Fake News and News Fraud

Fake News and News Fraud
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Fake News and News Fraud
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
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Stung by President Trump’s repeated charges of “fake news,” last week The Boston Globe announced an alliance of more than 70 newspapers planning to run editorials protesting a ‘‘dirty war against the free press.”  This effort is being supported by such industry heavyweights as The American Society of Newspaper Editors and regional newspaper groups.

This is a far more serious counterattack than Jim Acosta’s coloratura screeching over any interference with his posturing for CNN cameras at assorted White House press events.

And then NBC News changed the name of the game.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Chuck Todd aired a tape former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman claimed she had made in the White House Situation Room at the time of her firing by Chief of Staff John Kelly in December 2017. She was promoting her new book full of all kinds of juicy allegations. So far so good. As a book publisher, I shared an interest with many a network producer in putting together interesting news segments that would help sell my authors. And if it made news for an outlet like “Meet the Press,” so much the better.

Leave aside for a moment the ethics or even the legality of her taping inside the White House. And who cares about her nondisclosure agreement -- those are her problems. If a news organization gets something like that, it’s got definite news value for the national audience. Of course Manigault Newman is an interested party and is promoting her book. And she has a perfect right to run any risks she wants to, and NBC as well, in airing her various opinions on everything from Trump’s mental condition to allegations of racism. She worked in the Trump White House and knew Trump before; her point of view is relevant. There is nothing wrong if a news organization does its job in setting up a credible segment. NBC’s problem is it unquestioningly played only part of the tape Manigault Newman allowed the network to listen to and did not explore the very issues raised in the part of the tape it had access to, but elected not to run.

They too were newsworthy. After all, NBC, echoed by The Wall Street Journal, ran Manigault Newman’s accusation against Kelly: “The chief of staff, under the direction of the president of the United States, threatening me on damage to my reputation and things getting ugly for me. That’s downright criminal.”

But was it? NBC seems to only have taken Manigault Newman’s word for it, since it never played the part of the tape after Kelly left the room and she had a briefing by White House attorneys discussing the grounds for her dismissal. And none of the following from Kelly was aired on “Meet the Press,” although Manigault Newman made it available to NBC (The Wall Street Journal ignored it as well):

“I’m only going to stay for a couple of minutes. These are lawyers. We’re going to talk to you about leaving the White House. It’s come to my attention, over the last few months, that there’s been some pretty, in my opinion, significant integrity issues related to you and use of government vehicles and some other issues. And they’ll, they’ll, they’ll walk you through the legal aspects of this. But there is some, from my view, there’s some money issues and other things, but from my view, the integrity issues are very serious.”

After hearing that part of the tape, any decent newsman would say, “Wait just a minute. Where’s the part of her tape with the lawyers? If it exists, we have to hear it too. We can’t just let her accuse Kelly of being a ‘criminal’ after what Kelly said about questions of her ‘integrity.’”

The film script of “All the President’s Men” dramatizes the editorial problem from a newsman’s point of view: “Ben Bradlee: Now hold it, hold it. We're about to accuse Haldeman, who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right.”

Did anyone try to “hold it” at NBC News? I’ve contacted the network to see if such a conversation took place and if anyone heard the rest of the tape, if it existed. As of yet, after several exchanges, I haven’t gotten an answer. But the fact remains, in spite of Kelly’s rather lengthy and moderate (certainly for a Marine general) summary on the tape of what kind of issues had occasioned his meeting with Manigault Newman, NBC showed no on-air interest in the second part of the meeting with the lawyers, which appears to have dealt extensively with issues directly relevant to her credibility. And neither did The Wall Street Journal story show interest in that aspect.

Manigault Newman was allowed to proclaim her willingness to make her White House personnel file public while NBC made no attempt to ask her what accusations regarding her integrity the White House lawyers had listed in their meeting with her that might impeach her credibility.

Here is the exchange:

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you about the integrity issues that he brought up. If you gave – if the White House asked for permission to release your file—

MANIGAULT NEWMAN:  I would love for them to do. I’m saying this right here.

Rather than functioning as a news organization, NBC news simply allowed itself to be used as a PR outlet promoting the clearly self-interested complaints of its source, just as Andrew Duehren at The Wall Street Journal did the following day. And why?

This isn’t “fake news.” It is news fraud. It is a conscious failure to cover an equally critical part of a news story that isn’t hidden, but sitting there in plain sight. It is a conscious choice by a news organization to only run the allegations of a source and allow selective use of a tape offered as bait to support those allegations and in the process provide only negative information on the Trump administration. Kelly states the White House had “integrity” issues with Manigault Newman. But she at least makes no pretensions to greater ideals than her own self-promotion. There are even greater integrity issues with news organizations that do.

“Fake news” may often be a matter of opinion, but a blatant case of intentional news fraud against the fair presentation of a news story of interest to Americans is hard to miss. Avoiding exploring why she was fired, when the opportunity to do so was readily at hand, has only one net effect: It avoids challenging the veracity of Manigault Newman’s charges against Trump and his administration.

There is, as yet, no evidence that any member of the press is in actual physical danger as a result of Trump’s “fake news” accusations, but with examples like this, there is an increasing number of examples of why the news media itself is in danger from its own conduct. And it certainly helps explain the plummeting credibility of the news media with the American people to the lowest point since Gallup started measuring it.

Thomas H. Lipscomb has been a publisher of consumer magazines such as The Ladies Home Journal and a CEO in book publishing. His most recent publishing position was as founder and president of Times Books – then the New York Times book division.

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