Journalism is supposed to be about truth, just not when it comes to covering itself. Instead, journalists have largely adopted a speak-no-evil strategy about their own profession. Call it a form of Media Omerta.
That was at play in a week that included fallout from two of the biggest media embarrassments of recent memory. First, came the BuzzFeed story intended to eviscerate President Donald Trump for having “Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress.” Journalists ran far and fast with the attack. ABC, CBS and NBC spent a more than 27 minutes on the report in three evening shows.
Only they ran smack dab into reality when Special Counsel Robert Mueller gutted the allegations, calling the report “not accurate.”
That incident was followed closely by the confrontation involving the students from Covington Catholic High School. News outlets embraced the initial narrative that the students were to blame. The Twitter mob formed, threatening first the wrong student and then bombarding the Covington students with everything from calls to doxx them to death wishes and death threats.
The assault was incredible. MAGA hats are “offensive” or “white privilege” or the “new white hood.” The Washington Post ran an entire opinion piece about one boy’s “smirk.” The students were called “baby snakes” and mocked as “victims of their own choices.”
That horrible narrative collapsed, as well, when other videos surfaced. There were a few journalists who admitted the truth about the incident. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan actually called out the press with a piece called “The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story.”
Her story pointed out some of the flaws in the news narrative, such as The New York Times going with a wimpy non-correction. “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students,” the Times said. The fuller picture was that the Native American man drummed within inches of a boy’s face.
Even with that “fuller picture,” the Post’s Fashion Critic Robin Givhan capped the week with a hit job on hats. MAGA hats. “The hat has become a symbol of us vs. them, of exclusion and suspicion, of garrulous narcissism, of white male privilege, of violence and hate.”
Tom Jones, the senior media writer for the Poynter Institute, gave the classic wrong take for journalism in discussing an NBC interview of the student. “When you’re getting criticized from both sides, there’s a decent chance you did a good job,” he said of Savannah Guthrie’s questioning of the young man. Or, sometimes, it just means you did a rotten job.
“Reporting is hard,” Chris Cuomo told "The View," “The idea that anonymous sourcing is somehow weaker sourcing is BS, OK?”
The hot takes were more like tepid rationalizations. The Post used the much-mocked word “pounced” as one of its Covington stories became an ideal example of skewed reporting. “A viral story spread,” it said, “The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump Internet pounced.” Pounced has become journalism shorthand to undermine any conservative response.
Here’s one from USA Today on the BuzzFeed fiasco: “Takeaway from BuzzFeed's Michael Cohen-Donald Trump report: Journalists police themselves.” Only they didn’t.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders addressed both stories and said about the Covington fracas, “I’ve never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life.” She concluded with essential advice for the press: “Let’s focus on getting things right, not getting them first.” Amen.
2. The BuzzFeed Disaster: The BuzzFeed Cohen story was ubiquitous when it broke. And there were as many defenders of it both before and after it fell apart.
CNN did its part, promoting the story while downplaying the controversial past of one of its authors. “Reporter with checkered past comes back with Trump Tower Moscow bombshells for BuzzFeed.” It followed the if-true approach of much of the press, adding if that were the case it would be “the apex of a comeback from a troubled personal and professional past.” There were few notes of caution in news reports.
CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo brought his spin to “The View” with a particularly lame defense of BuzzFeed. “Reporting is hard,” he told the crowd. “The idea that anonymous sourcing is somehow weaker sourcing is BS, OK?”
He wasn’t the only defender. NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd used the incident to blast press critics. “Those trying to tar all media today aren’t interested in improving journalism but protecting themselves,” he tweeted. NBC owns a significant stake in BuzzFeed, a point the network left out of some of its reporting of the Cohen story.
BuzzFeed was one of several outlets to announce layoffs later in the week. The cuts hit 15 percent of the BuzzFeed staff, yet many outlets either left out the Mueller-Cohen story or spun it. AP went with a particularly pro-BuzzFeed spin, arguing, “BuzzFeed is best known for its viral posts and quizzes and has a well-regarded news division.” That PR line came just days after the Mueller statement.
3. News Outlets Finish with Wins: The press was crowing by week’s end, with the arrest of Trump ally Roger Stone and the shutdown conclusion without wall funding.
Autonomous Magazine Editor-in-Chief Steve Krakauer snarked: “It’s such a dangerous time to tell the truth in America that Jim Acosta is going to write a book about how dangerous a time it is to tell the truth in America.”
The press did more than anyone to set the stage for the Democrat shutdown victory, downplaying the negatives of illegal immigration and stressing the legitimate pain of the unpaid employees.
CNN practically celebrated the win. Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash called the shutdown move “a four letter word to describe what we just saw and that's cave.” CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta described it as “one of the biggest tactical defeats for the president that we’ve seen in his political life.”
Even then, Acosta depicted it as “a bright, shiny object” designed to distract from the Stone arrest. Because when Trump loses, the media still paint it as nefarious.
4. Speaking of Acosta: America received this essential news nugget in the midst of the insane week: “CNN's Jim Acosta is writing a book about Trump's war with the media.” The Clown Prince of the Pressroom declared solemnly: “We are not the enemy of the people. And the truth is worth the fight... more coming soon.”
The CNN article about the book included this self-indulgent Acosta quote: “This sobering, bewildering, and sometimes frightening experience has made it absolutely clear that this is a dangerous time to tell the truth in America."
Conservatives quickly found ways to mock the announcement. Autonomous Magazine Editor-in-Chief Steve Krakauer snarked: “It’s such a dangerous time to tell the truth in America that Jim Acosta is going to write a book about how dangerous a time it is to tell the truth in America.”
And Washington Examiner Magazine Executive Editor Seth Mandel expanded on a Twitter classic: “Dear Diary, I Am Not Owned: The true story of one journalist's heroic quest to glue his face to a mirror.”