The Post, the New York Times, NBC News, CNN: These are among the big contributors to news breaks on the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into allegations of collusion between the campaign of Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
ABC News entered the fray in a rather splashy way Friday, reporting that Trump had asked retired three-star Gen. Michael Flynn to reach out to Russia during the campaign.
Italics added for good reason: One needn’t be on Team Mueller to appreciate the implications of that report. For months and months, after all, backers of the president have pounded away at the absence of direct, hard evidence of collusion as a way of deflecting bad press stemming from the Mueller probe. The ABC News report came amid a wave of Friday reports about Flynn’s guilty plea in a D.C. federal court for lying to federal law enforcement about his contacts with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
The stock market tanked, at least during the midday hours, on the news from Washington — the most shocking element of which was the ABC News “scoop.” Massive pickup ensued, as news organizations found the ABC News reporting worth repeating. Here’s Quartz:
The ABC News tweet carrying the explosive reporting secured upward of 25,000 retweets — that is, before ABC News deleted it. In its place, the network put forth the following “clarification”:
CLARIFICATION of ABC News Special Report: Flynn prepared to testify that President-elect Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians *during the transition* — initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria, confidant now says. https://t.co/ewrkVZBTbc pic.twitter.com/GQAKwT1Eda
— ABC News (@ABC) December 2, 2017
From the scandalous to the prosaic, in other words. On Friday’s edition of “World News Tonight,” investigative reporter Brian Ross, the first of three bylines on the ABCNews.com story, addressed the reportorial breakdown: “A clarification tonight on something one of Flynn’s confidants told us and we reported earlier today. He said the president had asked Flynn to contact Russia during the campaign. He’s now clarifying that saying, according to Flynn, candidate Trump asked him to find ways to repair relations with Russia and other world hot spots during the campaign. And then after the election, the president-elect asked him to contact Russia on issues including working together to fight ISIS.”
ABC News hasn’t been a principal target of President Trump’s Twitter-launched “fake news” attacks, a distinction commonly claimed by CNN and NBC News. That could change. Never have the stakes been higher for utter factual integrity regarding national politics, and in particular Trump’s ties to Russia. The way Ross phrased his reporting, it’s apparent that Ross & Co. single-sourced a major, even towering claim regarding the most sensitive national news story. In case ABC News hasn’t noticed, its peers on this story — and others regarding the Trump administration — have been girding their stories on Russia with absurd numbers of corroborating sources.
To get preemptive about it, this is not “fake news.” ABC News backed off its faulty claim and corrected the record, albeit with what may endure as the most cowardly “clarification” in modern journalism. Good thing the network upgraded its terminology on Friday night:
CORRECTION of ABC News Special Report: Flynn prepared to testify that President-elect Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians *during the transition* — initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria, confidant now says. https://t.co/ewrkVZTu2K pic.twitter.com/URLiHf3uSm
— ABC News (@ABC) December 2, 2017