A failed effort to dupe The Washington Post into publishing a woman’s fabricated account of underage sex with Roy Moore represents the latest entry on a list of schemes that attempted to expose fake news in the mainstream media and wound up doing the opposite.
The Post’s Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis and Alice Crites reported Monday that a woman who appears to have been working for Project Veritas, the conservative activist group run by James O’Keefe, approached the newspaper with a false claim that she had an abortion at age 15 after Moore impregnated her.
As Boburg, Davis and Crites wrote, “the group’s efforts illustrate the lengths far-right activists have gone to try to discredit media outlets for reporting on allegations from multiple women that Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his early 30s.”
Instead of discrediting prior reporting, however, the botched sting showcased the journalistic rigor that news outlets such as The Post exercise before publishing accusations like those against Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama.
New York magazine recently sniffed out and did not publish a false accusation of sexual misconduct involving Harvey Weinstein. In the New Yorker, journalist Ronan Farrow chronicled the experience of New York magazine reporter Ben Wallace with a woman who turned out to be an undercover operative working for a company hired by Weinstein himself:
Wallace told me that Anna first contacted him on October 28, 2016, when he had been working on the Weinstein story for about a month and a half. Anna declined to disclose who had given her Wallace’s information. Over the course of the two meetings, Wallace grew increasingly suspicious of her motives. Anna seemed to be pushing him for information, he recalled, “about the status and scope of my inquiry, and about who I might be talking to, without giving me any meaningful help or information.” During their second meeting, Anna requested that they sit close together, leading Wallace to suspect that she might be recording the exchange. When she recounted her experiences with Weinstein, Wallace said, “it seemed like soap-opera acting.”
The woman who tried to fool The Post, Jaime Phillips, raised suspicions in similar ways. At times, she seemed to be trying to bait reporters into saying that publishing allegations against Moore would end his campaign. During one meeting, she positioned — and repositioned — her purse in a way that suggested the presence of a hidden camera.
In July, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told viewers (and fellow journalists) that “somebody for some reason appears to be shopping a fairly convincing fake NSA document that purports to directly implicate somebody from the Trump campaign in working with the Russians on their attack on the election. It is a forgery.”
Maddow said she and her staff determined that the document is fake before reporting on it. She explained her theory about why someone tried to induce her into airing a bogus scoop:
One way to stab in the heart aggressive American reporting on that subject is to lay traps for American journalists who are reporting on it, trick news organizations into reporting what appears to be evidence of what happened, and then after the fact blow that reporting up.
You then hurt the credibility of that news organization. You also cast a shadow over any similar reporting in the future, whether or not it’s true, right? Even if it’s true, you plant a permanent question, a permanent asterisk, a permanent “who knows?” as to whether that too might be false, like that other story — whether that too might be based on fake evidence.
In May, conservative talk show host Bill Mitchell suggested that supporters of President Trump could discredit news outlets such as The Post and New York Times by tricking them into publishing “crazy ‘leaks.’ ”
Times reporter Maggie Haberman replied: “The Trump administration has tried this a few times, sir. We actually vet these things.”
On Monday, vetting once again prevented a false claim from being published. A Project Veritas plot designed to embarrass the media by exposing recklessness demonstrated the media’s care instead.