Michael Cohen and President Trump. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images and Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Media critic

On her MSNBC show on Friday afternoon, host Nicolle Wallace launched her program with these words, in part: “It is one of the most dramatic and potentially devastating developments in the Donald Trump v. Michael Cohen saga to date — a new report so damning that, if true, could very well put in motion President Trump’s impeachment.” That story came from BuzzFeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, who cited two federal law enforcement officials as saying that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about efforts to build a Trump development in Moscow.

The very notion in the article — that the president had essentially suborned perjury — blew a hole in TV scripts and erased story budgets throughout the Washington media on Friday. It gained currency from a weak resistance, too. In his first comment on the matter, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani invoked the lamest dodge in the book: “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.” That wasn’t a denial, and it was irrelevant, too: The BuzzFeed article hinged on information from two federal law enforcement sources, who were “100 percent read-in” on the investigation, one of the reporters told CNN on Friday morning.

Also on Friday morning, under tough questioning from Fox News’s Bill Hemmer, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley couldn’t muster a denial either: "This is absolutely ludicrous that we are giving any type of credence or credibility to a ‘news outlet’ like BuzzFeed. They are responsible completely and totally for the release of a discredited, disproven, false dossier.”

BuzzFeed is responsible for many, many great stories, including some killer reporting by Leopold and Cormier on all aspects of that unsuccessful Trump deal in Moscow. The team even broke out that delicious scoop in late November that Team Trump planned on giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the building’s $50 million penthouse.

Given those antecedents, it was logical that BuzzFeed would follow the reporting trail to what, if anything, Trump had directed Cohen to tell Congress about the project. The question was: What did other news organizations know about all this?

As the clock ticked away, it became apparent that they didn’t know much, or at least not nearly as much as BuzzFeed. Host after host on cable news networks issued disclosures that their own colleagues had failed to confirm the story. Even as they continued failing to confirm the story, however, they succeeded in talking about what the implications would be — “if true.”

Just hop on CNN’s wonderful transcripts page. Sure, the network covered things other than BuzzFeed-Cohen, such as the canceled travels of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the shutdown, British politics and the like. But the Trump-may-have-suborned-perjury story dominated the proceedings. At the top of the 11 a.m. hour, for example, CNN host Erica Hill said, ″This morning, an explosive new report that, if true, could have major implications for the presidency of Donald Trump. BuzzFeed is reporting that President Trump personally instructed his lawyer to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. Two federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation say Trump directed Michael Cohen to say the negotiations ended months earlier than they did. CNN has not independently confirmed the BuzzFeed report."

MSNBC was similarly animated, as the story figured heavily the network’s top-of-the-hour slots. Analysis of something that might be true poured forth: “The behavior that BuzzFeed is alleging ... is that Donald Trump directed someone to lie. Donald Trump directed ... poor Sean Spicer to lie on the first day of his presidency,” said Wallace on her program. "Donald Trump directs Sarah Sanders to lie, it would appear, with alarming frequency or she’s entrepreneurial in that category. Donald Trump has directed his national security agencies to lie about all manner of things. ... Donald Trump asks people to lie about things as small as his weight and as big as American foreign policy.”

All perfectly true! News shows on the three major broadcast networks also went heavy on the unconfirmed story. Fox News covered the BuzzFeed storm but by no means obsessed over it, giving ample time to the Trump-Pelosi travel spat and many other topics.

And don’t let the Erik Wemple Blog get away with suggesting that such analysis was limited to cable TV. We did that on Twitter on Friday night, and received this blast of accountability:

At the end of a day of exhaustive paneling, the cable networks faced down a statement from a spokesman for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III: “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.” As many have noted, the statement excelled at lawyerly exactitude, leaving BuzzFeed’s top editor, Ben Smith, asking for more detail.

Such nuance mattered little to Donald Trump Jr. , who seized on the news and called for symmetry in coverage:

The clip to which Tapper refers is right here, a Friday afternoon conversation on Tapper’s show “The Lead” with analysts Josh Campbell and Philip Mudd. Tapper’s right that the segment provided a skeptical view of the BuzzFeed reporting. “I want more, Jake, I want more,” said the always colorful Mudd asking for more details to corroborate the account.

On the other hand: The segment was part of a surfeit of coverage — all of it caveated by “if trues” — of a BuzzFeed report that no one could confirm. And yes: At some point, volume confers credibility. The U.S. media, as we’re seeing, is terribly gifted at talking and writing and talking and writing when it knows very little. As a high school foreign language teacher might say, they’ve mastered the subjunctive.

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