The slanted coverage of Trump’s tweets on Comey
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The slanted coverage of Trump’s tweets on Comey

June 23, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump says he does not have recordings of conversations with Comey

On Thursday, President Donald Trump sent two tweets saying he does not possess recordings of conversations between himself and former FBI Director, James B. Comey. Trump’s remarks were within a June 23 deadline set by the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting an investigation into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

The committee had asked the White House and Comey for any notes, memoranda or recordings of conversations between Comey and Trump. In a memo released to the media and in his June 8 testimony, Comey described a conversation between himself and Trump regarding the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Director Michael Flynn. The FBI was investigating Flynn, who had resigned from his post, saying he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President elect and others with incomplete information” regarding his “phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.”

Timeline of events

On May 9, Trump dismissed Comey as FBI Director.

On May 11, The New York Times published an article citing “Comey’s associates,” who describe Comey recounting a Jan. 27 dinner in which Trump allegedly asked him to pledge loyalty. The sources said Comey did not pledge loyalty.

On May 12, Trump tweeted: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

On May 16, The New York Times published an article about a memo Comey reportedly wrote detailing a Feb. 14 conversation he had with Trump regarding the Flynn investigation.

On June 8, Comey tesitifed at the Senate Intelligence Committee, responding to questions regarding his memo and his dismissal from the FBI.

On June 9, The House Intelligence Committee wrote letters to Comey and White House Counsel Don McGahn, requesting they submit any notes, memoranda or recordings of conversations between Comey and Trump in their possession. The letter set a deadline of June 23.

On June 22, Trump posted two messages on Twitter, saying: “With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea…whether there are “tapes” or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.”

Sources used in this analysis: AP, Breitbart, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal

Twitter sources: Donald Trump Twitter Post May 12; Rep. Adam Schiff Twitter Post June 9; Donald Trump Twitter Post one June 22; Donald Trump Twitter post two June 22.


Note from the Editors: This analysis was created during beta testing, which may account for minor imprecisions. Past rating standards may have also applied.

Distortion Highlights

  • We give you a boiled-down depiction of what happened and what the outlets did with it. The differences are quite evident.
  • The New York Times and AP portrayed Trump negatively, while Breitbart depicted him positively.
  • The different versions may seem like two completely different stories, but they’re based on the same data.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Bluff

    Trump’s ‘Tapes’ Were a Bluff to Force James Comey to Tell the Whole Truth (Breitbart)

    Trump’s “tapes” were a poker bluff, plain and simple, designed to force his opponent to show his hand. (Breitbart)

  • Guessing game

    Ending guessing game, Trump admits there are no Comey tapes (AP)

    Ending a month-long guessing game that he started with a cryptic tweet and that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy, President Donald Trump declared he never made and doesn’t have recordings of his private conversations with ousted former FBI Director James Comey. (AP)

  • Mystery

    The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations. (AP)

    President Trump cleared up one of the capital’s least suspenseful mysteries on Thursday, acknowledging that he did not record conversations with James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in anger over an investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia. (The New York Times)

  • Guile

    For Mr. Trump the businessman, who used guile and misdirection in countless real estate negotiations, the episode may have been a classic case of a bluff he then had no choice but to call. (The New York Times)

  • Sowing confusion

    The episode was yet another example of Mr. Trump’s predilection for sowing confusion and uncertainty. (The New York Times)

  • indulged

    [Trump] has also indulged in a longtime practice of using tapes as leverage. (The New York Times)

  • Incendiary

    In March, (Trump) tweeted the incendiary claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor, a charge he’s never supported. (AP)

  • Bothersome

    Trump showed concern about that situation as well, telling Fox News Channel in an interview that Mueller is “very, very good friends with Comey which is bothersome.” (AP)

Depending on your news source, you may get a very different rendition of Trump’s latest tweets. That’s how slant works: through selective information, opinion and spin, it creates a perspective about what supposedly took place.

Of the four articles we compared in our analysis, The New York Times and The Associated Press (AP) had a bias portraying Trump negatively, while Breitbart portrayed him and his actions in a positive way. Another article, by The Wall Street Journal, was the most neutral of the four. It relied mostly on facts, which earned it a better slant rating (32 percent slanted), compared to the others, whose content was slanted in percentiles of between 62 and 78 percent slanted.

Here’s a boiled-down depiction of what happened and what the outlets did with it. The differences are quite evident. The information is presented in a way that makes it easy to compare each point against its counterpart.

First, here’s a condensed version of the Raw Data: 

1. Trump tweeted about Comey and “tapes.”
2. News outlets interpreted what the tweet meant.
3. The Times published an article about a Comey memo.
4. Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
5. The House Intelligence Committee requested materials from Comey and the White House.
6. Trump tweeted, saying he didn’t know of any tapes.
7. Media outlets are covering the news of these latest tweets.

Now, the two main slants:

“Trump is wrong” slant

Here’s what AP and the Times did with the information and how they portray the parties involved.

“Trump is right” slant

Here’s what Breitbart did with the information and how they portray the parties involved.

1. Trump tweeted about Comey and “tapes.” This becomes:

Trump’s “cryptic tweet” began “a month-long guessing game … that ensnared his administration in yet more controversy” as it “evoked the secret White House recordings that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal” (AP).

The drama presents the president in a negative light.

1. Trump tweeted about Comey and “tapes.” This becomes:

“Trump’s bluff forced Comey to confirm publicly” that he had told Trump he wasn’t being investigated.

This might portray Trump not only as strategically adept, but as having the upper hand in this situation.

 

2. News outlets interpreted what the tweet meant.

Neither outlet comments on past media coverage about the original tweet.

Omitting data is another element of slant.

2. News outlets interpreted what the tweet meant. This becomes:

“The media hilariously predicted, wrongly, that Comey would” deny in his testimony that he told Trump he wasn’t being investigated.

This could portray “the media” as wrong and Trump as right (Knife researchers didn’t find news articles that match Breitbart’s claim). The outlet also writes that the coverage was a “‘Watergate’ analogy” that media “have been trying to draw for months” to bring down Trump.

3. The Times published an article about a Comey memo. This becomes:

“Mr. Trump’s original tweet appeared to refer to an article in The New York Times that reported that he had asked Mr. Comey to pledge loyalty during a dinner at the White House shortly after the inauguration” (NYT).

This could suggest the Times has the upper hand in the situation, prompting Trump to react on Twitter.

3. The Times published an article about a Comey memo. This becomes:

“Comey reacted to Trump’s tweet by leaking his memos of their conversations to the Times.”

This reinforces the notion that Trump’s tweet was calculated and he has the upper hand.

 

 

4. Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. This becomes:

“This month, Mr. Comey testified in detail about that dinner and other conversations, saying the president had appealed to him on multiple occasions not to pursue an investigation of … Flynn, and his alleged links to Russian officials” (NYT).

4. Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. This becomes:

“So Comey confirmed Trump’s claim — in his written testimony to the Senate, rather than being forced to concede the truth in more dramatic fashion in open testimony.”

Again, a win for Trump!

5. The House Intelligence Committee requested materials from Comey and the White House. This becomes:

With yesterday’s tweets, Trump met “a self-imposed deadline of this week to resolve questions he himself raised by implying that he had taped Mr. Comey.”

In other words, Trump did this to himself. This portrays the president as acting in a not very bright way.

5. The House Intelligence Committee requested materials from Comey and the White House.

Breitbart says “the reason” behind Trump’s latest tweet was simply to abide by the deadline his administration and Comey were expected to meet.

Presents a “reasonable” explanation.

6. Trump tweeted, saying he didn’t know of any tapes. This becomes:

Trump met the deadline to respond, but the “timing drew attention away from the release of the Senate’s health care bill, which the White House hopes can provide Trump a much-needed legislative victory to boost his sagging poll numbers” (AP).

This might portray Trump as trying to distract from important issues while bringing in something unrelated — his low poll numbers.

6. Trump tweeted, saying he didn’t know of any tapes. This becomes:

“Trump’s “tapes” were a poker bluff, plain and simple, designed to force his opponent to show his hand. And it was a gamble that worked, because Comey’s hand turned out to be rather weak.”

The message presents a good Trump and a bad Comey.

7. Media outlets are covering the news of these latest tweets. This becomes:

“The episode was yet another example of Mr. Trump’s predilection for sowing confusion and uncertainty. It also, at least temporarily, threw the news media off the trail of the Russia investigation” (NYT).

This could portray Trump as trying to distract the public from the Russia investigations.

7. Media outlets are covering the news of these latest tweets. This becomes:

“The media are portraying Trump’s new ‘admission’ as a failure.”

This may again imply that the media is wrong, because “Trump’s bluff has been a tactical win for the president.”

Now that you’ve compared the two perspectives, which do you believe and why?

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 36% Spun

  • 50% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 63% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“The president appeared to enjoy ginning up mystery and spinning Washington reporters about the possibility there was a trove of surreptitiously recorded Oval Office conversations.”

None here.

The New York Times

Trump fired Comey “in anger over an investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.”

None here.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts included in all sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in only 1 source

This month, Mr. Comey testified in detail about that dinner and other conversations, saying the president had appealed to him on multiple occasions not to pursue an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and his alleged links to Russian officials. (The New York Times)


According to a transcript of Mr. Comey’s testimony, he said President Trump had discussed dropping the Flynn investigation on one occasion, not “multiple.” Comey’s private meeting with the president in the Oval Office on Feb. 14 was the only time the two discussed Flynn and the FBI’s investigation of him.

SENATOR JAMES LANKFORD: Past the February 14th meeting … when the president asked you about he hopes that you would let this go, and the conversation back and forth about being a good guy, after that time, did the president ever bring up anything about Michael Flynn again to you? Had multiple other conversations you had documents with the president.

COMEY: I don’t remember him bringing it up again.
LANKFORD: Did a member of the White House staff come up to you asking you to drop the Michael Flynn case, anything referring to that?
COMEY: No.
LANKFORD: Did the Director of National Intelligence talk to you about that?
COMEY: No.
LANKFORD: Did anyone from the attorney general’s office, the Department of Justice ask about that?
COMEY: No.
LANKFORD: Did the head of NSA talk to you about that?
COMEY: No.

Comey confirmed Trump’s claim that Comey had told the president on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. The media predicted that Comey would say otherwise, based on “sources.” (Breitbart)


Breitbart’s article states media outlets “predicted” that Comey would say the president was not under investigation. By not specifying which outlets supposedly made this claim, people may assume this was a majority opinion in most media outlets. Based on a search of outlets such as CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair, Salon and The Los Angeles Times, media outlets did not make such a statement in the coverage leading up to Comey’s testimony. Most of the articles researched with headlines such as, “What to expect in Comey’s Testimony,” discussed the content of Comey’s leaked memos, whether Trump would invoke executive privilege to prevent Comey from testifying or, if confirmed, whether Trump’s comments to Comey on Feb. 14 might be considered “obstruction of justice.” If the articles mentioned the Trump administration in relation to the Russia investigation, they said Comey may not be able to respond due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

Of the nine articles listed above, only two directly mentioned Trump personally being under investigation. The Washington Post noted that Trump claimed Comey told him three times that he wasn’t under investigation, but it did not speculate as to whether Comey would discuss it during testimony. Vanity Fair’s article said, “While Comey probably won’t be able to address whether Trump—or other White House aides—made efforts to curtail the Russia investigation on occasions that have not already been reported, Comey will likely clarify whether he ever told Trump that the president was off the hook.”

While there might have been some media outlets beyond our research’s results that made the claims cited by Breitbart, the lack of clarity as to which outlet it was referencing may encourage people to form negative or inaccurate assumptions about the media as a whole.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Dramatizes the sequence of events by calling it a “tease” and saying, non-specifically, that “the damage is done.”

May imply Trump is conceding or divulging something he didn’t want to, by saying he’s “admitting” he doesn’t have tapes.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • President Trump misled the public — possibly intentionally — when he tweeted that Comey “better hope” there weren’t tapes of their conversations. Trump cannot be trusted. (AP, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal)
  • Trump’s tweet about possible tapes was a smart, calculated bluff intended to make Comey publicly admit he told the president multiple times that he wasn’t investigating him (when, in fact, he was). The bluff worked. (Breitbart)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • A special counsel is investigating whether Trump may have obstructed justice during his interactions with Comey, but that has not been determined. It’s possible Trump may have done nothing wrong.  
  • Trump’s behavior and statements may not have been prudent, and might not help him in the end. For instance, his tweets could become part of an investigation that he obstructed justice, or they could negatively affect public opinion of him.