Two recent instances of grossly malfeasant journalism, both at The New York Times and from the same journalist, illustrate well the media style that will likely dominate under Donald Trump’s administration.
Last week, writer Coral Davenport, along with fellow journalist David E. Sanger, authored an article at the Times purporting to show that former Texas governor Rick Perry “initially misunderstood” the job he would be undertaking as secretary of Energy under Trump. According to the authors, Perry initially believed his job would make him “a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry,” yet—in cartoonishly buffoonish fashion—Perry eventually discovered that he would, in fact, “become the steward of…the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.”
It would be hard to imagine a more blistering professional indictment of Perry. There’s just one problem: it appears to be entirely fabricated. To bolster this incredible tale, the authors used exactly one on-the-record quote. The quote itself did not even validate the authors’ claims, and the source, a former member of Trump’s transition team, later said his statement was misrepresented. There were no other sources, even anonymous ones, to back up Davenport and Sanger’s incredible story.
Indeed, when Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway asked Times editor Patrick LaForge for more information to that effect, LaForge refused to provide any and instead dismissed Hemingway, telling her: “Go watch Fox.” In other words, Davenport and Sanger authored a hit job on Perry with no verifiable sources to back up their outrageous claims. Nevertheless, they succeeded: the story went stratospherically viral, with credulous journalists and media figures sharing it far and wide.
This Isn’t Politico, Is It?
A couple of days later, Davenport published another story in the Times, this one with an alarming and astonishing headline: “With Trump in Charge, Climate Change References Purged From Website.” According to Davenport, “within moments” of Trump being sworn in, the White House website was “purged” of “nearly all mentions of climate change.” Also victim of the “online deletions”: a page “devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.”
Only into the second paragraph of the story do we learn that the “purge” was “not unexpected.” Indeed, it was, as CNN put it, “part of the formal presidential transition.” Davenport herself notes that the Obama White House’s “personal and policy pages” were all taken down and archived to make room for the incoming administration’s digital front. There was, in other words, no “purge,” no “deletions”; it was standard operating procedure, one administration clearing out and another taking its place.
Yet, due in no small part to Davenport’s sensationalist framing, the story was retweeted nearly 3,000 times from The New York Times’s Twitter account, and shared well over 40,000 times on Facebook. The story (or at least the headline) accomplished what Davenport intended: it tricked people into believing that the Trump administration was engaging in a kind of digital book-burn.
Narrative Over Fact-Checking
That The New York Times could run two so poorly premised, poorly sourced, and poorly written articles, almost back-to-back, and without appending or correcting either; and that so many people, including professional journalists, could credulously share these articles, says some troubling things about the state and the future of modern American media in the age of Trump. We seem to be in an age of feelings-based journalism.
Our media, of course, have already for some time tended to be post-factual, at least on issues that make progressivism look bad. But feelings-based journalism is different. It doesn’t require a journalist to make a practical attempt to hide or distort or lie about the truth. It simply requires the journalist to instead substitute emotions, suppositions, hunches, and aesthetic sentiment for hard facts.
This is why the United States of America’s paper of record could safely print two profoundly shoddy examples of half-bright journalistic hit-jobs; why an author could write such transparent falsehoods and misleading copy without suffering any professional retribution; and why there has been no effort from the country’s most prestigious media institution to correct its obvious mistakes. This is feelings-based journalism, and it is likely that, throughout Trump’s presidency, it will only continue to grow in popularity.
No doubt this combative media style will inflict some damage on Trump in the popular eye. Of course, it is also possible, if not likely, that it will end up working in his favor. If the media genuinely want to wage a fight against the Trump administration over the next four years, they might consider abjuring these fabrications and instead just writing the truth.