On Wednesday, on the eve of Rick Perry’s confirmation hearing to head the Department of Energy, the New York Times published: “‘Learning Curve’ as Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood.” The headline is intended to summarize the alarming lead paragraphs:
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.
That would be extraordinary news — if it were true. But the article that follows, written by reporters David Sanger and Coral Davenport, provides precisely no evidence to support the claim. The closest the authors come is this, later in the piece:
“If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy,’” said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who advised Mr. Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign and worked on the Trump transition’s Energy Department team in its early days. “If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.”
Obviously, the quote does not suggest what the Times claims. But it gets worse: McKenna himself says the story distorts his quote. The headline and lead paragraphs “don’t really reflect what I said,” McKenna told the Daily Caller. “He added that ‘of course’ Perry understood the role of the Department of Energy when he was offered the job.” Second, McKenna left the Trump transition team in mid November. Perry was nominated to head the Department of Energy on December 14, almost a full month later.
But such niggling details are, of course, beside the point. The Times story accomplished what was intended: to establish a narrative. The story was immediately shared on social media by a herd of approving journalists: among others, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, NBC reporter Benjy Sarlin, Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, New Republic editor Brian Beutler, and Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen — who added: “Yup Rick Perry is as dumb as we thought he was.” The Times’ “scoop” was reprinted by Business Insider, GQ, Slate, and The Hill (“Rick Perry accepted Energy secretary job without knowing what it was”). “Rick Perry” trended on Twitter, and by Thursday morning the Perry piece led the Times’ website’s Politics section.
To anyone with even a passing familiarity with the subject matter, the Times’ claim should have been an occasion for skepticism.
To anyone with even a passing familiarity with the subject matter, the Times’ claim should have been an occasion for skepticism. Perry spent 14 years as the governor of Texas, and the state’s Panhandle region is home to the Pantex Plant, the United States’ “primary facility for the final assembly, dismantlement, and maintenance of nuclear weapons” (in the words of Pantex’s website). It’s overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department agency. The plant was established in 1942. Rick Perry is supposed to have been completely oblivious to all of this?
But not even this much reasoning was required. A Google search would have been sufficient to turn up Perry’s statement on his nomination. Note the italicized clause:
It is a tremendous honor to be selected to serve as Secretary of Energy by President-elect Trump. . . . 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.
Well. How about that.
None of this is to say that Perry does not face a “learning curve.” The Department of Energy’s portfolio is large. “There’s a lot of elements to the department that people don’t necessarily know about until you get there,” Spencer Abraham, the former Michigan senator who served as Energy secretary during George W. Bush’s first term, told the Times in December. “You find yourself surprised by what it really entails.” Perry himself recently said that he “regrets” recommending the elimination of the department in 2012, having been briefed more thoroughly on the department’s various functions since then.
But the Times did not pen a story about the legitimate challenges Perry is likely to face. It penned a hit job. The Times assumed that Rick Perry is a dumb Texan hick, then wrote a piece to bolster that impression — and journalists eager to see their impressions validated leaped to share it, blithely ignoring the glaring lack of evidence for the central claim.
This is how a narrative spreads.
As noted, on Thursday morning the Perry piece led the Times’ website’s politics section. Next to it was a piece entitled, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece.”
Oh, the irony.