COLUMN: A finger in the dike holding back the fake news

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I took a rare shift as news editor last Saturday, which gave me an unexpected chance to put my finger in the dike holding back the flood of fake news caused by those afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome.

As I was sifting through the Associated Press news report looking for wire stories worth putting into the Sunday paper, one story on the news digest caught my attention right away: “President Donald Trump reacts to reports about the retirement of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe by retweeting falsehoods about McCabe’s wife.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “What has Trump done now?” Because even though I am a Trump supporter, I’ve learned that Twitter can be a cause of trouble in the Trump administration as well as a frequent force for good.

But when I looked up the story, I discovered that my worries were unfounded. So, unfortunately, was the story.

When I read AP reporter Darlene Superville’s story, it was immediately obvious that she had either misunderstood Trump’s tweet or intentionally lied about it. She also plainly didn’t know the meaning of the verb “retweet,” since Trump had tweeted an original statement, not a quoted one.

Getting to the truth will take a bit of context, so here goes:

In short, Superville’s story said, “President Donald Trump reacted to reports Saturday about the coming retirement of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe … by retweeting falsehoods about McCabe’s wife.”

The next paragraph quoted the supposedly offending tweet, which I confirmed was accurately reported by visiting Trump’s Twitter account for myself. Here it is:

“How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin’ James Comey, of the Phony Hillary Clinton investigation (including her 33,000 illegally deleted emails) be given $700,000 for wife’s campaign by Clinton Puppets during investigation?”

As I read the tweet, I could not figure out for the life of me what the “falsehood” was, so I looked further down in the story to find the evidence supplied by Ms. Superville.

Here it was, two paragraphs later:

“But Trump’s tweet was incorrect. McCabe’s wife, Jill, did not get $700,000 in donations from Clinton for a Virginia state Senate race in 2015. The money came from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee and the Virginia Democratic Party … McAuliffe is a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.”

It was immediately apparent to me that the only falsehood in the story was the one written by Superville when she claimed “Trump’s tweet was incorrect.”

President Trump never said that Hillary Clinton had given $700,000 in donations to Jill McCabe’s campaign. He said that “Clinton Puppets” had done so, and anyone who has followed the career of Terry McAuliffe knows that puppet is the most polite description possible to describe his relationship with the Clintons. Most of the other accurate words cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

But somehow Superville and her editors at the Associated Press glossed over (ignored?) the word Puppets and pretended that Trump had said something entirely different, something false. Thus a story about anti-Trump bias in the FBI had uncovered anti-Trump bias at the Associated Press. Oh the irony!

The question I confronted at that point was what would I do about it. I could simply edit the story so that it was accurate. That would take about three minutes.

On the other hand, I could pick up the phone and call an editor at the Associated Press and try to explain why my readers expect the assertions in a story to match the facts. That could take hours, I figured!

My first instinct was to just correct the story, as I would do if one of my reporters at the Inter Lake made a similar fundamental error. I did something similar during the 2016 election campaign when I had to rewrite an AP story that was full of false assumptions and bias in writing about a Trump campaign rally. I wrote about that in a column I titled “Dishonest media 101: ‘Your bias is showing.’”

But here we were again. Obviously, I wasn’t going to make a dent on this particular reporter’s apparent bias, but the more I thought about it, I decided I had an obligation to her hundreds of thousands (millions?) of readers to try to get the story corrected by AP at the source instead of just for the Inter Lake’s readers.

I called the editor on duty in the so-called “nerve center” of the Associated Press and laid out my case as politely as I could.

First of all, I pointed out that the story contained an error in fact. The president had not “retweeted” anything. I had confirmed this for myself. A “retweet” has a very specific meaning — namely that a Twitter user quotes another user’s previous tweet to his own followers, either with or without comment. President Trump has done so frequently, and occasionally to his own embarrassment when the source of his “retweet” proves to be less than exemplary.

But in this case, the president’s tweet was original. There was no source other than the president himself. I thought the AP editor would acknowledge this immediately, so I was a bit taken aback by his effort to excuse the reporter’s apparent lack of knowledge by saying perhaps she was using retweet in the sense of “tweeting again” something which you have tweeted before. There was so much twisting going on that I wasn’t sure for a minute if we were talking about tweets or pretzels, but eventually I think I got the editor on my side that at the very least the word choice of “retweeted” was unfortunate.

Then I broached the topic of the “falsehoods” that the president was supposedly passing along willy-nilly. I pointed out that the reporter’s claim of finding such “falsehoods” amounted to planting evidence as she substituted Trump’s actual language (“Clinton Puppets”) with her own imaginary language (“Clinton”) and then established conclusively that Trump had not proven what he had never said in the first place.

I ran through the story three times trying to get the editor to see where Superville had made up her own facts to buttress her bias, but eventually he got frustrated and told me he was passing me up the line to an editor in Washington, D.C. (or as it’s known these days, “The Swamp.”)

About 40 minutes later, I got a call and told the same story again. This editor was more receptive to my complaints, and told me that the story had been changed to take out the reference to Trump “retweeting” falsehoods. But when I looked at the new version, it turned out they had just changed the wording to “repeating” falsehoods.

Again, I explained that the author of the story had invented the falsehood by changing Trump’s tweet. Trump said that “Clinton Puppets” had donated money to McCabe’s wife’s campaign (which they did) but the AP reporter mistakenly said that Trump had blamed Clinton herself.

After looking it over for himself a third or fourth time, the AP editor had an “a-ha” moment when he finally realized why the word “falsehood” was inappropriate.

I expressed my amazement that the Associated Press would so casually accuse the president of lying without bothering to check and double check the information. Well, I was told, there is a difference between lying and telling a falsehood. “Lying” according to the AP, has to have the element of intent, whereas a “falsehood” could just be the innocent result of being misinformed.

So what, I asked, do we call the work of Darlene Superville: Lying or just a falsehood? Either she was intentionally attempting to mislead her readers or she was incapable of reading plain English. Not good for AP credibility either way.

The next lead on “Trump-FBI” didn’t show up on the wire for more than an hour. This time it said:

“President Donald Trump again questioned the impartiality of the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who is planning to retire from the bureau in the months ahead after being buffeted by attacks over alleged anti-Trump bias in the agency.”

Wow! Real news! It was a small step, but an important one. Yes, I felt like the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike to stop the floodwaters, but it may be a hollow victory in the war on fake news. I have to wonder about all those hundreds of editors who put the same erroneous story in their newspapers or websites last weekend without question. Didn’t anyone other than me question the accuracy of the report? Besides, with the power of the Internet, the damage may be irreparable. I checked on Tuesday and found out that the fake version of the story was listed in a Google search 7,790 times whereas the corrected version only appeared on 5,710 websites.

Let the reader beware. Eternal vigilance is the price of not just liberty, but also truth.

Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at fmiele@dailyinterlake.com

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