From Twitter to the Pulitzer: David Fahrenthold on Covering Trump

 /  Nov. 6, 2017, 11:28 p.m.


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David Fahrenthold speaks at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

At 11:00 a.m. on October 8, 2016, David Fahrenthold, a reporter at the Washington Post, received an anonymously sent package that would shock the entire nation and come to define Donald Trump’s candidacy: the “Access Hollywood” tapes. Fahrenthold sat down with The Gate co-Editor-in-Chief Dylan Wells to discuss his role covering the 2016 election, his start in journalism, and the distinctive reporting style that has come to define his work.

Fahrenthold told The Gate he was surprised to receive the tape, and that “it wasn’t something that we knew existed until we had it.” While Trump had been criticized previously for his comments on women, those were “all public,” statements, which “lessened the outrageousness of it, because maybe he’s sort of playing a character.” In this case, “he was not describing actions, he was describing his opinions, and so that’s what made this different,” Fahrenthold said. “Here’s Trump telling you: ‘this is what I do. This is what I have done in the past, and this is what I might do to this woman right in front of us.’”

Fahrenthold and the Post team rushed to publish the story as quickly as possible. “The video people said the soonest we could get this video up online, jump through all the hoops, is 3:30 p.m.,” Fahrenthold recalled. The video team added subtitles to the video, “Cut off the last half, which was boring,” and confirmed with lawyers that the Post could use the tape.

“My job as a reporter was not that hard,” Fahrenthold said. “I had to call all the people involved in the video. Most importantly: Trump, Billy Bush, and NBC, which owns Access Hollywood. Billy Bush didn’t comment . . . NBC didn’t comment on the record. Trump was the last part.”

“We sent Trump’s people originally a transcript of the tape, not the tape itself,” Fahrenthold stated. At 3:00 p.m. a representative for Trump replied, “Well, that doesn’t sound like Mr. Trump. We don’t believe it’s him. Send us the full video.” Fahrenthold and his editors talked, and decided to send Trump’s team the tape, with a deadline of 4:00 p.m. to give comment before the Post published. “So 4:00 p.m. gets here and they hadn’t called, we had heard nothing from them,” Fahrenthold said, “which is par for the course in my other reporting. In general, they just didn’t respond, but this day it seemed like they were going to.”

In “as close to a stop the presses moment as you can have now,” Trump’s people called to say they would send a statement just seconds before Fahrenthold’s editor was about to publish the piece.

“The whole time, we were terrified that NBC was going to beat us,” Fahrenthold described. “NBC owns Access Hollywood, and now I’ve called them for comment, so they know I have this. Every moment we waited was a moment they might have scooped us on it,” Fahrenthold said. Just after 4:00 p.m. the Trump team sent a statement admitting it was Trump in the video making the comments, and at 4:02 p.m. the Post published the video, accompanied by an article by Fahrenthold. NBC published the story on their own platforms just four minutes later. “It was the best feeling in the world,” Fahrenthold reflected. “It was our scoop.”

“I didn’t think it was going to do [Trump] in,” Fahrenthold said of the story, “But it’s a feeling I’ve never had before, like, okay—I’m going to publish that, and whatever anybody else is doing, they’re going to be reading my story in five minutes.”

The hardest part of the story for Fahrenthold was the curse words. “Newspapers are very Victorian in that way,” he joked. “Normally [editors] are very fussy about curse words, and in this case it was like all the curse words . . . and you couldn’t exclude them on the grounds that he was unimportant. It was important. It was important to know what he said and how he talked.”

“Imagine a bunch of newspaper editors arguing over whether we could say ‘tits’ in print,” Fahrenthold laughed. “That took up a lot of the day, which is really strange. It’s a surreal day to feel like we’re having arguments about bad words.”

The computer system used to track clicks and people reading Washington Post stories was “like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, it started spinning like it broke. The traffic system broke because there was too much traffic. That was incredible.” The night Fahrenthold broke the story, Trump issued another apology on Facebook. “Trump, he never apologized for anything, and to have apologized twice that day, it was really unusual,” Fahrenthold said.

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Fahrenthold’s report on Trump’s response to the Access Hollywood tape was one of ten articles that led to him winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. The prize was awarded to Fahrenthold “for persistent reporting that created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities.”

This reporting on Trump’s donations—or, in many cases, a lack of donations—toward charities has differentiated Fahrenthold from the hundreds of reporters covering Trump. Fahrenthold started covering this beat when he was sent to Iowa to cover Trump before the caucuses. At an event that day, Fahrenthold watched as Trump “pulled out a big check and gave it to somebody, a check from his charity.”

“I was interested in that because so much of Trump is slippery, it’s like norms and honor codes,” Fahrenthold said. He said he liked the topic because “it was about money. It was something concrete. The money’s either here or there.”

As it turned out, the money had not been given away at all. When Fahrenthold published what he had found out, Trump gave the money away “in this sort of angry press conference, in which he was denouncing the media for making him live up to his own promise . . . All I was doing was trying to make sure he had actually done it,” Fahrenthold said. “He was so angry about that, and I think that’s when we realized that, wow, look how angry this man is to have to make good on his own promises.” From that point, Fahrenthold wondered how long Trump had been “promising money to charity for years and not giving it.” Extensive reporting, in which Fahrenthold harnessed the power of crowdsourced data, uncovered millions of dollars worth of undelivered donations.

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Fahrenthold started his journalism career in college, writing for the Harvard Crimson. “For some reason while I was there, the most prestigious thing to cover was not the city of Cambridge, which was really interesting. It was the university administration.” The big “get” each quarter would be to interview the president of the university, and “it was all about finances. That’s the best story you could write—is the university spending its endowment correctly? And students, of course, did not care at all.” One of the most important lessons he learned at the Crimson is that “part of reporting is to be silent and let others fill in the space.”

Fahrenthold’s reporting style today uses social media crowdsourcing, and was in part a result of the Trump campaign’s refusal to answer questions. “The traditional journalistic way of going about it is to ask the source—he wouldn't respond. The choice was to just give up, or to look for some unorthodox way of doing it.”

The search began with Fahrenthold’s efforts to find one million dollars that Corey Lewandowski told him Trump had given to veterans. “I couldn’t find any evidence he had done that, so I called Lewandowski and he said ‘I can tell you that Donald Trump has given that million dollars away, but I can’t tell you who got it and what amount, anything else. All secret,’” Fahrenthold said. “Trump just wants you to take his word for it, but you can’t. Not just because he’s Donald Trump—you couldn’t take anyone’s word. If Hillary Clinton called me and said, ‘I’ve given a million dollars away to veterans, trust me on that,’ you couldn’t take her word for it either.”

In such a situation, Fahrenthold found that “traditional journalism methods” were not useful, “because there’s no roadmap.” With “many millions of veterans’ charities out there,” Fahrenthold turned to Twitter as a “faster way of reaching more people . . . I had to find a way to make Trump’s non-response go from being the thing that kills the story, to the thing that is the story,” Fahrenthold described. “I want to make his non-response a story in itself, something that is noticed by people.”

“That’s when I started tweeting at veterans groups, veterans organizations, celebrities like Sebastian Junger, people who are involved with veterans, to pass along my query: I’m looking for anybody who’s got some of this million dollars. I’m trying to prove Donald Trump right.”

“At that point, I had like 4,500 Twitter followers. No one had ever heard of me, and I managed to get in front of a lot of people, and reached a huge number of people that day, just by taking the questions I would have asked charities in private in email or over a phone call, and doing it in public so that everyone can see.” Fahrenthold’s results, which he recorded on notebook pages—crossing out names and scrawling down his results as he heard from more sources—and posted on Twitter, gained thousands of likes and retweets. “That was an interesting lesson in how fast the word spread. And it also reached Trump.”

“Making Trump’s non-response, inaction, into a story affected him, because that night is when he actually gave the money away.” Fahrenthold discovered that what Lewandowski had told him was not true. Trump had not given away the million dollars: “it was still in his pocket.” Fahrenthold learned that this method made it so Trump was “not in control anymore of whether we know this or not, and he may actually respond to me in a way that he wouldn’t otherwise.”

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Karen Tumulty, a National Political Reporter at the Washington Post, served as Chair of the National Reporting category of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize jury—the category in which Fahrenthold won. “His entry really did stand out,” she told The Gate. “None of us on the jury were surprised when he won.” As a colleague, Tumulty described Fahrenthold as “a sheer delight,” and said he is “so funny, and so smart.” As a writer, he is “really quick and elegant.”

“To watch the way last year on the Trump charity story he really just developed a bunch of groundbreaking reporting methods, to get to the bottom of something that looked pretty impenetrable when he started,” Tumulty said. “It had all of us in awe.”

Following Fahrenthold’s success, she would not be surprised if his methods become the new standard method of political reporting. He is such a “superstar” that a lot of people are starting to mimic his style, and “everyone sort of wants to be the next Fahrenthold,” Tumulty laughed.

Fahrenthold has his own ideas on the future of the field. “We need less people predicting the future,” he argued. “So much of political journalism has become punditry.” In his view, “There’s not that much value in predicting what is going to happen next. How many times have you read health care was dead, when really it wasn’t dead?” he asked. “Political journalists need to do a lot more explainers, policy explainers.”

“That sounds boring,” he joked, “but think of the really good work that Vox, or the New York Times, or we did during the many, many iterations of health care.” The way Republican lawmakers tried to pass healthcare legislation and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the past months was to “ram it through before anybody really understood what was in it,” he said.

The work of journalists “changed the debate” over health care by writing “here’s what Graham-Cassidy looks like, here’s what it means to you . . . People were learning more about what they were actually voting on but also readers called in, people called.”

Typically, coverage of such an issue would fall to congressional reporters, Fahrenthold says. “People who started out with no policy knowledge and the expectation that any substantive bill would take a year to pass, so by the time you get to the end of it, your congressional reporters would know everything there was to know about health care.” Now, this is not possible. “People try to ram things through so quickly that there’s no time for your political reporters to learn substance, so you have to have substantive reporters who can explain it right away.”

Fahrenthold advised students interested in working in journalism to get as many clips as possible, learn what keeps them from following a story, and to be a project manager. Clips, he said, are “still what gets people jobs . . . The good thing about journalism is you can show your own work, you don’t have to get a letter of recommendation, you don’t have to have somebody write a letter to testify for you. You can testify for yourself by having work.”

“Learn what takes you out of a story, the things that distract you and take you away from being an effective journalist,” he suggested. “That could be learning how to take notes in the most effective way . . . or something as simple, as like, for me, if I don’t drink enough coffee I don’t want to talk to anybody about anything . . . If I’m going to talk to people, especially about politics, I need to be seven times more caffeinated than I would normally be,” he joked. “In New Hampshire, it’s no problem because there’s Dunkin’ Donuts every five feet, but in Iowa, there’s no coffee. Iowa is really like my kryptonite because there’s no coffee at all.” It’s important, he said, to learn “your physical limitations.” This is critical because the key to good reporting is “patience: waiting when nothing is happening, interviewing somebody and being patient enough to let them talk.”

These days, reporters must also be project managers. “A good reporter now is always going to be working in a team of people,” Fahrenthold said. “You’re never just going to be like when I started—you and your editor and the print product. It’s always going to be people who work on social media, people who do photos and videos and graphics—and it’s better.” Because of this, journalists can have a much wider readership and reach many more people. “But you’re going to have to just be always keeping everybody in the loop and listening to their suggestions and realizing that what you’re doing is leading a team or being part of a team, rather than just being a writer.” In fact, “There’s no such thing as ‘just a writer’ anymore. If you are, you’re not going to be read.” Although he reflected that this lesson “took a long time to learn,” it is clear Fahrenthold has now mastered these skills, and readers today eagerly await his next scoop. 

The image featured in this article is courtesy of the UChicago Institute of Politics. The original image can be found here.



Dylan Wells

Dylan Wells is a third-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at ABC News' Washington, D.C. bureau as a Political Unit Fellow. Previously, she interned twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. On campus, Dylan serves on the boards of TEDxUChicago and Chicago Strategies. Last year she served as The Gate's Elections Editor, and was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.


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