It was just one word, a six-syllable adjective. One staffer at Politico, however, thought it was a big enough deal to raise in a May 27 all-hands meeting in which staffers could submit questions anonymously. “I heard we removed the word ‘unsubstantiated,’ ” noted the staffer, from a story that mentioned an “unfounded” claim by President Trump. The employee wanted to know whether there was a change in standards at the 13-year-old publication.
According to other staffers who participated in the meeting, Politico editor in chief Matthew Kaminski didn’t dwell on any specific incident, opting instead to outline the publication’s approach to journalism and the language that powers it. He urged colleagues to avoid judgmental language and to embrace show-don’t-tell approaches to political storytelling. Asked about the confrontation, Kaminski told the Erik Wemple Blog, “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of editorial calls that are made every day on stories that we publish,” said Kaminski, who became Politico’s editor in chief in April 2019. “I actually . . . would be hard-pressed to even remember what the individual story was.”
Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico’s editor, does remember the piece. However: “I don’t think it’s really that relevant to focus on this one story in part because there’s no policy that has changed,” she told this blog. A Politico staffer confirmed as much to the Erik Wemple Blog.
But given the times, “unsubstantiated” seems like a worthwhile word to fight about. It’s one of many choices — “unfounded,” “evidence-free” and “baseless” are other examples — that help readers appreciate Trump’s mendacity. There is a lot of it: According to The Post’s Fact Checker, Trump dumped more than 19,000 false or misleading claims on the U.S. public between his inauguration and May 29. And as The Post has shown, Trump’s false or misleading statements have accelerated in each of his three full years in office, with the 2019 tally exceeding the previous two years combined.
Journalists are left to devise countermeasures. At Politico, management would prefer that those countermeasures eschew words used to modify nouns. “I think aggressive, muscular revelatory journalism . . . that’s the realm of active nouns and verbs,” Kaminski said during an interview last week with the Erik Wemple Blog. “And I think if we speak about this, we just happen to think that adjectives, if we want to have a discussion about grammar, adjectives tend to be weak, and we would much rather explain with active nouns and verbs what is going on.” (Boldface inserted to highlight three consecutive adjectives that Kaminski cited in his attack on adjectives.)
Consistent with his preference for showing over telling, Kaminski elaborated, “If some claim is unsubstantiated — okay, let’s just say how it’s unsubstantiated. We don’t actually need the adjective ‘unsubstantiated’ there.”
We at the Erik Wemple Blog love all of God’s parts of speech. Nouns and verbs often compose a linguistic feast of language on their own, though they sometimes could use some help from adjectives and adverbs with cutting the vegetables. The demands of newswriting are such that it’s not always feasible to scribble out explanations of how a claim is false, to comply with a dictate of showing-not-telling. “False,” after all, is nothing if not an adjective.
Other notes of disagreement in Trump coverage arose during the Politico meeting. A good example of the Politico model, argued Kaminski, was a May 22 story by reporter Gabby Orr highlighting the reasons for Trump’s harrumphing decree that states allow houses of worship to reopen. Recent polling, noted Orr, showed declining support for Trump among white evangelical Christians and white Catholics. “Part of the strategy Trump allies have adopted to protect his relationship with conservative Christians is to frame the novel coronavirus — and church closures in response to social distancing restrictions — as a threat to religious freedom,” noted the story. “The president’s religious supporters routinely cite religious liberty as one of their top priorities and an area in which they believe the Trump administration has been exceptionally receptive.”
In an anonymous chat message, a Politico employee argued during the meeting that merely explaining White House rationales smacks more of “propaganda” than of journalism. Though it’s unclear whether the staffer was referring to the Orr piece, Kaminski defended the article from any such suggestion during our interview. “I think was a terrific story, an original piece of reporting on a very news-heavy day,” he tells us, noting that the story “was not in any way echoing White House propaganda.” Other outlets, argued Politico management, had to follow Politico on the story.
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Another question asked whether Politico should maintain the “ ‘both sides’ blinders” if Trump tries to hold on to power — an inquiry that reflects criticism of Politico and other mainstream outlets for merely recording the arguments of opposing political players.
Those formulations align with the imperative cited by the journalism-expert community in the early days of Trumpism: Note the falsehoods with clear language and which don’t equivocate. In reference to the Scarborough smear, the New York Times called it “baseless insinuations,” and The Post a “baseless conspiracy theory.” All factual, all helpful. Another option would be a “malicious fabrication designed to stifle a prominent cable-news critic,” and even that lands a few ticks short of a satisfactory summation.
Politico, which has more than 300 journalists in the U.S. and Canada (Politico Europe has 170 employees spread across editorial and other divisions), has done its share of accountability journalism under Trump. Remember Tom Price, Trump’s first secretary of health and human services? Politico published an investigative piece in September 2017 about his extravagant reliance on charter flights. He later resigned. The publication also scooped alleged irregularities involving then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who also later resigned. The site’s health team, in particular, has broken many stories — including a big one on the Trump administration’s coronavirus lapses.
Some of the proceedings at the all-hands meeting reflected unease over the respective roles of Kaminski and Brown. As editor in chief, Kaminski is the No. 1 editor at the publication, with Brown in the No. 2 spot. Before Kaminski’s promotion a year ago, Brown’s time was split between her newsroom responsibilities and coordination with the publication’s business side — a division that arose, in part, because Kaminski’s predecessor, John F. Harris, was busy troubleshooting Politico’s expansion to state-level coverage, among other projects. One questioner noted that since the start of pandemic-related work-from-home arrangements, Kaminski had asserted more of a day-to-day role in the publication. Both Kaminski and Brown emphasized to this blog that they operate via consensus and have a working relationship that dates back to their time at Politico Europe. “My job is really to work with the owner and publisher, with the business side and with our newsroom . . . figuring out a global strategy to build up Politico into the world’s premier publication on politics and policy,” says Kaminski, who notes that he’s also “closely involved” in the journalism.
We asked Kaminski to square his broader remit with his instructions on adjectives in news copy. “I kind of wish I could be more involved in the journalism day to day, because that’s what I love doing, that’s why I got into this business. But I have — Carrie’s a fantastic editor” and enjoys the “full faith” of the company, responded Kaminski.
Whatever your take on Politico or York-Barbell noun-verb constructions, the chippy discussions on White House coverage stand out for their locus on the Trump timeline: We are nearing the three-and-a-half year mark of Trump’s term, yet journalism seems to be moving further away from a consensus on how to cover him. The New York Times, over the past week, for example, has been convulsed over an op-ed written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a Trump loyalist, advocating the use of the military to patrol the George Floyd protests. Weeks before that, the whole country participated in an inconclusive debate over the coverage of Trump’s interminable coronavirus briefings: Were they legitimate news or propaganda sessions? A little bit of both? “I think whenever there’s an issue or another incident with Trump, people revisit this stuff,” says a Politico staffer.
Maybe we all need a second Trump term, just to figure out a coverage strategy.
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