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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Making the call: Determining when to call a political statement a lie

Tom Beaumont is a national political reporter at the Associated Press. Beaumont answered some questions by phone about the ethical issues in reporting in an ever-changing, fast-paced news cycle.

 

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

 

What journalistic practices, if any, should journalists do differently?

The one thing that frustrates me a lot is what I see an apparent disregard for regular journalistic standards in social media. I’m just talking about Twitter since that’s the only platform I’m on. I just keep it as spotless as I can because they’re watching, and they don’t need any more ammunition to indict the press. I am careful in how I reduce a headline to 140 characters. It’s gotta be clean, not just because it’s the right journalistic standard, but because I also represent the AP, which is not Salon. It’s not Slate. It’s not anything that has much of a voice except for the voice of authority. And it’s got to be authoritative. And it can’t crack. I don’t know if this is because the AP is kind of like the team that doesn’t have names on the back of its jerseys. That’s kind of what I like about the AP, we’re about the stories. We’re just about pounding the nail and driving the story.

 

I don’t know what it’s like for the coming generation of journalists, but I want them to watch themselves really closely, but without that impartiality, that’s when the fourth estate begins to decline or declines more rapidly.

 

How do you think journalists have done covering [President Donald] Trump’s Twitter feed and if anything, what should change about the coverage of it?

The AP’s White House team now has somebody up early every day checking that thing. Since the campaign we knew that he would get up early and opine on something, so we’ve been on that for over two years now. And because they come from the President of the United States’ account, they are presidential pronouncements. They drive the day. It’s unbelievable. This isn’t an editorial comment; it’s just a statement of fact. The House was getting ready to unveil tax legislation. The Senate was down to its last strike on health care. North Korea was threatening war, and Trump spent four consecutive days arguing on Twitter about the NFL’s role in observing the flag and the national anthem. The contrast to what he’s saying and what the policy is just needs to be pointed out, and that’s not an editorial statement, that’s just factual context. That’s remarkable.

 

How does the non-stop news cycle affect your coverage of government?

Trump has rewritten the book so to speak on political speech for this chapter and [former President Barack] Obama to an extent had rewritten political speech in a different way for the decade prior. It doesn’t change how the AP and how I as a member of the AP work because we’ve been a 24-hour news cycle since before cable. I haven’t been with the AP but for six years, but it’s a 24-hour cycle. We’re constantly updating. So in that way I think a lot of other print media have been catching up to the AP for the last several years.

 

How should we handle remarks and tweets that some deem racist or indicative of white supremacy?

I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to label him a white supremacist. We can say what he said. We can say he defended the actions of people affiliated with the group. But I don’t think that that’s even correct. It’s the same question of watching your words like you do on Twitter. If you report it accurately, people can argue with it. But if it’s defensible from the standpoint of objectivity, then you got nothing to worry about.

 

If you say the President first said there were bad actors on both sides of the Charlottesville clash, then that would be accurate. You could say that then he came out and denounced white supremacists, that too would be accurate. You could continue to say that he first came out against white supremacists, you can make the point that others are making by taking a shortcut by not taking the shortcut.

 

Some would say that using the term “lie” can hinder objectivity. What do you think of that?

The case in point was throughout the campaign, as in 2015 I was the reporter covering Jeb Bush. As the Republican campaign began, we could see how the other candidates were reacting to [Trump]. And it felt to me at one point to write more about the allegation that President Obama was not a natural born U.S. citizen because at one point Jeb Bush took issue with that statement with Trump. As it happens, when you’re kind of on the run, people pick something up and kind of run with it for a while. When I was writing about this, we, as a political team, came to the agreement that it was OK to call that a lie because it had been reported by us repeatedly. There was evidence provided by the White House that President Obama coughed up his birth certificate and yet Trump continued to say or alleged that the President was not a natural born U.S. citizen. It is a constitutional requirement of holding the office. That’s such a heavy accusation to make about a sitting president that once it’s proven to be false and he continues to say it, we would say, Trump continued to promote the lie that the President was not born in the United States.

 

That’s a long way of explaining the thought process, but it’s not just something that you fire from the hip. That’s an example of something that’s serious, that was proven to be false over and over and that he continued to promote. We came to the decision that that was OK to call it a lie because he had to have been aware that the evidence was there proving it otherwise.

 

Do you have this process with a lot of his statements or a lot of his tweets?

We, like a lot of news outlets, have what they call fact-checking teams. That term kind of annoys me because aren’t all stories supposed to be fact checked in real time? Isn’t that the burden of reporting to not just say, ‘He said x. She said y.’ ? But the AP does the math and puts a line of context in there to say which one has the evidence. We have dispatched a team of really good reporters and editors whose job now it is to constantly do that with Trump’s allegations because the factually questionable things that he offers are so frequent that it requires a team of a reporter and an editor, a couple of reporters and an editor to hound that stuff.

 

How much do you rely on confidential sources and what are some of the complications with using confidential sources in your reporting?

I think the chief complication is that I don’t know what the criteria are for other news agencies. I know what the criteria are for the AP. I trust it because I know when I’ve reported something and I know when others’ have reported something that we discuss, without disclosing too many company secrets, we don’t publish anything until we feel as an organization, that means we as an editorial leadership, everyone right up the chain, are cool with it.

 

But I don’t know how it moves within other newsrooms. I know that when we have it, it’s solid, and when it’s not, it’s not. I watch our AP news app all the time for corrections because it’s like  errors in a baseball game. You just can’t have the turnovers, to mix my sports metaphors. So I’m good with us, but we’re not in a vacuum. So if CNN is reporting something and The New York Times is reporting something and there’s an explosive denial from the White House, I don’t know what they’ve got. If it comes from the AP, I know who our team is and I trust them pretty implicitly. Like I said, the AP is like a 150 years old or something like that and you don’t get to be the world’s only global news outlet by trading falsehoods and reporting a lot of sketchy information.

 

What is the role of the journalist today?

I’ll tell you what I think the role of the political journalist is, and that is to drive the story forward of this revolution in politics that’s going on. This revolution of money. This revolution of speech, of reported information. When people are comparing Breitbart and the AP on the same platform that tells me that we have our work cut out for us because there is an entire segment of the population that sees them as the same – one abides by the journalistic principles that you and I are talking about, like fairness, context and I don’t know how it works inside the other one. But people have come to the same conclusion. I have to check my perception of reality all the time because you get into a lane and you start to see certain things in a certain way and you have to step outside that lane and make sure that you’re not going over the same ground. I have to continually remind myself that simply because I’ve reported something once, it doesn’t mean it’s true again.

 

Sometimes I think political journalism falls victim to groupthink and that’s dangerous. You’ve got to get outside that and look at things from different perspectives. That seems like Journalism 101.