At present, Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis is considering potential criminal charges against former President Trump for putting pressure on the state’s election officials to, as it’s always put, “overturn” the election results.
There are no doubt a number of angles Willis is looking at, but one of them likely involves three phone calls Trump made to two Georgia officials: Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Frances Watson, Georgia’s lead elections investigator.
In regards to the latter, the details seemed damning. As the Washington Examiner pointed out this week, early media reports described Trump telling Watson during the Dec. 23 call that she should “find the fraud” in mail-in ballots in Fulton County — Georgia’s most populous and home to Atlanta.
He reportedly added that she would be “a national hero” when she found it. At the time, Watson was conducting an audit of mail-in ballots in suburban Cobb County, checking whether signatures on ballot envelopes matched those on file with the board of elections. Joe Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 12,000 votes.
Patient Zero in the media coverage was The Washington Post, which first reported on the call on Jan. 9. The single-sourced story was pretty upfront about what was said: “President Trump urged Georgia’s lead elections investigator to ‘find the fraud’ in a lengthy December phone call, saying the official would be a ‘national hero,’ according to an individual familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversation.”
The Examiner also noted a second story, again reliant on a single source, was published Jan. 9 by CNN.
Last week, audio of the call was first published by The Wall Street Journal. There were several stupefying variances with The Washington Post’s lede — and, indeed, the rest of the article.
The first is that the call wasn’t particularly “lengthy” — six minutes, in fact. It feels like I’ve had longer calls with my mom trying to explain that her signal’s breaking up and maybe I should call her back.
That pales in comparison to the second variance someone who read both articles would notice. Those two direct quotes The Washington Post reported on Jan. 9? Yeah, Trump never said them.
Yes, Trump insisted to Watson that he won Georgia in the November election, something anyone with a passing familiarity with Trump’s Twitter account (he still had one back then) would be aware he believed.
“Something bad happened,” Trump said, although he never said there was specifically any “fraud” to be found — much less that Watson should find it.
Instead, this is what he told her: “When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised.”
Watson, in response, assured Trump that “our team and the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], that we are only interested in the truth and finding the information that is based on the facts.”
Here’s the audio, posted to YouTube by Atlanta station WSB-TV.
Whether or not you think this conversation looks particularly fantastic for the then-president, given what’s transpired in the interim, is irrelevant: The two quotes that sounded a lot like criminality were never spoken by Trump.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. While one assumes Willis’ investigation, inasmuch as it deals with the former president’s phone habits, would hinge primarily on Trump’s call to Raffensperger on Jan. 2, The Post story implied that the Watson call — should audio be found of it — would be just as damning.
“Robert James, a former prosecutor in DeKalb County, Ga., said that proving obstruction would hinge on what Trump said and the tone he used, as well as whether the president’s intentions were clear,” The Post reported.
“Without the audio of the call, it would be more difficult to prove wrongdoing, he said.”
The report said the call could “carry serious criminal implications, according to several former prosecutors, who said that the president may have violated laws against bribery or interfering with an ongoing probe.”
Here was Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor and member of the Watergate investigation team: “Oh, my God, of course that’s obstruction — any way you cut it.”
“Akerman said he would be ‘shocked’ if Trump didn’t commit a crime of obstruction under the Georgia statutes,” The Post reported. “He said the fact that the president took the time to identify the investigator, obtain a phone number and then call ‘shows that he’s trying to influence the outcome of what’s going on.’”
So, after The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from the call on Thursday, The Post issued a long correction note at the top of that report:
“Correction: Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator,” it stated.
“The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to ‘find the fraud’ or say she would be ‘a national hero’ if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find ‘dishonesty’ there. He also told her that she had ‘the most important job in the country right now.’ A story about the recording can be found here. The headline and text of this story have been corrected to remove quotes misattributed to Trump.”
— Alex Thompson (@AlexThomp) March 15, 2021
Well, at least other outlets didn’t pick up The Post’s direct quotes:
real bad. this quote was and still is everywhere. pic.twitter.com/jZwQ9rPwRp
— Alex Thompson (@AlexThomp) March 15, 2021
CNN issued a similar statement: “Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story, published January 9, presented paraphrasing of the President’s comments to the Georgia elections investigator as direct quotes. The story has been updated following the discovery of an audio recording of the call.”
It’s not clear which explanation is worse: The Post’s explanation that a single source “misquoted” Trump, and that the newspaper published those incriminatory quotes without proper confirmation, or CNN’s acknowledgement that those incriminatory quotes were paraphrased, yet were presented as direct quotes.
The Post still wins the journalistic negligence contest, however. In spite of the fact those direct quotes are no longer direct — nor anywhere near as malignant as originally reported — the rest of the story remains much as it was. This includes the former prosecutor’s appraisal that “of course that’s obstruction — any way you cut it.” Yes, well, you’re cutting something that’s a lot different if Trump didn’t say Watson should “find the fraud,” or anything substantively similar, nor tell her she’d be “a national hero” when she did so.
If Akerman was contacted and still stands by his original analysis, that fact is left unsaid, nor is it mentioned he originally made the remarks based on a substantially different reporting of the conversation.
Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist, summed it up well:
Our media are so, so, so breathtakingly corrupt. They *always* mischaracterized this call — in a corrupt and fraudulent way. But to actually make up quotes in service of that? We are so screwed. By our disgustingly corrupt and unaccountable media. https://t.co/RaRVncJCX3
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) March 15, 2021
The Washington Post is the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” outlet, as the pompous slogan informs us. In January, The Post reported the president had made a “lengthy” phone call to a top Georgia elections official in which he commanded her to “find the fraud.” This was based on a single anonymous source, which makes for poor journalism — particularly when the reader can’t assess the potential agenda of the source or when the single-sourced nature of the story is only briefly mentioned.
Two months later, when the call turns out to be a mere six minutes long and the money quote was nowhere to be found in it, The Post issues a correction — but leaves the story essentially unchanged. This includes expert analysis by a former prosecutor that the call constituted criminal conduct despite the fact the nature of the call was nothing like what was originally reported.
This is the informational “darkness” The Post refers to in its slogan. But it’s not passive darkness, the darkness of leaving potential readers uninformed. Instead, The Post is leaving them deliberately ill-informed. It shoved the reader in a dark broom closet on Jan. 9 when it reported shaky information as a solid report.
When the truth came out last week, The Post kept the reader stuffed in the broom closet but rolled a little glow-stick under the door in the form of a correction and a bit of changed language.
If democracy does indeed perish in darkness, in other words, one could safely accuse the outlet that coined that tagline of hastening its death.
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