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Attempt to lure Washington Post into reporting a false story underlines media distrust

The Washington Post says it was targeted by a conservative group when a woman came forward claiming that Roy Moore got her pregnant as a teen. Reporters found inconsistencies in the woman's claims and observed her at the offices of an organization that targets the news media. Judy Woodruff talks with Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post and Michelle Holmes of Alabama Media Group.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, in two weeks, Alabama voters head to the polls to pick their next U.S. senator in a campaign rocked by allegations of sex abuse and counter accusations of a media witch-hunt.

    Now a foiled sting operation is bring the divide between journalism and political activism to the forefront.

    The story broke last night. The Washington Post says it was targeted by a conservative group. According to The Post, a woman came forward claiming that Alabama's Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore got her pregnant when she was a teenager. She identified herself as Jaime Phillips, seen on the right in this video recorded by The Post.

  • Stephanie McCrummen:

    I want you to know this is being recorded.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But reporter Stephanie McCrummen and others found inconsistencies in her claims. They also asked about an online comment of hers that suggested she's working with a group that goes after mainstream media, or MSM.

  • Stephanie McCrummen:

    Do you still have an interest in working in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceit of the liberal MSM? Is that still your interest?

  • Woman:

    No, no, not really, not at this point.

  • Stephanie McCrummen:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Post decided not to publish the story, and Monday morning, reporters spotted Phillips walking into the New York City offices of Project Veritas. The group is run by longtime activist James O'Keefe and has a history of targeting the news media and Democratic organizations using undercover video.

    Meanwhile, Roy Moore himself took aim at the media last night. He faces multiple claims of approaching or molesting teenage girls, but he's denied any wrongdoing.

  • Roy Moore:

    They're trying to hide the true issues. It's no different than when The Washington Post brought out the Russian investigation at a time when President Trump is trying to get his agenda passed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Outside the venue, several Moore campaign staffers scuffled with a FOX News camera crew.

    Meanwhile, on Twitter yesterday, President Trump called for a contest. He said it would decide — quote — "which of the networks, plus CNN and not including FOX, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage." The winner, said Mr. Trump, will receive the fake news trophy.

    For a closer look at all this, we're joined by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, and Michelle Holmes. She's vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group, which publishes the state's three largest newspapers.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Margaret Sullivan, to you first.

    What tipped off The Post reporters that what this woman, Jamie Phillips, was saying to them wasn't true?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Judy, The Post was doing what good reporters always do, which, as you know, which is to do a background check and to find out as much as possible about someone before going with their story.

    So they were doing fairly standard kind of background check, and one of the things that they turned up — I mean, there were a number of red flags, but probably the most obvious one was that they found a GoFundMe page on the Internet that seemed to suggest that Jamie Phillips had gone to work or was going to work for an organization that would set out to discredit establishment media.

    So this was something that certainly caught The Post's eye.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to you, Michelle Holmes, what has been the reaction there in Alabama to The Post exposing this attempt at a sting?

  • Michelle Holmes:

    Certainly, we in our newsroom are incredibly grateful and proud of the work that The Washington Post is doing. I think it certainly makes a mark for excellent journalism everywhere and lifts us all.

    I think across Alabama, I certainly hope this sends a message of the kind of dirty and underhanded tactics that people are doing and attempting to discredit the media at this really critical time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Sullivan, when you couple this with what we have seen as President Trump's repeated attempts to criticize, discredit the news media through the campaign, through his presidency, to make the press essentially look dishonest, what effect do you think that has on the American people?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Well, Judy, for some people, of course, it only makes their resolve greater that they want to understand what is true and follow reputable news sources.

    But I think for a number of other people, it does cast doubt. You know, it creates confusion. Who is telling the truth? Should we really mistrust the news media as much as the president says or even half as much as he says? So it creates an atmosphere in which truth is muddied.

    You don't really know who to trust, and some people throw up their hands and say, well, I'm going to tune out. I don't know exactly who is right or who is wrong. It's all a big mess. And I think that's very dangerous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michelle Holmes, all of this is obviously subjective. I'm asking the two of you to estimate, to give us your judgment of how the public is reacting, but what do you find in Alabama about trust of the media?

    Your own news organization editorialized against Roy Moore. Are people still able to trust the reporting that your organization does, do you think?

  • Michelle Holmes:

    We have had really strong response thanking us for the work that we have been doing. And I do think people in Alabama are intelligent and are able to distinguish an institutional editorial voice from the kind of day-to-day hard reporting that our staff is doing.

    Look, our team of reporters are primarily people who were born and raised in Alabama. They're the neighbors of all of our news consumers. And I think many people see through the tactics of fake news.

    Certainly, you know, the president's push has played a really disturbing role, however, and we feel that ripple, too. But I think, in Alabama, the work that we're doing is being seen for what it is, trying to call out truths in a really important time in Alabama politics and American politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Sullivan, how do you measure this erosion of trust on the part of news consumers?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Well, of course, you can look at the public opinion polls, and the numbers are discouraging there.

    But we also know that trust in institutions in general is way down. I have been trying to get out and talk to ordinary voters for months now, and, actually, I don't find that kind of virulent dislike and mistrust that we see in the polls when I talk to regular people, including a lot of Trump voters.

    So I think that there's a question of, is it the media, and who knows what that means, or is it the media that I follow, which I actually think most people feel pretty good about?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Margaret Sullivan, how do you see the role of the press in addressing this increasingly distrustful, at least in some quarters, increasingly distrustful and sometimes outright hostile attitude toward the media, the news media?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Judy, I think, for the most part, we have to do our jobs as best we can, and we also have to be as transparent as we can with our readers or viewers, news consumers, about how we do our work.

    For example, in The Post's original story about Roy Moore, there was a paragraph that was very clear about how the women had not approached The Post. The Post had actually found these women and encouraged them and convinced them to come forward.

    And I think that helps people understand sort of how the sausage is made. And the more we can be transparent, I think the more trust we can engender.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, some certainly remarkable reporting done by The Washington Post and commendable reporting certainly done by the Alabama Media Group.

    I want to thank both of you, Michelle Holmes joining us from Alabama, Margaret Sullivan at The Post.

    Thank you both.

  • Michelle Holmes:

    Thank you.

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