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Evolution of a Fake News Notion

AOL transforms ‘might have’ to ‘would have’

By Ken Kurson

Here’s how the story ran on Huffington Post today.

Fake news isn’t always about outright lies or intentional omissions. There are matters of nuance and degree, as well. Back when there were real people making judgments about how to package stories—these people were known as “editors”—one of the major considerations to any fair-minded person was how closely a headline conveyed the totality of the story.

Today, the Huffington Post ran a story in which Rudy Giuliani was asked if he had been appointed Attorney General, whether he would have recused himself as Jeff Sessions famously has, much to the consternation of the President.

Huffington Post reporter S.V. Date quotes Giuliani as saying, “I would have considered it, sure … I told the president at the time that I just didn’t know what I would have done.”

That turned into a headline that read, essentially fairly, “Giuliani says he might have recused himself from Russia probe too.”

But then a strange thing happened. The front page of AOL, a massive traffic funnel, ran the story with the headline, “Giuliani would have recused himself from Russia probe.” Got that? Rudy’s “would have considered it” morphed into “might have recused” and then suddenly to “would have recused.”

This is the insidious nature of click-addicted, agenda-driven news. The reporter, Shirish Dáte, the author of a couple books and a journalist for more than 30 years, did his job just fine. He asked the right questions and summarized them fairly. Whoever wrote the Huffington Post headline got it essentially right, as well.

AOL’s massive viewership saw a post that says Giuliani ‘would have’ recused from Russia probe. Only the tiny fraction of readers who click through discover that he said nothing like that.

But somewhere along the line, someone at AOL — which owns Huffington Post and is itself owned by Oath — transformed Rudy’s nuanced and hedged answer into a definitive statement that makes it appear as if he’d reach the same conclusion as Jeff Sessions had. This in turn makes the president’s well-publicized frustration with Attorney General Sessions — just today the president mused on Twitter that he wished he’d “picked someone else” for the job —seem all the more unreasonable.

After all, if the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, “would have” also recused himself, the president looks that much more inconsistent and isolated in his opinion that Sessions should not have recused. The only problem is that Rudy didn’t say that.

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