Fake news: How it happened


When politicians condemn fake or phony news, it may be of their own making.

A favorite topic of President Donald J. Trump is “fake news.” In this passage by Jonathan Karl, who is ABC News Chief White House Correspondent, a Trump administration official briefed reporters on background, meaning the information may be used, but the official may not be named. A newspaper then reported what the official said, respecting the rules by not naming the source. Then, President Trump criticized the newspaper for using phony sources.

Here’s how it happened, as described by Karl:

The next day, May 25, the White House made a senior National Security Council official available to answer questions from reporters about all things related to North Korea. This was a so-called background briefing, which means reporters could quote what the official said but we could not use his name. It took place in the White House briefing room. Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah explained the ground rules:

“This briefing’s going to be on background. It’s off camera, not for broadcast,” Shah said, adding that the briefer could “be referred to as a senior White House official.”

This is a common practice that I have witnessed in every White House I have covered — the press office making top officials available but demanding they not be quoted by name. The practice often annoys reporters, who would prefer to name the officials we talk to, but Barack Obama’s press office did this all the time. So did George W. Bush’s. And Donald Trump’s office was only continuing the practice.

I asked the official, who had been directly involved in the effort to set up the summit meeting, if it could still happen as scheduled. He chuckled and said, “We’ve lost quite a bit of time that we would need,” adding, “June twelve is in ten minutes.” The tone of his response was unmistakable: It would be virtually impossible to pull the summit off as planned.

But in another case of Trump whiplash, the president announced a few hours later that his administration was back in touch with the North Koreans and the summit could possibly happen as planned after all. In reporting the president’s sudden reversal of his reversal, The New York Times quoted the senior administration official who had just suggested it would be virtually impossible to get the meeting back on track.

That prompted this remarkable tweet from the president.

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
The Failing @nytimes quotes “a senior White House official,” who doesn’t exist, as saying “even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.” WRONG AGAIN! Use real people, not phony sources.
5/26/18, 11:21 PM

Use real people? This “senior administration official” was a true flesh-and-blood Trump administration official. The only reason he was not named by The New York Times or any other news organization that attended the briefing is because Trump’s own press office insisted he not be named. It was a bizarre episode and a perfect illustration of one central fact about the president’s attacks on the news media: Much of the news he derides as fake news comes right out of his own White House. And when it comes to North Korea, the episode revealed another immutable fact: The president himself was driving the policy. If the president had been following the advice of his own top advisors, the summit meeting simply would not have happened.

Excerpted from Karl, Jonathan. Front Row at the Trump Show (p. 224). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Karl added this note:

Footnote: The anonymous official’s name is Matthew Pottinger, the senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council. If the president is going to accuse reporters of using “phony sources” when they abide by White House ground rules, then I believe those ground rules no longer apply.


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