Some stinging mistakes in stories involving President Donald Trump have given him fresh ammunition in his battle against the media while raising questions about whether news organizations need to peel back the curtain on how they operate.
The president tweeted six attacks on what he calls “fake news” over the weekend, saying the “out of control” media puts out purposely false and defamatory stories. That led to a contentious exchange at Monday’s White House press briefing between press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and CNN’s Jim Acosta.
“Journalists make honest mistakes,” Acosta said. “That doesn’t make them fake news.”
When Sanders responded that reporters should own up to their mistakes, one said, “we do.”
“Sometimes, but a lot of times you don’t,” she said. “There’s a very big difference between honest mistakes and purposely misleading the American people.”
Trump has his own issues: the Washington Post’s fact-checking blog counted 1,628 false or misleading claims made by the president in his first 298 days in office.
Still, it was an undeniably bad week for news organizations reporting on investigations into the Trump campaigns dealings with Russia. ABC News suspended Brian Ross for incorrectly reporting the timing of a Trump directive to Michael Flynn. Several news outlets wrongly reported that Trump and his family’s bank records were the subject of the special prosecutor’s subpoena. And CNN corrected a story on the timing of a tip to the Trump campaign about damaging information on Democrats.
With the hyper-speed of the modern news environment, the stories spread swiftly beyond their original source.
News organizations corrected themselves but fell short in their explanations, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“When a mistake is made, the public really needs to understand why it was made and what corrections have been put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
In announcing Ross’ four-week suspension, ABC News issued a two-paragraph statement saying the story “had not been fully vetted through our editorial standards process.” Executives were not made available to explain to the public what exactly that meant.
Ironically, the only time ABC News President James Goldston’s reaction to the error was heard came from a leaked tape of him talking to staff members obtained by CNN’s media reporting team.
Sanders specifically cited Ross’ story when asked for an example of one that was purposely misleading.
When CNN made its mistake a week later, its own executives did not talk publicly about it — even when the topic was discussed on the network’s weekend show about the media, “Reliable Sources.”
Network representatives, speaking without allowing a name to be attached, blamed the error on sources that provided information to reporters Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb. That still left questions: New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wondered, for example, how it was possible that different sources made the same error about a date.
CNN earlier this year fired journalists involved in a discredited story about former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci. CNN said — again, without allowing a name to be attached— Raju and Herb followed the network’s procedures for sensitive stories. In the Scaramucci case, the reporters didn’t. Again, it was up to consumers to decipher precisely what that meant.
CNN’s communications staff, responding Monday to Trump’s tweet that he once called anchor Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television,” said “in a world where bullies torment kids on social media to devastating effect on a regular basis with insults and name calling, it is sad to see our president engaging in the very same behavior himself. Leaders should lead by example.”
With politicians targeting journalists, it is more important than ever to be clear, Jamieson said. People need to know that there are consequences when reporters make mistakes, and what those consequences are, she said.
She pointed to The Washington Post, which last Friday began what it said will be an occasional series of videos about its operations. The first, titled “How to Be a Reporter,” featured interviews with two journalists who worked on the newspaper’s story about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore dating young girls. The reporters explained how they were tipped to the story and went about reporting it.
“As corny as it sounds, the agenda is to find out what the reality is, what the truth is of the story,” said reporter Stephanie McCrummen. “That’s it.”
Over the weekend, Trump demanded an apology from the Post for a photo that he said was deceptive about the number of people who attended his Florida rally, since it had been taken while people were waiting outside. Post reporter Dave Weigel apologized; Trump later said he should be fired.
On Monday, Trump said a Times story exaggerated the amount of time he watched television each day, and that he seldom watched CNN or MSNBC. The Times said its story was based on interviews with 60 people, “including many who interact with President Trump every day.”