Donald Trump addresses the media at the White House last week. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Former columnist

At this strange moment in history, any journalistic error can have extremely serious consequences.

Three CNN journalists found that out last week when they resigned under pressure after reporting, editing and publishing a story — based on a single anonymous source — that the network says didn’t go through the proper review channels.

When the story came under fire (it tied a Trump transition team member to a Russia-related investigation), CNN not only retracted it but sent the journalists packing.

Some hailed the move as welcome accountability, if a draconian form of it.

James Risen of the New York Times, though, saw it as “a cowardly, panicked move.” CNN brass was “easily intimidated by Trump,” he told me.

“CNN doesn’t seem willing to show the kind of courage required to back up your people who do difficult investigative reporting,” said Risen, one of the nation’s most prominent investigative reporters. Risen won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for a story co-written with one of the fired journalists, Eric Lichtblau, whom he called “one of the finest reporters I’ve ever worked with.”

If the effort was intended to mollify CNN’s chief critic — President Trump — it certainly backfired.

Trump and his surrogates took the opportunity to bash the network and the rest of the mainstream media more vociferously than ever. The accustomed cries (and tweets) of “FAKE NEWS” played at an especially high decibel level. And the bashing took on a physical aspect in a widely circulated old video clip showing Trump pummeling an opponent, updated to give the other wrestler the CNN logo for a head.

CNN’s head honcho, Jeff Zucker, has told his troops that they have to play “error-free ball.”

Indeed, one poorly executed story can offset a hundred good ones: the near-constant flow of well-reported scoops that have prompted multiple members of the administration to lawyer up and a special prosecutor to be appointed. But here’s the problem: There’s no such thing as error-free journalism.

“ ‘To err is human’ is not confined to journalism, nor is journalism exempt from it,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the investigative-journalism nonprofit organization.

That reality is “at the heart of modern free-press protection under our Constitution,” he said. “When talking about public affairs, innocent mistakes are protected, knowing mistakes are not.”

Scratch any longtime reporter or editor — this one included — and they’ll bleed their past mistakes: errors in fact, in judgment, in process. And, of course, those errors need to be acknowledged and corrected.

The Post has had its share; so has the New York Times, which recently had to correct an editorial that wrongly connected ads run by Sarah Palin’s political action committee to the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

CNN has made a major effort to build an investigative reporting unit, hiring aggressively and bringing in stars such as Lichtblau and BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski.

The team has had some hits — breaking stories about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Russia’s ties to Trump allies. But it also had one earlier high-profile misstep — in predicting that former FBI director James B. Comey would deny that he told the president that he was not under investigation.

When Comey publicly stated the opposite, CNN quickly issued a correction.

“The White House and pro-Trump media don’t hold themselves to remotely the same standards of accuracy as CNN and the rest of us do,” said Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed. Sean Hannity is still working at Fox News after perpetuating disgraceful conspiracy theories. Bret Baier, after forecasting a “likely” indictment against the Clinton Foundation just before the election, carries on at the network, too. (And even at CNN, the painfully awful Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord has managed to keep his gig.)

Smith offered empathy: “Building an investigative reporting culture is really hard and I don’t envy having to build it under the kind of intense and unfairly politicized scrutiny they face.”

There are, of course, firing offenses in journalism: Plagiarism, fabrication, serious conflicts of interest or, as in a recent Wall Street Journal reporter’s firing, making business deals with a source.

But failing to go through channels on a thinly sourced story — the substance of which has not been proved wrong?

“The punishment certainly doesn’t seem to fit the crime,” Lydia Polgreen, editor in chief of HuffPost, told me. “And that’s likely to have a chilling effect on a lot of other reporters who are trying to get as close to the truth as possible.”

If there’s more to this situation, CNN should tell the public, modeling the same kind of transparency the news media wants from government officials. (CNN spokesman Matt Dornic, when I asked for more explanation of the harsh discipline, said only this: “They no longer work at CNN because they violated critical editorial procedures that are in place for a reason.”)

Washington is rife with Watergate comparisons these days. So let’s recall the time that famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got a front-page story wrong: That a witness had testified to the Watergate grand jury implicating President Richard M. Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman.

The episode, for a time, cast doubt on the larger investigation. Woodward later recalled it as one of the worst days of his life: “In fact, I don’t think I’ve had one that bad, because it was just flat-out wrong.”

But the paper’s executive editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, stood behind the reporters in public — however he may have scorched them behind closed doors. He certainly didn’t fire them; and the rest is history.

Now, in this new moment of white-hot scrutiny and red-hot disparagement, “news organizations have to ask themselves what they are trying to do,” Polgreen said.

“Are you there to serve your audience — or to keep powerful people happy?”

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