- The news cycle was dominated by two stories over the weekend, both of which proved seriously flawed.
- BuzzFeed News’ bombshell report that President Trump told his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress was described as “not accurate” by the special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.
- Then, a video that appeared to show white male high-school students in “MAGA” hats harassing and intimidating a Native American elder went viral.
- But the initial reporting on that story turned out to be, at best, incomplete.
- In a time where the president disparages journalists as “enemies of the people” and public confidence in media is cratering, journalists must prioritise factual reporting over narratives.
If you pay attention to political media at all or, worse, are an active Twitter user, you couldn’t miss either of the weekend’s monster-sized stories.
One was seen as a prelude to President Trump’s impeachment, the other an infuriating viral video that seemed to encapsulate the worst of Trump’s America.
The ‘bombshell’ report on Trump and Cohen
BuzzFeed News’ bombshell report that Trump had instructed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress had members of Congress speaking openly last Friday about pursuing impeachment even before the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election concludes.
Countless journalists and pundits ran with the story, including many conservatives who said that if the allegations were true, they constituted impeachable offenses.
But by Friday night, Mueller’s office took the extraordinarily rare step of commenting on a story. It flatly characterised the story as “not accurate.”
This was a devastating blow to the story’s credibility, but also to BuzzFeed News’ reputation. Co-bylined reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, as well as editor-in-chief Ben Smith, all stood by the story. Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Cormier insisted: “Our reporting is going to be borne out to be accurate, and we’re 100% behind it.”
That may very well be true, but for now the story is damaged, and there are reasonable concerns that it shouldn’t have been published at all without more robust sourcing.
If a future news report proves the very same allegations against Trump that BuzzFeed printed to be true, the lack of sufficient scepticism from other journalists of a story built around two anonymous sources will be consequential. The bar for “real news” just got significantly higher.
During a December 2018 appearance on “The Fifth Column,” a podcast I produce and cohost, Smith spoke about an age-old problem in journalism of “buying into a narrative, seeing what you expect to see, seeing what your readers want you to see.” He added how proud he was of Leopold and Cormier’s work uncovering many of Trump’s business connections with Russia, specifically the documents pertaining to a prospective deal to build Trump Tower in Moscow.
It’s true that Leopold and Cormier have done fantastic work on this beat, but there appear to have been substantial mistakes made in last week’s report. Far from the least consequential of these was Leopold’s three-sentence request for comment for Mueller’s office, which “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter characterised as a “dereliction of duty.”
The viral culture-war video
Before the first dirt was thrown on the BuzzFeed report, the news cycle served up another story that seemed to be dystopian 2019 incarnate: a brief viral video that appeared to depict a group of white male Catholic high-school students from Kentucky – some wearing Trump’s trademark “Make America Great Again” hats – surrounding and harassing a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, who had been attending an Indigenous Peoples rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
One of the students, Nick Sandmann, became widely seen as the smug, smirking, privileged face of the “MAGA” hats for staring at Phillips while the elder sang and played a drum directly in front of him. Other students around him danced and chanted what they say were sports-related school-spirit chants from their school, but which others have characterised as disrespectful mockery, including at least two students performing “tomahawk chops.”
But then that story got more complicated. An analysis of nearly two hours of video bookending the incident by Robby Soave of Reason showed Phillips approaching the students, not the other way around. (Disclosure: Soave is a former colleague of mine.)
Phillips describes his action as an effort to get between the students and a group from the homophobic, misogynist, and racist fringe religious sect, the Black Hebrew Israelites – who had been viciously taunting the students (and other groups) for the better part of an hour.
Many journalists who had taken the original report at face value tweeted mea culpas. A number of outlets who ran with the original story offered updates that the original cut-and-dried morality tale was now more complicated.
Now, there’s a backlash to the backlash, perhaps most succinctly illustrated by Laura Wagner at Deadspin, who concedes, “One lesson of the past two days is that you will see what you want to see here, if you are determined to do so.” In Wagner’s view, the extended videos might provide more context, but they still show “a frothing mass of MAGA youth” who “go to a school where students fairly recently wore blackface to a basketball game-frenzied and yelling and out of control.”
The fact-checking site Snopes confirmed the veracity of a 2012 photograph of Covington students – two of them wearing black paint on their faces – heckling an opposing African-American basketball player from the sidelines. But as INSIDER has reported, several Covington alumni have asserted the use of black paint was related to the school’s fanbase’s tradition of wearing all black – “a blackout” – to support the black uniform-clad players. They also said that fans have covered themselves in other colours for similar shows of school spirit.
Certainly, white people wearing black paint on their faces in any context in the present day is rightly considered offensive, and obliviousness to that fact presents a demonstrable insensitivity to historical context and present-day social mores. If that’s indeed a school tradition, it ought to go immediately, and some soul searching by the adults in the Covington community would be more than a little advisable.
But whether students from the same school wearing black paint at a basketball game seven years earlier is proof that Covington Catholic High School is infected with a racist culture skips past the fact that important details of the initial reports on the incident in front of the Lincoln Memorial were simply wrong.
Whether the students’ behaviour is defensible, or whether subsequently released video will show evidence of racism and harassment, as of now there is no audible evidence of “Build the Wall” chants by Covington students at the Lincoln Memorial (one Twitter user claims Covington students chanted “MAGA” and “Build the Wall” at her in this seven-second video, but it’s unclear who the speakers are in the split second they are on camera).
There is also no evidence the students “crashed” an Indigenous Peoples rally. Yet both of those details made it into headlines and sold the original narrative, which days later continues to serve as the US’s culture war totem of the moment.
One story, multiple perspectives
The Rashomon effect borrows its name from the classic 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which a murder is convincingly retold by four people, each presenting a perspective that contradicts the other three. It was certainly in effect this weekend, but with real-life consequences.
Based on the limited perspective provided by a viral video, at least one young man who was not even in DC over the weekend was falsely identified as one of the “MAGA hats,” and, according to his brother, he and his family were doxxed, spammed, and threatened over the past several days.
The fallout from the apparently compromised BuzzFeed story similarly comes with real-world consequences.
A great many Trump supporters need no convincing that every journalist who reports on the president and his base in a less-than-flattering light is a fake-news-propagating “enemy of the people.” For them, no level of journalistic ethics would change their narrative.
But for those on the fence, any future reporting on Trump’s business dealings with Russia will now carry the baggage of BuzzFeed’s would-be history-making report turned punchline.
The virtue of admitting imperfection
There’s no other way to say it: This was a bad weekend for the news media. In a country bitterly divided with emotions permanently at a fever pitch, few minds were changed this weekend, but many were further entrenched.
The thirst to be first is nothing new in journalism, but the added dimension of social media encourages having an insta-take on everything, regardless of whether enough evidence is available to vet the narrative. In the digital media age, speed rewards and destroys.
When journalists get it wrong, either on Twitter or in their work, the effective way to earn trust is to own the mistake, explain how it happened, and make a sincere good-faith effort to not repeat it. Moving the goal posts or pivoting into an entirely different story doesn’t undo the mistake, but it does provide fodder to those who believe journalists have sacrificed integrity in search of a predetermined narrative.
On “The Fifth Column” podcast last week, CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter – a frequent defender of the media against Trump’s relentless rhetorical assaults on reporters – described the profession of journalism as “imperfect.” He added, “We’re writing a rough, rough draft every day. We’re not quite getting it right every day. But tomorrow’s going to be better.”
To err is human, but to earn trust journalists must first admit fallibility and take a deep breath before running with a narrative before vetting the facts.
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