It is fully normalized now in American mainstream journalism to build an entire story, often an explosive story, around a single, anonymous source, typically described no further than “a senior U.S. official,” or just “a source.”
For a writer, this makes life pretty easy. They can simply make up the entire story sitting in their bedroom, inflate a taxi driver’s gossip into a “source,” or just believe an intern they tried to pick up at happy hour who says she saw an email written by her supervisor saying their manager heard something something. The story goes viral, often with an alarming headline, and is irrefutable in an Internety way, demanding critics prove a negative: how can you say it didn’t happen?!?!?
The issue for readers as critical thinkers is that we tend to feel we have only two options: wholly take the writer’s word for it all, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, left like roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.
Any follow-up, including a straight-up debunking, is rarely sent viral, as it isn’t as click-worthy. Many sites that do little more than reprint other people’s work see no obligation to assume any responsibility for what they print; that rests with the originator, moving on.
A Political Agenda
Almost all of these “source” stories follow a political agenda, these days mostly to support a negative narrative about Trump (the last of the “pro-Hillary” stories like this, the Hail Mary CIA leaks ahead of the Electoral College vote, seem to have run their course for now.) And the best thing about these anonymous source stories? They are basically impossible to refute. How can you challenge a source’s statement, except perhaps by using another secret, counter, source? You can’t prove a negative, and you can’t do much if the base argument is only It May Be True!.
How to Read Stuff Betterer
That said, there are a couple of things a reader with a few firing synapses still left might do.
The first is to examine the underlying political goal of the writer. If they seem to spend more time “proving some evil” than reporting facts, be skeptical. Be particularly skeptical of a writer whose proved evil tracks very closely with an established narrative the writer has driven before. Show me a (generally conservative) DailyCaller piece exposing Trump corruption, or a (generally liberal) DailyBeast piece exposing Clinton corruption, and you will have my attention. Not necessarily my belief; remain skeptical no matter the source. Don’t stop thinking.
Next might be to ask if what is being reported as true fits with the “is the juice worth the squeeze” test? In other words, if what is being reported is true, is what’s gained worth what is being risked?
As an example, a writer claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. OK, of course It May Be True! but in reality would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket? Seriously? Yes, yes, who can refute it 100% (you can’t) if it is reported by a “source,” and since you hate Candidate X anyway you want to believe it, but trust yourself and apply the old sniff test.
Trump and the Kuwaitis: Case Study in Bullsh*t
But one of the most useful tools of skepticism is to employ an old spy trick: is the source really in a position to know the information they say they know? How could they have come across it? How many in the organization would have likely known Fact X?
Let’s examine one recent example. The blog ThinkProgress reported this:
The Embassy of Kuwait allegedly canceled a contract with a Washington, D.C. hotel days after the presidential election, citing political pressure to hold its National Day celebration at the Trump International Hotel instead.
A source tells ThinkProgress that the Kuwaiti embassy, which has regularly held the event at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, abruptly canceled its reservation after members of the Trump Organization pressured the ambassador to hold the event at the hotel owned by the president-elect. The source, who has direct knowledge of the arrangements between the hotels and the embassy, spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly. ThinkProgress was also able to review documentary evidence confirming the source’s account.
The story certainly tracks an ongoing narrative, Trump’s conflicts of interest in general and his ownership of a Washington DC hotel in particular. It is a story persons who already dislike Trump are very willing to believe.
But what about the risk versus gain necessary for this story to be true?
The Trump organization pressuring a foreign embassy to do anything would be explosive, likely falling very close to criminal. If caught, it would spark at minimum an investigation that Trump’s opponents would drag on for as long as possible. Someone would suggest impeachment. This would be global front page news, the smoking gun of long-rumored corruption. The potential gain for Trump? Maybe a few thousand bucks of catering and ballroom rental money. It May Be True! but does it pass the sniff test? But to people who want to believe, the story also fits the belief that Trump will do anything for money, so It May Be True!.
But who would the source have to be, to be credible?
The story claims it was the Kuwaiti ambassador himself who was pressured. Was the source the ambassador himself? It Might Be True! but why would someone of his stature, or a close aide, risk anything to talk to a blog like ThinkProgress? Maybe a high level source inside the Trump establishment? It Might Be True!, but the same questions apply. How many people inside either institution, the embassy or Trump’s, would know about this “pressure” being applied? Who inside Trump’s organization would have the pull to get one-on-one with the Kuwaiti ambassador (Ivanka? Eric?) and why would they leak?
Bottom line is that very, very few people would be privy to any discussion at those levels, and none of them plausibly would leak to a blog.
Hearing from the Other Side
Another feature of fake news is limited inclusion, if any at all, of opposing views or information. Either the writer doesn’t bother to try and obtain any, or works to get a no comment or negative non-response “Is it true you are beating your wife?,” falls back on the “no response was received as we went to press” (i.e., four minutes after I made the call) or the grandaddy, “Trump denies it because of course he would, what’s he gonna do, admit a felony?”
That said, in the case of ThinkProgress and the Kuwaitis, another site, POLITICO, did trouble themselves to reach out to the embassy. Here’s what they got back:
We were not under any pressure. Nobody contacted us whatsoever, Ambassador Al-Sabah said [Note: an actual named source]. I just thought ‘It’s a new venue, it’s been in the news… The novelty of the venue would encourage people’ – that was first on my mind.
Al-Sabah called the ThinkProgress report ‘totally false and unfounded.’ Still, he said he had a tentative save-the-date understanding with the Four Seasons, where the event was frequently held in the past, although he’d never signed a formal contract. He also pointed out that his country held the same event at the Newseum in 2016.
‘Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?’ the ambassador asked. ‘Our relationship is much deeper and much broader than me needing to be in a hotel for two hours.’
ThinkProgress has since updated its story to include parts of the Ambassador’s quote. Most sites that printed the original story do not appear to have updated their stories.
But… But.. It Might Be True
Another line in the story raises questions — “ThinkProgress was also able to review documentary evidence confirming the source’s account.” Now what documentary evidence might that be? Would someone at Trump create a written record of said pressure on the ambassador? Would a source have access to that record? Would they show it to ThinkProgress? Why wouldn’t ThinkProgress release a redacted version of this documentary evidence, evidence that would go global? ThinkProgress has not stated what the documentary evidence is, even in broad form, such as an email, or a contract, or a recorded phone call.
With fake news, as few verifiable facts as possible being used is a key indicator.
In the end, ThinkProgress tips its hand with the highly-couched (emphasis added) “what it means” paragraph:
The apparent move by the Kuwaiti Embassy appears to be an effort to gain favor with president-elect through his business entanglements, and it appears to show Trump’s company leveraging his position as president-elect to extract payments from a foreign government.
A lot of qualifiers in that for something supposedly based on documentary evidence, but whatever.
I Believe in Santa Claus
Yes, yes, It Might Be True! and no one can prove it is not true. Believe what you want to believe, it is the Christmas season after all, but stay away from the word truth, willya?
BONUS: Since writing this piece, I have been contacted by a source on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly. My source stated the ThinkProgress piece is false, and that Kuwait shifted its plans to have its event at the Trump hotel based on little more than a lower price quote, all handled at the lowest administrative levels. The ambassador did not even know of the exact location of his fete until routinely reviewing his schedule with an aide a few days ago. My source showed me documentary evidence of all this, which unfortunately is not available to reproduce. Trust me…
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.