record as journalists in covering this Trump story and the Russian story
is pretty good,” legendary reporter Carl BernsteintoldCNN’s
Brian Stelter over the weekend.Pretty
good? If there’s a major news story over the past 70 years that
American media has botched more often because of bias and wishful
thinking, I’d love to hear about it.
week alone, four big scoops were run by major news organizations —
written by top reporters and presumably churned through layers of
scrupulous editing — that turned out to be completely wrong: Reuters,
Wall Street Journal, and others reported that the special
counsel’s office had subpoenaed Donald Trump’s records from Deutsche
weren’t. ABC reported that Trump had directed Michael Flynn to
make contact with Russian officials before the election.He
didn’t(as far as we know). The
New York Timesran a story that showed K.T.
McFarland had acknowledged collusion.She
didn’t. Then CNN topped off the week byfalsely
reportingthat the Trump campaign had been
offered access to hacked Democratic National Committee
emails before they were published.
your routine bias, these were four bombshells disseminated to millions
of Americans by breathless anchors, pundits, and analysts, all of them
feeding frenzied expectations about collusion that have now been
internalized as indisputable truths by many. All four pieces,
incidentally, are useless without their central faulty claims. Yet there
they sit. And these are only four of dozens of other stories that have
fizzled over the year.
we are to accept the special pleadings of journalists we have to believe
these were all honest mistakes. They may be. But a person might then
ask, why is it that every one of the dozens of honest mistakes are
prejudiced in the very same way? Why hasn’t there been a single major
honest mistake that diminishes the Trump-Russia collusion story? Why is
there never an honest mistake that indicts Democrats?
only last week we were all supposed to be mightily impressed thatThe
Washington Posthad sniffed outsome
bad acting by Project Veritas. The incident, we were told, proved
beyond a doubt that journalists were meticulous fact-checkers who do
their due diligence and could not be manipulated by dishonest sources.
If this is true, why do they get the Russia story wrong so often?
the problem is that too many people are working backwards from a
preconception. Maybe newsrooms have too many people who view the world
through an identical prism when it comes to the president—which is to
say, they believe he stole the election with the help of Russians. And
perhaps the president’s constant lashing out at the media has provoked
newsrooms to treat their professional obligations as a moral crusade
rather than a fact-gathering enterprise.
reporters Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb, for instance, contend they had two
sources, both of whom must have lied to them about the same date on the
same email, who told them Donald Trump Jr. was offered encryption codes
to look at hacked DNC emails. CNNsaysthat
the duo followed “editorial process” in reporting the piece. This brings
three lines of questioning to mind.
Do news organizations typically run stories about documents that they’ve
never authenticated? If so, what other big stories over the past few
years have been run based on unauthenticated documents? Can they point
to single story CNN has written about the Obama administration using a
similar process? What part of CNN’s editorial guidelines deals with this
sort of situation?
Why would two independent sources lie about a date on the email to Trump
Jr. if they didn’t want to mislead the public? And how independent could
they really be? How many stories regarding the Russian collusion
investigation has CNN run from these very sources?
If sources lie to you, why not burn them? Understandably, there are
reasons to avoid exposing a dishonest source. For one, other
legitimate whistleblowers might not come forward after seeing a news
organization revealed someone because, after all, anyone can make an
honest mistake. Reporters also must preserve relationships with people
like Adam Sch … er, with those in power, because they may help on other
stories in the future. And, at the end of the day, you’re in contest for
these people have put your reputation – even your job – in danger.
Moreover, they have engaged in a serious abuse of the public trust;
abuse of power. Who knows how many of these mistakes, spread over
numerous outlets, came from the same sources? This seems newsworthy.
there will always be mistakes. Many journalists admit them, and
sometimes they apologize, and sometimes they even correct them quickly
and without excuses. They do so when they are caught by others who are
skeptical of their reporting. In the meantime, hundreds of pieces
relying on anonymous sources that can’t be disproven (or proven) are
being fed into an agitated political environment.
honest mistakes are found, the reflex of many political journalists is
to portray themselves as sentinels of free speech and democracy. Often
they will start contrasting their track record on truth to Donald Trump.
Yes, Trump is a fabulist. His tweetscan
be destructive. And maybe one day Robert Mueller will inform us
that the administration colluded with Russia. What it has not done to
this point, however, is undermine the ability of the press to report
stories accurately. Trump hasn’t attempted to silence a reporter by
accusing them ofbreaking
anti-espionage laws. No one has attempted to pass lawsallowing
the state to ban reporting or political discourse. Trump didn’t
make your activist source lie.
fact that many political journalists (not all) have a political agenda
is not new (social media has made this fact inarguable), but if they
become a proxy of operatives who peddle falsehoods, they will soon lose
credibility with an even bigger swath of the country. They will have
themselves to blame.