“Here’s where the president has a point, though. When does the mainstream media apologize to him? When did The Washington Post apologize for saying that he moved the MLK statue, when he did not?”
— Steve Cortes, former Trump campaign adviser, on CNN, May 14, 2018
A reader sent this clip to The Fact Checker, suggesting that it was worthy of a fact check. Regular readers know that we try to delve into weighty policy issues. We can’t claim this is about something weighty. Yet the missing Martin Luther King Jr. statue is an issue that keeps coming up, for reasons that are hard to understand. But perhaps it’s because the president listed it as item No. 4 in his “fake news awards” in early 2018.
This is also a good example of what-aboutism. Cortes, a frequent Trump surrogate on television, was trying to defend the White House for its refusal to apologize after an aide privately made a morbid joke about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has an aggressive form of brain cancer. So Cortes responded with a “what-about” answer: What about the mainstream media’s refusal to apologize?
He needed a better example to make his case.
This all started on President Trump’s first day in office, when Zeke Miller, then working for Time magazine (not The Washington Post), was a pool reporter during a media appearance in the Oval Office. A pool reporter takes notes for the rest of the White House press corps at events with controlled access. In this case, Trump signed an executive order to alert federal agencies to be prepared for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Miller provided color about the redecorated Oval Office and noted that a bust of Winston Churchill was in the office. (As we have explained before, this was a bust that had been in the private residence since 1965, not a bust that President Barack Obama famously returned to the British Embassy.) Miller at first thought that a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been moved to make way for the Churchill bust, just as Obama had moved out a Churchill bust to make room for MLK.
Miller reported that the MLK bust had been moved and included that detail in an online article. His observation also was included in a pool report that was issued at 7:31 p.m.: “More decorating details: Apart from the return of the Churchill bust, the MLK bust was no longer on display.”
Miller then thought better of including unconfirmed information in a pool report and asked a White House aide to double-check on whether the MLK bust was in the Oval Office, according to an editor’s note published by Time magazine on the incident. He got his answer at 8:10 p.m., and so two minutes later emailed a correction to reporters receiving the pool reports: “The MLK bust remains in the Oval Office in addition to the Churchill bust per a WH aide. It was apparently obscured by a door and an agent earlier. My sincerest apologies.” He also quickly corrected the online article.
Miller tweeted out the news as well:
Notice the frequent use of the word “apology.” In fact, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer accepted the apology on Twitter just five minutes after Miller issued it. (Note: Since Sarah Huckabee Sanders took over the @PressSec account after Spicer’s resignation, the tweet currently displays her name. But Spicer actually issued the tweet.)
We reached out to Cortes for comment but did not get a response.
The Pinocchio Test
There are many ways that Cortes got this wrong. It was Time magazine, not The Post, that made the error. But more to the point, within an hour the mistake was corrected and a quick apology was issued. The apology was even accepted by the White House.
Everyone makes mistakes. But true professionals quickly admit their errors and apologize. The White House and its surrogates could learn a lesson from the way Time magazine handled the incident.
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