Mainstream news outlets rush to promote an unverified tabloid story, seriously undermining their credibility at a time when a majority of Americans are skeptical about news.
One of the most incredible displays of foot-in-mouth I’ve ever seen unfolded yesterday as jubilant media figures pounced on a BuzzFeed story purporting to reveal that President Donald Trump ordered his former lawyer to lie to Congress. If true, this would constitute the grounds for impeachment, and possible prosecution, Trump’s opponents have been looking for since the day he entered office.
There was only one problem: it wasn’t true. Special Council Robert Mueller’s office took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement denying the report.
“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.”Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office
Taking a break from publishing lists of “cringeworthy moments” and celebrity gossip, BuzzFeed based the bombshell off anonymous sources. The usual suspects in the mainstream news media gleefully and uncritically spread the story as if it were fact. You could almost hear the collective cry: “We’ve finally got him!”
It reminded me of an incident at a local political workshop I once attended way back when Barack Obama was president. A local Tea Party leader stood up to announce someone had finally revealed Obama’s birth certificate was fake. There were many such “bombshell” moments back then, when right wingers were desperate to find anything that would remove Obama from office. Today, the situation is reversed, except those desperate partisans control many of the country’s major media outlets.
When it comes to President Trump’s many… er… inaccurate or exaggerated statements, media outlets like the Washington Post, CNN, New York Times, and Huffington Post are all-too-eager to call him out on it. Consider the following article: “Trump Promotes Unfounded Claim That Islamic Prayer Rugs Are Littering The Border.”
“There is no credible evidence that this is the case,” its author proclaims.
“With no resolution in sight in his fight for a wall on the southern U.S. border, President Donald Trump on Friday morning promoted an unfounded claim from a conservative newspaper purporting that Islamic prayer rugs have been found scattered along the border.
The claim implies that a significant number of Muslims are illegally entering the country through the southern border with Mexico and, taken together with his other comments about the border, that they are dangerous. Although some Muslims do cross the U.S.-Mexico border, numbers are relatively low and past claims about prayer rugs found there have been disproven.”
An “unfounded claim” with “no credible evidence” from a questionable source is exactly how one could characterize yesterday’s BuzzFeed story, yet the Huffington Post was all-too-eager to uncritically splash it across their headlines. “Trump Told Michael Cohen To Lie About Trump Tower Moscow: Report” they cried, alongside a video still of President Trump grinning with satisfaction. They pushed two articles talking about how Democrats were using the report to call for Trump’s impeachment.
“President Donald Trump told his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his involvement in a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to a bombshell report from BuzzFeed News on Thursday night.”
Where are the qualifiers? Where is the skepticism about unverified sources? Where is the statement about how such revelations in the past have turned out to be false?
At best, this latest incident is a cautionary tale for journalists overeager to “get the scoop” and grab viewer’s attention. At worst, it reveals that many mainstream news outlets have become nothing more than the propaganda wing of the Democratic Party. They hold a magnifying lens to President Trump’s every word and action, while wholeheartedly accepting without reservation and reporting as fact every negative rumor about the president.
Only time will tell whether journalists will use this incident as a teachable moment about being more careful when it comes to fact checking and reporting on unverified reports, or whether they will double down on partisan rhetoric and rancor. I hope for the former, but predict the latter.
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