Media critic

UPDATE, 5:28 p.m. Dec. 27: NBC News has changed its headline to this formulation: “Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops on or before Christmas.” Better, not best.

The new version also includes an expanded editor’s note explaining other changes needed to align the piece with Trump’s unannounced departure:

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, NBC News compiled a list of every Christmastime visit to active troops by a president since 2001. That list, as detailed in the article below, showed that former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama visited troops on or before Christmas every year since 2003, and President Donald Trump did so in 2017. As of the end of Christmas Day 2018, Trump had not visited troops during the holiday season, and had announced no plans to do so. The article was correct, but on Dec. 26, the situation changed. Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, made an unannounced visit to troops in Iraq. As a result, the thrust of this article is no longer correct, even if it was at the time. In the interest of transparency, we are keeping the article on NBCNews.com so that the record will reflect the situation on the day the article was published, and are directing readers to the article about Trump’s Iraq visit here. We are also altering one line in the article, as well as the headline, to be more specific and to note that Trump was the first president since 2002 who didn’t visit military personnel on or before Christmas, rather than at Christmastime.

The original version of this piece, published 12:49 p.m., follows:

There were merely seven hours and 47 minutes left of Christmas Day when NBC News published this story: “Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops at Christmastime.” It seemed to be a safe assertion, considering the scene at the White House on Tuesday morning. “The White House complex, you will be unsurprised to learn, is very quiet as of now,” wrote Niall Stanage of the Hill in a pool report on Christmas morning. Trump would later speak from the White House with service members at remote sites around the world, along with taking some questions from reporters.

So how far could the president stray?

Well, about 6,200 miles. Here’s what happened, in the words of a White House pool report that was embargoed until Wednesday afternoon: “Trump left the White House late on Dec. 25 for an unannounced movement to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Pool was prepositioned on the plane and did not see Trump board. Air Force One was wheels up at 12:06 am ET on Dec. 26. POTUS landed at 11:16 am ET/ 7:16 pm local time at Al Asad Air Base, a joint U.S.-Iraqi military base west of Baghdad.” The president left under the cover of darkness in order to maintain operational security.

Having jumped the gun, NBC News attached an editor’s note to its story on Trump’s “Christmastime” omission:

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, a day after this article was published, President Trump made a surprise visit to Iraq to greet U.S. troops. It was his first presidential visit to a combat zone.

Yet even with that amendment, the story stands by its original headline, alleging no “Christmastime” troop visits from Trump. It also contains passages consistent with that headline, including a statement that Trump “broke from a recent tradition of actually visiting troops and wounded warriors. He did so in 2017, when he visited wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 21 (and invited Coast Guard service members to play golf at his course in West Palm Beach, Florida). By staying home on Tuesday, Trump became the first president since 2002 who didn’t visit military personnel around Christmastime.”

As the pool report notes, however, Trump didn’t stay home Tuesday, at least not all of Tuesday. He left the White House “late on Dec. 25,” according to the report.

The story appears to rest on a lawyerly definition of “Christmastime.” Some succor for this approach comes from Merriam-Webster, which defines the word as “the time of year when people get ready for and celebrate Christmas : Christmas day and the days and weeks before it.”

Meh. A better measure of whether the visit qualifies as a “Christmastime” event comes from The Post’s account of the day: “Trump and the first lady mingled with uniformed service members at a base dining facility that was decorated for Christmas with foil balls, twinkling lights and snowmen made of stacked tires painted white,” notes the story by Philip Rucker and Paul Sonne. Also: Aren’t there 12 days of Christmas?

On Twitter and conservative media, there’s a lot of commentary criticizing NBC News for its “fake news” report about Trump’s “Christmastime” activities. “Fake news,” in the originalist view of the Erik Wemple Blog, describes intentionally false stories written for political ends. Considering that NBC News’s “Christmastime” piece appeared bulletproof at the time that it posted, we won’t join the “fake news” brigadiers in this instance. In defending the piece, an NBC News source said, “NBC waited until there was a full lid from the White House before publishing the piece,” referring to jargon indicating that the day’s news from the White House is done.

Things changed, however. Like a commander in chief, Trump got out of the house, into a plane and flew across the world to greet the troops amid Christmas folderol. Give the guy the credit he deserves for getting off his butt, as does The Post: “The unannounced visit continues a holiday tradition followed by past presidents.”

Correct the piece, NBC News, or prepare to stand legitimately accused of propagating fake news.

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