Accuracy in Media

According to a story Thursday in the New York Times, President Donald Trump must be preparing to cheat to win the 2020 election.

Otherwise, the piece said, Trump would not have created a White House culture that prevents even cabinet secretaries from bringing the matter of election security to his attention,

In “In Push for 2020 Election Security, Top Official Was Warned: Don’t Tell Trump,” reporters Eric Schmitt, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman based their claims solely on the accounts of anonymous sources – “three senior Trump administration officials and one former senior administration official,” whose reason for demanding anonymity was not provided.

Using the guidelines in Perry Bacon Jr.’s story “When To Trust A Story That Uses Unnamed Sources,” on FiveThirtyEight in July 2017, this story screams “unreliable.”

It calls for multiple sources – as in six or more. This relies on four. It specifically identifies the use of the phrase “administration officials” as a tipoff of an unreliable story.

“I would interpret a story sourced to “Department of Justice officials” without a denial from the press team there to be accurate – and perhaps even leaked by the department’s press team itself,” Bacon wrote. “An ‘administration official,’ on the other hand, covers a much bigger group of people with disparate interests and points of view. It’s easy for reporters to call the Justice Department and verify the story, while it’s much harder to confirm a story attributed to administration officials, which could mean any agency in the White House.”

Not only does the Times’ story rely entirely on “administration officials” – promoted to “senior” to add credibility – it received a denial.

Mike Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and the man accused of telling former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to keep discussions of election security “below [the president’s] level,” said through a spokesman, “I don’t recall anything along those lines happening in any meeting” and that the “Trump administration would not tolerate foreign interference in American elections and was working to prevent it, including by increasing coordination and intelligence sharing among state, local and federal governments.”

It notes that Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, “concurred, saying, ‘Election security is and will continue to be one of the nation’s highest national security priorities.”

The story also twisted the comments of presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Asked about election interference at the Time 100 conference earlier this week, Kushner said, “You look at what Russia did – you know, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it – and it’s a terrible thing. But I think the investigations and all the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.”

This, according to the Times, amounted to Kushner maintaining “that the effects of Russia’s interference in 2016 was overblown.”

One of the senior officials referred to as sources said homeland security officials wanted the U.S. to “significantly step up its efforts to urge the American public and companies to block foreign influence campaigns, but the department was stymied by the White House’s refusal to discuss it.”

Another said Nielsen “wanted to make election security a top priority at meetings of Mr. Trump’s principal national security aides,” but they “resisted making it a focus of the discussions given that the 2020 vote was, at the time, nearly two years away.”

Yet, the story also recounts a number of steps the Trump administration has taken to combat election meddling by the Russians. It worked with Facebook, Google and Microsoft to block malicious influence campaigns in the 2018 elections, is helping states fortify their systems against attack, created a working group solely devoted to Russia within the U.S. Cyber Command and disrupted the servers of the Internet Research Agency, the so-called troll farm Mueller indicted in his probe. 

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