Jonathan Swan, who covers the White House for Axios, is getting lots of well-deserved grief for his giddy and enabling exchange with Donald Trump over birthright citizenship, which led to an enormous and embarrassing media circus on Tuesday as news organizations chased Swan’s story, hyped it, then (in most cases) realized it was just that much more Trump bullshit aimed at riling up his base before the midterms.
Swan is the poster child for Axios, the noxious political website created by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei as proof that worming ones way into getting access to highly-placed sources is way more profitable than, say, actual journalism.
Swan is an Axios scoop machine. But consider what he’s scooping.
The folks who hand him “exclusives” are not brave whistleblowers doing a public service by exposing lies.
They’re people who know Swan will play his role in their game of attention-getting score-settling.
Swan knows exactly what the game is, and how little it has to do with actual journalistic values. I know he knows, because he wrote an article about it for Axios back in May. Why do you leak? He asked his White House sources.
“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”[…]
The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”[…]
A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.[…]
Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.
This actually leaves out what may be the most common form of Trump White House leak: The trial balloon. Trial balloons are planted leaks (or “pleaks“) to test public reaction to a policy proposal – with the added benefit that they reduce the shock element and make it feel like old news once the proposal is formally announced. It was a tried and true White House tactic long before Trump. But it’s never been used to float such abhorrent proposals.
I browsed through some of Swan’s biggest scoops, and found stories like like Exclusive: Trump vents in Oval Office, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” and Exclusive: A leaked Trump bill to blow up the WTO or Scoop: Leaked document reveals Navarro’s brashest tariffs yet, all of which seemed like pleaks, intended to test and soften the resistance to what was to come.
I found Scoop: Trump’s obsession with the “terrible” FBI building, in which Swan writes admiringly about Trump’s desire to micromanage the rebuilding of the downtown FBI headquarters – while missing the obvious story, which is that Trump blocked a plan to move the FBI elsewhere, which would have made room for a luxury hotel that would have competed with his own.
I also found a lot of gossipy clickbait like Scoop: Kelly says Trump probably contributing to staff chaos stories or Exclusive: Trump’s nightmare: “The snakes are everywhere”.
Swan also had a huge scoop in September, when he reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. “Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned,” he initially reported, later changing that to “offered to resign.”
As for Swan’s big, credulous no-pushback birthright citizenship scoop, sharp-eyed reporters saw the problem right away. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein was surely among the first:
Guys. Trump can’t terminate amendments via executive order. To respond as if he’s ending birthright citizenship because he told an outlet he is ending birthright citizenship is to allow him to be our assignment editor. It’s an obvious stunt
— Sam Stein (@samstein) October 30, 2018
There was much more to com.
At Splinter, Libby Watson wrote:
At best, Swan has his priorities extremely out of whack, positioning the value of his exciting scoop over the horrifying implications of this policy; at worst, he doesn’t care about what this change would mean at all, and had to be reminded to pretend that he might. (The Axios piece does not contain the word “racist” or “racism.”)
Matthew Ingram wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that the whole incident
amplified the concern that some media outlets still don’t appear to have learned one of the central lessons of the Trump presidency: He will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem.
The Intercept’s Sam Biddle declared that “the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying.”
But hey, some good may well come of all this.
Swan’s question was so clearly staged for PR purposes, Trump’s supposed plan was so implausible, his insistence that the U.S. is alone in its birthright policy was such an incontrovertible lie, and the whole thing was such an obvious attempt to get attention before the midterms, that this may prove to be a turning point in Trump coverage.
You could actually watch such a turn at the New York Times in real time on Tuesday. First came the breathless, credulous news story (in pink), which was eventually rendered accurate (see the edits in green). It was then joined by a properly contemptuous legal analysis by Adam Liptak (“The words of the 14th Amendment are plain”), which then made way for a Peter Baker front-pager worth celebrating, about how Trump “seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality.”
Does that mean the Times won’t get fooled again, next time Trump plays the media for chumps? And that other major newsrooms have finally learned their lesson? I wouldn’t bet on it, but a guy can hope.