David Fahrenthold on transparency, sourcing, B.S. and other advice for covering President Trump

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

David Fahrenthold, a political reporter for The Washington Post, discussed his investigations of President Trump’s charitable giving during the 2016 campaign season, and provided insight about how to cover the president and his administration during a visit to the Shorenstein Center.

Fahrenthold recently won acclaim for his coverage of the 2016 United States presidential election, particularly his investigations of Donald Trump’s charitable foundation and philanthropic giving. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as well as the full audio recording.

Advice for journalists covering President Trump: Become a subject matter expert

“Before, I think there had been an assumption of political journalism that we could all be generalists. We were accustomed to a campaign and a presidency where you would only talk about one thing at a time…think of healthcare in 2009, where we talked about only healthcare for months and months.”

“You presume that if the president says something it’s right, it’s factually accurate, there’s meaning in it, it’s attached to a broader policy idea, and…the issues will stay front and center for long enough that although you start as a generalist, you’ll become an expert in whatever that thing is.”

Related training: David Fahrenthold will be speaking at Poynter's Teachapalooza

“Now, we confront an administration where Trump can tweet anything about anything at any time, and often what he says is wrong. I think the way to react to that is for reporters to become subject matter experts, so that we don’t have a situation where Trump says ‘three million people voted illegally,’ and then the first version of that story that goes on our website is written by a generalist who says ‘the president said three million people voted illegally.’ You need to have somebody who knows the subject enough that that first cut on your website is ‘the president said three million people voted illegally—that’s wrong.’ The reporter comes to it with enough subject matter expertise to put it in context and say it’s incorrect if it’s incorrect.”

How should the press cover the president’s tweets?

“The key thing I think we’re seeing is that in the beginning when he was president, he would tweet about something and sound like he was making some sort of policy threat or policy decision. We’ll send the feds into Chicago, after something he saw on TV about violence in Chicago. Three million people voted illegally, we’re going to have an investigation. Those were covered a lot, and rightly because it sounded like the president was saying what he was going to do. In the past, if another president said something like that, it would be attached to a plan…to carry it out.”

“If it turns out that Trump is just yelling at the television, and not actually talking about something that he’s going to do, I think our coverage of those things will change. Trump will tweet something, but if it turns out that what Trump tweets is a bad predictor of what he’ll actually do as president, then I think we give those things less coverage, I think we focus more on what he’s actually doing, and it won’t be something where his tweet can control a whole news cycle, because it’ll just be like, well, in the past he’s talked about this sort of stuff and nothing ever comes of it…that for me is the interesting question for us—how do we cover Trump’s tweets if there’s nothing behind them?”

Inaccurate information: Debunk or ignore it?

“The people who are on Twitter are basically political journalists and ten other people. So [Trump] uses Twitter as a way of reaching us, and then we amplify it by getting the message out. Yesterday for instance, he said there’s been tons of terrorist attacks that the media won’t report, because they have their reasons, and then later on his staff put out this ridiculous list…it included the Paris attacks from last fall, giant world-shaking events, yes, they had been covered. The question is, what do you do with that now?”

“A lot of journalists yesterday spent a lot of time tweeting, talking about it, debunking it, showing again and again, no, we really did this. And I wonder if the answer is, oh ok, well this is bullshit, let’s move on. If Trump says something and then they provide the proof, and it turns out not to be proof, do you spend the rest of the day talking about it? Or do you just ignore it and not spend the rest of the day amplifying their message, even to debunk it?…I wonder if he’s really relying on us to be the carriers of this bad information, if we’re serving the truth properly by continuing to republish it, even in the process of debunking.”

The challenges of finding reliable sources

“We’re trying to sort out who is a reliable source…on the Trump administration. In the beginning of this administration, you saw a lot of people quoting people like Newt Gingrich or even Kellyanne Conway, who actually works for the White House, as sources about what the president would do, or was considering, who turned out to be wrong…Last weekend, CNN was offered a chance to have Kellyanne Conway on and they said no, because they felt like she was not a credible source.”

“I feel like the biggest danger in this chaotic environment is that we will harm our own credibility by running stories either in our paper, or amplifying on Twitter, stories about Trump that are not true. It’s hard to know what’s true with Trump because often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, the spokespeople may not tell you the truth — but the truth is all we have, [why] people care about us and read us, and there’s been some examples where people push stories that later on turn out to have not been fully checked, or turn out not to be true.”

Tracking Trump’s charitable donations—how the investigation started and the role of Twitter

“In Waterloo, Iowa, a town where [Trump] was holding a rally, he stopped his political rally and had someone come up on stage, a local veterans group, and he gave them a big check… at that point I knew nothing about charity reporting, but I knew that was basically illegal. You can’t use your charity to boost your presidential campaign, by law they have to be separate…but then I noticed something else. After he’d done that a few times, giving out big checks to different groups at these rallies, he stopped. And we knew that he said he was going to give away $6 million, he’d raised $6 million at this fundraiser for veterans…but he stopped giving away the big checks after he’d only accounted for about a million of the $6 million.”

“So I got back after the New Hampshire primary, and I said, well, let’s find out where the rest of the money went, and I’ll just call the Trump people and they’ll tell me…I started calling the Trump people and got no answers. I started calling the charities that had been identified as the recipients…did they know where the money was? No. And that launched me, in the beginning of all of this, into a three month effort to find out just that simple question: What happened to the $6 million Trump had raised for veterans, and did he break the law when he used his charity to help his political campaign?”

“The questions that I would have sent by email or asked over the phone to veterans groups I started asking on Twitter…the big veterans’ groups, querying them in public so that other reporters could see, other veterans could see, and so Trump himself, who I tagged in the tweets, could see that I was checking his promise…hoping that someone out there would see that I was searching for this…I spent the day searching and I found absolutely nothing…and that’s because there was nothing, Trump had given no money out, the $1 million that Lewandowski said he’d given was all still in Trump’s pocket. Trump saw me looking on Twitter…and then he gave the million dollars.”

“I said ‘did you just give this money away now because I was asking about it?’ He called me a ‘nasty guy,’ that was his response. After that experience, Trump then holds a big press conference in Trump Tower where he very angrily describes what he’s done with the rest of the money…he was so mad the media made him do this, made him follow through on his promise. After that we said, wow, OK, let’s go back and look at all the promises Trump had made over the years, before he was a presidential candidate.”

The importance of transparency in reporting

“For me, it’s really important to build trust in readers, to show them what you’re doing…‘here’s what I’m trying to figure out.’ With the charity stuff, I never said I’m trying to prove Donald Trump wrong — I’m trying to prove Donald Trump right. He said he gave this money to charity, help me find evidence that’s true — to show people that I’m not starting out trying to prove a negative about him, and to invite people’s comments and people’s ideas.”

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