Consuming Journalism: Trump, SATs, and circular reporting

Did Donald Trump pay someone to take the SAT for him? I don't know, and I'm not any closer to knowing despite the media bolstering the allegation through lazy, shoddy reporting.

I don't know if there's a running history of similar allegations. The current batch of references is linked to Mary Trump's book about the awfulness of Donald Trump. Here's what the Washington Post wrote about the SAT allegations from the book.

In newly published excerpts of her tell-all book, Mary L. Trump claims that her uncle paid someone to take the SAT for him to gain admission to college. As the New York Times reports:
The high score the proxy earned for him, Ms. Trump adds, helped the young Mr. Trump to later gain admittance as an undergraduate to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton business school.
The claim is, to be sure, unproven. But it tracks with many allegations calling into question just how self-made a man Trump actually is — and raising the role that privilege and cheating may have played at crucial junctures in his life story.

"The claim is, to be sure, unproven."

The Washington Post article then mentions claims by Michael Kranish and Gwenda Blair that Trump's father and brother leveraged connections at the University of Pennsylvania to help Trump transfer from Fordham to Wharton.

Who is Mary Trump's source for the allegation? I'm looking, but I can't find much. This is from the NYPost, in which Pam Shriver objected to the unproven allegation that Joe Shapiro, her deceased husband, had taken the SAT for Trump.

Mary Trump wrote in “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” that Trump enlisted the help of Shapiro to take the exam so he could get the scores needed to transfer from Fordham to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“To hedge his bets he enlisted Joe Shapiro, a smart kid with a reputation for being a good test taker to take his SATs for him,” Mary Trump wrote in her upcoming book, ABC News reported.
“That was much easier to pull on in the days before photo IDs and computerized records. Donald, who never lacked for funds, paid his buddy well,” she wrote without providing proof or attribution.

At this point, we're looking at the question of whether the Washington Post and others should have discussed the unproven allegations about the SAT. At least they caveated the allegations and labeled them as unproven. The bigger problem in journalism is when those allegations become a new, slightly modified baseline.

Consider this paragraph in a Business Insider article.

One passage reveals Trump paid someone to take a college-admissions exam, the SAT, on his behalf, and earned him a high score.

I don't know about you, but that sounds misleadingly more certain.

In a CNN article posted on 23 August 2020, the possibility of circular reporting raises its head. (I've added the bold portions.)

Just as the President wants to go on the offensive, he's been dealing with a series of new unwelcome controversies, from the arrest of his former strategist Steve Bannon to revelations late Saturday about unflattering comments his sister made about him to his niece, Mary Trump. Maryanne Trump Barry bitterly criticized her brother, President Donald Trump, saying, "Donald's out for Donald," and appeared to confirm her niece Mary Trump's previous allegations that he had a friend take his SATs to get into college, according to audio excerpts obtained by CNN. The Washington Post first obtained the previously unreleased transcripts and audio from Mary Trump, author of a recent bombshell book about the President and one of his most outspoken critics.

Confirmed? Well, wait a second. Look at how ugly this gets.

The CNN article listed above links to another CNN article that derives partly from a Washington Post story about, and transcript of, Mary Trump's recording of Maryanne Trump Barry. (I've added the bold portions.)

Perhaps the most revealing part of the newly released audio is a conversation Barry reportedly had with her niece on Nov. 1, 2018, that seems to be the impetus for the allegation that Trump paid someone to take his SATs, which was one of the most publicized allegations in Mary Trump's book "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created The World's Most Dangerous Man," according to the Post. According to the Post, the conversation went like this, Barry said to Mary: "He went to Fordham for one year [actually two years] and then he got into University of Pennsylvania because he had somebody take the exams." "No way!" Mary responded. "He had somebody take his entrance exams?"Barry then replied, "SATs or whatever. . . . That's what I believe," before saying, "I even remember the name." That person was Joe Shapiro," Barry said.

That, folks, is circular reporting. CNN laid out a possible sequence that is a clear example of circular reporting. Maryanne Trump Barry told Mary Trump that "he had somebody take exams." Maryanne Trump Barry apparently incorrectly remembered how long Trump spent at Fordham, and then when asked to clarify which tests, she said, "SATs or whatever, That's what I believe." If CNN's sequence is correct, Mary Trump then mentions the allegation in her book. CNN then indicates that Maryanne Trump Barry's claim - that "seems to be the impetus for the allegation that Trump paid someone to take his SATs" (from the second CNN article block quoted above) ... "appeared to confirm her niece Mary Trump's previous allegations that he had a friend take his SATs to get into college, according to audio excerpts obtained by CNN." (from the first CNN article block quoted above) (Note: I've stitched together pieces from two CNN articles if that isn't clear.)

Granted, there could be other sources that corroborate the information. I haven't seen any, have you? That is really bad journalism/reporting.