Show us the emails!
The New York Times did its audience no favors this weekend when it published a supposedly titillating excerpt from a Dec. 29, 2016, email written by a former Trump transition adviser.
The way the article reads, former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland straight-up conceded in a private email that Russia tipped the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
Titillating stuff indeed.
However, all is not what it seems. The first and most obvious problem here is that the Times report, titled “Emails Dispute White House Claims That Flynn Acted Independently on Russia,” included only an excerpt from McFarland’s Dec. 29 email correspondence.
The Times reported:
[A] transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.
The article even included this important caveat, “It is not clear whether Ms. McFarland was saying she believed that the election had in fact been thrown. A White House lawyer said on Friday that she meant only that the Democrats were portraying it that way.”
But despite this follow-up note, and the fact that the story doesn't provide the full context of her email, the main takeaway for many readers and members of the press was that McFarland indeed confided privately that the Russians undermined the U.S. election.
“NYT: Emails show senior Trump transition official saying Russia 'has just thrown the USA election to him,’” read a CNN headline.
Business Insider followed with, “Top Trump transition official in private email: Russia 'has just thrown' the election to Trump.”
“Trump transition official in email: Russia 'has just thrown the U.S.A election,’” read a Hill headline.
Even the Washington Examiner published a story along those lines, making note of the Times report.
Strong stuff, but there’s nothing in the Times’ coverage to suggest McFarland said anything like that in earnest. A more realistic reading of what little we have of her email is that she was paraphrasing an oft-repeated attack on the current administration as an explanation of Obama's rationale for the new sanctions.
At any rate, we simply do not know what her full meaning was because the Times did not provide readers with a complete copy of her correspondence. They said they obtained her emails – so why not redact what's necessary and reproduce her correspondence in full? Let your readers decide whether McFarland was joking or whether she was dead serious.
It does no one any good if a newsroom reports only fragments of conversations. Reporters must give their readers complete context or audiences could end up walking away from certain stories assuming something that was never actually said – which is precisely what happened this weekend with the Times report.