Giving Trump officials anonymity is a whole new world of dangerous

Trump arriving at a political rally in Florida on November 3, 2018.

Here’s a small case study in why you don’t give government officials anonymity when announcing policy. (Ever, but certainly with Trump).

Back in February 2017, Washington Post then-White-House reporter Jenna Johnson wrote an article headlined White House: Air Force One will not be used as a ‘prop’ at political rally.

Its equally authoritative lede was based on a quote from “an administration official”:

The White House said Thursday that President Trump does not plan to use Air Force One as a backdrop at his political rally in a hangar in Melbourne, Fla., on Saturday evening.

The president plans to travel to the rally in Air Force One, as he does for all trips, but an administration official said the plane would “not [be] used in the background as a prop.”

Flash forward 18 months to this morning, and the Washington Post’s Phil Rucker is out with a story headlined A ‘there-it-is’ moment: Trump wows fans by using Air Force One as a campaign prop.

Rucker noted the earlier Post story, and concluded: “That policy was clearly dropped as the president’s campaigning picked up pace, however.”

I’m not pointing this out to denigrate Johnson, or Rucker, who have been among the most diligent major-newspapers reporters out there in terms of trying to hold Trump accountable. See, e.g., Rucker’s brilliant, brutally honest summation of Trump’s 2018 campaigning, also published today, ‘Full Trumpism’: The president’s apocalyptic attacks reach a new level of falsity.

But think about what happened: Some unnamed official was allowed to speak with complete authority on behalf of “the White House.”

That’s a mistake. To quote NYU media critic Jay Rosen, “There is no White House, really. Not in the sense that the term has been traditionally used. There’s just Trump and people who work in the building.”

And those of us who would like to ask the original source some questions can’t. We can only hope Johnson does.

So I emailed her this morning. The Post’s communications office got right back to me and said she wasn’t going to respond, but here’s what I asked her:

  • Do you think that source was telling you the truth as (s)he knew it at the time?
  • If so, will you go back to the source and say: What happened?
  • How do you think things would be different if you had used the source’s name?
  • Do you think the campaign would have had a harder time “reversing” a policy announced by someone by name?
  • Would that source be more likely (under more pressure) to explain why what (s)he said is no longer operative, if his/her name were associated with it?

I’m never a fan of granting government officials anonymity, unless 1) they’re exposing something of great public importance and 2) they might lose their job if their name was associated with it.

Actually, I’ll take either 1 or 2. Or at least a bit of 1 or 2. I get it, we live in the real world.

But granting anonymity to people who work for Trump – particularly when they are announcing some sort of forward-looking policy or personnel decision — is a completely different ballgame. Consider:

  • Trump is so fickle, vain and impulsive that there’s no way for anyone but him to speak with any authority. (Corollary: Even when Trump says something, he is quite possibly lying and/or about to change his mind.)
  • If anonymous sources are announcing a sound, reasonable, and forthright policy (as above), it gives them a positive headline – but when Trump (almost inevitably) violates that policy, there is no accountability.
  • So many Trump plans attributed to anonymous officials are so unprecedentedly vile that by not attributing them to specific people, journalists are simply letting Trump test public reaction – and reduce the shock element when and if the proposal is formally announced – without any accountability.

This also brings me back to the case of Jonathan Swan, the scoop machine for Axios, who I wrote about last week.

I left out two important things about Swan in that story.

As Paul Farhi of the Washington Post and Michael M. Grynbaum of the New York Times noted in somewhat swooning profiles of Swan over the weekend, he is in fact responsible for more, bigger scoops than I gave him credit for. Per Farhi:

Swan was first to report that Trump intended to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord; that Trump planned to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; that White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon would be fired; that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wouldn’t seek reelection; that Trump would end President Barack Obama’s executive order protecting children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrants; that Anthony Scaramucci would be named White House communications director; and that Trump had accepted Nikki Haley’s resignation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But the other thing I left out was that Swan’s sourcing is almost always anonymous. I’m not saying it’s easy to get Trump officials to talk to you, but it sure is easier if you essentially promise they’ll never be held accountable for what they tell you.

So: Sources tell Swan something, and he reports what they say, anonymously. He does so regardless of motive. He doesn’t fact-check. He doesn’t have time to get a response.

As Farhi finally notes, in the penultimate paragraph of his Swan story, “his stories sometimes read like news flashes or blurbs, shorn of context, depth or larger connections.”

One of the reasons I launched this website was because I think it’s so important that people see each of Trump’s incremental actions in their proper, alarming context. Nothing he says or does – and nothing his “White House” says he’s going to do — can be taken on face value. Virtually every action is part of a racist and corrupt assault on pluralism, truth, and what I (still) consider core American values.

In the early years of internet news, a mantra in many newsrooms was that getting it right is more important than getting it first.

In the age of Trump, I would argue that putting it in context is more important than getting it first. In fact, in the greater scheme of things, getting it first really doesn’t matter at all.

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