On Wednesday, President Donald Trump baselessly accused Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) of helping a whistleblower author the complaint that’s sent his presidency into an impeachment tailspin. The claim came during a joint press conference between Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö after Fox News’ John Roberts asked Trump about a New York Times report outlining the whistleblower’s path to filing their complaint.
“I think that it’s a scandal that he knew before,” Trump said of Schiff. “I’d go a step further -- I think he probably helped write it.”
In fact, the Times’ reporting noted that the staffer the whistleblower approached (who also shared some of the information with Schiff) had first asked a colleague to share the concerns with the CIA’s top lawyer, and the staffer was “following the committee’s procedures” in suggesting “the officer find a lawyer to advise him and meet with an inspector general, with whom he could file a whistle-blower complaint.”
And one of the article's co-authors even clarified that the piece does not support claims that Schiff was somehow behind the complaint. After House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy pointed to the Times article as evidence that Schiff had been “caught orchestrating” the complaint, the article's co-author responded, “Nope. Not what the NYT reported. The whistleblower went to an intel committee staffer with a vague account of the complaint, and was told to file through proper channels. Schiff personally never knew the whistleblower’s identity. That’s hardly 'orchestrating' the complaint.”
Yet the piece quickly became fodder for Trump’s defenders, who willfully misrepresented it -- and they were aided by mainstream outlets that amplified Trump's baseless conspiracy theory.
Several news outlets amplified Trump’s baseless claim without correction.
Bad headlines spreading false claims have been an issue throughout the Trump presidency. Luckily, there are some easy fixes -- if news organizations are willing to implement them.
There’s been no shortage of terrible headlines in the wake of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry into Trump. From the beginning of Trump’s Ukraine scandal, he’s been successful in using news outlets to spread propaganda. While it’s expected that Fox News and other right-wing media outlets will carry out the president’s bidding and aren’t actually interested in the truth, mainstream outlets have a responsibility to do better.
When reporting on a false claim, there are several options journalists can take. Couching unverifiable information in language like “misleading,” “unlikely,” or “dubious” is a simple step that uses little extra room in headlines or tweets while improving their overall accuracy. If something is presented without evidence, journalists should say so.
Several journalists and outlets did just that. Bloomberg and CNN both noted in tweets that Trump’s claim came “without evidence.” Esquire called it a “blatant fabrication.” CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk pointed out that there was “nothing to substantiate” theories that Schiff had any role in writing the whistleblower complaint.
Amplification without scrutiny is misinformation, and by now news outlets should have a strategy in place to avoid contributing to the problem.