Donald Trump turned his fraud into free press and rode the wave of exposure all the way to the White House. But he's hardly the first to play this game—and he won't be the last.
The media coverage of Donald Trump right up until he entered the White House should haunt everyone in journalism with a dark truth: The system can be gamed and there’s nothing reporters—or the entire field of journalism—can do about it.
It’s obvious now that literally almost everything Trump says is a lie. If he says it’s sunny outside you’ll know before you look out the window, it’s raining. But that aspect of Trump only became fully evident once he moved into the White House. For decades, Trump pulled most writers into a reality-distortion field, where even if a reporter thought he was exaggerating, they would often still print something that worked for Trump’s benefit.
Donald Trump became a brand partly because he repeatedly fooled reporters into writing false stories that benefited him, whether or not they were later corrected (and many, if not most, weren’t corrected until he ran for president). Susan Mulcahy, for example, was editor of the New York Post’s “Page Six” and also had a column in New York Newsday in the 1980s, and said, “I needed to fill a lot of space, ideally with juicy stories of the rich and powerful, and Trump more than obliged. I wrote about his real estate deals. I wrote about his wife, his yacht, his parties, his houses … We didn’t see it at the time, but item by inky item we were turning him into a New York icon.”
Now that’s he’s in the Oval Office, multiple reporters and writers have become apologetic about how they helped create Trump’s brand. Tony Schwartz was a young magazine writer in 1985, and had written what he thought was a scathing article about him for New York Magazine for running rent-controlled tenants out from a building of his in the Central Park South neighborhood of New York City. But it didn’t harm Trump’s business; in fact, the article delighted Trump. And Schwartz went on to write not only another magazine profile of him for Playboy, but co-author with Trump of The Art of The Deal, despite already thinking poorly of the future president. After the election, he wrote what amounted to a public apology.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Trump could make the deductive reasoning which media coverage hurt him (none of it) and which helped him, and what made reporters return to him. He was gaming the system for decades before any reporter could grasp the scope of efforts. He’s still doing that today. He’s just not the only one.
There is a belief—maybe a hope—that Trump is simply the most successful conman of all time; an outlier due to his special brand of chutzpah and willingness to go distances no one else in his position would dare go. That’s the line Jonathan Greenberg, the reporter who put him on the first-ever Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, espoused talking to WNYC’s Bob Garfield.
“So most people, to the extent that they participate with Forbes, they participate in order to help ensure accuracy. So only Donald Trump, he’s an outlier, there are very few people who try to game the system.”
Greenberg was 25 when he was tasked with putting together the first of many Forbes 400 lists. He’s written a mea culpa for being tricked repeatedly into putting Trump on the list year after year. And being on the list garnered Trump not only status but financial benefits—the list and accompanying article an apparent validation of actual cash flow—solid enough for banks to lend him money.
So is Greenberg at fault for creating Trump? Actually, Greenberg has written more recently that it wasn’t just reporters being “fooled” that garnered the coverage Trump wanted—he also used intimidation of wealth and private threats to make sure he was never found out to be a fraud. Forbes editors in 1989 started to suspect Trump’s wealth wasn’t enough to warrant being on the Forbes 400 list and got a blizzard of letters misstating his wealth. In 1990, Forbes was preparing a cover story “Is Trump Broke?” but furious and dishonest lobbying by Trump got the story changed to “How Much Is Donald Really Worth Now?” Greenberg writes that Forbes may have conceded to the changes because Trump was threatening to out (now-deceased former publisher) Malcolm Forbes and claim he brought underage minors to one of Trump’s properties. Greenberg’s recollections show that all it takes to game journalism is to work one reporter at a time—even to the point of posing as his own publicist.
Trump could work his lies over individuals who had deadlines or needs that Trump could fulfill, which then would garner him more coverage, which could also be manipulated to his benefit. Any below-the-belt tactics would remain private, and reporters and editors couldn’t and wouldn’t know that all news stories suspicious of his wealth would be met with mobster-like sotto voce threats (“Nice career you got going here, would be a shame if something happened to it…”). Unfortunately, plenty of others have figured out that they can trick reporters into writing the kinds of stories they want through lies, threats or misdirection. It’s not always an overt mobster-like threat. Not every story seems like it’s worth the fight with an angry rich man and his lawyers. It may seem worth conceding or softening a few words just to avoid a fight that might not be worth the headache (changing a headline, for example). Trump may not have gotten everything he wanted with such tactics, but he got enough to keep his reputation as a wealthy businessman intact; enough to star in a top-rated TV show premised off that reputation; and enough to hoodwink an electorate to vote for a figure of success and business savvy that simply doesn’t exist.
Take one recent non-political example of fraudulence: Elizabeth Holmes of the infamously now-defunct company, Theranos. Holmes, like Trump, wasn’t just lying to reporters. Her dishonesty stretched for years, as Trump’s has—Theranos was created in 2003 and didn’t start to fall apart until 2015. Like Greenberg, the reporter who put Holmes on the media map in the form of a cover story for Fortune magazine published a mea culpa for being tricked. It might be comforting to think that liars get found out in the course of time and the truth will emerge. It was another journalist, after all, who exposed Holmes as a fraud in a Wall Street Journal article. But by the time she was found out, Holmes had a powerful reputation—not to mention lawyers. Had her lies not been about something that could be faked indefinitely—whether a blood test machine works—she might still be in business today.
Of course, there is nothing new about this phenomenon of lying to reporters—it’s been with us since the founding of the country. John Maxwell Hamilton detailed for National Geographic epic falsehoods that newspapers circulated that helped to start the Spanish-American War.
“Correspondents took their pro-Cuba message directly to Capitol Hill, which created a continuous feedback loop. The journalists testified on Spanish transgressions. The press reported what the journalists said, and legislators repeated their stories when they returned home to constituents. One of the most notorious fakers, Frederick Lawrence of the Journal, told congressmen he had no qualms about passing along information fed to him by insurgents because they were men ‘of the highest character.’”
Over a hundred years later, this same feedback loop would work nearly identically in starting the Iraq War. Anti-Saddam Iraqis would tell stories to Congress or reporters, hoping to get the United States pulled into a war that some in American politics also wanted. Journalists would cover the stories spun to them, which would, in turn, create a market for more coverage. It’s not any single journalist’s fault—Judith Miller being lied to by her sources didn’t start the Iraq War, it takes a media village to do that. The digital era, however, should make this harder for those bad actors to keep operating. The reason liars succeed in tricking journalists is because, at least until the digital age, it was a lot harder to read all the past claims a source would make on the record.
If you recognize the name Jacob Wohl, it’s probably only because his attempts to spin media hoaxes have failed so spectacularly. He created a fake firm, Surefire Intelligence, that in a different era may have fooled some reporters, although he did use photos of himself as well as supermodels and famous actors on his website. Wohl’s schemes failed, in part because he was attempting a mass hoax of many reporters out in the open, not just tricking one at a time in private with unverified claims and false personas the way Trump did. Even the conservative media, which initially supported Wohl’s hoax, backed away from him.
But for every Jacob Wohl who can’t seem to launch a successful fake scandal against a political foe, there are those whose catfishing worked as intended. James O’Keefe’s fakery managed to end 40 years of advocacy for low-income families by ACORN. While David Daleiden’s disreputable video schemes hasn’t ended Planned Parenthood, the organization is still battling the effects his lies created, as many states rushed to enact laws that sprung directly from his hoax.
Liars don’t just evaporate because they’re caught lying by reporters, and often the grandiosity of their lies keeps them in the news. Wohl is still cartoonishly covered and O’Keefe gets profiles. No matter how good one reporter might be in nailing down one source’s lies, there is always another reporter who can get tricked by the same source—either by lying or just spinning enough of a reality distortion field to seem worthy of coverage.
Trump’s life should shatter the belief that eventually over time, bad actors can be constrained by the truth if journalists just report it well enough. There’s an operating theory that maybe someone can pull the wool over one reporter’s eyes for a while but, they can’t fool all the people all the time. But Donald Trump has managed to game the system over and over again, and his methodology shows there’s nothing stopping anyone else from doing it. His reputation was not built in a day. It wasn’t created just because he fooled one person. Everyone had a part.
Watching media cover all the bad actors in the Trump administration should aptly demonstrate that the bald-faced liars will succeed even if they are called out for lying by some reporters. Maybe because they have a stronger will than the media outlets covering them who don’t want to be pulled into a partisan fight. No matter how good they are, no one reporter or media outlet can stop someone determined to game journalism. To quote a famous saying of hoaxers, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Whether those reporters are truly being “fooled” or wind up writing a mea culpa years later, the damage of bad stories will always outlast the good.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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