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  • Phil Latham

The Trump ‘god’ cult

I’ve been a country journalist for almost all my life, which some people take to mean “second-tier.” For some, all endeavors are marked by the size of the company you work for or how much you get paid.


This is the theory that the best people always rise to the most visible positions in every profession. That often happens and I’m by no means trying to indicate that my talents are better than anyone else’s in the journalism business, no matter where they work.


All that is to say I can’t tell you how reporting and editing is done at The Atlantic magazine, though over the years there has been some significant journalism printed there and it has held up well over time.


As anyone reading this must know, an assault is now underway from none other than Donald John Trump – that would be the president – after The Atlantic reported that the president had called members of the military "losers" and "suckers" in private conversations with his aides.


As happens almost every single time any source looks bad in a news story, Trump denied the report. As usual for reporting that casts him negatively, he called it “fake news.” Trump has used those words hundreds or thousands of times during his time in office, maybe hundreds of thousands.


If you’ve believed that line before you probably do this time, too. You will also likely buy it the next thousand times he says it.


Perhaps you can tell I’m skeptical. Even if one believes it was true a time or two, it’s tough to believe it every time there’s a story he doesn’t like.


It isn’t as easy as you might think to get a fully fabricated lie into the news. Well, unless you are president, that is. Politicians lie all the time. It seems to be a requirement for the job and Trump is a master fibber.


But here is one big problem for The Atlantic and every news outlet: The claims came from unidentified sources.


I hate anonymous sourcing. The strongest story is made weak with an anonymous source and it allows the person criticized a way out. The source may be as solid as granite but it can crumble by those who want to challenge it based on its sources.


So far as I can tell, anonymous sourcing began when the press was reporting on Watergate. Those sources have been fully proven out now but at the time no one knew for sure if they were truthful.

Each source has to stand on its own. Just because Watergate sources were solid doesn’t say anything about those talking about the Trump story. We don’t know and aren’t likely to know for sure.


Small news outlets like the ones I’ve worked for almost never use anonymous sources. As a reporter, I’ve done it once. As an editor and a publisher, I always turned down requests from reporters to use them. The one story I wrote using an anonymous source was about a former drug dealer in Longview who became an informant for police. The source told me about the drug culture in that city, how it worked and where the drugs came from. He convinced me he would be in grave danger if I printed his name.


Still, I knew his name. My editor knew his name and background information, including his criminal history. I was able to check out much of what the source said long before the story was published.


The Atlantic story apparently had multiple sources, though they are all anonymous to the readers. If editing techniques at The Atlantic follow industry standards, editors knew exactly who those sources were and why they'd request anonymity and could make a solid judgment based on that knowledge.


The quotes attributed to Trump about America’s service members and veterans surely sound like words he would use. We may not have heard them out of his mouth as applied directly to members of the military but he’s used them time and again about others, including many who have served and whose service he's denigrated.


While some close to Trump have said the report isn’t true, more have spoken up to verify both the exact words and having heard Trump say those words before. Several other media outlets have since independently verified the information as accurate.


Those who don’t believe it probably would not if the story had been attributed to Melania or Vice President Mike Pence.


If you trust all the words out of Trump’s mouth you haven’t helped him achieve the presidency, you’ve joined a cult that's elevated him to a god.

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