Covering the Trump presidency has not always been the medias 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 dont 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
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 Rosss claim was inaccurate.
Flynns 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
teams 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 Aides 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 wont help themselves. The quote was taken wildly out of
context. MSNBCs Joe Scarborough as well as journalists from Mic,
Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times reported that Hatch was directly
criticizing the Childrens 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. CNNs
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
Podestathat 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 CNNs scoop. Within hours,
though, CNNs 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
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 directionthey 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 Rathers scoop on
George W. Bushs 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
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. Its not just a problem for readers, who
should rightly be skeptical of information someone isnt willing to
vouch for by name. Its 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 didnt intend to deceive and had
been reliable in the past. Maybe so, but given the networks repeated
errors its difficult to just take CNNs word for it.
But its one thing to use anonymous sources; its 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 wouldnt take it from me if
I didnt 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 CNNs scoop. Its 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
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 Herbs report, they revealed that Trump Jr. had been asked
about the WikiLeaks email in closed-door testimony before the
committee. After CNNs 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
Schiffs 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 committees work. Nonetheless, consideration of his sensitive
position hasnt stopped him from offering all manner of innuendo to
national TV audiences about evidence suggesting Russia collusion.
For their part, the media dont seem to be coming to grips with the
damage theyre doing to their own credibility. CNN, which calls itself
the most trusted name in news, didnt 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 networks editorial policies. And of course they
didnt out their sourcesthe 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 havent grasped is how
perversely helpful to him they are being: On a very basic level,
President Trumps 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.
Theres nothing wrong with investigating whether or not collusion took
place. But theres 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.
Its called putting your thumb on the scale.
Dems & the media want Trump to be more like Obama, but then he'd
have to audit liberals & wire tap reporters' phones.