Tillerson is still secretary of state. So why the drama?
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Tillerson is still secretary of state. So why the drama?

December 2, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump denies that White House plans to remove Tillerson as secretary of state

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that reports that Rex Tillerson would be fired as Secretary of State were “fake news.” On Thursday, The New York Times reported that anonymous senior administration officials had said White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had formulated a plan to remove Tillerson as the secretary, possibly in December or January. The plan supposedly was to have Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo take over Tillerson’s current role, and have Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) take Pompeo’s at the CIA.

Trump tweeted on Friday afternoon: “The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon – FAKE NEWS! He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”

The previous day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “there are no personnel announcements at this time.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Thursday that Kelly had called the department to say the “rumors are not true.”

Fox News reported the CIA said it had no comment when asked about Kelly’s supposed plan involving Pompeo. A spokeswoman for Cotton said he’s focused on “serving Arkansans in the Senate.” Nauert said she’s been told Tillerson remains “committed” to doing his job.

Before becoming secretary of state, Tillerson worked for Exxon Mobil for 41 years, most recently as its CEO from 2006 to 2016. He had never previously served in government or the military. As secretary of state, Tillerson has proposed to Congress that it decrease the State Department’s budget, from almost $55 billion for fiscal year 2017 to $37.6 billion for fiscal year 2018.

Tillerson said in an interview in October that he has a “very open” and “candid” relationship with Trump. The secretary is scheduled to travel to Europe next week.

Distortion Highlights

  • When the news is speculation, the potential for drama is high.
  • It’s even higher when outlets report with vague language and sensationalism.
  • And this week’s reports on Rex Tillerson brought in drama this way. Keep reading to see how media spin favors an outcome before it’s happened yet.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Deeply dysfunctional

    Since he was sworn into office on February 1, Tillerson had to contend with a President who publicly undercut him, a shadow State Department that sprang up under Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, competition from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and a litany of complaints from diplomats, foreign ministers and others in Washington that his State Department was deeply dysfunctional. (CNN)

  • Skullduggery

    That’s one reason the news about Tillerson provoked dismay in some quarters and an accusation of skullduggery. (CNN)

  • Growing tension

    The discussions come amid reports of growing tension between President Trump and the nation’s top diplomat. (Fox News)

    The news fleshes out some detail on a possible Tillerson ouster, anticipated for months as tensions between the top US diplomat and Trump have played out in unprecedented public fashion. (CNN)

  • Increasingly fractured

    The expected shake-up would take the role of top US diplomat out of the hands of an official whose relationship with the President has grown increasingly fractured and put it into the hands of another whose bond with Trump has only strengthened this year. (CNN)

  • Something of an experiment

    Mr. Tillerson’s appointment was something of an experiment from the start. (The New York Times)

  • Soured

    It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Trump had given final approval to the plan developed by John F.Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but the president has been said to have soured on Mr. Tillerson and in general is ready to make a change at the State Department. (The New York Times)

  • Embattled

    The New York Times on Thursday added that the White House had developed a plan to force out the embattled secretary of state and replace him with Pompeo in the next few weeks. (Politico)

  • Strained

    The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W.Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A.director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday. (The New York Times)

  • Long rumored

    Tillerson’s exit has been long rumored. (Fox News)

  • Castrate

    The painfully public airing of his troubles with the President perhaps hit a low when one lawmaker faulted Trump for his tendency to “publicly castrate” the secretary of state. (CNN)

    The castration episode followed an extraordinary October 4 public statement in which Tillerson stressed his commitment to his job as secretary of state, but didn’t definitively deny an NBC report that he had called Trump a “moron.” (CNN)

Either Rex Tillerson will be replaced as secretary of state or he won’t. At this point, anonymous administration officials reportedly said he will and Trump is saying he won’t. As of now, he still holds the position. So why the drama?

The media coverage sensationalizes the possibility that he’ll leave using unflattering opinions about Tillerson’s performance and his relationship with Trump. These opinions can easily sway us towards believing it’s more likely Tillerson will be fired. The problem is the media suggests this will be the outcome through vague, subjective language rather than with factual evidence.

For instance, two outlets say there’s “growing tension” between Trump and Tillerson. What does that mean exactly? On what facts is it based? The two may indeed disagree on policy towards Iran, North Korea and Arab allies, as The New York Times suggests, but this matter can be reported without editorializing. Outlets could instead cite differing statements on these topics by Trump and Tillerson, for example, and let readers judge the relationship for themselves.

Below are a few more examples of where spin (noted in red) depicts Tillerson failing at his job and his relationship with the president. Notice there aren’t many facts.

Tillerson’s performance at the State Department

Tillerson has had a “turbulent reign at the State Department” and he’s run “into serious troubles.” (The New York Times)

Tillerson has received “a litany of complaints from diplomats, foreign ministers and others in Washington that his State Department was deeply dysfunctional.” (CNN)

Tillerson has “been seen as a lame duck.” (The New York Times)

And, “lawmakers have expressed alarm about [Tillerson’s] cuts to the State Department, staff there decry the agency’s dysfunction…” (CNN)

Tillerson’s relationship with Trump

There are “reports of growing tension between President Trump” and Tillerson. (Fox News)

“Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues…” (The New York Times)

Tensions between the top US diplomat and Trump have played out in unprecedented public fashion.” (CNN)

Tillerson could indeed leave the State Department early — after all, at least 15 Trump administration officials have resigned or been fired since January.  It’s not necessarily a problem for media to report this as a possibility. But there’s also a chance Tillerson will stay, considering Trump tweeted on Friday that the media reports were false.

It would have been more responsible for the media to report on the supposed plan to have Tillerson removed without including opinions that could bias readers against Tillerson. Regardless of whether he stays in his position or not, reporting dishonorable opinions as facts could damage his reputation and create negative judgements towards him.

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

  • 40% Spun

  • 47% Spun

  • 54% Spun

  • 57% Spun

The Numbers

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

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