ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold spoke about “Trump Twitter and Fake News” inside the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on Thursday afternoon. His talk was hosted by the U-M Wallace House, home of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists and the Livingston Awards.
Fahrenthold began his career at The Post in 2000 covering Washington, D.C., police, the environment, New England, Congress and the federal bureaucracy for the paper. Then, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was assigned to cover the campaign and now the presidency of Donald Trump.
During the 2016 campaign, Fahrenthold used social media to follow-up on Trump’s questionable charitable practices to veterans groups.
“I use Twitter to find anyone who had gotten $1 of the million Trump said he had given away,” he explained. “I didn’t know what I was doing then. What I learned then, once I’ve taken my reporting as far as I can go, is to open your reporting up. Show people what you know and what you don’t know. At that point I had no other options. I spent a day searching on Twitter.”
The Post reporter said Donald Trump was paying attention to his efforts on the story.
“He searches his own name on Twitter. The reason is…He hadn’t given away the money. The next day he called and said that he had. I was making his non-response the subject of the story.”
The GOP presidential nominee said he donated “millions and millions” of dollars to worthy causes. Fahrenthold decided to look into that statement. He famously called hundreds of non profit organizations and wrote them on a lined notepad. Come to find out, Trump only donated to a handful of them–such as the American Jewish Committee and the Fire Department New York Foundation.
“People started paying attention. Every time a story spun out of this, we’d tweet out a story and picture of the notebook. We figured out by calling one of these charities about the Donald Trump charities.”
Fahrenthold said Trump would often use the money in his own charity to buy things for himself.
“Trump had once used the money in his charity to buy a $10,000 portrait of himself. We needed to know where this portrait was. For taxable purposes, it has to be used for charitable purposes.”
The Post reporter described how he went about finding the location of the Trump portrait.
“A lot of the Trump properties and his house are closed for the public. What I did was just ask my Twitter followers which had grown to 70,000. I tweeted out a picture of portrait. One of my readers in Atlanta had an idea I had never thought of…look at TripAdvisor. She found the portrait at a sports bar in his resort. Look I found this picture around seven months ago. We know where it was. We need to know where it is.”
Fahrenthold said he got a response on Twitter from Univision news anchor Enrique Acevedo who located the portrait just a few hours later at Trump National Doral Resort in Miami.
“Univision Studios are four blocks away. He made a reservation that day using his points–not his money. He goes there and arrives at 12:30 at night. He convinces the cleaning crew to let him in the sports bar and now a journalist has found this photo breaking the law. That would have taken weeks in the old days. It took 14 hours.”
The Trump campaign’s official explanation was, “The sports bar is doing the Trump charity a favor in hosting the portrait.”
The Post reporter also learned that The Trump Foundation’s smallest donation was a $7 gift to the Boy Scouts. So he started investigating.
“There’s gotta be a story there. Trump wouldn’t talk to me and the Boy Scouts wouldn’t talk to me. I just Tweeted it out. He used charity money to pay for his son’s registration into the Boy Scouts for $7.”
Fahrenthold was also the first reporter to break the story about the existence of the “Access Hollywood” 2005 video in which Trump bragged about groping women. The video shows Trump talking with Billy Bush from the entertainment news series on a tour bus. In the recording, Trump was caught off guard on a live mic and said, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
“This is not something we knew existed beforehand,” The Post reporter explained. “At 11 o’clock in the morning on Friday, the video people said, ‘We need to talk to our lawyers if we can use this. We can sort of edit it. We need to subtitle it. We can have it done by 3:30. Prepare to have the story out by the time the video was done.
“We called NBC are you going to say this is a hoax or are you going to sue us. NBC chose not to comment. I called Billy Bush’s spokesperson who did not comment at all. I sent her a transcript of the tape and writes back, ‘you’re welcome.’ She does not understand what is going on. That left trump. Se asked him the same question we asked NBC. He’s on the bus talking and you see him get off the bus later. They said, ‘That doesn’t sound like Mr. Trump. Can you send us the video?’ Finally, we do send them the video. You the trump campaign can be part of the story or not. The story is going to publish.”
Fahrenthold added: “The last real challenge is the curse words. If you’re going to use curse words, they require 17 levels of approval. This was every vulgar term you could possibly imagine. They were said by a person running for president. The Trump people call and say wait, wait, don’t publish…’It’s all locker room talk.’ They admitted it’s him. We added it to the story and published it. We worried that NBC was going to beat us. Our story publishes at 4:02 and they publish at 4:06.”
Despite all of the controversies, voters went to the polls on November 8, 2016. Donald Trump received 62,984,825 votes and 304 electoral votes over Hillary Clinton who received 65,853,516 votes and 227 electoral votes. Trump squeaked out a win in the electoral college and became U.S. president on January 20, 2017.
“Now we are in a new era. A new challenge. Trump’s conflicts of interests that poses as president. I’ve been able to go to the public and say I’ve done 90 percent of the work but I need your help for the last 10 percent. A bunch of Trumps’ clubs had a fake cover of Time magazine on the wall. Do you readers know where else it could be? Within a day, we had five other places.”
The Post reporter also talked about Trump labeling any news story that he doesn’t agree with as fake news.
“Nobody consumes more news media than Donald Trump. That’s his life–watching television and reading Twitter. The idea that the news is fake is that he doesn’t believe it himself. In his mind, it’s a tactic. A lot of people believe it. There’s not much I can do about what Donald Trump says. Our role as journalists is to recognize that people who think news is fake…We have to think of them as consumers.
“You have to do things in your stories and show people why you’re better and trustworthy. Showing them the steps along the way to trust the final product. It also involves the way you write your stories. You should believe us. These people don’t. We started doing that in things like, 17 sources at the White House said, including links to documents, doing things that allow people to see your work. Be conscious in the tone of your stories, tweets. That’s the thing we have the power to do.”
During the question-and-answer session, students from Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School asked: How much education is needed to be a journalist? What is the difference between a journalist and blogging?
“Journalism is the greatest job in the world. It ruins your attention span. It’s a license to follow your curiosity. I’ve always loved that. A lot of things are valuable about journalist education. I would want to know how to code, scraping websites and social media. The most important thing is to go out and do it. So much of journalism is an oral tradition. You have to be around people who are doing it. I think its a better job market than it was. I’m glad that i chose to do it.”
A University of Michigan student asked, “How do you know to trust people on Twitter?”
“I worry about that question. I make myself the filter between anything coming in. I have to verify it the way I verify everything else. This is a difficult area to work in–often a huge volume of tips going in. People want to see their tips are making a difference. You have to have somebody who understands libel and practices of journalism.”
Another attendee asked Fahrenthold if he had any advice for aspiring journalists.
“Think of yourself as a project manager. I didn’t have to be the boss for anybody but myself. Any story includes a photo component and a video involved. There’s a team of people that will be involved. Keep those people included and in the loop. Make sure their work is as good as possible. Take advantage of coding, scraping and multimedia skills. Work really hard to learn that on the job.”