At yesterday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer fielded a question about the ProPublica scoop. On the merits, Spicer suggested there were few: “A blind trust, or any kind of trust, rather, the whole entire point of setting it up is that somebody can withdraw money. And that’s, frankly, part of the point of setting it up,” he said.
Yet Spicer works for a fellow who rips the media at every turn, who terms “fake news” any scoops that paint him in a negative light, who premised his presidential campaign on media criticism, and who quite clearly feels more comfortable discussing the alleged failings of the media than complicated policy matters. So the press secretary must have felt fully licensed to blast ProPublica when he was pressed further on this trust-document change. “I’m not aware that there was any change. Just because a left-wing blog makes the point of something changing doesn’t mean it actually happened. I’m not aware that there was ever a change in the trust,” said Spicer.
ProPublica wasn’t going to allow the matter to rest there. It has a Twitter account, after all.
Those tweets constitute about a third of the ProPublica tweetstorm; the rest are here. To summarize the outburst, ProPublica argued that its facts were solid; it has the document to prove it; it does accountability journalism; and it also held the Obama administration to account for broken promises and the like.
“I don’t think it’s good for America when the president’s press secretary says something from the podium that is simply not true,” says ProPublica President Richard Tofel in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
In this particular case, however, there’s an upside for ProPublica. Whereas one-time online donations have been running at about $1,200 per day recently, they spiked yesterday to more than $11,500 — a development that Tofel attributes to the attention from Spicer. Along with the cash has come a crowd: Spicer’s smear appears to have prompted an uptick of 70,000 followers for the ProPublica Twitter account and a boost of 5,000 new subscribers for the outlet’s newsletter, according to Tofel.
This dynamic has been well documented. Baseless, flick-of-the-wrist insults from Trump and his minions have helped to marshal subscriptions and eyeballs for a variety of outlets that have dug up unflattering scoops about the administration, and the campaign before it. New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are among that crowd. They’re all reporting about an administration that, with a snarky dig here or there, can extend a little stimulus package that requires no congressional approval.