The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vanity Fair ‘updates’ story about Donald Trump Jr., OAN

Donald Trump Jr. at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

“Updates” do a lot of work in journalism these days. Sometimes they are used to denote simple amplifications to fast-moving online news stories. Other times they provide cover for the insertion of badly missing context. At other times, they camouflage important corrections that editors and reporters prefer not to label as such.

A challenge to readers: Choose which scenario best describes the update that Vanity Fair inserted into an important media story on Friday afternoon.

Gabriel Sherman, a Vanity Fair correspondent famous for his investigations of Fox News, wrote a piece on Monday about an important development in Trump-friendly media. A group of investors “aligned” with Donald Trump Jr. and the Hicks family of Dallas “has acquired a major stake in One America News Network, the fledgling conservative cable-news channel that features hosts like Jack Posobiec, a chief promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy,” reported Sherman. The same story also said that the deal “hasn’t yet closed.”

OAN, as the channel is known, takes a back seat to no one — not even Fox News’s “Hannity” — when it comes to jaw-dropping innovations in pro-Trump news coverage. As Marc Fisher reported in The Post, the network’s owner, Robert Herring Sr., banned coverage of polls that positioned anyone but Donald Trump in first place. President Trump praises those who praise him, and OAN is no exception. His White House has even made special accommodations in the White House briefing room for OAN correspondent Chanel Rion, at a time when spots in this cramped space are at a premium thanks to social-distancing regimes.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

OAN wasn’t having one bit of the Sherman story. Charles P. Herring, son of Robert and president of Herring Networks (owner of OAN), sent a stern letter to Sherman and the CEO of Conde Nast (owner of Vanity Fair) requesting a retraction and apology for the magazine’s “false and defamatory” claim. “We will not stand by and allow your lies to be disseminated,” reads the letter. No stake in the business has been sold off, according to Charles Herring. “The facts are undisputable and in direct conflict with your false and defamatory statements. Herring Networks, Inc. has not sold ANY stake in One America News Network or its Company to anyone or any entity, period,” notes the letter, which is dated May 7.

News organizations tend to pay attention to retraction-and-apology requests. Now attached to the Vanity Fair story is this note: “This post has been updated . . . to reflect comments received after publication by Charles P. Herring, president of Herring Networks, [OAN’s] parent company.”

(Bolding added to highlight an early candidate for euphemism of the year.)

Where once the story declared that the investor group “has acquired” a stake in OAN, it now states: “According to sources, an investor group aligned with his son Don Jr. and the Dallas-based Hicks family is in negotiations to acquire a major stake in One America News Network, the fledgling conservative cable-news channel that features hosts like Jack Posobiec, a chief promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy.”

(Bolding added to highlight Vanity Fair’s “update.”)

Another change relates to the alleged involvement of Donald Trump Jr. in the deal. Sherman’s original story indicated that it’s “unclear whether Don Jr. invested Trump family funds in the deal or was given equity,” a line of reporting that angered Charles Herring, who ripped away in his letter: “Your statement makes it clear that Donald Trump, Jr. has an equity stake in One America News — whether it was given to him or was in investment of family funds,” reads the letter. “The statement is factually incorrect, as stated above, Herring Networks, Inc, and its brand OAN are solely owned by the Herring family. Your motives seem clear, to strip OAN of any legitimate independence in its reporting by propagating fake and defamatory statements.”

The updated version of the story says it’s “unclear what role Don Jr. has had in the negotiations.”

All of which lands us pretty much back where we were in January, when the Wall Street Journal published a story under the bylines of Juliet Chung, Corrie Driebusch, and Rebecca Ballhaus and the headline, “Trump Allies Explore Buyout of Conservative Channel Seeking to Compete With Fox News.” In that story, Charles Herring tells the Wall Street Journal that "our family didn’t build our operations to sell it.”

Who knows whether this notional deal will ever get done. What’s clear is that there are many sources of reporting and speculation in the vicinity of the deal, whether it’s the Trump family, the investors, the Herrings and so on. Chatter isn’t hard to come by. Though Sherman appears to have jumped the gun on an actual sale, it’s hard to see how any of the reporting could be defamatory. Sales of media properties, after all, happen all the time — and the pace will likely accelerate with the new recession.

We asked Vanity Fair’s spokesman whether something more thoroughgoing than an “update” might be warranted in these circumstances. We’ll update this post if we receive a response.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Why people believe in a ‘plandemic’

Jennifer Rubin: What if facts matter?

Erik Wemple: The media’s struggle to digest Trump’s coronavirus briefings