Politics & Policy

A Faulty Restart

Reporters attend a daily press briefing at the White House in August. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
After Trump won, journalists promised the country they would get back to work. We’re still waiting.

The year 2017 was already rife with journalistic screw-ups, but the first week of December set a new low for media blunders. ABC News’ Brian Ross was suspended for erroneously reporting that Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national-security adviser, would testify that President Trump had instructed him to contact Russian officials while still a candidate. In fact, this happened when Trump was president-elect.

The New York Times then published a story that deputy national-security adviser K. T. McFarland may have lied to Congress about Flynn’s contacts with the Russians. The apparent scoop proved to be much less than advertised, however. As the Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams showed, after its initial posting, the story underwent heavy and unacknowledged revision that dramatically watered it down.

Later in the week several news organizations claimed that special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank to get Trump’s personal financial records. In fact a subpoena had been issued, but only for records of people associated with Trump, not those of Trump himself.

Then last Friday came the coup de grâce. CNN reported that in September of 2016, the Trump campaign received an email giving it advance access to documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee. As it turned out, the email was sent after WikiLeaks put the files online. CNN had gotten the date of the email wrong by ten days. What seemed like a potential bombshell exploded with the force of a leaking balloon.

One week, four fatally flawed stories. A dubious record by any measure. Egregious as these mistakes were, far more ignominious was the response to them. Nary a modicum of contrition or introspection was offered. Instead, journalists and their defenders waved away the rash of cock-ups as signs not that the media had strayed from the truth but that it was more dedicated to its pursuit than ever.

Emblematic of media insularity and pride was a segment on Sunday’s edition of CNN’s media-analysis program Reliable Sources. Rather than delving into how CNN had managed to make such an elementary error and why its sources turned out to be less than “reliable,” host Brian Stelter gave the The Atlantic’s David Frum and Watergate icon Carl Bernstein a platform for another round of Trump-bashing.

Frum’s defense of the media is charitably described as risible. Asked by Stelter why people should trust the press when it keeps making mistakes, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush replied, “The mistakes are precisely the reason the people should trust the media.” He added that reporters’ worst errors have “precisely occurred in their overzealous effort to be fair to the president.”

Frum brazenly compared reporters to astronomers, “who make mistakes all the time, because science is a process of discovery of truth.” On his account, reporters are like scientists conducting experiments or physicians seeking a cure for a horrific disease. Sure, some patients may die due to errors and ignorance, but that is a small toll to pay on the path to enlightenment.

No one better exemplifies the supercilious obtuseness of a certain type of media figure than Frum. He is a walking, talking testament to bien pensant elites’ unwillingness to learn a single thing. In a Twitter thread that previewed several of the points he would make on CNN, Frum insisted that “errors of fact and emphasis are inevitable” when confronting “orchestrated and shameless official deception.” The blame, though, belongs solely with “the most systematical untruthful administration in American history.” In Frum’s view, the fact that they are going after Trump not only excuses journalists’ mistakes, it justifies them.

Frum might have had a colorable case that journalism’s role in a free society is so important that the occasional falsehood, whatever its provenance, must be tolerated. That is not the case he made, however. His argument was one of journalistic infallibility, morally if not in practice. Because they are countering Trump, reporters may get it wrong, but they can never be in the wrong. Such an absolutist claim is likely to have glaring blind spots. Frum’s had a doozy, seen in this third tweet from his thread:

Those selected by the nation’s two most important newspapers are closer to creeds than mottos. The New York Times chose “The truth is more important now than ever.” The Washington Post infamously picked “Democracy dies in darkness.” CNN, meanwhile, inaugurated a publicity campaign called “Facts First” with a commercial during which an apple appears on screen as an announcer states that no matter how much “some people might try to tell you that it’s a banana,” it remains an apple.

CNN’s campaign (about which little has been heard since its debut in late October) came a few months after a botched report about a Trump associate’s ties to a Russian entity led to the ouster of the three reporters behind it, and a few weeks before the WikiLeaks email imbroglio. This is only fitting. Maybe there were people who insisted the apple was a banana. CNN would be standing on much firmer ground, though, if it had realized at some point that it was showing everyone a kumquat.

The hubris manifest in this self-promotional grandstanding invites nemesis. Journalism’s year of travails, stumbles, goofs, errors, retractions, suspensions, and firings is nemesis of the most vengeful, condign sort. Hubris and nemesis will be tilling fertile ground for years to come, for neither the media nor Trump are going anywhere.

Trump brings out the media’s worst. One can understand why. He once called the press “an enemy of the American people.” After the recent flubs, he was at his most vituperative, telling attendees at a rally to sue ABC News, venting his spleen about “fake news” on Twitter, and demanding the heads of errant reporters. Their relationship to Trump might be, as Carl Bernstein put it, that of a “hothouse cold civil war,” but journalists must more strenuously resist the temptation to turn it into a shooting war.

Their penchant for firing back works in Trump’s favor. Nearly half the country believes the media make stories up about him. Why shouldn’t it, when journalists make error after error and all of them are to Trump’s detriment and never his benefit?

Trump may twist the sword with relish, but the media hand it to him again and again, such as when the New York Times publishes the transparently ludicrous — and easily debunked — claim that President Obama told only 18 lies during his entire presidency. If anyone is to blame for journalism’s predicament and crisis of credibility, it is journalists themselves.

The pity is that when journalists simply do their job, they do it fabulously. The revelations about Roy Moore’s predilection for teenagers and the reporting that brought the endemic sexual assault and harassment of women in various industries into the public consciousness are examples of journalism at its finest.

I do not mean to deprecate these stories, but I cannot help feeling that the reason their impact was so great was that the reporters who broke them weren’t trying to make grand statements about the power and necessity of journalism. The work spoke for itself, and more loudly than journalists’ own voices ever could.

This is why it was so misguided for journalists to purport after the election to be returning to duty. For one thing, there was no duty to report to. As I explained earlier, it is a category error to conceive of journalism this way. Worse, it placed journalists in the position of trying to fulfill a promise they never could, not because of their own inability but because there are no conditions under which it could ever be met.

Reporters are not the arbiters of truth and democracy; they are at best its servants. Yet in the last year it is the former position to which some have appointed themselves. The shambles of the previous twelve months has been the result. Implicit in the proclamations and slogans is the belief that the media must regain the public’s trust. The more they tighten their grip, the more the public trust slips through their fingers.

In June, CNN’s Jake Tapper warned that the media “must be squeaky clean. We’re not the resistance. We’re not the opposition. We’re here to tell the truth, report the facts, regardless of whom those facts favor one way or the other.” His brethren would do well to heed this admonition. If journalists want to hold power accountable, they might start with themselves.

Donald Trump has had a rough first year on the job. In many ways, the media’s first year has been just as bumpy. Journalists may have been roused from their dogmatic slumber, but they spent 2017 in a befuddled, groggy state. It’s been a year since they told us they would get back to work. We’re ready when they are.


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— Varad Mehta is the chief historian at Decision Desk HQ. He lives in suburban Philadelphia.


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