All the conditions were set for a brush fire in the White House briefing room on Monday afternoon: Over the past two weeks, ABC News and then CNN made grand mistakes in their coverage of the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. In both cases, the initial reports suggested scandalous dealings that, upon closer inspection, simply didn’t bear out.
The media-White House tension continued over the weekend, after President Trump criticized The Post’s David Weigel for a tweet commenting on crowd size for a Trump event in Florida:
.@DaveWeigel @WashingtonPost put out a phony photo of an empty arena hours before I arrived @ the venue, w/ thousands of people outside, on their way in. Real photos now shown as I spoke. Packed house, many people unable to get in. Demand apology & retraction from FAKE NEWS WaPo! pic.twitter.com/XAblFGh1ob
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2017
Weigel later apologized for the tweet and deleted it from his personal account.
In Monday’s briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether Trump differentiates between a situation such as Weigel’s tweet — a mistake followed by corrective action — and genuine disinformation campaigns of the sort managed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Sanders responded that Trump was “calling out” a “false accusation,” arguing that it reflected “nothing more than an individual trying to put their bias into their reporting.” Nor was this an isolated instance, argued Sanders: “A number of outlets have had to retract and change and rewrite and make editor’s notes to a number of different stories — some of them with major impacts, including moving markets. This is a big problem, and we think it’s something that should be taken seriously.”
This thing was just getting started.
Jim Acosta of CNN, a network accused of “fake news” on repeated occasions by the president, strove to make a distinction: “I would just say, Sarah, that journalists make honest mistakes, and that doesn’t make them ‘fake news.'”
That’s a plea that journalists have been making, to little effect, for the year-plus since “fake news” shifted to the center of a national debate on the durability of American politics. Whereas the term started out as a designation for deliberately false stories, it has mutated to a new descriptor of any news report that turns out to be faulty.
In any case, Sanders and Acosta continued jousting:
Sanders: When journalists make honest mistakes, they should own up to them.
Acosta: They do.
Sanders: Sometimes, and a lot of times you don’t.
Sanders: I’m sorry, I’m not finished. There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people. Something that happens regularly —
Sanders: I’m not done. You cannot say that it’s an honest mistake when you’re purposely putting out information that you know to be false. Or when you’re taking information that hasn’t been validated, that hasn’t been offered any credibility and that has been continually denied by a number of people including people with direct knowledge of an incident.
Acosta: Can you cite a specific story that you say is intentionally false, that was intentionally put out there to mislead the American people?
Sanders: Sure, the ABC report by Brian Ross, I think that was pretty misleading to the American people, and I think that it’s very telling that that individual had to be suspended because of that reporting. I think that shows that the network took it seriously and recognized that it was a problem.
With that, Sanders appeared to allege that Ross’s report — a claim that fired national security adviser Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that Trump had directed him to contact Russia during the campaign — was a deliberate exercise in misinformation on the part of ABC News. Though the network did suspend Ross for four weeks, correct the story and apologize for it, it has never gone so far as to say that there was anything purposeful about it. The mere fact that it corrected the story should annul any argument that it was seeking to mislead, but as we’ve seen, logic doesn’t always find a foothold at the White House lectern.
ABC News tells the Erik Wemple Blog that it has “nothing to add” in light of Sanders’s words.
Perhaps unintentionally, Sanders was leading the briefing room through an exercise over which every major-media editor has been agonizing for the better part of two-and-a-half years. That is, how to view the thousands of falsehoods uttered by President Trump on Twitter, in speeches and in interviews? Are those falsehoods intentional and, thus, lies? Or are they more innocent, serial mistakes? Some outlets have adopted a more liberal standard of presidential mendacity, while others just won’t go there.
However high the bar, Trump falls immeasurably short of the standard set by Sanders herself, which is that when people make honest mistakes, they should “own up” to them. Trump simply doesn’t do that. Media organizations look like a model of biblical rectitude vis-a-vis that guy.
It takes a lot for media organizations to issue corrections and retractions. They tend to clamber toward any available rationale to avoid the ignominy of a bolded correction. Broad reaction to the recent screw-ups — that they’re evidence of “fake news” and a purposeful campaign to deceive — threaten to further suppress this very important activity. If the issuance of corrections is used as evidence of “fake news” intentions, why bother with them?