Tapper’s interview with Tillerson: How the media promotes dishonor through slant and faulty logic
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Tapper’s interview with Tillerson: How the media promotes dishonor through slant and faulty logic

October 16, 2017

The Distortion

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

In his interview with CNN on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington “seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo.” Whether or not this is true for Washington, it appeared to be true during parts of Jake Tapper’s interview, and in the media’s coverage of it.

Below, we’ll explain how the media uses faulty reasoning and emphasizes rumors instead of facts, and how this can promote dishonor.

Faulty Reasoning

Consider the following abridged exchange between CNN anchor Jake Tapper and Tillerson (full transcript).

Tapper: “Did you call [President Donald Trump] a moron?”

Tillerson: “I’m just not going to dignify the question”

Tapper: “Look, you’re a serious guy. For you to say something like that suggests a real frustration with the commander in chief.”

Tapper: “So, when you don’t answer the question, it makes people think that you probably did say it.”

There is more than one error in reasoning here (see how many you can spot), but we’ll examine Tapper’s conclusion that by not answering his question, it “makes people think that [Tillerson] probably did” call Trump a “moron.”

By saying this is what people would think, Tapper is condoning the underlying logic that if you’ve been accused of something, and you don’t answer the question “did you do it?” then you probably did it.

Many readers have probably heard an argument similar to this before, perhaps in a different context, and some may find it intuitively makes sense to them. However, the possibility that Tillerson did call Trump a “moron” is not the only reason to not answer Tapper’s question. Even saying this is “probably” the reason, as Tapper does, is problematic because it’s conjecture; it’s an opinion based on incomplete information since no evidence is provided to back it. There could be a number of reasons why Tillerson chose not to answer the question. For example, his stated intent was to not “dignify” it with an answer, perhaps based on principle.

The above faulty reasoning may be damaging to Tillerson’s reputation by implying that not answering the question means he’s withholding an answer out of negative intent, such as to hide that he did call Trump a “moron,” or something else. If he has nothing to hide or did nothing wrong, then there’s no downside to answering the question, right? Not necessarily.

Emphasizing rumors

Other media outlets compound the issues with the above flawed logic when they make Tapper’s questions about the unconfirmed “moron” comment the main focus of their coverage. Tillerson draws attention to this in the interview when he says to Tapper, “I’m a little surprised you want to spend so much time on it, when there are so many important issues around the world to deal with.”

In the coverage of the interview, the Associated Press (AP) and CNN add their own emphasis to the reported “moron” comment by discussing it in their headline, lead sentence, or both. For example, AP’s lead sentence says Tillerson:

“…ducked, danced and sidestepped the question of whether he truly called President Donald Trump a ’moron,’ dismissing the brouhaha as the ‘petty stuff’ of Washington.

By emphasizing and sensationalizing the reported “moron” comment, the media is participating in spreading a rumor – a widely circulated, unverified story. This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t report unverified information, but putting it in the headline or lead sentence may keep the rumor mills going. The extra emphasis may also be disparaging towards Trump given the nature of the reported comment, and the suggestion he may be at odds with a cabinet member.

Why does this matter?

Tapper’s implication that Tillerson did call Trump a “moron,” or is at least hiding something, and the media’s emphasis on this part of the interview promotes dishonor. It makes the interview more about gossip than other, arguably more substantive, issues, such as diplomacy with North Korea and the Iran deal. Dishonorable communication is also destructive in nature, as it downplays the good in things, such as the possibility that there are principled reasons to not answer Tapper’s question—whether that was Tillerson’s intent or not.

The more we’re aware of and identify dishonor, the more we can understand it and the more likely we are to stop it.

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

  • 74% Spun

  • 75% Spun

  • 77% Spun

  • 78% Spun

Top Spin Words

  • Brouhaha

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday ducked, danced and sidestepped the question of whether he truly called President Donald Trump a “moron,” dismissing the brouhaha as the “petty stuff” of Washington. (Associated Press)

  • Bashed

    Despite Tillerson’s attempts to show he’s in lockstep with the president, the NBC News report of his “moron” comment infuriated Trump, who privately bashed his secretary of state to associates and publicly challenged Tillerson to an IQ test. (Associated Press)

  • Scorching

    Trump also grew annoyed with what he perceived as Tillerson’s go-it-alone approach to diplomacy with North Korea, declaring in a scorching recent tweet that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump’s nickname for Kim Jong Un. (Associated Press)

  • Exasperatedly

    It was after that session that Tillerson, in a private conversation with fellow US officials, exasperatedly called the President a “moron,” a comment that sparked new questions about the two men’s relationship. (CNN)

  • Crescendo of rumors

    “This is a very unique president,” said the former Exxon-Mobil chief, commenting on a crescendo of rumors about his relationship with Trump. (The Guardian)

  • Positive gloss

    He also put a positive gloss on Trump’s unpredictable behavior. (The Washington Post)

  • Enemies circle

    ‘He is failing’: Trump strikes out solo as friends worry and enemies circle (The Guardian)

  • Butting heads

    Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, deflected reports that she and Tillerson are butting heads amid suspicion that she will replace him at Foggy Bottom. (The Washington Post)

  • Shaky ground

    President Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been on shaky ground for weeks, and Trump’s challenge of an ‘IQ test’ face-off with Tillerson isn’t smoothing things over. (The Washington Post)

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Tillerson discusses Iran, North Korea, relationship with Trump and more on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was interviewed by Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning. The interview covered a number of topics, including the Iran deal, diplomacy with North Korea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Tillerson’s relationship with President Donald Trump.

Below is a summary of the approximately 17-minute interview:


Tapper asked Tillerson about Trump’s announcement on Friday that he would not certify the Iran nuclear deal by the Sunday deadline.

Tillerson said “there have been a number of technical violations” such as “carrying too much inventory of heavy water” and “having materials that are used to construct high-speed centrifuges.” Tillerson acknowledged that Iran “remedied the violations” but said the U.S. has “some concern” with Iran’s actions of “walking right up against the edges of the agreement.”

North Korea

When asked about Trump’s tweet that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with” North Korea, he responded by saying he thought Trump was “trying to motivate action on a number of people’s part, in particular the regime in North Korea,” and he thought Trump wanted to be clear that the U.S. has “military options on the table.” Tillerson also said Trump has “made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically. He’s not seeking to go to war.”


In response to a question about what Tillerson thought the Trump administration’s “greatest” international achievement was, Tillerson said one accomplishment was that Trump “called on NATO member countries to step up their contribution, step up their commitment to NATO, modernize their own forces … And, as a result of that, countries have stepped up their contributions for their own defense.”

Relationship with Trump

Tillerson said he and the president have a “very open, frank and candid relationship. I see him often, speak to him nearly every day.”

When Tapper asked about an unverified claim in an NBC News report that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron,” Tillerson said he believed Washington seems to enjoy “gossip, rumor, [and] innuendo” and he would not “deal that way” and would not “dignify the question” with an answer.

Tillerson also appeared on other shows this week, including NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Read the transcript of Tillerson’s CNN interview here.


The Washington Post

Tillerson “put a positive gloss on Trump’s unpredictable behavior.”

Tillerson called Trump “unconventional” and said he thinks “the tweets or decisions [Trump] takes are intended to cause this forcing action, to get off of the status quo, to force people to take action and move to a different place.”

Associated Press

“The continuing questions [about whether he called Trump a ‘moron’] have brought his strained relationship with the president into renewed focus.”

Tillerson said he and the president have a “very open, frank and candid relationship. I see him often, speak to him nearly every day.”


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

Emphasizes one of the more dishonorable parts of the interview.

CNN had other, arguably more newsworthy topics it could have put in the headline, but instead it chose something you might find in a gossip magazine.

Sensationalizes Tillerson’s relationship with Trump

Brushing off could also imply Tillerson was being dismissive of questions about his relationship with Trump.

Emphasizes one of the more sensational parts of the interview

Tillerson said he’s “fully intact” in response to a tweet from Senator Bob Corker that said Trump was “castrating” Tillerson. Tillerson’s apparent joke is not the most informative part of his interview, yet Vanity Fair chose to make it a main focus by putting it in the headline.


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

The media’s slant:
  • Trump and his team may not be working well together. Disagreements between him and his administration indicate his team is divided and at odds with each other.
  • Questions about whether Tillerson called Trump a “moron” are as, if not more, important than news about diplomacy with North Korea and the Iran deal, for example. (The media doesn’t directly say this, but it’s implied).
  • Trump’s cabinet members are trying to put a positive spin on the president’s actions to make it seem as if there are no problems.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Disagreements are a part of politics and don’t necessarily indicate there’s a divide.
  • Tillerson draws attention to the media’s focus on gossip when he says to Tapper, “I’m a little surprised you want to spend so much time on [whether Tillerson called Trump a ‘moron’], when there are so many important issues around the world to deal with.”
  • Trump’s staff and the media provide two different perspectives on the inner workings of Trump’s administration; neither is necessarily wrong. There are probably times where Trump and his staff are working well together and other times where they are not.


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

During the interview, Tillerson discussed topics such as sanctions against Russia, diplomacy with North Korea, NAFTA negotiations, the Paris climate deal and the Iran deal, but the articles didn’t provide context for these topics. Here’s a brief look at each one.

North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to develop and test ballistic and nuclear weapons after the U.S. and the U.N. issued sanctions on such actions in July and August of this year.

In August, North Korea announced plans to launch four locally produced Hwasong-12 missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam. A few days later the country decided not to launch the missiles, pending a review of U.S. behavior. North Korea then launched a ballistic missile over neighboring Japan, and claimed it had conducted another nuclear missile test.

For an overview of North Korea’s weapons development from 1981 to the spring of 2017, see our timeline.

Iran deal

The nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was put in place in 2015. Iran, the EU and and six other nations signed it: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. The agreement required Iran to give up about 98 percent of its enriched uranium, prohibited the country from producing nuclear weapons, and required it to allow nuclear inspections. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 requires the U.S. president to recertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement every 90 days. Trump has certified it twice before, but didn’t recertify it on Sunday. Congress now has 60 days to reintroduce sanctions on Iran for “expedited consideration.”

For more information check out our previous coverage.

Russia sanctions

In July, congressional leaders drafted a bill to impose sanctions on Russia for its alleged Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 U.S. election, as well as the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and ongoing military actions in eastern Ukraine.

Trump signed the bill into law, but the bill required the Trump administration to issue “regulations or other guidance to specify the persons that are a part of, or operate for or on behalf of, the defense and intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation” 60 days after its signing, which ended on October 1.

Click this link to read previous coverage.

Paris climate deal

The Paris deal, signed in 2015 by 197 countries, called for participants to set voluntary emissions reduction targets. The agreement has the stated goal of preventing the average global temperature from increasing 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. The U.S. entered the agreement under former President Barack Obama, without a congressional vote, and pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025. On June 1, 2017, Trump announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the deal.


The 1994 North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement is intended to “eliminate trade barriers, facilitate cross-border movement of goods and services, and promote conditions of fair competition in the free trade area.” In April, the U.S., Canada and Mexico agreed to renegotiate the deal. For a timeline of the 2017 negotiations, see our previous coverage.