When Donald Trump says you can’t trust what the “fake news” reports about Russia, or Roy Moore, or …anything, he has an accomplice working hard to help make his case: The media.
Consider the last week or so. Donald Trump is calling on The Washington Post to fire reporter Dave Weigel for a “phony photo” about the size of a Trump rally in Florida on Friday. Weigel conceded that “It was a bad tweet on my personal account, not a story for Washington Post. I deleted it after like 20 minutes. Very fair to call me out.” But journalists rightly treat Trump’s tweets as official statements.
But this was petty compared to other recent media mistakes. On the heels of ABC News’ chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross’s botched ABC News story, CNN was forced to correct an erroneous bombshell report about Wikileaks documents being provided to the Trump campaign. (Note: I am a CNN political commentator.)
In these two instances, important details were misreported—details that originally created the appearance that the Russia investigation had entered Watergate territory.
Just as the “notes” added to her yearbook by Roy Moore’s accuser could (in the minds of those who want to believe Roy Moore) undermine all the credible accusations lodged against him, the risk is that reporting errors give people who are already skeptical of the press permission to dismiss all the solid reporting that is done by mainstream media outlets and journalists. As Republican operative (and conservative CNN commentator) Scott Jennings recently told the Beast, “distrust in the national [political] media is so high that serious matters are immediately dismissed if your own tribe is negatively affected.”
We all make mistakes. Even the best reporters (and I consider Manu Raju, whom I know and respect, to be among the very best) will get things wrong.
I don’t think most people in the media fully grasp how dangerous this situation is, both in terms of preserving the Fourth Estate and in terms of preserving our jobs. We live in a world where a large chunk of the population has decided they can’t trust us. And they have some valid reasons. Yet, most media folks I know have intellectually circled the wagons.
Let’s take, for example, some controversial comments that David Frum made on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday. “The mistakes are precisely the reason people should trust the media,” he said. “Astronomers make mistakes all the time because science is a process of discovery of truth. Astrologers never make mistakes or at least they never own up to them because what they are offering is a closed system of ideology and propaganda.”
Frum’s logic (Don’t you see!?! The mistakes are the reason people should trust us!) is laughable and could be used to excuse almost any serious error. What is more, why should we accept his analogy? Mistakes made by astronomers may happen prior to publishing their findings. They don’t usually appear on the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post. Likewise, reporters sometimes make (and discover) errors prior to hitting “publish.” I would suggest that a better analogy might be a surgeon conducting an operation. Here, you don’t just throw your hands up and say, “oops.”
What would be a healthier response to media mistakes? How about owning them. Last spring, I addressed the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin Texas. On a panel titled “Accountability Journalism in the Trump Era,” I began by saying: “Of course we have to hold Donald Trump accountable, [and] I think we have done a good job of holding politicians and powerful people accountable. [But] what we need to do a better job of is holding ourselves accountable—holding journalism accountable.” “Just in the last week, I continued, “I’ve seen stories that actually aid and abet Donald Trump’s attempt to call us fake news.” (That week, the New England Patriots were forced to tweet a correction of a New York Times tweet that falsely compared the number of players who showed up at the White House for President Obama versus for President Trump. Also that week, a liberal operative had wrongly tweeted that Trump had skipped Easter church service. That tweet blew up the internet, garnering 35,000 re-tweets and 72,000 “likes.”)
So why does this keep happening? I think there are a few reasons. First, of course, we all make mistakes; we are human. Second, I think Twitter and social media is a big part of the problem (as evidenced by the Dave Weigel tweet). Things are sometimes “published” that are not fully vetted—and journalists sometimes help spread disinformation by re-tweeting dubious claims.
Third, I think we do need to acknowledge that liberal media bias does exist. The vast majority of people in the media business have a liberal worldview. They are not activists who intentionally skew the news, but they just tend to agree more with Democrats than Republicans. This could (and most likely does) lead to some instances of confirmation bias. What that means is that if you are already convinced that someone is guilty of something (let’s say Russian collusion), you might be more likely to believe a leak or a scoop along those lines that is sent your way.
Conservatives have long lamented liberal bias, but Trump (like Nixon) has ratcheted things up by essentially declaring war on the press. If you are a human, it is natural that you would resent people who resent you—and who are simultaneously attempting to conceal information from the public.
But as Theodore Roosevelt might say, with great power comes great responsibility. Just as police officers must resist the impulse to abandon proper procedure in interest of an “end justifies the means” justice, journalists must also resist the temptation to avenge wrongdoing by using their perch to take down someone they might view as a dangerous president.
Again, we all make mistakes. And we shouldn’t assume recent instances were malicious—though we should more readily acknowledge they are damaging.
My primary beef isn’t with the reporters who make mistakes. It is with the media outlets and commentators who don’t take these mistakes seriously. Even worse, however, is the notion that media mistakes are something to be celebrated. This kind of gaslighting reminds me of the pathetic 2+2=5 logic that Trump defenders sometimes engage in in order to defend the indefensible.
This is serious business. The press shouldn’t be in the spin business.