President Donald Trump’s TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani declared on Sunday that the special counsel plans to wrap up the obstruction-of-justice inquiry into his client by Sept. 1. The press treated this as true, or possibly true, when it is obviously another ludicrous Giuliani utterance (e.g. stating that the special counsel “narrowed” the topics for the Trump interview; falsely accusing former FBI director James Comey of leaking classified documents).
Reuters reported - no surprise to anyone with any familiarity with the case, with prosecutors or with Robert Mueller - that a U.S. government source “familiar with the probe called the Sept. 1 deadline ‘entirely made-up’ and ‘another apparent effort to pressure the special counsel to hasten the end of his work.’” The source, quoted by Reuters, said, “He’ll wrap it up when he thinks he’s turned over every rock, and when that is will depend on how cooperative witnesses, persons of interest and maybe even some targets are, if any of those emerge, and on what new evidence he finds, not on some arbitrary, first-of-the-month deadline one of the president’s attorneys cooks up.”
There is a real danger of misinforming the public and carrying Trump spin when reporting Giuliani’s claim without determining whether this is total nonsense. When told something patently absurd, the minimal requirement is to ask Giuliani, like any source, who told him this, when this happened and what the context for the remark was. The press cannot become a messenger for false, unsupportable administration claims.
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One of the great challenges of the Trump era is airing in print or on air claims from notoriously unreliable surrogates. If someone repeatedly lies or proves to be unknowledgeable, prudence would require that claims be verified by independent sources. The “news” is not that Mueller has a deadline but that Giuliani, presumably with the full consent of his client, lies over and over to prejudice the investigation and damage the credibility of the special counsel, the FBI and the Justice Department.
The most extreme form of extending unwarranted credibility to the administration is putting on a live TV panel the unofficial surrogates (e.g. Jeffrey Lord, Jason Miller, Kayleigh McEnany) who routinely misstate facts out of a misguided sense of “balance.” One doesn’t balance facts or even opinions with lies; that’s not helping viewers find the truth. When the skilled prevaricator is an administration official such as Kellyanne Conway, live TV becomes more challenging. What the White House is saying is news, but it must be fact-checked in real time by the interviewer or rebutted immediately thereafter. When a repeat offender appears on air, he or she needs to be confronted with previous misstatements and asked to account for previous falsehoods. Among the best at this is CNN’s Jake Tapper who consistently calls out Trump spinners in real time for spreading misinformation.
In short, when you have someone like Giuliani or Conway with a proven track record of misstatements, it behooves the media to act with a greater degree of caution, to inform news consumers about the person’s track record and to fact-check in real time (or certainly before printing) what is very likely a fabrication. After the fact, the media then owe viewers and readers a simple accounting - e.g. Giuliani lied again.