How the Washington Post debunked Roy Moore’s favorite talking point.

How the Washington Post Debunked Roy Moore’s Favorite Talking Point

How the Washington Post Debunked Roy Moore’s Favorite Talking Point

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Nov. 29 2017 6:26 PM

Sting of Truth

Roy Moore called the Washington Post unscrupulous. His own allies proved him wrong.

Judge Roy Moore
Judge Roy Moore holds a campaign rally on Monday in Henagar, Alabama.

Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

Roy Moore has a theory. He says the Washington Post, which has been investigating his foundation and his conduct with teenage girls, isn’t interested in truth. The Post, he argues, is just trying to take down his campaign. This is the kind of thing politicians often say, figuring it’s a matter of irrefutable opinion. They don’t imagine that a charge of political motivation could be factually debunked.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But it can. And that is what has happened to Moore’s theory. Jaime Phillips, a woman apparently working for a conservative watchdog group called Project Veritas, contacted the Post with a bogus story about Moore impregnating her when she was 15. The purpose of this ruse was to trick Post reporters into telling her, on hidden camera, that her story would sink Moore’s campaign. If the Post were to publish her story, and thereby discredit itself, so much the better. Either way, Moore’s theory would seem vindicated.

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But the plot went wrong. The Post’s reporters refused to assure Phillips that her accusation would bring down Moore. They checked out her story, found falsehoods in it, and never published it. Instead, they turned their scrutiny on Phillips and exposed the sting operation. What Project Veritas created, in effect, was an experiment to test whether the Post was more interested in truth or in publishing dirt on Moore. The Post passed the test. And Project Veritas failed it.

Moore has been attacking the Post since October, when the paper reported that his charity, the Foundation for Moral Law, had secretly allotted more than $1 million in payments to him for part-time work during a five-year period. Moore responded with a statement from his campaign chairman:

The two investigative reporters who wrote this piece on Judge Moore have 20 articles to their individual or collective credit since last year. Of those 20 articles, 17 are hits on either President Trump, Breitbart Executive Chairman Steve Bannon, or other conservative issues or initiatives. That should tell you everything you need to know about their purpose in life.

A week later, the Moore campaign alleged that the Post had “cooked up” the story, that it was “fake news,” and that the paper sought “not to tell the truth, but to hurt Judge Moore politically.”

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In early November, when the Post reported four women’s accusations that Moore had pursued or molested them as teens, Moore again accused the paper of lies and malice. “I have been attacked by the Washington Post and other liberal media in a desperate attempt to smear my character and defeat my campaign,” he told Sean Hannity. At a Nov. 11 press conference, Moore linked the molestation report to the Post’s articles about his foundation and to a Post editorial endorsing his opponent. “I do not expect the Washington Post to stop,” he said. “I think they have a political agenda.” He added cryptically: “There are investigations going on. In the next few days, there will be revelations about the motivations and the content of this article.”

It’s not clear what Moore was alluding to. But by then, the sting operation was underway. Beth Reinhard, a coauthor of the Nov. 9 Post article on Moore’s sexual behavior, got an email the next day from a woman offering an even more lurid story. They met in Northern Virginia to discuss it. The woman, who turned out to be Phillips, said Moore had impregnated her and arranged an abortion. According to the Post, Phillips repeatedly asked Reinhard “to guarantee her that Moore would lose the election if she came forward.” That was the game: to get Reinhard to say yes. With that video clip, Project Veritas would vindicate Moore’s indictment of the Post.

Reinhard didn’t bite. She asked Phillips for documents to back up her story. In subsequent text messages, Phillips complained that she felt “anxiety & negative energy after our meeting.” She told Reinhard: “You just didn’t convince me that I should come forward.” Phillips was escalating the pressure, trying to get Reinhard to say the magic words about destroying Moore. Instead, Reinhard wrote back: “I’m so sorry but I want to be straight with you about the fact-checking process and the fact that we can’t guarantee what will happen as a result of another story.”

The fact-checking didn’t go well. The area code on Phillips’ phone didn’t fit her story. Reinhard also called Phillips’ ostensible employer and was told Phillips didn’t work there. A Post researcher, Alice Crites, found a webpage indicating that Phillips had gone to work “in the conservative media movement to combat the lies … of the liberal MSM.” With further digging, the Post deduced that Phillips had taken a job as an “undercover reporter” for Project Veritas, using—according to its job listing—an “alias persona” and “concealed recording equipment.”

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Phillips baited her hook again and went back for a second attempt. She arranged a meeting with another Post reporter, Stephanie McCrummen. Phillips put a purse on the table between them and, when it was blocked, adjusted it in a manner consistent with a hidden camera. Again, she tried to lure the reporter into assuring her that her story would finish off Moore. “I want him to be completely taken out of the race,” said Phillips. “I don’t know what you think about that,” she added, awaiting the response.

She got nothing. Instead, McCrummen pressed her for details. Here’s one example:

McCrummen: How do you remember meeting [Moore]?
Phillips: Just at the church.
McCrummen: At which church?
Phillips: A Baptist church near Gadsden.
McCrummen: Which church?
Phillips: A Baptist church.
McCrummen: Do you remember the name of it?
Phillips: I don’t.
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When Phillips said she’d had a job interview with the Daily Caller, McCrummen asked who the interviewer was. Phillips gave a name. The Post contacted the Daily Caller and was told that no such person was employed there.

This is how good journalism works. You don’t rush accusations into print. You check them. You look for supporting witnesses and court records, as the Post did with Moore’s initial accusers. If the stories don’t check out, you don’t publish them. Instead, you investigate the story behind the story: Why is this woman lying about Roy Moore?

The same is true of journalism itself. If a newspaper is accused of suspending due diligence in pursuit of a political agenda, you investigate it. You scrutinize its published work. Ideally—and this almost never happens—you’d do what Project Veritas did: Offer the paper a false story that serves what you suspect are its political aims.

Many people have condemned the sting operation against the Post as categorically unethical. It’s unacceptable, they argue, to invent a fake story of sexual exploitation, particularly when the operation’s objective is to discredit a newspaper’s reports of genuine abuse. I don’t agree. If you honestly suspect a news organization of printing false accusations to advance a political agenda, this is the best way to test your suspicion.

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But the test goes both ways. If the experiment doesn’t turn out as you expected—if the reporters prove to be more honest than partisan—you have to report that. If you don’t, then you’re the one who’s putting politics before truth.

And that’s what happened in this encounter. In their Nov. 22 meeting, McCrummen told Phillips that her employment story didn’t check out and that the Post had found Phillips’ webpage about exposing the media. The game was up. McCrummen invited Phillips to come clean. If Phillips and Project Veritas were genuinely interested in reporting the results of their experiment, regardless of the outcome, this was their chance to prove it. All Phillips had to say was: “OK, you got me. I was testing you. And you passed.”

Instead, Phillips lied. She invented her story about the Daily Caller. She denied that she was still interested in exposing the media. She denied that she was recording McCrummen. Later, James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, dodged questions about whether Phillips was working for him, even after Phillips was observed entering the group’s office. A week after the meeting, Project Veritas—which always posts videos when its targets say something embarrassing—still hasn’t posted its recording of the conversation with McCrummen. We never would have heard or seen this conversation if the Post hadn’t released its own recording. That’s how you know that the Post tells the truth no matter what it finds, and Project Veritas doesn’t.

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