Trump has solid point on NYT 'stumble' story sourcing
© Getty Images

As you may have noticed, President Trump picks some ill-advised and pointless fights with the media, including those over inauguration crowd size or what he calls the media’s lack of coverage of terror attacks.

But in some cases, he makes legitimate points worthy of deeper inspection, such as Monday's New York Times story that goes into vivid detail about what happens in the White House in the evening.

ADVERTISEMENT
"Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit," said the story, written by Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush.

 

"When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home," they added.

Trump responded in his usual manner via twitter, calling the story "total fiction" via made-up "stories and sources."

On cue, many elites in media dismiss Trump's tweet as another baseless temper tantrum without actually exploring Trump's claim around a lack of sourcing.

Also on cue is the White House response via press secretary Sean Spicer, who demanded an apology from the newspaper, calling the piece "literally the epitome of fake news."

So was the story presented in a responsible manner? Or was it misleading and sloppy? The Hill spoke with three media experts on the matter, starting with Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University and media critic.

"The sourcing on this story is quite weak, especially at the outset. The reader has no idea where this information is coming from, or if the details are even really coming from a source," McCall explains.

"The story is eight paragraphs deep before the writers give any sense of the sourcing, and then only give a generalized sense of it coming from "interviews with dozens" of people, many of whom aren't being named.  The reporters owe it to the audience to give clear sourcing and as soon in the story as possible," he continues. "The style of this story reads much like a bit of fiction."

One part of the piece that is getting major — and ridiculous — traction on social media and certain quarters of cable news focuses on the low-hanging fruit that Trump allegedly wears a bathrobe every evening.

It didn't help the president that Spicer specifically addressed that part of the story, stating that he didn't even think Trump "owns a bathrobe."

Noah Rothman, an assistant online editor at Commentary Magazine, says Spicer's reaction particularly on the detail of Trump sitting around in a bathrobe watching cable news actually had a boomerang effect on whether the story is legitimate or not.

"I am usually skeptical of stories that include novel-like micro details that set the stage, but Spicer's insane reaction around Trump not owning a bathrobe, for example, makes me feel like its entirely legit."

On cue again came the cynical media brigade, which quickly circulated "proof" Trump does own a bathrobe by retweeting en masse a story in the UK's Daily Mail featuring the billionaire in a bathrobe. The photo was taken in the late 1970s, of course, but why let the fact the photos being 30-40 years old get in the way of another needless narrative?

Maggie Haberman, who co-authored the story and also serves as a CNN contributor, told Anderson Cooper on Monday that the part about staffers not being able to turn on the lights was meant to paint the new administration in a positive light.

"Frankly, we thought it was sort of endearing," Haberman said.

It is interesting — for lack of a better word — that Haberman and Thrush have been assigned to cover the Trump White House for the paper of record considering both were named in the 2016 WikiLeaks email dumps as reporters sympathetic to the Democratic party. 

Thrush, for example, was shown to share stories in advance with the Clinton campaign.

“Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this Tell me if I f****d up anything," Thrush, who was with Politico at the time, wrote to John Podesta while sharing the entire text of a story pertaining to the campaign chairman.

"Pls read asap — the [Jennifer Palmieri] bits — don’t share," he wrote to Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri while again sharing the text verbatim. 

Thrush faced no reprimand from Politico, did not apologize and was eventually hired by the New York Times, considered by many reporters as the top of the journalism mountain as far as career path in concerned. 

Haberman was described as a “friendly journalist” who has “teed up” stories for the Clinton campaign in the past and “never disappointed” them, according to an email WikiLeaks released from Clinton press secretary Nick Merrill.

Haberman 

A look at the Twitter feeds of Haberman and Thrush also reveal overwhelming anti-Trump sentiment on a continuous basis. 

"It (the New York Times) is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team," executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in a note to readers in November after the election. "

If that's the goal, is it wise to have two reporters who have shown themselves to be anything but impartial, via Wikileaks and their own Twitter feeds, covering the Trump White House? 

Brian Flood, a veteran media reporter for The Wrap and formerly a managing editor at TV Newser, said the Haberman/Thrush story was intentionally written to put the Trump administration in a poor light. Literally.

"The first few sentences of this story paint Trump’s aides as a bunch of clowns," argues Flood. "They also use the word 'dark' twice in the second paragraph, which is exactly how this story wants to describe the Trump administration," he adds, a reference to how the word "dark" is often used to described Trump's agenda. 

McCall concludes the Times and its reporters should focus on less on electricity at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and more on news that actually matters.

"The overall tone of the story is to create an impression that it is amateur hour in the White House. "The stuff about staffers being too stupid to turn on the lights and unnamed visitors not knowing how to find an exit door is quite unnecessary," McCall said. 

"If it is, indeed, amateur hour in the White House, finding light switches is the least of the concerns. 

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.