Which is more possible — that President Donald Trump made disparaging remarks about U.S. troops being "losers" in 2018 or left-leaning media attempting to damage the president's reputation in 2020 by spinning up such a story knowing other anti-Trump national media would run with it?
Trump, numerous aides and former aides who were present during the trip to France when the president allegedly made the remarks denied the report by Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg.
The story, according to Goldberg, is predicated on "four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day." In other words, they are not primary sources and may not even be secondary sources.
Stop for a moment and think back a year ago when another story involving Trump was ginned up without a primary source and resulted in the president's impeachment in the U.S. House but exoneration by the U.S. Senate. So shoddy were the investigation and the hearings that the whole episode is rarely referred to today.
Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Intercept, laments that such incidents damage journalism at a time when the media is held in its lowest-ever regard. In this case, he says, when news outlets say they have confirmed Goldberg's anonymous sources, what they likely have done is talked to the same sources, or sources aligned with those individuals.
In essence, he says, they have done the opposite of confirming the story. They only have confirmed that the sources spoke to Goldberg, not that the incident ever happened.
Journalism, according to Greenwald, "is not supposed to be grounded in whether something is 'believable' or 'seems like it could be true.' Its core purpose, the only thing that really makes it matter or have worth, is reporting what is true, or at least what evidence reveals."
That type of journalism has taken a hit during Trump's term in office, especially at once reputable newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post but also at news outlets like The Associated Press and newspapers that use those wire services.
It's unfortunate, though, that we must ask which scenario is more plausible because, in fact, both are.
Trump, in 2016, disparaged then-U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war. And while he surely can be credited with rebuilding the military and improving conditions for veterans during his term, he also has warred with military brass.
His reputation, by now well known to those who strongly support him and those who vehemently oppose him, is to insult that which he doesn't like. Though the insults sometimes may be deserved by those who are targeted, his voicing them or tweeting them is unpresidential and can never move dialogue forward on any issue.
On the other hand, much of the national media have descended faster and further into advocacy media during Trump's term. Most don't even bother to deny it anymore.
His upset win in 2016, making a mockery of pollsters and pundits, and his willingness to confront the media when he thinks they are unfair have only made them angrier.
The timing of this story by the Atlantic is meant to blunt any momentum Trump may have in the presidential race. Clearly polls with Democratic opponent Joe Biden have tightened, and the president is seen by many to be profiting from the inaction by Democratic mayors to stop the rioting and lawlessness in large cities.
Since he is popular with veterans, active-duty military personnel and law enforcement members, his alleged disparagement of dead troops is meant to shatter that base of support.
However, the supposed incident was more than two years ago, and those who don't care for Trump have had ample opportunity to turn it against him.
But even individuals who oppose him, like his former National Security Advisor John Bolton who wrote a critical book about him, have said he never heard the president disparage troops during the trip or say it was not important to honor American war dead.
Indeed, by midday Tuesday, 21 officials, 14 who were on the France trip, had refuted the charges.
"I was actually there," said former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "and one of the people part of the discussion — this never happened."
Of course, administration officials and former administration officials might be expected to back up their boss, but why would they do so if they knew the story to be true? Their reputations would only suffer and their ability to be seen as an information source damaged.
Alas, this appears to be another ploy to show Trump in a bad light, something he does on his own too often. And, this incident reveals again how far American journalism has fallen in an effort to force the means to justify the end.