President Trump gives Chief of Staff Reince Priebus “until July 4th to clean up White House.” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway “is caught mocking Trump staffers.” Trump tells U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May he won’t go to Britain “until the British public supports him coming.”
What do all of these stories have in common? They’re completely unsourced. No names. No real people. Just claims that come from, in order, “two administration officials and three outside advisers familiar with the matter,” an anonymous tweeter who set up a dummy Twitter account, and “a Downing Street adviser.”
None of the latest stories have anyone on the record making the accusations. Instead, the “news” sites that posted the stories — Politico, the Daily Mail and the Guardian — simply make the surprising claims and cite anonymous sources. The subjects of the anonymous slurs have no recourse whatsoever, no right to face their accusers, no way to fight back. The accusation streams out onto the internet, where it lives forever — whether it’s true or not.
And the Trump haters will literally run anything they claim to get their hands on.
Case in point: The White House staff stories. We’ve been seeing these almost since the day Mr. Trump took office. Ms. Conway was out, Steve Bannon was out, Sean Spicer was about to be fired, Mr. Priebus has lost all of his clout and has to sit in the broom closet during Oval Office meetings. (I made that last one up.)
None of these stories have been true. Not one. Google “White House shake up” and you get 40,200 stories — every one of them false. Has there been a shake-up? No.
“News” sites just write around that glaring contradiction, as Politico did in its June 11 report.
“While Trump has set deadlines for staff changes before, only to let them pass without pulling the trigger, the president is under more scrutiny than ever regarding the sprawling Russia investigation, which is intensifying the pressure on his White House team.
“Days after his return from his first foreign trip late last month, Trump berated Priebus in the Oval Office in front of his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie for the dysfunction in the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation,” Politico wrote.
Well, “multiple sources familiar with the conversation.” How can you argue with that? It’s gotta be true!
The writer even attributed direct quotes to Trump.
“”I’m giving you until July 4,’ Trump said, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. ‘I don’t want them to come into this mess. If I’m going to clean house, they will come in as fresh blood.’”
The Conway story in the Daily Mail was even more egregious.
“Kellyanne Conway has been caught at a glitzy Washington DC party allegedly dishing the dirt on her fellow Team Trump colleagues. The 50-year-old was outed on a dedicated Twitter account, @KellyanneLeaks, in real time as she went after Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, legislative affairs director Marc Short, and others during a party on Thursday night.
“‘Kellyanne was at an embassy party last night, leaking sensitive Priebus and Trump White House conversations to @washingtonpost reporters,’ the first tweet read.”
But wait. This violates all kinds of hitherto adhered to rules. While reporters sometimes use unnamed sources (this reporter has), they must, of course, know who they’re talking to. And, also a requirement, they must work hard to find a second source to corroborate. In the old days, if they couldn’t, they didn’t go with the story (See “All the President’s Men”).
Yet in this case, the paper simply went with an anonymous tweeter who claimed to have overheard Conway at a party. While the Twitter feed included a photo of Conway — the tweeter was, then, at the “embassy party” — what Ms. Conway said is anybody’s guess.
While Ms. Conway on Monday denied the story, it’s too late: It’s already out there and being repeated. The handle @kellyanneleaks now has thousands of followers and the tweets have been retweeted thousands of times.
The who-what-when-where-why construction of news stories is also an artifact of a different, more reliable news era. Take this excerpt from The Guardian story:
“Donald Trump has told Theresa May in a phone call he does not want to go ahead with a state visit to Britain until the British public supports him coming. The US president said he did not want to come if there were large-scale protests and his remarks in effect put the visit on hold for some time. The call was made in recent weeks, according to a Downing Street adviser who was in the room. The statement surprised May, according to those present.
“The conversation in part explains why there has been little public discussion about a visit,” the Guardian wrote.
The call was made “in recent weeks”? Why didn’t the reporter try to nail that down?
This story wasn’t true, either. “Her Majesty extended an invitation to the president,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. “He’s accepted that invitation. And we look forward to scheduling that trip.”
Eh, it doesn’t matter. The story spread like wildfire and will now be repeated by anyone and everyone as if it’s fact.
It isn’t. But that no longer counts.
And that should terrify you.
• Joseph Curl has covered politics for 25 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter via @josephcurl.