‘Let them tell the whole lie…’

A reporter who changed how campaign journalism works talks about how he did it and what it means. Meanwhile, what’s next in the feud between Donald Trump and Bob Corker?

When Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold started digging into then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s apparent charitable giving, it sparked what his colleague Paul Farhi wrote was a “follow-the-money tale that combined dogged reporting… with the creative use of social media, especially Twitter, to “crowdsource” the public’s collective knowledge of people and events.”

Fahrenthold became known as the guy who used Twitter to post photographs of handwritten lists from his notebook as he called hundreds of charitable organizations to ask whether Trump had ever donated money; using “open-source” methods to enlist the public’s help in exploring and verifying responses he was getting. It ended up being one of the most compelling aspects of last year’s campaign coverage.

One of Fahrenthold’s signature lists.

Post editor Marty Baron said the process had “re-imagined investigative reporting.”

You can read about Fahrenthold’s work in his book about the coverage here, and about some of the fact-checking tools he used as it unfolded in a piece from Poynter here.

Earlier this year, Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and last week, he spoke about the coverage – and what it means for how political reporting is changing – at the annual conference of the Online News Association.

Saying that his original assignment in last year’s campaign was initially to cover “weirdo loser” candidates, he “stumbled” onto writing about Trump’s philanthropy almost by accident, and was galvanized by the scale of the topic.

“I like to think I’m an ‘experienced digger of facts’,” he said, but by enlisting the help of his twitter followers, it gave people a “thread to follow” and liberated the power of the crowd – something that also brought additional responsibility on the verification of information.

On the role of collaboration and the nature of “scoops” in a new open information environment; he argued that a story ultimately gets better reported with more people chasing it. And he recounted how an anchor for Spanish-language TV channel Univision had tracked down a portrait of himself Trump had bought with his foundation’s money.

As for his direct interaction with Trump, Fahrenthold recounted how Trump “likes to be the only person who has a particular piece of information,” making a reporter’s preparation and immersion in the subject even more vital: you need to know as much about what they’re talking about as they do.

“If people are going to lie, let them tell the whole lie first, then you can unravel it.”

One year ago this week Fahrenthold, by way of an anonymous tipoff, also broke the story of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, a recording of candidate Trump having – as the Post headline quaintly put it – an “extremely lewd conversation about women”. Unsurprisingly, the revelation dominated the coverage for weeks, overshadowing the first reports of possible Russian meddling in the election.

(A mini-documentary for Yahoo!, 64 Hours in October, by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff looks at the confluence of those events and their impact on the race.)

The influence of Fahrenthold’s work in current political coverage, and how other news organizations learned to put resources into following slow-burn projects comes through, for example, in episodes like Politico’s recent stories on Health Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets.

Fahrenthold is still covering Trump and his money – looking at the financial situation of the branded golf courses, for example, or tracking which charities are using Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to host events. “Another thing we’re trying to do is look at which sports teams have stayed at Trump hotels in the past and are or aren’t coming back to stay with him.”

But even as the nature of political reporting evolves, we are certainly in uncharted territory, in more ways than one.

Another Washington Post reporting legend, Watergate’s Carl Bernstein, this week said that the “wheels are coming off the Trump presidency” and called the current situation in the White House “unlike anything I have seen in 50 years in Washington.”

And with a President who apparently thinks he invented the word “fake”, the question many observers and commentators are already asking is will we ever go back to normal? In the end, that probably depends on what your definition of “normal” actually is. While the mechanics of how the press covers politics is undoubtedly changing, James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair this weekend that the nature of the coverage also has to adapt:

This sentimentalization of the Loyal Trump Voter, whose rationale for standing by the president is often cradled in incoherence and plain, proud ignorance with a large chunk of stubborn pride, is the latest extension of the press’s centering of the White Working Class in the national narrative, no matter how much the demographics and the complexion of the country change. Every election cycle, eastern reporters ritualistically venture into caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire on Norman Rockwell safari to file copy from the diners and truck stops on “real Americans” in plaid jackets and tractor caps with heartland values and comfort-food appetites. It is time this romance with Ma and Pa Kettle was put out to pasture. Let journalists find other ways to pretend to be in touch with those left behind and clinging to their discredited articles of faith. Otherwise, dec­ades from now, if news outlets as we know them survive, reporters may still be tramping through the hinterlands searching for the last remaining Trump holdouts to interview as if they were Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles long after World War II ended.

In practical terms, though, if there were really any doubt that the world of political campaigning and the coverage of it – and how political information spreads – has been altered almost beyond recognition with the most recent election, we need look only as far as a fascinating interview on CBS 60 Minutes with Brad Parscale, the former Trump campaign digital director, about how Facebook ads helped elect his man. Not to mention the latest revelations of how the tech giants are approaching the whole idea of Russian ads on their platforms during the election. Facebook and Twitter are set to appear before the House and Senate Intelligence committees on November 1st.

 

Uncorked

In the world of actual government, meanwhile, the row continues to intensify between Trump and the influential Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, a Republican liberated by not seeking re-election, whose criticism of the President has escalated to the point of warning that “the president is dangerously erratic, treats his high office like “a reality show,” has to be contained by his staff and is reckless enough to put the country “on the path to World War III.”

His recent statements even had one CNN host wondering if Corker was “planting seeds” to question Trump’s mental fitness for office. That theme is also explored by Mehdi Hasan in a piece for The Intercept titled: ‘Worried about Trump’s mental stability? The worst is yet to come.”

The Washington Post described the current situation as a “pressure cooker” and reports that the President is in the process of “torching bridges” as he labors to solidify his standing with his populist base.

In pushing back, the White House said Corker’s actions had been “insulting,” with Kellyanne Conway telling Fox News – with hardly a glimpse of irony – that “I find tweets like this to be incredibly irresponsible.”

With many Republican politicians publicly steering clear of the feud for now, the reaction of the party as an institution, as the clock ticks down to next year’s midterms, is going to be crucial. As CNN reports: “It could… show whether Trump’s go-to tactic of waging war on the Republican Party establishment, that has proven so profitable in the past, is a viable strategy going forward or whether it is ultimately self-defeating.

James Fallows writes in The Atlantic that “It’s what Bob Corker does next that counts.”

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, meanwhile – remember him? –went on Hannity to call on Corker to resign, and warned of a grassroots “war” on many “establishment” GOP senate incumbents.

“Nobody’s safe” he said, more ominously than usual.

About Steve McGookin

Steve McGookin is a former journalist and US news editor at the Financial Times in London and New York. He has written about every US Presidential election since 1988.


Also published on Medium.