When the Washington Post reported on Monday that it had been the target of a woman who tried to get the newspaper to publish a fake news story about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the revelation came as a surprise to even some of its own reporters.
They realized Jaime Phillips, whose picture accompanied the story, had in fact being trying to ingratiate herself with a number of Post reporters over several months.
“This woman, Jaime Phillips, was joining journalism groups and showing up at social events, including some send-offs for Post employees,” said Callum Borchers, who writes for the Post and spoke this week about the troubling story with the CBC’s The Investigators.
- Watch the full interview with Callum Borchers on The Investigators, Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.
Borchers says it was only when the paper published the details of what it had uncovered about Phillips and her apparent employer, Project Veritas, that the Post realized the scheme to undermine the newspaper’s credibility had been quietly underway for months, as Phillips methodically worked to strike up private friendships with various reporters.
“The goal, of course, was to ultimately get records, either on tape or perhaps in written form, of journalists saying incriminating things that would reflect bias in the newsroom,” Borchers said.
Project Veritas is an organization headed by conservative activist James O’Keefe that attempts to expose liberal bias by staging undercover stings on certain groups and media organizations that it perceives as leftist or corrupt.
MSNBC also a target of fake news
As the Post reported, Phillips had recently told one of those reporters an explosive story about Moore, a Republican who is already facing serious allegations about relationships he allegedly had with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Phillips claimed that Moore had impregnated her when she was 15 and driven her across state lines to get an abortion.
But a Post researcher discovered an online posting that suggested Phillips worked for an organization whose stated goal is to discredit the mainstream media, often by trying to trick journalists with false information. The Post reporters who’d been working on the story also realized she had been prompting them to speculate on how damaging the story might be for Moore, in an attempt to get the reporters to discredit the Post’s reporting.
While the newspaper caught the ruse before it fell victim to it, it’s not the only recent example of attempts to try to damage a news organization’s credibility.
Borchers recounted the experience of MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, who revealed that earlier this year she had been sent what appeared to be a confidential national security document that purported to tie the Donald Trump campaign to Russia.
“The idea is that she would be duped into airing a report on this document, and then it would be exposed as a fake later, and it would be this huge embarrassment that would discredit reporting on that same subject,” said Borchers.
Again, MSNBC caught the fake and instead reported on the effort to dupe the news organization.
Small newsrooms potentially more vulnerable
But NBC and the Washington Post are among the largest, best-resourced news organizations in the U.S., in sharp contrast to the many hundreds of smaller newsrooms in that country and Canada. The bylines of four reporters appear on the Washington Post story about the attempt to fool them.
That’s more reporters than work in some small-town newsrooms.
Borchers agrees lack of reporting staff could make small newsrooms more susceptible to publishing or broadcasting stories before realizing the stories are fake but says the real “payoff” for those trying to plant fake news is in fooling the biggest names in the news media.
“If Project Veritas wants to discredit the mainstream media writ large, you have to go after a big target like us, or the New York Times, or NBC News, or something like that,” Borchers said.
“That said, though, it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be efforts to dupe smaller news organizations into publishing false material and perhaps chip away at the media’s [collective] credibility.”
Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain: In the wake of recent high-profile dismissals of broadcasters accused of sexual impropriety, the fifth estate‘s Gillian Findlay talks about the challenges of journalists investigating other journalists. And CBC Radio’s Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art talks about the undiagnosed problem of fake health news.