Accuracy in Media

Outrage at a comment about John McCain in a closed-door meeting at the White House has brought renewed focus on who leaked the comment to the press, what the leaker hoped to accomplish, and, thanks to a story up Monday on Axios, the nature and sheer volume of Trump White House leaking.

Axios was founded in 2016 by Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei, veteran Washington reporter Mike Allen and Politico chief revenue officer Roy Schwartz.

It offered its assessment of how, why and how much the Trump White House leaks in a follow-up to coverage of the remark made by Kelly Sadler, a communications aide, saying that McCain’s opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director did not matter because “he’s dying anyway.”

McCain is in the final stages of a battle with brain cancer, and the Trump White House has been criticized for not offering an apology. Its spokespeople did speak positively of McCain’s contributions to the nation – as a senator and soldier – on the Sunday talk shows, but it has refused so far to apologize.

Axios began Friday with a story of leaks from the meeting at which White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the group, according to the report, “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting.”

“What follows below is a leak from that very intense meeting yesterday, according to five sources in the room.” Under the “Why this matters” heading, it stated, “The White House communications and press team has been beset by leaks. This last one appears to have crossed a line, and several people in the room on Friday told me they now walk into meetings know they can’t trust their own colleagues. In big meetings, they feel inclined, now, to keep their mouths shut.”

Monday’s piece began with Allen, who “has spent nearly 20 years covering the White House and we learn more about what’s going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.”

One leaker told Axios’ Jonathan Swan leaks “fall into a couple of categories. The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”

Another said leaks come from someone losing an internal policy debate.

“By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the president.”

A former senior White House official, “who turned leaking into an art form,” told Swan leaking is information warfare – “strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores.”

Another said grudges have much to do with it.

“Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership.”

Other outlets took the opportunity to pounce on the Axios allegations.

Responding to the remark about creating a historical record, DailyKos wrote, “Let’s take that as an admission that Donald Trump lies and Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies for him, and the official White House record is not an accurate one.”

None of the stories trumpeting leaks mentioned the potential for leakers to mislead in service of their own agendas over that of the president – a problem that has produced many corrections in various media outlets.

Rather, on the “Be smart” line that ends every Axios news item it says, “To any would-be leakers who are considering the practice, I’m also told leaking is pretty fun. Give me a call if you’d like to try it out.”

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