Well this is serendipitous: I swear I didn’t know this was coming when I wrote yesterday’s post Check, Please, in which I sung the praises of reporter David Fahrenthold for his reporting on Donald Trump’s scam foundation and fraudulent claims of personal charitable donations. But late last night, Fahrenthold tweeted that he had a new piece coming in the morning that would give a behind the scenes look at his experience reporting on Trump.
I happen to love “behind the scenes” looks at presidential campaigns, whether they come from journalists or from people who worked on the campaigns. But this year, these works coming from reporters are especially interesting since this was such an unusual campaign, and Trump was so challenging to cover. So I just finished reading the Fahrenthold piece, “David Fahrenthold tells the behind the scenes story of his year covering Trump”, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s fairly long, because it’s for the Washington Post magazine section, but if you have a little free time for reading, it’s worth checking out. Fahrenthold goes through a few of his biggest Trump stories, and tells us how he managed to put the puzzle pieces together when dealing with a campaign that rarely answered questions and never revealed any actual information.
Early in the magazine article, Fahrenthold tells us how the idea came about for the story that first gained him Twitter “fame”: an investigation into Trump’s claim that he’d personally given away tens of millions of dollars to charity. While researching that story, Fahrenthold stumbled upon another story when he discovered that Trump’s foundation might have engaged in self-dealing by using foundation money to buy a self-portrait of Trump. So he set out on a hunt to determine where the portrait was being displayed, which led to some entertaining results:
The portrait had been painted by a “speed painter,” who was the entertainment at a charity gala at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. Melania Trump bought it for $20,000. But then, later, Trump paid for it with a check from the Trump Foundation. That raised a new set of questions. Tax law prohibits “self-dealing,” which is when charity leaders use their nonprofits’ money to buy things for themselves. If Trump hung that portrait on the wall at one of his resorts, for instance, he’d be breaking the law. So where was the portrait now? I asked Trump’s people. They didn’t respond. I tried a Google Images search, feeding it a photo of the portrait, which showed Trump’s painted face. “Best guess for this image: Orange,” Google said. I got a screen full of oranges. Orange juice. Orange Julius. No portraits.
After publishing several of these articles and making his methods public on Twitter (including using crowdsourcing to help solve many of his mysteries), Fahrenthold had gained quite a bit of fame among people closely following the election. And by making his reporting very transparent on Twitter, he had also gained a lot of trust and respect among his followers.* Those factors are probably why he was chosen by a tipster to break the biggest story of the election (or what we thought was the biggest story at the time):
On a morning in October, a month before Election Day, a window opened itself. I got a phone call. It was a source, with a video. The first few seconds were jumpy footage of a bus, lumbering through a bland Hollywood backlot. The soundtrack was indistinct mumbling. But then there was Trump’s voice. “I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down in Palm Beach. I moved on her. And I failed. I’ll admit it,” he was saying. “I did try and f— her. She was married.” That was 17 seconds in. On the bus were Trump and “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush . . .
Fahrenthold describes the rest of the episode breaking that bombshell story. He also goes on to explain that his new-found fame did not come without a price: he received a credible death threat after appearing on Fox News to talk about the story, which necessitated a visit to his family home by DC Police and the FBI. And to close the article, he gives us his thoughts now about covering the election, as he looks back, knowing how it all ended up.
Anyway, you should really read the whole thing if you can, because those are just some highlights, but there’s a lot more good stuff in there. (Don’t miss the story about Trump crashing a charity ribbon cutting at a school for children with AIDS, and pretending to be a donor!). The Washington Post does have a pay wall, but I believe they still allow you to access a limited number of articles free per month (I subscribe, so I can’t test that out). If you happen to be an Amazon Prime member, one of the benefits is a very discounted subscription to the Post (since both companies are owned by Jeff Bezos). I know, I know – it sounds like I’m doing a commercial here, but I’m not, I just think with so much really terrible journalism this year, we should reward the good stuff. Hopefully it’ll inspire more of it, because we’re really going to need lots of innovative reporting the next four years.
*After seeing Twitter used for so much negative during the election & post-election, most significantly by Trump himself, who uses it to (a) insult or bully anyone who dares cross him and (b) to spread his constant lies, it’s really nice to have this great example of Twitter & the hive mind being put to productive use.