When an Op-Ed Becomes a “White House Press Release”

President Donald J. Trump

Today the USA Today published an op-ed by President Donald Trump that some believe contains factual inaccuracies. In the piece, Trump asserts that Democrats “would end Medicare as we know it and take away benefits that seniors have paid for their entire lives.” Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Columnist, said Trump’s claim about Medicare cuts was misleading if not downright false. “[Trump’s assertion that] ‘Democrats have already harmed seniors by slashing Medicare by more than $800 billion over 10 years to pay for Obamacare’ … is a tired 2012 talking point. Seniors were not ‘harmed.’ The solvency was extended and benefits were expanded,” he said in a tweet. Kessler went on to correct what he saw as other falsehoods in the op-ed.

Others were more direct, asserting the op-ed was full of lies and was nothing more than a partisan attack.  Dan Gillmor who runs the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University, reacted in a tweet saying, “Publishing this op-ed is journalistic malpractice. It is full of outright lies, easily demonstrated lies. Disgraceful.” Chip Stewart, professor of journalism at Texas Christian University said that the newspaper should have reined in Trump. “When you know the president is going to be using your pages for partisan purposes and is going to more than just stretch the truth in doing so, you really ought to go back and run a fact check on that or have an editor’s note in there saying that some of those things aren’t actually true,” he said. Journalists weighed in on the matter, too. “USA Today not only published a White House press release disguised as an ‘op-ed by Donald Trump,’ it is using its Twitter account to blast out the article’s lies to 3.6 million followers,” tweeted Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent for The Toronto Star.

As a general rule, journalists point out and correct inaccuracies that are stated by others in their reporting, particularly if what is said is known by journalists to be inaccurate. Doing so is simply a matter of accuracy, transparency and best practice. After all, journalists are to report the truth as they know it. But this isn’t an ordinary news story. It’s an op-ed. And in op-eds, writers ordinarily express their opinions which may or may not be proven true or false. However, this is an op-ed penned by the president of the United States, which as NBC News points out “comes as Trump has ramped up his efforts to campaign on the behalf of Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, appearing at rallies and ratcheting up rhetoric directed at Democrats.” As a result, it’s easy to see how some view Trump’s op-ed as “a White House press release.”

Should USA Today have published Trump’s op-ed? Should they have published it alongside additional material explaining some of the alleged inaccuracies? Or, to use a popular phrase, is it simply that “all is fair in love and war” and op-eds?

Sources: Daniel Dale, Dan Gillmor, Glenn Kessler, NBC News, USA Today

Not Glad: Chicago Restaurant “Dupes” Diners

gladWhen it comes to interacting with the public, companies and organizations are expected to be transparent. But how transparent is transparent? That was one important issue raised by a case involving a Chicago restaurant that “duped” social media influencers who were invited to attend a special dinner. The owners of Giant, an upscale restaurant in downtown Chicago, invited a number of journalists and social media influencers to a special seating for the debut of its new menu, “Three Moons.” So far, so good.

However, during the last course of the first seating (there were two), servers brought out plates wrapped in Glad Press ’n Seal and set them on diner’s tables. They then explained that the dinner they had just enjoyed was prepared three days earlier and kept fresh with the aid of the plastic wrap. Hidden cameras were reportedly placed in table centerpieces to record the surprised reactions.

They certainly were surprised. Some attendees reportedly got up and left. Some of those invited to the second seating heard the news and opted out. A few of the social media influencers who attended took to social media. Adam Sokolowski, one of the attendees, posted Giant’s invitation on Instagram (see below). The new menu, according to the invite, was to “continue [Giant’s] theme of honest, unpretentious and delicious food” using “interesting preservation techniques.”

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Later it was reported that what took place was a marketing stunt. Glad had reportedly rented the restaurant for the evening (said to cost $10,000) and intended to use the videos from the centerpieces as part of a promotional campaign for Press ’n Seal.

That this seems patently unethical begs the question: Did not someone at Giant or Glad realize that it is bad to invite participants to an event under false pretenses? Did they really think that using the phrase “interesting preservation techniques” was sufficient disclosure? To me, this seems to be a clear case of ill-formed intent: Those involved knew what they were doing and knowingly hid the truth from participants. In other words they were knowingly not transparent. What do you think?

Thanks to Emily Belden for the tip!

Sources: adweek.com, chicago.eater.com, chicagotribune.com