The Indefensible ‘If True’

The Indefensible ‘If True’

Two of the most dangerous, and most damning, words in journalism and politics are the ubiquitous and unsupportable “If True.”

Examples from recent history:

  • A major New York newspaper publishes an unverified report that says the son of a prominent politician accepted a lucrative job in return for access to that politician. If true, it would indicate demonstrate influence-peddling by that politican, now a candidate.
  • A known spy supplies fake opposition research to a campaign. If true, it would indicate the opponent’s collusion with a foreign country. That evidence is provided to a secret court, which then permits surveillance of the opponent’s campaign citing national security.
  • A judicial nominee is rocked by allegations of a sexual assault from his high school years. If true, these would disqualify him.
  • A candidate hints, implies and asserts that his opponent has a mental disability. If true, the opponent would be incompetent for the job.
  • A magazine publishes a report citing anonymous sources that, if true, would show a candidate has disrespected a major constituency.

What might be real news if true often is not true, or not provable as true. How can you prove a negative? Or it might be true but cannot be confirmed for weeks, months, or even years.

Meanwhile, other media pick up on the sensational story, assert its truth without confirming, and build its momentum.

Chaos about chaos

The Atlantic, source of the if true story about the veterans, recently published another article citing anonymous sources. This one, about election chaos, hypothesizes ways the president could steal the election or refuse to yield power.

If true it would be sensational. But the article stopped just short of that.

It was quickly picked up by Yahoo News. That news aggregator makes its money by getting eyeballs to look at the stories it gathers from other sources.

The Yahoo News blurb quickly evolved into a full story. It started: “President Trump’s campaign is discussing ‘contingency plans’ that would involve bypassing the result of November’s election, reports The Atlantic.”

Business Insider, Forbes, Vanity Fair and other publications all did their own reports based on the “reports” in The Atlantic.

If you actually click through and read the very long, detailed piece in The Atlantic, that is not the lead. It is not even the focal part of the article. The essay concentrates on ways the election could go wrong. Most are true of both parties, but the article focuses on the GOP.

It is only toward the end of the article that The Atlantic buries this paragraph that everyone picked up on:

“Trump may test this. According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.”

Note the second word in that paragraph: may. This is speculation. Unsourced speculation, as it turns out. Further down, the article continues:

“In Pennsylvania, three Republican leaders told me they had already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves, and one said he had discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.”

Discussed it? Discussed it how? As a hypothetical? A joke? An impossibility? The article doesn’t say.

Fake news about faithless electors

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled in July against so-called “faithless electors.” They’re obligated to vote according to the state law. The Atlantic alleged that state legislatures might override their state’s practice to tell electors to vote for Trump. That seems remote.

Even The Atlantic knew this. It buried that pure, unsourced speculation so other media would pick it up and lead with it.

The echo chamber did its job, attributing “published reports.” That is unprofessional journalism by the original publication and its echophants. 

Media can and should have their own perspectives. That’s the essence of the First Amendment. But they don’t have to make it easy to be dismissed as “fake news.”

They’re shooting themselves in the foot every time they do.

TWO TELLTALE WORDS TO FLAG FAKE NEWS: “IF TRUE”

What do you think?

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