Imagine: A reporter leaning over a computer, eyes locked on Donald Trump’s face, watches the President’s lips begin to move, hears the words ‘Great,’ ‘Huge’ and ‘Fake News’ and goes a little berserk – then the phone rings and a voice says sitting in the Oval Office with the Russian Ambassador the President did the same thing: His lips moved – before he thought – and he blurted out secrets.
Imagine this too: For a moment the reporter hesitates. He doesn’t have one shred of proof. His sources won’t talk to him on the record. He can’t quote them. But the tale did sound like Trump – so maybe temptation whispered: The minute they see your headline – ‘Trump Leaks Top Secret Information’ – the Trump-haters are going to click. You could get a million clicks.
Minutes after the story landed on the Washington Post’s website, down at the White House, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and Dina Powell, the Deputy National Security Advisor, all said it was false.
“I was in the room,” McMaster said. “It didn’t happen.”
A firestorm erupted and, dancing a two-step, parsing words the Post replied that even though McMaster said its story was ‘false’ that didn’t mean he meant it was incorrect – then suddenly, at the end of the day, it no longer mattered: There was celebration – and cheering – in the newsroom as an ebullient columnist tweeted, ‘Scoop breaks record for the readers per second.’
It was a bad day for journalism. But the Washington Post sold a lot of internet ads.