The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The important gap between social media screenshots and the front page

A metal printing plate of a front page with the Washington Post logo. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

At some point on Thursday morning, a document began circulating on social media. It included slides from a PowerPoint presentation that mashed together several elements of the endless post-2020 conspiracy theories centered on the results of the election. Those sharing it generally did so in a specific context: this, they said, was the presentation that former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shared with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot.

There was such a PowerPoint, as The Washington Post has reported. So I checked with a source who would know. Was the one that was floating around also the one Meadows turned over? The response was not qualified. While it’s possible that some parts of what is being shared are included in what Meadows provided — the source couldn’t say — the document that the committee received was not the exact one that was circulating. For one reason, the one online was 36 pages and the one received by the committee 38. There are still questions to be answered and still people asking those questions.

Social media users, though, had already decided not only that the document was authentic but that it therefore necessarily had attracted Meadows’s attention (if not his endorsement) and had been embraced by Donald Trump himself. It wasn’t just that the document was presumed to be legitimate, it was that it was presumed to be important, making it far more potent.

So attention soon turned to the media. Why wasn’t The Post or the New York Times covering this critical piece of information? Why were they muting this obvious evidence of Trump’s deviousness? How could a news media that had spent so much time talking about, say, Hillary Clinton’s emails simply shrug at so toxic a document?

The answer will be as insufficient to stemming those criticisms as it is brief: We don’t yet know what the importance of the circulating document is, if any. Because it is the role of media organizations like ours not to simply assume that something is what various people say it is but to verify that. To figure out what Meadows gave the committee and whether it was important. There’s always an urgency to those investigations; the great fear of reporters is that they’ll be scooped and that someone will get that answer faster. But credibility depends on presenting things as they are and not as they might be. It depends, too, on acknowledging when they weren’t as we thought.

We already know a great deal about Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election, and we’ve been unsparing in documenting that. We know that Trump constantly spread disinformation about the election results. We know that he tried hard to convince politicians and state officials to overturn President Biden’s victory. We have other documents which get at precisely the point those sharing the PowerPoint worry we’re missing, including emails from Meadows to the Justice Department elevating a bonkers theory about interference from Italian satellites. We know this and reported on it and so the public knows it, too.

The frustration over the PowerPoint is formed of a number of things. One is that many people who haven’t been tracking the post-election machinations of Trump’s team are for the first time discovering bizarre claims that have been floating around for a while. Another is that the context of the document being shared has been folded into Trump’s efforts without evidence; that it’s being treated as part of the push to seize a second term without that having been established.

A third is that there is heightened attention to the role of the media in the moment, in part because of a column from The Post’s Dana Milbank.

Milbank cited an analysis of news articles to argue that coverage of Biden’s administration has been as negative as was coverage of Trump’s last year. To many on the left, that’s indefensible, a mark of the media, as always, trying to both-sides everything. What’s more, many argue, it suggests that the media is setting Trump’s post-election efforts to the side in favor of bagging on the new guy.

The analysis cited by Milbank depends on something called “sentiment analysis” to make its determinations, a process that is itself not without controversy. But it also considers coverage only in the aggregate, not in the specifics. So “the media” earns condemnation even as individual reports and new information about the post-election period continue to emerge.

This has long been a challenge with social media broadly. It is trivial to find examples of coverage that you don’t like or that you think does a bad job of telling a story, justifiably or not. There was a moment in the 2016 primary campaign when I wrote two stories following a Democratic primary debate, one questioning a policy proposed by Hillary Clinton and one questioning a policy proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The latter was plucked up and cemented into a criticism of how unfair The Post was being to the senator. This is how it goes.

But back to the PowerPoint. If what’s being shared online overlaps heavily with what Meadows turned over and if Meadows was aware of its contents and if he shared that with Trump and if Trump used it in any way to bolster his planning — that’s four “ifs,” if you’re counting — then it is indeed a mark of how far the administration might have been willing to go. Again, though, we’d already gotten glimpses of this, from MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell showing up at the White House in January with a document discussing martial law to, well, Trump’s agitation and recruitment in the days before Jan. 6 itself.

This PowerPoint presentation has in the limited universe of social media become a crystallizing event. It is something presumed to be of enormous importance that shows how the media is complicit in giving Trump the space to continue to undermine American democracy. That people are aware of the scale of that effort at all is of course largely a function of dogged reporting confirmed by reporters from news outlets committed to uncovering the truth. It is a function of The Post and others learning of some potential new aspect of the story and digging into it, verifying what’s true and excising what isn’t.

Social media users are welcome to make whatever claims they want. Those systems are often built to reward unverified speculation. But if it turns out that the PowerPoint isn’t what they’d assumed, they simply delete their comments and move on.

The reason people trust The Post and our peers with important stories is that our standard is different.