Covering the Trump presidency has not always been the media’s finest hour, but even grading on that curve, the month of December has brought astonishing screwups. Professor and venerable political observer Walter Russell Mead tweeted on December 8, “I remember Watergate pretty well, and I don’t remember anything like this level of journalistic carelessness back then. The constant stream of ‘bombshells’ that turn into duds is doing much more to damage the media than anything Trump could manage.”
On December 1, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross went on air and made a remarkable claim. For months, the media have been furiously trying to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Ross reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had just pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was prepared to testify that President Trump had instructed him to contact Russian officials before the 2016 election, while Trump was still a candidate. If true, it would have been a gamechanger. But Ross’s claim was inaccurate. Flynn’s documented attempts to contact the Russians came after Trump was president-elect, allegedly trying to lay diplomatic groundwork for the new administration. Ross was suspended by ABC for four weeks without pay for the error.
Later that same weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Trump transition official K. T. McFarland, charging that she had lied to congressional investigators about knowledge of the Trump transition team’s contacts with Russia. The article went through four headline changes and extensive edits after it was first published, substantially softening and backing away from claims made in the original version. The first headline made a definitive claim: “McFarland Contradicted Herself on Russia Contacts, Congressional Testimony Shows.” The headline now reads “Former Aide’s Testimony on Russia Is Questioned.” The website Newsdiffs, which tracks edits of articles after publication, shows nearly the entire body of the article was rewritten. (The Times website makes no mention of the changes.)
Still in that first weekend of December, Senator Orrin Hatch criticized the excesses of federal welfare programs, saying, “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves.” The quote was taken wildly out of context. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as well as journalists from Mic, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times reported that Hatch was directly criticizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, with some suggesting Hatch thought children should be put to work to pay for subsidized health care. Not only was Hatch not criticizing the CHIP program, he cowrote the recent bill to extend its funding.
On December 5, Reuters and Bloomberg reported that special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank account records of President Trump and family members, possibly related to business done in Russia. The report was later corrected to say Mueller was subpoenaing “people or entities close to Mr. Trump.”
Then on December 8, another Russia bombshell turned into a dud. CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported Donald Trump Jr. had been sent an email on September 4, 2016, with a decryption key to a WikiLeaks trove of hacked emails from Clinton confidant and Democratic operative John Podesta—that is, before the hacked emails were made public. (WikiLeaks is widely surmised to act as a front for Russian intelligence.) MSNBC and CBS quickly claimed to have confirmed CNN’s scoop. Within hours, though, CNN’s report was discredited. The email was sent on September 14, after the hacked Podesta emails had been made publicly available. CNN later admitted it never saw the email it was reporting the contents of.
This is just eight days’ worth of blundering. Since October of last year, when Franklin Foer at Slate filed an erroneous report on a computer server in Trump Tower communicating with a Russian bank, there have been an unprecedented number of media faceplants, most of them directly related to the Russia-collusion theory. The errors always run in the same direction—they report or imply that the Trump campaign was in league with Moscow. For a politicized and overwhelmingly liberal press corps, the wish that this story be true is obviously the father to the errors. Just as obviously, there are precedents for such high-profile embarrassments in the past. (Remember Dan Rather’s “scoop” on George W. Bush’s National Guard service?) But flawed reporting in the Trump era is becoming more the norm than the exception, suggesting the media have become far too willing to abandon some pretty basic journalistic standards.
Editors at top news organizations once treated anonymous sourcing as a necessary evil, a tool to be used sparingly. Now anonymous sources dominate Trump coverage. It’s not just a problem for readers, who should rightly be skeptical of information someone isn’t willing to vouch for by name. It’s a problem for reporters, too, because anonymous sources are less likely to be cautious and diligent in providing information. According to CNN, the sources behind the busted report on Trump Jr.’s contact with WikiLeaks didn’t intend to deceive and had been reliable in the past. Maybe so, but given the network’s repeated errors it’s difficult to just take CNN’s word for it.
But it’s one thing to use anonymous sources; it’s quite another to be entirely trusting of them. CNN decided to report the contents of an email to Donald Trump Jr. based only on the say-so of two anonymous sources and without seeing the emails. “I remember when I was [a staffer] on the Ways and Means committee and I would try and give reporters stories, and I remember the Wall Street Journal demanded to see a document,” former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer tells The Weekly Standard. “They wouldn’t take it from me if I didn’t give them the document, and I thought, ‘Good for them!’ ”
What makes the botched story of the WikiLeaks email more troubling is how quickly MSNBC and CBS ran with CNN’s scoop. “It’s hard to imagine how independent people could repeatedly misread a date on an email and do so for three different networks,” says Fleischer. “Whose eyesight is that bad?”
This points to an additional problem with the sourcing on these unfounded reports. The only way three networks could claim to have verified the same specious story is if they were all relying on the very same sources. Many of the flawed Trump reports appear to be sourced from a very narrow circle of people, who no doubt share partisan motivations or personal animus.
Certainly, it appears a number of recent spurious stories have originated as leaks from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. In Raju and Herb’s report, they revealed that Trump Jr. had been asked about the WikiLeaks email in closed-door testimony before the committee. After CNN’s scoop imploded, a spokesman for Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a classic non-denial denial, telling Politico “that neither he nor his staff leaked any ‘non-public information’ ” about Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony.
Meanwhile, the Russia investigation has been very good for raising Schiff’s profile. A December 13 press release from the Republican National Committee notes the congressman has at that point spent 20 hours, 44 minutes, and 49 seconds on television since Trump took office, talking mostly about the investigation (pity the low-level staffer who must have had to do the research for that release). During that time, Schiff has always declined to discuss the particulars of the intel committee’s work. Nonetheless, consideration of his sensitive position hasn’t stopped him from offering all manner of innuendo to national TV audiences about evidence suggesting Russia collusion.
For their part, the media don’t seem to be coming to grips with the damage they’re doing to their own credibility. CNN, which calls itself “the most trusted name in news,” didn’t retract their WikiLeaks report but rewrote it in such a way as to render the story meaningless. They also came to the defense of Raju and Herb, saying the reporters acted in accordance with the network’s editorial policies. And of course they didn’t out their sources—the ultimate punishment news organizations can mete out to anonymous tipsters who steer them wrong.
It understandably infuriates the media that President Trump remains unwilling to own up to his own glaring errors and untruths, while news organizations run correction after correction. And it also understandably upsets the media to watch the president actively attack and seek to undermine their work, which remains vital to ensuring accountability in American governance. What they haven’t grasped is how perversely helpful to him they are being: On a very basic level, President Trump’s repeated salvos against “fake news” have resonance because, well, there does indeed appear to be a lot of fake news.
“There is nothing wrong with holding powerful people accountable. There’s nothing wrong with investigating whether or not collusion took place. But there’s a lot wrong when because you want to believe in the story so much you suspend skepticism,” says Fleischer. “You let your guard down. You abandon the normal filters that protect journalistic integrity. And you fail to also hold to account powerful leakers, or powerful members of Congress who themselves have an anti-Trump agenda. It’s called putting your thumb on the scale.”
There is no question that the national media is treating Trump far harsher than it treated his predecessor. As Fleischer points out, the media should hold powerful people, including presidents, accountable, but it should treat everyone in power, Democrat, Republican or no party, equally accountable. Even before that, the media has a bigger obligation to get what it reports correctly.