Conservative talk show host Bill Mitchell has hatched an ingenious plot to destroy the credibility of major newspapers.
Simple, right? Mitchell's theory is that the media is so hungry for unflattering information about President Trump that it will gobble up anything that feeds its narrative. When “crazy leaks” make print, Mitchell and his fellow Trump boosters can expose the falsehoods and prove once and for all that the “fake news media,” as the president calls it, is composed of a bunch of hacks.
It's brilliant! But New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman says the plan won't work.
Let's get serious for a moment: Mitchell's scheme is rather facile, but that does not mean phony leaks are not a real threat. According to Haberman, members of the Trump administration already have tried to dupe the New York Times on several occasions — presumably with tips that seem plausible and are not easily dismissed as “crazy.”
Recall that before his first address to a joint session of Congress, in February, Trump said at a luncheon with TV journalists that he might talk about a compromise that would include offering legal status to some undocumented immigrants. When he took the stage, however, Trump said no such thing.
CNN later quoted a senior White House official who admitted that Trump's initial remark to journalists was a “misdirection play” designed to promote favorable coverage. It seems clear that feeding false information to reporters is part of the White House playbook.
Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, said last week that he believes journalists need to be on high alert for attempts to fool them into reporting incorrect info that could damage their reputations. When I asked whether he worries about errors made in haste, as news outlets compete for scoops, Pope said “the bigger risk right now is of somebody getting duped — intentional misdirection or fabricated leaks. In this climate, that is more what I would be worried about.”
I'm reminded of a time when I was intentionally misdirected — on a story with much lower stakes. While freelancing for a local news site during grad school, in 2011, I once covered an American Legion baseball game in which an ineligible athlete played in a game under someone else's name. The whole team was in on it, including the coach. The player, whose real name was Paul Nelson, introduced himself in a postgame interview as Kevin Superko, a teammate whose name he had borrowed for the day. I had no idea he was lying.
I later discovered and exposed the scheme but not before writing an account of the game that described the exploits of “Superko,” who had homered, doubled and batted in three runs in a victory. I was angry that I had been fooled but unsure what I would have done differently. When a person gives you his name, you tend to believe it's his real name, unless there is a compelling reason to be suspicious.
I bring this up because on some level, reporting depends on good-faith human interaction. If the Trump White House manages to slip false information into a news report, it won't be something that is obviously outlandish; it will be something that seems completely reasonable.
It appears that White House reporters can take absolutely nothing at face value, at this point.