When conservatives talk about media bias, left-leaning journalists often scoff. But what are we supposed to conclude when we see, for example, how The Washington Post covered President Trump’s December phone call with Georgia officials about voter fraud?
The fact that the biggest newspaper in the nation’s capital – the one that helped lead the charge to impeach Trump — was forced to admit that it “misquoted” the president about his call with the office of the Georgia Secretary of State is a big deal. That call, after all, was cited as one of the justifications for the president’s impeachment.
To recap: In January, the Post published an article claiming that Trump pressured Georgia’s lead elections investigator to say that voter fraud had occurred in the November presidential election. The Post reported that in the call President Trump placed to the chief investigator, Frances Watson, on Dec. 23, he urged her to “find the fraud” and said she would be “a national hero” if she were to do so. Their source? An anonymous individual briefed on the call.
On March 11, however, the Post was forced to correct the original article, stating that the newspaper misquoted President Trump based on false information provided by their source. The Post’s report that Trump told Watson to “find the fraud” and that she would be “a national hero” if she did were completely false. Thus, the main evidence claiming that Trump was obstructing justice in Georgia was gained through reliance on an anonymous source who misled the newspaper.
When asked, the Georgia secretary of state’s office said that no recording existed, a claim that Watson did not refute. However, in response to a public records request, a recording was discovered in the trash file of Watson’s computer. It remains to be seen whether Watson will suffer any adverse consequences for having tried to delete this important public record, a potential misdemeanor offense under Georgia law.
The new article revealed the actual details of the call Trump made to Watson on Dec. 23. Trump simply urged the investigator to scrutinize the ballots cast in Fulton County because he believed she would find “dishonesty” in the election process there. In other words, rather than trying to “interfere” in the election, Trump was encouraging the investigator to do her job because he was convinced there had been wrongdoing.
Jordan Fuchs, Deputy Secretary of State of Georgia, has now been identified as the “anonymous” source who provided the false information about the December 23 call. Fuchs has also been identified as the likely source of the leaked recording from Jan. 2, in which President Trump called Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to overturn the vote in Georgia due to the fraud that Trump believed had changed the outcome of the election.
The false statements attributed to Trump in the Dec. 23 recording and his statements to Raffensperger not only brought scrutiny on the president, but led directly to the Washington Post and others accusing him of obstruction of justice for supposedly, as the Post said, “interven[ing] in an ongoing investigation.” Many prominent Democrats cited them as “impeachable offenses.”
And impeach Trump is exactly what they did, demonstrating once again the old adage that little lies lead to even bigger lies. The House Managers’ impeachment trial brief specifically cited the false quotes from the Dec. 23 phone call and Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean used the fake quote in her oral arguments during the Senate impeachment trial on Feb. 10.
This journalistic fiasco and the grave consequences that flowed from it demonstrate a number of lessons that you would think the news media would already know. The Washington Post apparently relied on a single, “anonymous” source, with no confirmation from anyone else. As it happens, the source was extremely unreliable and had a clear axe to grind. The president and other Republicans in Georgia were leveling severe criticism at her boss, Brad Raffensperger, criticism that could damage his political career and anyone associated with him, including Fuchs herself. So she had a motive to make Trump look bad in defending Raffensperger. The Washington Post knew all that but still printed her claims anyway with no corroboration by anyone else.
In short, a major newspaper perpetuated false information with grave consequences that led in part to a sitting president being impeached. The addendum and subsequent article from the Post revealing the true nature of Trump’s calls is too little, too late at this point.
Given the newspaper’s obsessive hostility towards Trump during his four years in office, this should not come as a surprise, we suppose. Similarly, though, nobody should be surprised that broad swathes of the public no longer trust the mainstream media to conduct a thorough inquiry and deliver accurate information, rather than trying to achieve some ulterior goal, such as ensuring that Donald Trump would stay out of the executive office.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow and Caitlin McDonough is a member of the Young Leader’s Program in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.