You know Sherman: nice kid, but kind of clueless without Mr. Peabody to explain stuff to him. So when Sherman says something, it helps to look behind the curtain to see who’s playing Mr. Peabody these days. Case in point, Gabriel Sherman’s latest, highly touted opus about the Trump campaign:
OPERATION TRUMP: Inside the most unorthodox campaign in political history.
A lengthy article goes into excruciating detail about the Trump effort, and it’s clear that Sherman’s new-found status as chief engineer on the Trump Train may have given him actual, non-fictional sources, mainly The Man himself. The article is peppered with quotes from The Donald: “Trump told me,” “he told me,” “he said of Rubio,” “Trump said,” “he said,” “Trump shouted,” “he said,”—no way is anyone going to critique Sherman for fuzzy anonymous sources this time.
Slog through this War and Peace of campaign puffery far enough and you’ll find a nugget relating to The Cable Game. It involved Brian Lewis, a Fox News PR executive, and his attorney:
Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved. “When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
This allegation made headlines at places like Slate, Talking Points Memo, Media Matters, Huffington Post, National Review, Salon, Gawker and others too humorous to mention. Needless to say it made Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter. In fact it was the top story:
Is this Trump’s “Trump card” against Fox?
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Roger Ailes?
Mr. Stelter notes:
Crucially, this info is not anonymously sourced: Trump is on the record saying Ailes “called me” to mediate…Why was Trump involved in the first place? Maybe because Burstein had briefly worked for Trump many years earlier. “Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak,” Sherman writes, describing it as the “arsenal” for a “retaliatory strike” against Fox…
With so much of Sherman’s story not anonymously sourced, why does Mr. Stelter single out one statement as crucial? And why does he completely overlook the elephant in the journalistic room? Throughout Sherman’s interminable account “Trump said” is cited way more than any other source. And yet there’s a unique phrase that, in over 7,000 words, only appears once:
Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak.
“I’m told.” Passive voice: one of the greatest fact-avoidance tools in the English language. “Rocks were thrown.” “Mistakes were made.” “I was told.” Funny that should turn up in the one paragraph that got so many media headlines. This matter-of-fact reversion to an unknown source, without even a description (e.g. “a high-level source in the Trump campaign”) to give it a fig leaf of verisimilitude, has been pretty much ignored by all the people promoting Sherman’s claim.
STELTER: Well, these are clearly sources that were in the room with Roger Ailes. You know, authors like Gabriel Sherman don’t make up this stuff.
STELTER: We’ve seen a lot of anonymous sources and I wonder if there’s any way around that. Because when readers and viewers hear anonymous sources, they’re very skeptical. They wonder if they should trust the information.
Would that Brian Stelter settle for “I’m told” as all the sourcing necessary for a headline story? Especially when the premise is inconsistent with known facts? Ailes and Fox refused to remove Megyn Kelly, issued many statements defending Ms. Kelly and ripping Trump (one of which Sherman even suggested was too harsh!), and ultimately gave up a scheduled debate that was cancelled because Trump was displeased and refused to appear. None of this is consistent with a Roger Ailes trembling in acquiescence because Trump has “bombs” that could destroy him. In fact, it suggests just the opposite. Brian Stelter’s only comment on this enters the Lame Explanations Hall of Fame: “Maybe the candidate is showing uncharacteristic restraint.”
Another writer noticed the disconnect between Sherman’s claims and reality:
OK, this might explain why Fox News talent such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren and all of Fox and Friends appear to big Trump supporters. But, Fox News is one of the few networks to call Trump out. The network did release a public statement against Trump and his attacks on Megyn Kelly.
So, the bigger question……
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Jeff Zucker? That’s what we want to know.
Placing an incendiary charge into an overlong, little-read treatise is standard self-promotional procedure, but the way it was done here is considered journalistically unacceptable:
Be as specific as possible. Negotiate hard with your source to agree a description that is sufficiently precise to enable readers to trust the reliability of our anonymous sourcing. “A source” or “sources”, “observers” or “quarters” with no further description is vague and unacceptable.
Thanks to the passive voice, Sherman didn’t even give us “a source” or “observers.” No descriptors necessary!
Trump has been playing Mr. Peabody to Gabriel Sherman for months now. And if that’s where the story about “bombs” came from it’s obvious why Sherman wouldn’t want readers to know: Donald Trump’s rep for honesty and truthfulness is pitiful at best. Who’d believe him?
Sherman desperately needs a better, more trustworthy Peabody. Too bad the original is unavailable, being a dog—and a cartoon dog at that. Mr. Sherman could use a man like Mr. Peabody again.
GREAT MINDS UPDATE: Moments after publishing, The Cable Gamer learned that Erik Wemple of the post had just written an article tackling this same subject. Recommended reading.