Pulitzer-Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold used social media throughout the 2016 presidential election to expose inconsistencies in the claims of now-President Donald Trump.
Trump insisted throughout the campaign he donated money to veterans groups, but upon contacting dozens of organizations — and documenting his finds on Twitter — Fahrenthold revealed there was no evidence to suggest Trump did so.
Fahrenthold was also the first reporter to reveal the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump was heard bragging about inappropriately grabbing women. For these reports and more, Fahrenthold received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in April.
Fahrenthold came to campus Thursday to discuss these experiences, fake news, social media and the importance of reporting processes in an event sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Wallace House — home of the Knight-Wallace journalism fellows — along with the Communication Studies and English Language and Literature departments and the Ford School of Public Policy.
In a one-on-one interview with The Daily prior to the event, Fahrenthold highlighted the importance of speaking on the University’s campus — a traditionally liberal-leaning campus that voted primarily for democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — about journalistic integrity and distinguishing between fake news and legitimate reporting.
TMD: I want to talk about this relevance to Ann Arbor and the idea of fake news and getting to the student base. We’re a traditionally liberal area and a majority of our students ended up voting for Hillary Clinton, so why is this issue so significant to this campus in particular?
Fahrenthold: I think it’s important for people to understand how do you cover news in the age of Trump. Just because people don’t like Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re that informed about him. I'd rather have people — even people who like him and don’t like him — have them be informed about what he’s doing, what his administration is doing. Both because it’s better if we’re all informed but also because if you care about politics, you care about policy, just hating Donald Trump doesn’t really change anything and so you have to understand what’s going on within his administration to know where you might have an impact.
TMD: Coming from The Michigan Daily, we have a huge student journalist base here despite not having a journalism school, which is really interesting. What would some advice that you have for student journalists be regarding covering these types of things, especially in this pretty tumultuous climate?
Fahrenthold: I think that it’s important to get beyond … takes, this idea of analysis as journalism. There are some points when analysis is helpful, but I think in a lot of cases it’s easier than reporting and a lot of people fall back on it, especially when covering politics of any kind — campus politics, national politics — it’s easier to fall back on what you think is happening or when you’ve analyzed the situation rather than reporting what’s actually going on. I think especially in the modern news environment, with so many news sources, what readers want — not only what readers need but what readers want — is news, facts, a better understanding of what’s actually happening.
TMD: Do you have any tips on how to cover events — such as the ones we’ve seen on campus in terms of racist flyering or other incidents like that — in a way that ensures accuracy, speed in terms of breaking news, but also fair representation?
Fahrenthold: The really valuable service that newspapers provide in that situation is to explain more about — I think it’s hard for student journalists who live among other students, and because student journalists are so informed it’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of, what would my reader not know about this? What are the questions my reader would have?
For more of the exclusive interview with David Fahrenthold, watch our video interview.
Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace House, introduced Fahrenthold to a full Mendelssohn Theatre, noting the significance of informing the public of news.
“Even though we work with journalists directly, we also take — as central to our mission — engaging in the public in journalism, demystifying the work of journalism and making sure people understand the vital role that journalism plays in our democracy and the absolute necessity of press freedom,” Clemetson said. “It’s a very important time to get young people engaged in journalism.”
During his talk, Fahrenthold — who has been at the Post for 17 years — discussed the challenges he faced throughout his career in political journalism.
“One of the true handicaps I have as a journalist is I’m an optimist. This is a huge handicap because it means things always sneak up on me,” Fahrenthold said. “In (the case of Trump), I was prepared for the answer.”
Fahrenthold discussed the lessons he learned while covering inconsistencies in Trump’s claims of philanthropy, including allowing the public to engage with open reporting, as he did via Twitter.
“Once you’ve taken your reporting as far as it can go under traditional methods as I had, the next step is open your reporting up,” Fahrenthold said. “Stretch your reporting as far as traditional reporting will let you.”
Throughout his experiences investigating the Donald J. Trump Foundation, Fahrenthold said he was able to learn how to create a thread for readers to follow — rather than making them responsible for knowing the context — particularly in changing expectations of news on social media. In a tumultuous time of reporting, Fahrenthold highlighted maintaining perspective.
“The one thing in all of this that I try to keep in mind is I try to adapt my reporting to the era of Trump,” Fahrenthold said. “The thing that I’ve tried to keep of all the time is the idea that we have to reject as journalists this image you get from Trump and Steve Bannon and other people, that we and the media and Donald Trump are at war with one another.”
He also described the significance of news media as speakers of truth and fact.
“The thing that gives us meaning and value is our credibility,” Fahrenthold said.
Following the talk, Fahrenthold took questions from the audience, which was comprised of students from the University and local high schools, faculty and community members. One question, submitted from Skyline High School students, asked about journalism as a career and journalism education.
“(Being a journalist) is a license to follow your curiosity and follow your outrage,” Fahrenthold said. “The most important education in journalism is to go out and do it.”
Others asked about Fahrenthold’s experience playing a role in the reveal of the Access Hollywood video. One of the challenges Fahrenthold faced was publishing the crude content heard in the video in a print publication. However, he said he didn’t write the story with malicious intent. The story has since become the Washington Post’s most read ever.
“I knew the story was going to be well-read and people were going to be interested in it,” Fahrenthold admitted. “I didn’t write it thinking, ‘I’m going to take out Donald Trump.’ ”
Others questioned his methods regarding using Twitter to find sources.
“I have to verify it the way I would verify anything else,” Fahrenthold said. “You can’t give up the gatekeeper role.”
In terms of those who disregard news they don’t agree with as “fake,” Fahrenthold emphasized that evidence, finding underlying tactics to engage different types of viewers in the story and taking advantage of the skills a university can provide will prove valuable in ones career.
“It’s enormously damaging that we have a president and a party who is using the platform of the presidency to say that news he doesn’t like is fake,” Fahrenthold said. “Our role as journalists is to recognize that people that think that news is fake — we may have one chance to impress them. … We have to think of them as consumers and you have to do things in your stories and your broadcasts to show people why what you do is better and more trustworthy.”
After the event, LSA junior Megan Graham said she felt inspired after hearing about the work Fahrenthold did during the campaign.
“It was really encouraging to hear him talk about his work and all the important events that he’s been able — things about Trump and his campaign — that he’s able to talk about and bring to light,” Graham said. “I would have liked to hear more specific stories about how — specific things that he’s covered — because I thought that was really interesting and it brings everything back to the ground and how this affects our lives and our country as a whole.”
LSA senior Jason Rumsey said hearing Fahrenthold speak was an interesting opportunity to apply what he had learned in his communications classes at the University.
“I’m in the investigative journalism class, the written reporting class, and so coming to an event like this where you actually had to try to use some of the things that we’ve talked about not only in that class but also in other comm classes at the University (and) how he used those to get to a story was a quite interesting thing for me to hear,” Rumsey said.
Alaina Schallwig and Evan Dale contributed to this article.