for an endless stream of anti-Trump stories lost me. I knew I could no longer trust the Washington Post – owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – as a credible journalistic enterprise.

Turns out I was prescient. As is finally being well-reported Monday and Tuesday, the Post has officially shredded its credibility for all to see. It involves a remarkable, if muted, correction over a false story over the Trump-Georgia election official phone call where Trump allegedly told election investigator Francis Watson to “find the fraud.” The Post ran the story based on an anonymous source, and per the media’s custom, a cavalcade of follow-up stories appeared among the usual suspects.

Worse, US House impeachment managers used the story as a basis of their prosecution of Donald Trump. That’s a big deal. We now know of other falsehoods that were the basis of the impeachment and failed prosecution, including the false assertion that the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was an “armed insurrection.”

The Post has put the corrected story, under the byline of Amy Gardner, with an explanation behind their paywall. However, if you go to the Post’s main website (which is updated regularly with the latest propaganda) you will see absolutely nothing about their journalistic error, or anything do with the Georgia election last year. You will see references to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) being a racist, “Biden is right” to ignore Trump’s advice on vaccines, blah, blah, blah. Very Pravda-ish.

How did a transcript of the recording become available some two months after the call and the Post’s breathless reporting? Because while responding to an open-records request, someone found the recording of the call on Watson’s computer – in a computer trash folder. She apparently forgot to empty it. Odd place to file the audio of a call with the President of the United States, no? Something tells me that the election investigator didn’t quite follow “procedure.” That in itself begs a number of questions for Francis Watson, if not an investigation.

The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, waited (and may have filed the open records request) for the transcript of the call. They reported on it yesterday, which exposed the Washington Post’s lies, forcing the correction. And the best outline of the whole sordid thing is found here, from the blog Legal Insurrection.

I have some questions for the Washington Post.

Has reporter Amy Gardner or her editor(s) been held accountable in any way for the erroneous reporting?

What did the Post do to attempt to corroborate the explosive assertion that would later prove false?

Since the Washington Post failed basic journalist standards and defrauded its consumers, what steps are the Post going to take regarding the publication of claims by “anonymous sources” going forward?

Will the Washington Post expose the name of the anonymous source behind the false reporting, if not publicly then at least to the leaker’s chain of command? (Note: Since this was first posted, I’ve learned that the Washington Post outted the leaker: GA Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. He should be fired).

Is Georgia’s Secretary of State going to investigate this breach of public trust and hold the anonymous source accountable (unless he was the one who leaked, in which case it should be made public)?

Now, some observations about anonymous sourcing. I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor, and I’ve been an anonymous source, on very rare occasions. Let us outline the conditions under which people talk to journalists in ways not to reveal their identity, and how this game is played.

First, let’s make it clear that there is, really, no such thing as “off the record.” If something is so valuable and explosive that a source feels it necessary to share it “off the record,” the information will find its way to public consumption. Of course, there are social events involving current and former public officials and journalists where “off the record” is honored, but no real news is made, either. Journalists use these events to learn, build relationships, and get story ideas.

Second, and here’s what evidently happened with the George elections story: the “source” said “not for attribution,” meaning that you can quote what I’m telling you, but you cannot identify me by name or position. Or maybe not even the office in which I serve. The reporters will, or should, need to know how the source “knows” the information is true (were you on the call or were you just “read” the call notes,” for example). People who want to talk want to be protected from the consequences of their disclosure.

Third, there is something called “on background.” This is common in the journalist-government official relationship. It means the reporter won’t quote or cite the official’s name or title, but wants to understand the issue so he/she knows how to pursue or focus on it. Going on “deep background” often means that you can’t use what I tell you in a story, it is not for publication, but I’m sharing it to help guide you. Reporters and sources sometimes negotiate their way through an interview, or series of interviews, to decide what’s for attribution, what’s not, and what is on deep background.

Fourth and finally, on rare occasions, media will call a source as they’re wrapping up saying, “I need someone to say this,” for attribution or not, to put a bow on their story. They actually don’t want to manufacture a quote, but that’s in effect what they’re doing with the help of an accomplice.

This is important: While journalists need and cultivate sources, lots of people like the power that can come with cultivating a journalist.

Lots of “experts” have learned the “sourcing” game with media. Would-be sources (experts in or out of government) with expertise or established credibility call reporters in hopes of influencing their perception of people, events, and what they cover and publish. Much of it is straightforward and starts innocently enough. Trust is verified and established. As with any personal relationship, after a while, reporters can carelessly take a source’s word for something when they shouldn’t, especially when they’re motivated to sell or push a narrative. Malevolent sources can even recruit other sources to “corroborate” narratives and assertions, to meet a reporter’s “need” for extra sourcing. Conversely, such “sources” can discredit other sources pushing a counter-narrative. It has become a sophisticated business. And you can see how things can go wrong.

It starts to go bad when the pressure to push a narrative becomes more important than the truth.

Something else: just because you tell a reporter something is “not for attribution,” it doesn’t mean the reporter has to honor it. It’s like a contract – the reporter has to agree to the conditions. Many an interviewee has been burned by not understanding that basic contractual understanding.

Often, you can adopt different rules to different parts of the interview. It is not common to find a source’s name on the record with one aspect of the story, but become an “anonymous source” or provide background “not for attribution” elsewhere. I have a theory that information is “anonymously sourced” elsewhere in the story being quoted publicly.

Here’s the thing: when a reporter walks into an editor’s office with a story based in part or even exclusively on “anonymous sources,” usually red flags go up, or should. Did you corroborate the information? Do you trust the source? How confident are you? The editor has to make a judgment call based on what the reporter is telling them.

And sometimes that judgment call is wrong. Especially when you’re paper is more interested in pushing narratives instead of the truth. “Democracy dies in darkness,” indeed, Washington Post. It also dies when officials say things or handle records in a manner that raises questions about their own integrity, or lack thereof. Looking at you, Georgia, and US House impeachment managers.

But here’s the takeaway: do not take any major “breaking story” at face value. Make no judgments until the facts begin to emerge, usually in a day or two (sometimes it takes longer). Stories change. sometimes a lot. Question everything. Learn to be a discerning consumer of media, no matter the source. A relentless pursuit of truth isn’t just the media’s job – it’s your responsibility, too. And that is especially true for our elected officials.

After all, as we now sadly know, sources will lie or mislead to promote or protect narratives, people, or worse. And sadly, too many reporters these days are all too happy to help them.

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  1. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    The Bezos Post won’t identify the source

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    • #2
  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Good post.  I have one comment.  If you didn’t figure out that WaPo was an unreliable news source until last year, I don’t think that you can claim to be “prescient.”

    • #3
  4. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution. 

    • #4
  5. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    Doesn’t matter. “Duty” is simply too strong a word for a profession whose freedom is listed specifically by the first amendment as unabridgeable.  If a freedom is unabridgeable it means that nobody can impose a duty upon its exercise.  Q.E.D.

    • #5
  6. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Good post. I have one comment. If you didn’t figure out that WaPo was an unreliable news source until last year, I don’t think that you can claim to be “prescient.”

    I still subscribe to the NY Times, so go figure. Yes, it has become increasingly aware since February 1, 1993 – when Michael Weisskopf wrote that evangelicals were “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command” in a front-page news story that I knew the Post was losing its way. Still, they had the wisdom to employ some good reporters (especially on the sports pages) and a couple of editorialists (Marc Thiessen and Hugh Hewitt). So it still had value, as well as to keep up with what The Left was articulating. But when they really began parroting Cuba’s state-run media organ, “Granma,” and Pravda, the gig was up. I consider Thiessen and Hewitt good acquaintances and hope they find another media outlet for their excellent work. Being associated with the WaPo now hurts their credibility.

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution. 

    It’s not a profession. Not today. Today it is a prostitution.

    • #7
  8. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    It’s not a profession. Not today. Today it is a prostitution.

    Did journalism ever have a code of ethics?

    • #8
  9. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    There should be a rule that if the info an anonymous source gives a trusted media outlet (I know. . . I know . . .) that turns out to be a complete fabrication, the source gets outed.  Burn the bridge!

    • #9
  10. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    Doesn’t matter. “Duty” is simply too strong a word for a profession whose freedom is listed specifically by the first amendment as unabridgeable. If a freedom is unabridgeable it means that nobody can impose a duty upon its exercise. Q.E.D.

    The profession is not protected by the constitution. THE PEOPLE’S right to publish is protected by the first ammendment.

    This idea that the “press” (as they are referred to colloquially, not literally) are some special level of citizenry that are exempt from the laws the rest of us peons must follow needs to be eradicated from our culture.

    • #10
  11. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    It’s not a profession. Not today. Today it is a prostitution.

    Did journalism ever have a code of ethics?

    Actually, no, although some claim to have developed them. Different news organizations have developed their own “code of ethics.” I seem to recall one at the Oklahoma Press Association back during the Jurassic days when I was first in the profession. But “journalism” doesn’t actually qualify as a profession – there are no professional standards or certifications that must be obtained to “practice” it. We can credit, in part, the First Amendment for that (anyone can be a journalist, at least until they’re canceled). Baccalaureate degrees don’t count.

    • #11
  12. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):

    There should be a rule that if the info an anonymous source gives a trusted media outlet (I know. . . I know . . .) that turns out to be a complete fabrication, the source gets outed. Burn the bridge!

    I was never burned by an anonymous source during my brief tenure as a reporter, mostly because I didn’t rely on them. I insisted on multiple sources and/or having someone on record. That was the rule in my day. We were more interested first in getting right, not necessarily getting it “first,” although that was a close second. No longer, sadly, and we all suffer because of it.

    • #12
  13. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Stina (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    Doesn’t matter. “Duty” is simply too strong a word for a profession whose freedom is listed specifically by the first amendment as unabridgeable. If a freedom is unabridgeable it means that nobody can impose a duty upon its exercise. Q.E.D.

    The profession is not protected by the constitution. THE PEOPLE’S right to publish is protected by the first ammendment.

    This idea that the “press” (as they are referred to colloquially, not literally) are some special level of citizenry that are exempt from the laws the rest of us peons must follow needs to be eradicated from our culture.

    Sorry, you don’t understand and obviously have no experience with journalism. You should want them to have standards. You really miss the point.

     

    • #13
  14. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    John Park (View Comment):

    The Bezos Post won’t identify the source

    Actually, they did, to the Post’s credit – Deputy GA Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, who should have been fired already. 

     

    • #14
  15. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston: Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth

    The first amendment says otherwise.

    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    Doesn’t matter. “Duty” is simply too strong a word for a profession whose freedom is listed specifically by the first amendment as unabridgeable. If a freedom is unabridgeable it means that nobody can impose a duty upon its exercise. Q.E.D.

    You miss the point and I reject your POV. We’re not stupid, we all get the First Amendment. But we should want any organizations or entities protected by our Constitution (including churches) to have their own standards to elevate and promote, protect and improve themselves. That’s my point. Yes, the First Amendment protects your right to associate with BLM, white supremacists, and spew hateful, stupid lies (see: Twitter). Fine, but that doesn’t make me want to listen or respect you or make the First Amendment any better as a result. Remember, our Constitution was suited to a moral people. So yes, it “does matter,” and “duty” is not too strong a word. Even for you. 

    • #15
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I read a great book years ago by Stephen Shepard called Deadlines and Disruptions: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Shepard was a senior editor at Newsweek, then the editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek (now Bloomberg Businessweek). He went on to become the first dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

    The book is as much a memoir of his life in New York City as it is a description of the changes that have occurred in journalism over the course of his professional life. It’s a wonderful book–lots of good stories in it.

    He talks about the fact that the field is attracting young people who “want to make a difference.” Their desire to influence public opinion has been quite noticeable to the older reporters and editors who were attracted to the field for other reasons. It was Watergate that brought about this change.

    I think there is still objective reporting. It happens in areas of specialization. The petroleum industry, for example, has a need for and pays for objective reporting in its news. But the mainstream media doesn’t seem to know the difference between opinion and fact. Or they do and they don’t care as long as their stories get clicks.

    This is partly the market’s fault. These are private businesses, and our system of government and our economy rest on the premise that the consumer is intelligent and will make smart choices. In doing so, businesses that are incompetent will fall by the wayside. HuffingtonPost is laying off people. That’s a hopeful sign, to me at least.

    Letting the market sort it out is the best answer.

    Unfortunately, I think social media–specifically Twitter where all reporters seem to be going now for their stories–has interfered with the normal market forces that created a demand for objective information.

    I don’t know how this can fixed. Everyone needs to know what’s being reported in the news. How we keep people from taking that news seriously sometimes when the reporters are making up news stories is beyond me. The answer is in homes and schools, I guess.

    • #16
  17. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    Sorry, you don’t understand and obviously have no experience with journalism. You should want them to have standards. You really miss the point

    I didn’t say I don’t think they should have standards. I was responding to Misthocracy who seemed to imply the first ammendment was written solely for journalists.

    • #17
  18. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    @soupguy I’m not sure it was the Bezos Post that disclosed Fuchs’ identity. And, she (and Raffensperger) should be fired.

    • #18
  19. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I read a great book years ago by Stephen Shepard called Deadlines and Disruptions: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Shepard was a senior editor at Newsweek, then the editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek (now Bloomberg Businessweek). He went on to become the first dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

    The book is as much a memoir of his life in New York City as it is a description of the changes that have occurred in journalism over the course of his professional life. It’s a wonderful book–lots of good stories in it.

    He talks about the fact that the field is attracting young people who “want to make a difference.” Their desire to influence public opinion has been quite noticeable to the older reporters and editors who were attracted to the field for other reasons. It was Watergate that brought about this change.

    I think there is still objective reporting. It happens in areas of specialization. The petroleum industry, for example, has a need for and pays for objective reporting in its news. But the mainstream media doesn’t seem to know the difference between opinion and fact. Or they do and they don’t care as long as their stories get clicks.

    This is partly the market’s fault. These are private businesses, and our system of government and our economy rest on the premise that the consumer is intelligent and will make smart choices. In doing so, businesses that are incompetent will fall by the wayside. HuffingtonPost is laying off people. That’s a hopeful sign, to me at least.

    Letting the market sort it out is the best answer.

    Unfortunately, I think social media–specifically Twitter where all reporters seem to be going now for their stories–has interfered with the normal market forces that created a demand for objective information.

    I don’t know how this can fixed. Everyone needs to know what’s being reported in the news. How we keep people from taking that news seriously sometimes when the reporters are making up news stories is beyond me. The answer is in homes and schools, I guess.

    Great response, thank you. I also came to journalism as a result of Watergate, graduating from college and going to my first full-time newspaper reporting gig in 1976. Yes, I recall we were all told that journalism could be a “force for good.” Many did go into the profession as crusaders. Sadly, they weren’t crusading for the truth and forgot to trust readers with the facts and context so they could make their own judgments. That’s what journalism was supposed to do. May it rest in peace.

    • #19
  20. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    @soupguy now it looks like the WaPo has identified the source

    • #20
  21. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    John Park (View Comment):

    @ soupguy now it looks like the WaPo has identified the source

    Yes! I noted that in my post once that became public. Thanks.

    • #21
  22. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    John Park (View Comment):

    The Bezos Post won’t identify the source

    Actually, they did, to the Post’s credit – Deputy GA Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, who should have been fired already.

    You misspelled ‘jailed’. 

    • #22
  23. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    It’s not a profession. Not today. Today it is a prostitution.

    Did journalism ever have a code of ethics?

    It did once, but like all codes it decreased abuse rather than eliminated it. 

    • #23
  24. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Good post. I have one comment. If you didn’t figure out that WaPo was an unreliable news source until last year, I don’t think that you can claim to be “prescient.”

    I still subscribe to the NY Times, so go figure. Yes, it has become increasingly aware since February 1, 1993 – when Michael Weisskopf wrote that evangelicals were “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command” in a front-page news story that I knew the Post was losing its way. Still, they had the wisdom to employ some good reporters (especially on the sports pages) and a couple of editorialists (Marc Thiessen and Hugh Hewitt). So it still had value, as well as to keep up with what The Left was articulating. But when they really began parroting Cuba’s state-run media organ, “Granma,” and Pravda, the gig was up. I consider Thiessen and Hewitt good acquaintances and hope they find another media outlet for their excellent work. Being associated with the WaPo now hurts their credibility.

    You can’t hurt credibility with the credulous. These shocking failures of news agencies are failing to shock, or even impress huge swaths of the populace. Once virtually every man read a daily newspaper, then it was tv news, and now it is internet browsing which allows us to read whatever we want and to believe whatever we want while we’re at it. 

    WaPo may hemorrhage a few more of its dwindled readership, but it won’t have much effect on them and they know it; else they would jettison that writer and that editor as if they were radioactive waste. 

    • #24
  25. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    • #25
  26. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Kelly D Johnston: After a 40+ year relationship, I ended my Washington Post subscription last year.

    Better late than never.

    • #26
  27. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):
    I was writing about the “profession,” if you can call it that, not the constitution.

    It’s not a profession. Not today. Today it is a prostitution.

    I thought prostitution was the world’s oldest profession. Or does that title go to journalism?

    • #27
  28. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Did journalism ever have a code of ethics?

    Maybe not. Here is what Thomas Jefferson wrote:

    “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”

     

     

    • #28
  29. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Coolidge
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Kelly D Johnston: After all, as we now sadly know, sources will lie or mislead to promote or protect narratives, people, or worse. And sadly, too many reporters these days are all too happy to help them.

    So will too many Republicans. As I mentioned in another thread, you know who knew immediately that the reporting on the call was a lie? George Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

    You know who kept quiet instead of coming to the President’s defense? George Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

    And of course, the “source” was Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs.

    These people are “Republicans.”

    With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?

    The permanent bipartisan fusion party must be destroyed .

    • #29
  30. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Good post. I have one comment. If you didn’t figure out that WaPo was an unreliable news source until last year, I don’t think that you can claim to be “prescient.”

    Yeah, I canceled my subscription about 4 years ago, after 30-plus years.

    • #30