BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins had quite the scoop Sunday when he reported that four Breitbart sources had told him that the website has an arrangement with Donald Trump, where they provide positive coverage in return for cash payments. If true, it would be a major story, clearly showing that one the most influential conservative sites is in the pocket of the GOP frontrunner.
Personally, I find the allegations against Breitbart to be unbelievable — as in, I literally don’t believe them.
Don’t get me wrong: Coppins still has an incredible story on his hands. Multiple Breitbart contributors are apparently so pissed at their site’s Trump-related editorial decisions that they’ve privately alleged a major conflict-of-interest to a rival site. That alone is embarrassing. What I’m not convinced of is that the story goes anywhere further, namely that Breitbart actually got paid by Trump.
The first big problem with the story is that it’s essentially built on hearsay. Coppins cites three Breitbart employees and one conservative operative who all claim someone else told them that Trump was paying the website. Not a single one of them claims to have personally seen any incriminating evidence, and as Coppins himself admits, “none knew exactly how Trump’s alleged arrangement with the privately held company worked.” When it comes to concrete details, Coppins story never really gets any further than scandalous office gossip.
Reporting based on hearsay isn’t always incorrect or otherwise flawed. But it’s also how we end up with stories like the Rolling Stone UVA rape story, where freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erderly relied on “Jackie” to relate how her friends reacted to her alleged rape. Had Erderly actually reached out the friends instead of relying on a second-hand report of their reactions, she would have discovered that Jackie’s story changed over the years.
It would obviously be more solid reporting if Coppins’ sources were named. Granting sources anonymity when printing their names could cost them their jobs is pretty standard journalistic practice (Mediaite does it all the time). But Coppins is relying on two layers of anonymous sources: his sources are unnamed in the story, but so are the Breitbart employees who supposedly told his sources about Trump’s arrangement.
Coppins’ post doesn’t say whether he reached out to the editors, executives, and reporters who reportedly told his sources Trump was paying for stories, or if his sources even told him who those editors, executives, and reporters are. When I emailed asking if he had reached out to his sources’ sources, I got a standard “out-of-office” reply, and Coppins has been ignoring pointed questions about his reporting on Twitter. But if he had reached out to the other staffers for comment– even fruitlessly– surely that would warrant a mention in the piece?
Instead, the only variable fact in McCoppins’ story is that unnamed sources say that unnamed sources told them that Breitbart is taking money from Trump, but they have no idea how that works and have no proof that it ever happened. I don’t think that warrants headlines from outlets like Raw Story straightforwardly claiming “Donald Trump is buying positive coverage from Breitbart.com.”
It’s worth noting that one of his four sources doesn’t even allege any financial transaction between Trump and Breitbart. All he claims is that “he knew of several instances when managers had overruled editors at Trump’s behest.” Unethical? Sure. Par for the course for a website that literally sent reporters to cover how Ted Cruz gets ready for bed? Yes.
Evidence of financial payments? No.
This entire column comes with a giant asterisk, namely that Coppins is apparently coming out with a book, and this story was intended to be a preview of that book. It may very well be that he will go into more detail about his sources and provide more evidence in the full book. But if so, withholding that evidence from your reporting designed to boost your own book sales surely raises even more ethical red flags.
But really, my biggest problem with Coppins piece is that — somewhat contrarily — it make so much sense to me. Like all respectable, sequestered Beltway journalists I can’t stand Trump, I don’t understand why GOP primary voters like him, and I look down my nose at the handful of reporters at Breitbart that churn out relentlessly positive Trump coverage. Even as a conservative, all my prejudices tell me that of course that unscrupulous billionaire paid those “wrong” conservatives for positive coverage.
But you know what else conformed to the mainstream media’s prejudices? Duke Lacrosse, UVA, the Michael Brown shooting; any number of stories where the predetermined bad guys seemed so obviously bad. And because so many in the media had those prejudices, they missed all the evidence that could have proved their assumptions wrong.
Evidence like the fact one of the Breitbart writers named in the BuzzFeed piece as a consummate Trump supporter wrote a piece critical of the candidate two weeks ago. Evidence like the fact that even a bitter ex-Trump advisor, who recently accused Trump of “losing his mind,” swears there were no payments. Evidence like the fact that Breitbart seems to have no problem heaping as much praise upon Trump’s primary opponents for free.
For all of Coppins’ anonymous sources quoting anonymous sources, the story never really passes Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is that Trump receives lots of positive coverage from Breitbart because their target audience likes Trump (a.k.a, the same reason Sarah Palin, Scott Walker, and Ben Carson receive almost-universally positive coverage). All media outlets tend to take note of personalities and topics that do very well in traffic and then keep reporting on them — in Mediaite’s case, RIP Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Breitbart is no different.
Coppin’s story implicitly assumes the opposite; he says that “[Trump’s] constant presence on the homepage… won him a true following among their readership,” instead of assuming Trump’s presence on the page was because of the following he already had. The somewhat insulting insinuation is that Breitbart has effectively brainwashed a huge proportion of the population into supporting a man that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Again, it’s hard to ignore how much that conforms with the mainstream media’s preconceptions: supporting Trump is so abnormal and unexplainable, only malfeasance or simple-mindedness can explain it.
As written earlier, this is a hugely embarrassing story for Breitbart and deservedly so. Not every publication can boast that because at least three of their staffers were so upset with its coverage, they secretly complained to a competitor. But on the most serious charge, the evidence simply isn’t there yet.
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