On sourcing and story frames

The anatomy of a political story.

Sometimes it is about the ethics of journalism. 

Take this story in the New York Times about how voters in suburban Atlanta are voting for Donald Trump. This has been a recurring story, how people across the country support the president.

What makes this particular story from Elaina Plott noticeable is her sourcing.

New Yorker writer Charles Bethea noted that two people interviewed in the piece were incorrectly labeled their occupations. One was an interior designer; another as an attorney. 

Why does this matter? Because the story’s framed as normal everyday voters can indeed rally behind the president. An interior designer! An attorney!

However, these two narrators are actually Republican political operatives. 

Twitter avatar for @charlesbetheaCharles.Bethea @charlesbethea
Wow: Natalie Pontius was a paid political consultant for a Republican candidate for GA House of Reps in 2018. Yet she remains in the shortened but still misleading @nytimes story about voting in GA, described only as "an interior decorator" & UGA alumna.
nytimes.com/2020/10/22/us/… ImageImage

Adam L. Penenberg @Penenberg

@charlesbethea @JessicaHuseman @nytimes Also curious that the person in the lede, Natalie Pontius, "an interior decorator, married with two children,” has almost no Internet footprint. No mention of her interior design business anywhere, except in the Times article. Probably nothing, but perhaps worth noting.

Bethea knows Evans because he wrote a profile on him in 2018.

This also reminded me of the president’s recent NBC News town hall that was supposed to be filled with undecided voters, and had a woman sitting right behind the president who clearly was not undecided. 

As the Miami Herald reported:

A woman who gained internet fame for nodding and giving President Donald Trump the thumbs up sign during his Miami town hall on Thursday night could have used the free airtime two years ago — because she was running for Congress as a pro-Trump candidate.

The New York Times reporter, interestingly, also wrote a glowing profile of Tucker Carlson in December over at The Atlantic.

Ask someone who knows Carlson about the past three years, and you’ll likely hear a lamentation. It’s one of the trendier virtue signals among political and media types: saying you believe that Tucker Carlson is so smart, that it really is such a shame, because he of all people should know better, and what, pray tell, happened to him?

The subtext of these conversations is the question of whether Carlson is, as Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently claimed, a “white supremacist sympathizer.” For a time, the question could be written off as unserious, a voguish desire to ascribe racism to anyone who might not support increased immigration. But in recent years, Carlson and some of his guests have lent more and more plausibility to the label. On August 6, for example, days after a white gunman killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, motivated by a fear of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Carlson took to his program to argue that white supremacy was “not a real problem in America,” but rather a “hoax” drummed up by Democrats.

Of course, we know who Carlson is. He tells us every night. It’s why advertisers jump like rats off a sinking ship. The problem, admittedly, with this (butchered) metaphor is that the rats continue to come back to the ship.

  • “Advertisers Are Fleeing Tucker Carlson. Fox News Viewers Have Stayed” (2020)

  • “The Advertiser Embargo Against Tucker Carlson is Working” (2019)

  • “Advertisers Flee Tucker Carlson’s Fox News Show After He Derides Immigrants” (2018)

After The Atlantic piece, The New Republic wrote that 

This is more or less Plott’s thing: Last year, she offered a feather pillow of a profile to Heidi Cruz a month before Senator Ted Cruz, her husband, narrowly defeated Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterms. Two months later, she gushingly reviewed a book that called born-millionaire George H.W. Bush “one of us,” and defended the very access journalism that her entire schtick rests upon. Then in April, Plott published a plushy profile of Ivanka Trump, sourced by an off-the-record chat with the first daughter, which amounted to a puff piece absolving her of almost all responsibility for choosing to work in her father’s administration.

Though arriving from a repeat offender, this style of reporting is not unique to Plott or The Atlantic. You see it everywhere: A story by a (usually white) journalist at an “objective” national publication claiming to reveal something profound about an open racist or some style of bigot, while actually concealing the true stakes of the issue they’re covering.

I bring up the reporter’s previous work, because today, reporters and Left-leaning pundits have their knives out, arguing that Plott is a conservative reporter who was taught the dark arts at publications, like National Review,  they find to act in bad-faith, if not be less than truthful, at best. 

The sooner we move away from objectivity as the gold standard in journalism and move towards fairness, we’ll be able to write on and about the truth in a better way.

The goal shouldn’t be a both-sidesims or he-said/she-said philosophy, but instead find the closest thing to the truth. All reporters have biases. We’re human beings, too. (Even though some of us often don’t act much like a person.) We should be upfront about our biases, but also help readers understand them. 

Additionally, the editor of this story (as with any story) has to trust that the reporter is doing their job in vetting their sources. But there should also be discussions on story framing. That obviously didn’t happen here. If it did, the editor wouldn’t have run this story. You can’t frame a politics piece about everyday people when those people are not everyday people but instead are political operatives. 

A reporter never wants to see corrections to their story, let alone corrections like these:

Media works when readers trust the outlet. Structural errors like this erode trust, and at a time when the press is neutered in ways it’s never been before—an executive or politician or famous person, people who were typically held accountable by getting asked questions from reporters can now go straight to their followers on social platforms—journalism needs to move forward with a different, perhaps more realistic, kind of thinking that engenders trust.

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox, today and every day. If you have tips, thoughts on the newsletter, or have sourcing questions for me, send me an email. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you appreciated this edition, please consider sharing across your social network and get your colleagues to sign up. Have a great weekend; stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Morrissey, “Journalists Who Lie”

Some interesting links:

For the future of media: 

  • Breaking the fourth wall: the business of media subculture (Jarrod Dicker)

For people who need convincing on why you should wear masks:

  • A powerful argument for wearing a mask, in visual form (WaPo)

For media watchers eating popcorn over the fight between newsroom and opinion pages:

  • Wall Street Journal Opinion and News Side Divided on Hunter Biden (Variety)

For media/tech/advertising history nerds:

  • Google AdWords was born 20 years ago today (Rex Sorgatz)

For brand love:

  • Married at Dunkin’ (NYT)

For understanding how disinformation works:

  • Inside the campaign to ‘pizzagate’ Hunter Biden (NBC News)

For newsletter writers:

  • ‘We do it because it’s profitable’: Ads improbably sprout on ad adverse Substack (Digiday

For media criticism:

  • How the press covered the last four years of Trump (CJR)