Right Opinion

Media Screwups

Bill Wagner · Jan. 24, 2019

I watched with interest the last week or so as the media botched two big stories.

BuzzFeed broke a story claiming that President Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie in his congressional testimony about the timing of the preelection discussions Team Trump had with Russians regarding a hotel project in Moscow. That set off a media frenzy with every major outlet rushing to the cameras to declare Trump’s presidency doomed — finally — with impeachment just around the corner, and even a frog march out of the White House in chains to face indictments on obstruction of justice.

The checkers lost count of the number of times the words “blockbuster” and “impeachment” appeared. Since the BuzzFeed story cited only “anonymous” sources, and no one seemed to be able to confirm it, the mainstream folks all added the ludicrously unprofessional caveat “if true,” as if that would be sufficient under the new rules of “journalism” to take them off the hook if the story went south. And south it went.

The story used two “law enforcement officials close to the investigation” as their prime sources, but went further in claiming there were also emails, texts, and other documents in the hands of the special counsel to make the case. And even though there was a dispute between the two BuzzFeed authors about whether or not they had actually seen the backup evidence, both stood by their story “100 percent.” In an unprecedented move for Team Mueller, which has done a pretty good job keeping leaks and comments to a minimum, it issued a statement saying the BuzzFeed story was inaccurate.

BuzzFeed claimed the special counsel statement was limited and vague, stood by its reporting, and asked the special counsel to clarify what aspects were “inaccurate.” So far we know nothing more other than that the main media outlets are practicing the backstroke.

Now, don’t shoot the messenger, but I’m going to give BuzzFeed the benefit of the doubt because it’s unlikely you would just make up a story this potentially impactful. And if you really had two federal officers telling you it was true, and a “no comment” from the special counsel, it’s a bit of a jump ball whether Buzzfeed would publish it. While BuzzFeed publishes some decent investigative reporting, it is also a charter member of the sensationalist reporting army with its somewhat lower thresholds of “shoot first, ask questions later” journalistic proof.

Who knows, there might even be some Bill Clinton-type “I never told anyone to lie” activity coupled with a Trump wink and nod. Or maybe the Southern District has something Mueller doesn’t. So final judgment may be yet to come.

The mainstream media outlets, however, emphatically do not get the same pass. They should know better, but in their blind hatred of Trump and their fear of being left on the sidelines on the story that could be “the one” that brought him down, they tossed whatever journalistic standards they have left out the window and ran behind the “if true” caveat for cover.

Ditto for the story on the Kentucky high-school kids who were skewered in the media for two days for supposedly attacking a Native American at a pro-life rally. The “proof” for this was an excerpted video that showed the kids jumping up and down around the Native American (who supposedly was trying to prevent the kids from attacking a group of Black protesters), smirking at him, and making insulting gestures. When the full video was disclosed, it painted a wildly different picture.

True, the kids may have acted a bit like kids, but that was relatively harmless compared to the threats and taunts the black group was directing at the kids for most of the time. The Native American also changed his story to imply that what he was really doing was preventing the black group from going after the kids. But all that was a day after the media had bought the narrative that the kids were the trifecta of evil — white/privileged, Catholic/pro-life, and Trump supporters (yep, they had MAGA hats on) — and trashed them. That even led to the kids’ local church and school officials denouncing them, death threats, and attacks on their parents at work, all before the truth came out. Thanks, media.

I’ve thought a lot about how the journalist profession has gotten to this point. The kicking-off point may have been The New York Times policy shift during the 2016 campaign that gave its “reporters” license to add negative Trump opinion to their “news” stories on the theory that he was so bad they needed to save the country. But it has gone steadily downhill from there. I am enough of a capitalist Pavlov-dog adherent to believe that money is the prime motivator, and the media business model is to play “can you top this?” with negative Trump coverage (90%-plus by some measures) to capture a huge market share of a very low number of true believers.

Competing heads up with fact-based operations is a loser. Others believe that the reporters and media management are motivated by pure liberal bias, a burning hatred for Trump that transcends standards, and such petty drivers as ratings, ad revenue, and the bottom line. There may indeed be some of that, unleashed by the Times’s permission statement.

If enough people tune in to a 90%-plus anti-Trump lineup, and the bottom line is okay, why shouldn’t the media stick to its guns? It’s good business sense. Or is the media pushing the narrative because of pure liberal bias? So far the ratings are holding up, so pondering that question may be a distinction without a difference; you get to the same place. And maybe the boards and executives would tolerate a loss leader for a bit longer than normal because they thought they were doing God’s work. But I still believe that if the ratings disappeared, the business model would change.

It seems as though the atmosphere of playing to the extremes is only going to accelerate as the 2020 elections unfold, so we are likely to see the universe of consumers eager to hear the worst increase. And we can’t count on ratings declines bringing “journalists” to their senses. So far no one seems to be getting held accountable, and the more instances of shoddy reporting that go unrecognized, the more incentive it creates for the media to continue to spin out of control in search of the one story that will bring Trump and his deplorables down.

It’s ironic that the media always trots out the gold standard of investigative reporting whenever these instances occur. Ironic because I guess most of the media is too young to remember that the Watergate investigative reporting took a couple years and several rejections by Washington Post editors before the story was deemed sufficiently sourced to print. If the media were to follow its own historical recipe, we’d all be better off.

There are some libel law suits brewing in the Kentucky case that could have teeth. But absent some change in media attitude, lawsuits may be the only hope.

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