Breaking down the spin in the coverage of Reince Priebus’ resignation
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Breaking down the spin in the coverage of Reince Priebus’ resignation

July 30, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump names John Kelly as new White House chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that General John F. Kelly would take over the role of White House chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus, who said he resigned on Thursday.

In three tweets sent Friday afternoon, Trump said, “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American……and a Great Leader. John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration[.] I would like to thank Reince Priebus for his service and dedication to his country. We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!” Trump did not specify the reason for the change.

Before being appointed White House chief of staff, Priebus served as the Republican National Committee chair for six years and also worked as an adviser on Trump’s campaign. Priebus said in a CNN interview Friday evening that he had privately submitted his resignation on Thursday after speaking about it for “days.” Priebus explained, “this is about the President. It’s about moving his agenda forward,” adding, “the President wanted to go a different direction” and “hit the reset button.”

Gen. Kelly is a retired marine with more than 40 years of military experience, including work as a senior assistant to the secretary of defense and a congressional liaison. After winning the election in November, Trump appointed Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Kelly would start in his new role on Monday, and is scheduled to attend Monday’s cabinet meeting. Sanders said Kelly and Trump began discussing the possibility of the position change two weeks ago.

The Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke will take over as acting head of DHS, The Washington Post reports.

Distortion Highlights

  • Who doesn’t like a little drama and sensationalism? It’s what sells movies, but it shouldn’t be what sells newspapers.
  • The articles we analyzed on the news of Priebus’ resignation were heavy on spin, which presents several limitations for readers.
  • We bring you six distinctions that could change the way you identify and relate to spin moving forward.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • War/warring/warfare

    Mr. Scaramucci quickly engaged in open war against Mr. Priebus — with the president’s encouragement. (The New York Times)

    Kelly intends to bring some semblance of traditional discipline to the West Wing, where warring advisers have been able to circumvent the chief of staff and report directly to the president and sidestep the policy process, according to people with knowledge of his plans. (The Washington Post)

  • Chaos/chaotic

    The move followed months of on-again, off-again speculation that Priebus would soon be ousted from an administration where he has consistently drawn heavy criticism for failing to stem the flow of leaks and struggled to impose a sense of order in a chaotic White House beset by controversies. (CNN)

    Trump’s decision signals that he wants more gravitas and discipline in his chaotic White House, relying on a retired Marine General to take the place of Priebus — who sometimes struggled to earn the respect of the president’s staff. (Breitbart)

    Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff who failed to impose order on a chaosracked West Wing, was pushed out on Friday after a stormy six-month tenure … (The New York Times)

  • Infighting

    President Trump ousted White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and replaced him with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Friday, a major shake-up designed to bring order and military precision to a West Wing beset for six straight months by chaos, infighting and few tangible accomplishments. (The Washington Post)

    Rumors of infighting among Trump’s staff eventually devolved into all-out warfare, bursting dramatically into the open late Thursday with a vulgar screed from incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci. (CNN)

  • Profanity-laced

    The change comes after deep personal animus between Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci, newly appointed as White House communications director, burst into public view Thursday when Scaramucci accused the chief of staff of leaking damaging information about him to the news media and savaged Priebus in a profanity-laced interview with The New Yorker. (The Washington Post)

  • Ugly feud

    Mr. Priebus’s departure was announced 15 hours after the president’s signature drive to repeal his predecessor’s health care program collapsed on the Senate floor and a day after an ugly feud with Mr. Scaramucci erupted in a public airing of the deep animosities plaguing the White House. (The New York Times)

  • Turbulent

    President Donald Trump drove out his chief of staff on Friday, replacing Reince Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in an explosive move that ends a turbulent six-month tenure. (CNN)

    Kelly’s hiring is expected to usher in potentially sweeping structural changes to the turbulent operation and perhaps the departures of some remaining Priebus allies. (The Washington Post)

  • Soured

    Trump’s own family had soured on Priebus at least several weeks prior. (The Washington Post)

    Mr. Kushner soured on Mr. Priebus, partly because of what he viewed as the shortcomings of Sean Spicer, an ally of Mr. Priebus’s who was the White House press secretary until last week. (The New York Times)

  • Humiliating coda

    Priebus’ final departure was a humiliating coda for what had been a largely demeaning tenure during which he endured regular belittling from rival advisers — and even, at times, the president himself. (The Washington Post)

  • Crater

    Mr. Priebus had collaborated with his ally, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, on health care and pushed a bill through the House only to watch it crater in the upper chamber. (The New York Times)

We’ve all heard the term “spin” applied to media, but — what exactly does it mean? It refers to vague, dramatic, non-objective words that sensationalize a story. It’s what pulls at readers’ heartstrings and invites the imagination to run wild. It’s what takes straightforward data like “Priebus resigned as White House chief of staff” and turns it into “President Donald Trump drove out his chief of staff on Friday … an explosive move that ends a turbulent six-month tenure” (CNN).

But not all spin is created equal. We examined coverage from CNN1, The New York Times2, Breitbart3 and The Washington Post4. Here’s a look at some of the different categories we found, and the limitations each poses.

Words that dramatize

These are descriptions that color or exaggerate what would otherwise be straightforward information. They might appeal to your emotions and sacrifice accuracy for entertainment.

  • The White House’s got problems: according to the outlets, it’s “often-unruly,4” “chaotic1,3” or “chaos-racked,2” “beset by controversies1” and “whipsawed by feuds and political setbacks.2
  • There wasn’t just disagreement in the administration, but rather “deep animosities2” that later “erupted,2” or how did CNN put it? Right, “infighting [that] eventually devolved into all-out warfare.”
  • Priebus’ resignation wasn’t just “stunning,3” it was the “latest convulsion2” in Washington. Not sure where that one lands on the Richter scale.

Words that alarm

This is drama plus fear — descriptions that evoke sometimes visceral, fear-based responses that may further limit critical evaluation.

  • Friday’s events weren’t just a “shake-up,1” they were a “major shake-up4” that “added to the sense of instability.2
  • Priebus and Scaramucci didn’t just have differences — theirs was a “rivalry [that] came to an explosive head1” and the two “quickly engaged in open war.2

Words that dishonor

These descriptions don’t play nice. They represent people and their actions in a degrading way, and are often stated as fact. Once introduced, they cannot be taken back, as they permanently change the way we see or think about others.

  • According to the sources, Trump is a “freewheeling2” president who supposedly “chafed4” at Priebus’ attempts to control his “more rash impulses.4” Way to inspire confidence in the country’s commander in chief.
  • Priebus, on the other hand, “endured regular belittling4” with his resignation ending as a “humiliating coda.4” Would he call it that?

Words that read intent

Sometimes, outlets write as if they know people’s inner workings — their thoughts, beliefs, feelings and intentions. An example is saying Trump “vow[ed]2” to remove Priebus from his administration. Did he promise that “solemnly” or did he just say it?  Descriptions like these might seem to yield credibility to the assertions, but when you consider the possibility of the outlet knowing what it claims to know, it’s highly unlikely.

Words with implication

These are the Trojan horses of spin. At face value, they seem fine, but then a not-so-nice implication creeps in. For instance, “Kelly intends to bring some semblance of traditional discipline4” sounds great, until you consider how poorly that reflects on Priebus’ performance as chief of staff.

Words that confuse

Then there are descriptions that just leave you guessing. Typically, they tend to be vague or metaphoric — whatever the case, they leave too much room for interpretation. When you evaluate them critically, you’re usually left with nothing.

  • “Kelly’s hiring is expected to usher in potentially sweeping structural changes to the turbulent operation4” sounds like a good plan, right? But what does it even mean?
  • Then there’s the notion that Priebus “always seem[ed] to be on the edge,2” which is probably what led to his “final unraveling.1” If that made no sense whatsoever, good! It wasn’t supposed to.
  • Apparently, “the situation had darkened4” after Scaramucci was appointed. What?!

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

  • 37% Spun

  • 44% Spun

  • 71% Spun

  • 84% Spun

Spin not only distorts our understanding of people and events, it conditions us to accept sensationalism and entertainment in place of accurate reporting. It also wastes time and effort — imagine how much shorter news articles would be if they weren’t spun! (That’s part of what explains the succinctness of our Raw Data.) To transform this in media, news outlets and readers alike must draw a line in the sand: unspun, accurate reporting on one side, and drama and sensationalism on the other. It’s the difference between news reporting and tabloid journalism.



“The move followed months of on-again, off-again speculation that Priebus would soon be ousted from an administration where he has consistently drawn heavy criticism for failing to stem the flow of leaks and struggled to impose a sense of order in a chaotic White House beset by controversies.”

Priebus worked in the White House.


“The former Republican National Committee chairman faced a difficult task from the outset as he attempted to wrangle a hodgepodge of rival staff factions divided by ideology and allegiance, his influence supplanted by several other top advisers — including the President’s own kin — who reported directly to Trump and not to the chief of staff.”

Priebus was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Trump has multiple advisers, including some related to him (like his daughter Ivanka), who report directly to him.

The New York Times

“Mr. Priebus’s ouster was the latest convulsion in a White House that has been whipsawed by feuds and political setbacks in recent days.”

Priebus left his position at the White House.

Fact Comparison

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

“The President wanted to go a different direction,” said Priebus. (CNN, The Washington Post)

“The president has a right to hit a reset button. I think it’s a good time to hit the reset button,” said Priebus. (CNN, The New York Times)

While the above three outlets mention some of Priebus’ public statements about his resignation, Breitbart does not. Omitting this information might inspire readers to fill in the blanks as to how Priebus responded to the situation, rather than making an informed judgement based in part on Priebus’ own account.



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

Dramatizes and possibly misrepresents the event by stating he was “ousted,” and then some.

The word “oust” refers to taking away a position by force, such as in a military coup. Did Trump force Priebus out? Priebus says he resigned, while some anonymous sources say otherwise. Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but without an official statement saying he was “ousted,” this may be irresponsible reporting.

Tells part of the story. While there’s no spin or opinion in this headline, it doesn’t mention Kelly will be replacing Priebus.

What’s the news? This doesn’t tell readers what happened.

The Daily Mail has chosen to highlight both data and opinions that emphasize dispute and dramatic elements of the relationship. Why not highlight the more productive interactions they had? Probably because it wouldn’t draw readers in the same way.

Explains the main news — both who’s coming in and who’s going out — unlike some headlines.


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

The media’s slant:
  • The situation with current White House staffing is chaotic and the decision to replace Priebus was a “major-shakeup,” “explosive” and “stunning.”
  • Priebus is to blame for the recent legislative failures and mismanagement in the White House.
  • Priebus is the latest casualty in a long list of firings and recent resignations that distinguish this administration from others.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The president has the power to replace the chief at staff at any time and replacing Priebus may not be, as some of the articles explain, as unexpected as it’s portrayed.
  • Government is a collaborative effort. No one person is solely responsible for the failures, successes or management of an administration.
  • Changes in administrations aren’t unique to Trump’s. White House jobs are like any other. If someone doesn’t meet the standard, they’re subject to being replaced.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Since 1946, when the Assistant to the President position was formed (termed “Chief of Staff” since 1961), the average number of people in said position has been 2.6 per president and 1.5 per presidential term, if one considers partial terms as one whole term.