Toner Award Winners Talk Reporting in the Age of “Fake News”

By Elizabeth White

National enterprise reporter Stephanie McCrummen and senior video producer Thomas LeGro visited the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications on Tuesday to talk about their reporting for The Washington Post that earned them the 2018 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

Along with four other colleagues from The Post, the winning team unveiled Republican senate candidate Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct with underage women. McCrummen and LeGro spoke about how they thwarted an attempt by a woman working for Project Veritas, a conservative organization that goes undercover to try to expose the mainstream media, who tried to tell a false story about her and Moore.

McCrummen shared that she was originally in Alabama during Moore’s campaign to write about his supporters when the story took an unexpected turn and she was thrown into investigative reporting, which she didn’t usually do.


“It’s also about the really perilous times that we’re working in as journalists, when there are so many forces working to undermine the work that we do,” McCrummen said. “And how critically important as the temperature rises for us to stay calm, keep our heads down, and just do our job.”

The accusations against Moore started as a simple rumor. McCrummen was talking to a group of women, and in the third hour, one of them casually mentioned that Moore had a thing for teenagers and that he liked to pursue teenage girls.

McCrummen said that she would have never heard about the accusations if she had not been out talking to people, being patient, and listening.

“Sometimes, what turned out to be the biggest political story of the year, it’s not in Washington D.C.,” McCrummen said. “They’re far away in a place like Gadsden, Alabama.”

McCummen and other reporters from The Post started looking into the claims, making lists of people whom they could talk to in Gadsden, and starting knocking on doors.

“Out we would go, into Etowah county, knocking on doors, trying to talk to people face-to-face,” McCrummen said. “I think that’s the most effective way to do this kind of reporting, so people can sort of see who you are, and see that you’re a real person with a notebook and a pen, asking questions.”

McCrummen said that after a few days of talking to people, her and the other reporters realized that the claims were true and that they had a story to tell. But, they also realized that the stakes were high and reporting and publishing the story would be tough in the current political climate and public distrust of the media.

“We knew that Roy Moore was backed by the White House, and the White House was not shy about attacking reporters and using the phrase ‘fake news,’” McCrummen said. “So we sort of assumed it was possible that the dark arts would be employed to undermine our stories.”

After the first story on Leigh Corfman was published, stories started spreading around Alabama that The Post was paying sources for stories and there was an attempted bribery to undermine the allegations made against Moore.

Then, Jaime Phillips came forward. Phillips, who lived in New York, said that she lived in Alabama while she was a teenager. She said that she meet Moore at church, he got her pregnant, and then drove her to Mississippi to get an abortion by a doctor he knew there.

As The Post tried to vet her story, the red flags kept appearing. Researchers discovered a GoFundMe page set up by Phillips explaining that she had taken a job in the conservative media movement to show the lies of the liberal media.

At this point, the reporters suspected that Phillips was trying to lure them into publishing a fake story to discredit The Post. So, they hatched a plan to catch her lying. McCrummen met with Phillips at a restaurant in Virginia. LeGro was also at the restaurant under the guise of meeting with a friend, who actually worked for The Post himself, and was filming the meeting between McCrummen and Phillips at the table next to them. (Once the conversation began, McCrummen informed Phillips that she was being recorded.)

In the viral video, McCrummen is seen asking Phillips about where she worked and a few things about her GoFundMe page. Phillips said that she was interested in a job with the Daily Caller, but it fell through. Right before asking about the GoFundMe page, McCrummen told Phillips she was being recorded. “We didn’t want them to have any excuse to say that we were being surreptitious at all, to question what we were doing,” McCrummen said.

Phillips did not confess to being a spy or trying to frame The Post. But seven days later, on a hunch, a group of reporters from the publication, including LeGro, followed Phillips from her home in Stamford, Connecticut to the Westchester, New York office of Project Veritas.

“I think it went viral because it showed a reporter at work.” McCrummen said. “It showed that although it was an unusual situation, it showed a reporter doing their job, asking questions, and wasn’t accusatory, wasn’t angry, no agenda other than trying to figure out who this person was. I think the public is really hungry to try to figure out what it is that we do as reporters.”

McCrummen and LeGro reflected on their reporting and said that the key was good interviewing skills, saying as little as possible to make people feel comfortable, and being patient. McCrummen also talked about how she separated herself from such an emotional story, and how she continued to report on a important story that would rock the Alabama senate race and ultimately cost Moore his sear.

“Of course you’re a human being, sensitive, but it’s so important to have your head on straight,” McCrummen said.

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