EXCLUSIVE: Media’s Trump-Charlottesville Hoax Lives on in Journalism Schools

We asked a group of award-winning journalists if they would retract the “fine people” hoax from a textbook. Here’s what happened.

Donald Trump’s presidency ushered in a new era of scrutiny on American news media. No president in recent memory had criticized journalists so relentlessly. The media took revenge by pushing outright hoaxes, which revealed a new level of bias and unfairness in reporting. The public’s trust in the industry has declined since.

In some sense, I’m a product of that era. Trump’s presidency was the first time I had tuned into politics and mass media. So when I decided to pursue journalism as a career, I realized I would effectively be tasked with helping to restore the industry’s integrity from the inside.

For the mainstream press, however, the biggest takeaway from the Trump era is how aggravating Trump was. Look no further than the attitude reflected in the textbook, The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age. It’s required reading at journalism and communications schools, including the one I attend.

“Trump said things that reeked of racism — that Mexicans were rapists, that Africa had ‘sh**hole countries,’ that the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville included ‘fine people,’” according to a chapter titled, “How the ‘Trump Effect’ Challenged Journalism.”

“Should journalists call the president a racist and a liar?” it continues. “Media critics said the traditional balanced tone of political coverage — they disparaged it as false equivalency, or ‘both-sides-ism’ — was no match for a president intent on spreading disinformation, sowing division, and undermining democratic institutions, including the press.”

It’s technically true that Trump ridiculed African countries and said some Mexicans illegally crossing the U.S. border were rapists. Regarding the deadly Charlottesville rally, however, the textbook attempts to immortalize one of the left’s favorite Trump hoaxes for future generations entrusted with covering politics.

Moments after saying there were “fine people on both sides” at a press conference, Trump clarified, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” Transcripts show that he thought protesters merely objected to the removal of a Confederate monument.

I contacted the book’s four authors, all of whom have had award-winning media careers, asking if they had any intent to correct the error. Contrarily, the author of the chapter in question seemingly tried to convince me that Trump didn’t say what he said.

“We respectfully disagree with your assertion that a phrase on [page] 78 'falsely claims former President Donald Trump referred to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’” said Daniel Biddle, who has worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and taught journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. “We think the words in question … are accurate and need no correction,” he wrote on behalf of his co-authors.

“We examined the context of Mr. Trump’s remarks when we wrote, including the additional 2017 remarks you cited,” Biddle added. “As you know, his words sparked strong, even alarmed reaction, not only from political foes but from some of his senior appointees, as well as analysis by commentators and fact-checkers ranging from Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post to Rich Lowry of National Review.

Biddle listed reports finding “no evidence” of ordinary Confederate monument defenders at the rally and claiming “Trump signaled support for white supremacists” by waiting too long to condemn them directly. “Other accurate summaries of what Mr. Trump said resemble ours,” Biddle told me, citing Politico, USA Today, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, CNN, and even the Federalist and Fox News.

I responded: “One could easily argue there were no ordinary, non-racist protesters at the rally … and that Trump was mistaken about this. One could perhaps argue that Trump's condemnation of the extremists was weak.”

“What your textbook seems to say … is that Trump intentionally referred to white supremacists as ‘fine people’ as if he respected their values,” I said. “He plainly stated that he was not doing so at the press conference. Further[m]ore, the day before that press conference, he referred to ‘the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists and other hate groups’ as ‘repugnant.’”

“Am I misinterpreting the assertion in the textbook?” I asked Biddle. “What is there about Trump's remarks on Charlottesville that ‘reeked of racism’?”

Biddle then replied that we may have to “agree to disagree.”

“You say that we’ve falsely suggested that President Trump’s remarks, reflecting a tolerance for white supremacists, were intentional,” he told me. “We say we cannot know his intent.”

“On Saturday, the day of the deadly unrest, Mr. Trump condemned ‘many sides’ for the hatred shown there, according to news videos of his remarks,” Biddle said. “Perhaps, as you suggest, he really hadn’t intended to equivocate, or to show sympathy for the white-supremacist organizers of the demonstration.”

“Yet his remarks on Tuesday seemed to erase any doubt. It was then that he said there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ of the events,” Biddle argued — again ignoring the quotes that debunk his narrative.

“You write that we are wrong to interpret the president’s remarks as sympathetic to racists,” Biddle said. “We wrote that his comments on Charlottesville were part of a pattern of statements that inflamed a divided country.” (That’s not true; again, the book says Trump’s words “reeked of racism.”)

“There is room for us to diverge on these points,” the author argued. “But there is no call for a correction.” According to Biddle, the issue is a matter of opinion, despite Trump’s clear, unambiguous stance against white supremacists expressed both after the rally and years before he ran for president.

Though my class isn’t covering the chapter on Trump, there’s no telling how many at other campuses do. Ironically, these seasoned, credentialed, and undoubtedly talented authors have passed down a media hoax to future reporters as historical fact.

In his emails, Biddle argued the book is still hard on the media. He said it “takes to task journalists … for straying from [their] ethical duty of impartiality by injecting ‘snark’ into their coverage in ways that fueled public perceptions of a bias against Mr. Trump.”

But much more went wrong with Trump-era journalism than tone or subtle word choices. Journalists parroted a fake Russian collusion story concocted by the Clinton campaign, the FBI, and anonymous sources and accepted Pulitzer Prizes for it. They defamed a 16-year-old conservative boy by portraying him as a racist. They dismissed important leads on Biden family corruption as Trump talking points. The list goes on.

A serious reckoning is necessary if the establishment media wants Americans’ trust back. Instead, it doubles down on its false narratives and blames a singular politician for the division they caused.