The phrase “gotcha journalism” — which refers to the media’s tendency to use skewed facts or interviewing tactics to entrap subjects — has its etymological origins in a compound colloquialism which combines the words “got” and “you.”
This seems like a relatively simple concept, and one might wonder why I would feel the need to even address it. Well, it’s a bit of a reminder and friendly advice to the media: When writing a “gotcha” piece, it helps if you’ve actually “gotten” the subject of the piece.
That prerequisite wasn’t met, sadly, when multiple media sources jumped on President Donald Trump for visiting his Trump International Hotel on Saturday while Kuwaiti ambassador was throwing a party celebrating his country’s independence day. To several media figures on Twitter, this clearly looked like a pay-to-play scheme, with the president caught in flagrante delicto.
There was one little problem, according to The Daily Caller, which someone inconveniently figured out after the stories had been published: While Trump had indeed visited the Trump International Hotel on Saturday, hotel staff confirmed the Kuwaiti party had taken place on Wednesday.
Reuters and NPR were the two largest media outlets to report on the party, held by the Kuwait Embassy to celebrate their National Day. Both reports said that party would cost up to $60,000 and had taken place on Saturday.
While NPR has changed its story and issued a clarification on the date of the Kuwaiti embassy party, as of early Monday morning the Reuters story still reported the party as being held on Saturday.
The Trump International Hotel has long been a popular go-to for media controversy because some Trump opponents claim that foreign powers staying in the hotel or using it for events is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits government officials from receiving gifts of any sort from foreign states.
The president’s lawyer has maintained, reasonably enough, that “paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present and it has nothing to do with an office.” For his part, Trump has indicated he would turn over to the U.S. Treasury any profits from events held by foreign governments at his hotels or properties under his administration. It’s unknown yet what action (if any) the president plans to take regarding profits from the Kuwaiti event.
Journalists (I really ought to use air quotes here) on Twitter quickly noticed that Trump had been at the hotel on Saturday and began to circulate febrile conspiracy theories of a pay-to-play scheme between the Kuwaiti government and the Trump administration.
The most prominent — if perhaps not the most respected — of these was Think Progress’ Judd Legum, who went on a tweetstorm regarding the fact that the Kuwaitis deigned to pay for a hotel function at a Trump property.
The tweets have now mostly been deleted, although they’ve been preserved for posterity:
When a big story falls apart in real time, in three acts. I’m just bummed he deleted the best ones before I could screencap them. pic.twitter.com/oJng8AKnZg
— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) February 26, 2017
Legum may have been the most outraged media figure to go into a full-on tweet rampage, but he was far from the only one. Ana Marie Cox, currently of The New York Times and MTV, issued a tweet about Trump’s appearance at the Kuwaiti event, as did Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker. Both of them later tweeted corrections.
As much as yet another boring story about the intricacies of the Emoluments Clause may have been spiced up by a visit that would have been a far more blatant conflict of interest, the conflict turned out to be a negligent misapprehension that two minutes of journalistic legwork would have cleared up. But, as legendary New York City reporter Gabe Pressman once noted, “Why spoil a good story with the facts?”
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