The Washington Post made a mistake. A bad one.
The Post earlier this week published a correction to a report that had initially been published Jan. 9. That initial report was about a phone call between President Donald Trump and the person leading the investigation into the voting in Georgia in November’s presidential election.
That story quoted President Trump as telling the investigator, Frances Watson, to “find the fraud,” and that if she did so, she would become a “national hero.”
Well, that’s not what President Trump said. A recording of the call, recently released, shows that Mr. Trump certainly encouraged Ms. Watson to investigate, adding that she would find “dishonesty.” He also told her she had “the most important job in the country.”
The Post, as it said in its initial story, was relying on an unnamed source to relay the content of the conversation. That source has since been identified as Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state whom Watson briefed on Trump’s comments.
So, uhhhh, that means the Post quoted Trump based on something Watson told Fuchs that Trump said.
Wow. That’s a major journalistic blunder. You can’t use quote marks — you can’t directly quote somebody — unless you know that’s what he said. And you can’t know it’s what he said if you’re getting it third hand.
Mr. Trump’s supporters can easily point to this episode as evidence of a bias against him by the Post specifically, and, as a case study of the bias in general by the news media. It’s hard to argue against that. Had an editor been willing to be just a touch more skeptical, the Post would have reported something substantially less explosive.
I have to say a couple of things in defense, however.
First, as you probably know, I have worked at newspapers on both coasts, and I never found evidence of political bias in news editors’ decision-making. What news people want is a good story. They want to get something first, and exclusively, and best. That’s what drives them. While they all individually have their own political beliefs, their job — and from everything I can tell, the hearts that beat in their chest — is all about getting the story.
So my guess is that a big part of the problem here is not that editors had it in for Donald Trump, but that they got a bit too enamored of the humdinger of the story they had their hands on. Whether the president in question was Republican or Democrat didn’t matter nearly as much as the notion that they were reporting exclusively on a President doing something highly questionable.
Second, the Post ran a prominent correction when it got the facts. How many times do you see any yahoo on Facebook, or any shouting head on cable TV, soberly issue a correction on the specifics of a quote?
The reality is that the essence of the story was still correct: President Trump called the investigator in Georgia and leaned on her in a way that was intended to help his own political future. (He also called the Georgia Secretary of State and told him to “find” enough votes to tip the election in his favor. That story is not in dispute.)
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that the essence of the story was correct does not excuse blowing it on a direct quote.
It’s a bad mistake. The Post, one of America’s great newspapers, should never have made it. But they did, and now they’ve corrected it, and they’ll have to live with it, and we all have a better understanding of exactly what happened in that call.