The New York Times proved again Wednesday evening that it doesn't take a whole lot for a newsroom to create and spread a false narrative from thin air.
Reporters were aghast – petrified even! – after the paper published a shocking report titled, "'Learning Curve' as Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood."
The first two paragraphs read:
When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.
In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States' nuclear arsenal.
Shocking stuff indeed. Shocking, that is, until you reach the fourth paragraph, and discover that the story hinges entirely on a single quote from a GOP energy lobbyist.
"If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, 'I want to be an advocate for energy,'" Michael McKenna. "If you asked him now, he'd say, 'I'm serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.' It's been a learning curve."
That's it. That is the only piece of supposed evidence provided by the Times to back its claim that the former Texas governor was surprised to learn he'd be tasked with overseeing the U.S.' nuclear arsenal.
Despite the story's obviously thin sourcing, members of the press were quick to spread the article on social media, each apparently trying to one-up the other in terms alarmism.
It wasn't just individual journalists sharing the report. Entire write-ups were soon published, parroting the Times' claim.
There are several major problems with the report, many of which were apparent immediately after a single reading.
First, the article's lone source, Michael McKenna, was booted from the Trump transition team in November 2016. Perry was appointed to the role in December 2016.
Second, the quote attributed to McKenna is pure speculation. It's him theorizing about what the former governor may be thinking now compared to what he thought back in December when he was first offered the job.
How the Times took that single quote and presented the headline and opening paragraphs as solid fact is anyone's guess.
Third, according McKenna, the quote isn't even accurate. He told the Daily Caller Wednesday evening that his already bland remarks were badly misinterpreted by the Times. He said the report "[doesn't] really reflect what I said," adding that Perry "of course" understood the job when he accepted it.
Fourth, there are several easily found examples of Perry and his team acknowledging the DoE's role in maintaining the country's nuclear arsenal.
In 2011, Perry's presidential campaign website outlined his plan to shutter the DoE and roll the National Nuclear Security Administration into the Department of Defense.
The site read:
The only way to guarantee the Department of Energy does not continue to grow, or allow a re-introduction of federal intervention in the energy market, is to fully abolish the department.
However, within the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and other key nuclear programs must be preserved and re-located to the Department of Defense. Our nuclear technology and capability (both civilian and military) are essential to U.S. national security, and must be preserved. The Department of Defense is a natural location for our nuclear programs, protecting our vital national security interests, and preserves the structure that supports our nuclear power system.
In 2014, during an interview with the Commonwealth Club, moderator Greg Dalton said to Perry, "You … probably know a big part other department of energy is national security and [America's] nuclear arsenal."
"Yep," the former governor replied.
In December 2016, after Perry accepted Trump's offer to head the DoE, the former governor said in a statement that he was honored to be asked to carry out the duties of the office, which include overseeing the maintenance of the national's nuclear arsenal.
"As the former governor of the nation's largest energy producing state, I know American energy is critical to our economy and our security," Perry said on Dec. 14 in a joint statement with the president-elect.
He added [emphasis added], "I look forward to engaging in a conversation about the development, stewardship and regulation of our energy resources, safeguarding our nuclear arsenal and promoting an American energy policy that creates jobs and puts America first."
Lastly, one can theorize about what Perry may or may not have known about the the Department of Energy based on the fact he once wanted to shutter it entirely back in 2011. One can even theorize about whether he got in over his head when he accepted the role.
But that's still speculation.
The Times presents this idea as a cold, hard fact, and fails entirely to back it up with any sort of anecdote, quote or proof in any form.
Other than the fact that the paper's shocking headline and opening paragraphs go unsupported in the main body of the story, and the fact that the report hinges entirely on a person who left the Trump transition team in November of last year, and the fact that he said the paper twisted his words, and the fact that Perry himself acknowledged in December that overseeing the nuclear arsenal would be one of his duties upon accepting the office, this is some top-notch work from the New York Times.
The paper even published the report on the eve of Perry's senate confirmation hearing. That was considerate of them.
Update: The Times responded Thursday to criticism aimed at its story, saying in a statement to the Washington Post's Erik Wemple, "We stand by our story which accurately reflected what multiple, high-level sources told our reporters."
That's interesting, considering there is nothing in the report to suggest the authors had more than one source for the story's most shocking claims.
If there were indeed "multiple, high-level sources" confirming what McKenna now disputes, that would've been useful information to include in the original story. But the Times didn't include that information. Instead, it's asking its reader to believe the authors got secondary confirmation, and that they simply neglected to mention it in their story.
Also, how do these supposed "high-level sources" square the idea that Perry was broadsided by the DoE's nuclear responsibilities with the governor's past comments acknowledging the department's role in maintaining the nuclear arsenal?
Again, top-notch work.
This post has been updated.