Michael Barone / January 25, 2019

Does the Media Deserve to Be Respected and Believed?

Is it true that Donald Trump’s bad habits are contagious? Is it true that his Democratic opponents and, even more, his critics in the press are increasingly given to terminological inexactitudes, if not downright lies?

Is it true that Donald Trump’s bad habits are contagious? Is it true that his Democratic opponents and, even more, his critics in the press are increasingly given to terminological inexactitudes, if not downright lies?

Sure looks like it. Last week, large parts of the press — we’re looking at you, CNN and MSNBC — were gleefully reporting and commenting on the BuzzFeed story about President Trump having allegedly ordered his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to members of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s staff.

There were lots of smiles and (if we can use the word to describe liberals) smirks on their faces as they contemplated the ramifications. Some did note perfunctorily that the story was only noteworthy “if true.” Others pointed out, accurately, that several conservative commentators opined that the charge would justify Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

The fun stopped suddenly last Friday night when a spokesman for Mueller’s office said in a statement, “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Time to reprise all those 40-year-old Emily Litella riffs from “Saturday Night Live.” In this case, the “never mind” moment came from CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “The larger message that a lot of people are going to take from this story,” he said to four glum panel members, “is that the news media are a bunch of leftist liars who are dying to get the president, and they’re willing to lie to do it.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” he added, “but … I just think this is a bad day for us. … It reinforces every bad stereotype about the news media.” Yup.

So does the media reaction the next day to a snippet of video, taken near the Lincoln Memorial after the March for Life, that shows Kentucky school students from Covington Catholic High School wearing red MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats and facing Omaha Indian elder Nathan Phillips. Multiple members of the media, including some notable conservatives, accused the students of behaving in a bigoted, disrespectful and threatening manner. There were calls for them to be expelled from school and doxxing attacks launched against their families. Student Nick Sandmann was mocked for the nervous smile (“smirk”) he gave as Phillips banged his drum just short of his face.

More extensive video footage, covering nearly two hours at the memorial, told a different and opposite story. (The best accounts to date are two articles by Robby Soave in Reason magazine.) They made it clear that the Covington Catholic students were pummeled for an hour by vicious and racist comments (“crackers,” “faggots,” “pedophiles”) from four or five black men calling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites.

And they made it clear that amid the hubbub of the students singing school chants, it was Phillips who, rather than being surrounded by the students, approached them, banging loudly on a drum while making chants of his own. No one listening to the tape has publicly supported Phillips’ claim that the students chanted, “Build the wall!”

Apologies came in from many, including conservatives but also some liberals who had contributed to the tweetstorm castigating the students. Many deleted their negative tweets. Others continued to insist that the students are bigoted oppressors.

The media responded, too, whether out of a desire to report accurately or to avoid a libel action. “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students,” read the headline on a Sunday New York Times story.

American libel law requires actual malice, or reckless disregard of facts, by the media before a public figure can collect. But the students were not public figures as they gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to meet their bus, and the ready availability of exonerating videotape suggests that the first accusatory stories were rushed into print with reckless disregard of available facts. I sure wouldn’t want to defend them before a Kentucky jury.

Anyone reading through the tweetstorms, especially of those who continue to vilify the Covington Catholic students, cannot help but be struck by the visceral and seething hatred of so many in the press for adolescents whose behavior was, at worst, a bit discourteous, but who are guilty of the offenses of being white, male, Catholic, pro-life and supportive of the current president.

Is this the behavior of a press that deserves to be respected and believed?

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