Top Fake News Stories of 2019

The national news media loves to tout itself as an arbiter of truth, even teaming up with social media giants like Facebook to fact check viral articles and memes. But journalists aren’t immune to publishing and promoting fake news of their own, and boy, have we seen some whoppers this year. The following is a short list of some of the most egregious examples. Is there anything I missed?

Regretful Trump voter turns out not to have voted at all

In October, New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel wrote a story about Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016, only to regret their decision. Enter Mark Graham, a real estate appraiser in Erie, Pennsylvania. “He had voted for Barack Obama, but in 2016 he took a gamble on Donald Trump,” the article claimed. Now, Graham said, reelecting Trump would be like “throwing gasoline on a fire.” Except Graham never voted in 2016. A local news station looked into his voting record after a Democratic political action committee called American Bridge put him in their ad campaign. The New York Times later verified his voting record and added a correction.

Boys in MAGA hats harass Native American elder

In January, news outlets leaped on a viral video purporting to show a young man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and a crowd of white kids confronting a Native American man beating a drum. “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March,” The New York Times headline proclaimed. As more facts emerged however, it turned out the situation wasn’t so black and white. The Native American man, Nathan Phillips, was neither a Vietnam veteran nor a tribal elder as originally reported. The crowd of students from Covington Catholic High School did not confront Phillips, rather, he approached them. In October, a federal judge allowed part of Nick Sandmann’s libel lawsuit against the Washington Post to go forward, after the Post claimed Sandmann, one of the students in question, had “blocked” Phillips and ‘would not allow him to retreat.’

Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress

Also in January, BuzzFeed News published an unverified story based on anonymous sources that Robert Mueller’s investigators discovered President Donald Trump told his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his involvement in a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post, CNN, New York Times, and Huffington Post rushed to uncritically report on and amplify the story as if it were fact. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true, and Special Council Robert Mueller’s office took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement denying the report. Buzzfeed stood by their story and still hasn’t issued a correction.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Party Favors

In September, The New York Times published a new accusation, similar to one alleged during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearing, that someone pushed his junk into the hands of a woman at a college party. It didn’t take long to find out the woman in question not only declined to be interviewed, but had no memory of the incident. It soon emerged that The Washington Post passed on the story months earlier because it was so flimsy. Oops.

Trump executive order redefines Judaism as race or nationality

In mid-December, repeat offender The New York Times pushed another fake news story, this time alleging that sinister motives lurked behind President Trump’s executive order targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses. “The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students,” it claimed. One Rabbi told The Times “I’ve heard people say this feels like the first step toward us wearing yellow stars.”

When the text of the executive order came out, it was clear it did no such thing. Even websites like Slate and Vox criticized The Times’ reporting, and it was excoriated on Twitter. The Times edited their story but did not issue a correction, and a Times spokesperson told Snopes: “We are confident in the accuracy of our reporting.”

Passage of Equal Rights Amendment is right around the corner

In June, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver revived a claim repeated in mainstream news outlets since 2017 that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment is right around the corner. That was echoed by The Atlantic, Vox, NBC News affiliates, and others in November after Democrats took control of Virginia’s legislature. The only problem is that the deadline for ratification by three-fourths of the states expired on June 30, 1982–37 years ago. Five states that initially voted to ratify the ERA later rescinded their ratification prior to the deadline.

In Idaho v. Freeman, a federal judge ruled that a state can rescind its ratification of a Constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court stayed that decision because the issue was moot. The deadline had already expired. In effect, the Supreme Court was acknowledging the ERA failed to pass in the required time. “Consequently, the Amendment has failed of adoption no matter what the resolution of the legal issues presented here,” the Court decided. It doesn’t matter how many states hold symbolic votes on the amendment, the amendment is dead, but journalists keep clutching those straws anyway.

Jussie Smollet Hate Hoax

January was a particularly bad month for journalism in the US. In late January, actor Jussie Smollet claimed to be the victim of a hate crime in Chicago when, in below zero temperates at 2am, two men carrying rope and bleach attacked him yelling “This is MAGA country.” In the 2016 presidential election, voters in Cook County (home to Chicago) overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton 74.75% to Trump (21%). Mainstream journalists spread the story of white, MAGA hat-wearing assailants until critics began to point out problems with it.

Smollet famously appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to tell his story to a sympathetic Robin Roberts. Roberts, co-anchor at Good Morning America, was widely criticized for her softball interview aired while Smollett’s story began to fall apart. It turned out the whole thing was made up, and he paid two black men to pose as the perpetrators. Smollett was initially charged with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report but the charges were later dropped in exchange for 16 hours of community service. Smollet still claims to be a victim.

When getting a story first is more important than getting the story right, journalistic ethics and credibility take a hit. With public trust in the press at historic lows, it’s more important than ever for journalists to be more careful about the stories they publish and report on. Mistakes do happen, but in many cases a healthy dose of skepticism, a little research, and withholding judgement until more facts emerge would have saved these news outlets from embarrassment. As kids today say, please guys, do better in 2020.

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