Politics & Policy

How ‘Fake but Accurate’ Stories Sunk Liberal Journalism

President Trump meets reporters on Capitol Hill in March. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Like Dan Rather, the CNN Investigates team was undone by the belief that attacks on Republicans don’t require proof.

When CNN had to retract a story about a Trump campaign adviser named Anthony Scaramucci and his alleged ties to Russians this past June, the president crowed. This was before Scaramucci’s brief comic turn as White House communications director, and it encouraged President Trump to spend much of the following months railing at the bias of his press coverage. While what we knew at the time about why the network cleaned house at an investigative team it had just recently put together with great fanfare was stunning, a New York Times behind-the-scenes feature published this week gives us a lot more insight not only about the crackup at CNN but about what’s wrong with mainstream journalism in 2017.

What led to the retraction and the firings/resignations of three top people at CNN Investigates, including Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Frank, is fairly straightforward. The team’s story on Scaramucci was based on a single anonymous source that was “wavering” by the time it was ready to run. Moreover, it had not been passed through the normal multi-level fact-checking process in which other journalists might have questioned its assumptions and demanded more proof. That’s why when Scaramucci challenged the network, saying that the allegation was false and that there was no proof that there was any federal investigation into the charge, the network quickly folded.

As the Times points out, the context for this failure was a previous story by the same crack investigation unit that also proved to be an embarrassment for CNN. In May, they had reported that former FBI director James Comey would contradict Trump during his congressional testimony and deny that he had told the president that he was not under investigation. As it turns out, Comey confirmed under oath that he told Trump that three times.

CNN president Jeffrey Zucker was infuriated by this blunder and warned his staff that in an environment in which the network and the president were coming to blows on a daily basis, there was no room for error. Yet Zucker’s warning didn’t deter the much-ballyhooed investigative team he had recruited to join CNN — composed of what the Times called “journalistic glitterati” — from making another serious mistake on a Trump-related story. And when they did, the network had little choice but to jettison them.

But the interesting question here isn’t so much the details of where each story went wrong as it is why it happened in the way it did and why it is that the people involved are still, as the Times noted, convinced that they were right.

The answer should be familiar to those whose memories date back to the 2004 presidential election. That fall, as the campaign headed into the homestretch, CBS’s prestige newsmagazine show 60 Minutes ran a story questioning President Bush’s National Guard service as a young man. But the evidence backing up the allegation, which was reported by CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, was a forgery. In what may have been the first major instance in which Internet bloggers debunked a major mainstream media story, CBS was forced to admit that the memorandums supposedly signed by Bush’s late commander were fakes. Rather than torpedoing Bush’s reelection, that journalistic disaster led to Rather’s resignation from CBS as well as the firing of producer Mary Mapes.

But an unrepentant Rather would continue to insist, as he does to this day, that the story was true even though the evidence was not. His conviction that Bush was lying and needed to be taken down was greater than his duty as a journalist to report facts rather than arguments.

While Rather’s conduct seemed to illustrate the traditional liberal bias of the mainstream media, his exit from CBS was also seen as an object lesson of what happens when journalists let their political opinions get the better of their professional judgment. But though his conduct was viewed, perhaps incorrectly, as an outlier in 2004, by 2017 such attitudes are now very much mainstream.

Since Trump took office, the willingness of journalists to mix opinion with news reporting has grown. Opposition to Trump and his policies is now seen as justifying any breech of the church–state divide between news and opinion. Any efforts to rein in this bias is denounced as buckling under to Trump’s intimidation even if those doing so are merely asking the press to play it straight rather than to signal their disgust and opposition to the president.

The spirit of fake but accurate that was first popularized by Rather appears to have prevailed at CNN.

Such charges have been frequently lodged against a network such as CNN whose coverage of Trump sometimes tends to consist of non-stop panels of talking heads competing with each other to mock and denounce the president. But while opinion is one thing — even on shows where there is no longer a semblance of balance with respect to the voices arrayed against Trump — letting that same spirit insinuate itself into investigative reporting is quite another. Groupthink in which negative stories about Trump are assumed to be true until proven false and even then are allowed to linger in the public imagination (such as the claim that a wave of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers was inspired by Trump even though the crime was the work of a disturbed Israeli teenager).

In the case of the Scaramucci story that cost Frank and his colleagues their jobs, the Dan Rather example seems to have prevailed. The story was rushed through the fact-checking process without much serious scrutiny and even though their one anonymous source — the flimsiest of foundations for a major investigative piece — was far from solid, nothing shook their determination to run it. But as the Times notes, Frank and others at the network were undaunted since they were convinced the claim that Scaramucci was under investigation for some sort of dirty dealing with the Russians was true even if their reporting couldn’t back it up. Though a big part of the problem is the contemporary culture of Internet journalism in which getting the story published fast even before it has been checked is considered more important than accuracy, the spirit of “fake but accurate” that was first popularized by Rather appears to have prevailed at CNN.

The Times feature about CNN should make for sobering reading for journalists who care about the future of their profession. So long as liberal bias is substituted for solid reporting, it won’t be possible to credibly answer those who cry “fake news” any time they don’t like Trump’s coverage.

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