We live in the culture of the quick hit, the hot take, the hair-trigger tweet, and that often amounts to a rush to judgment.
Most of us have been guilty of this at one time or another, but two mega-controversies that exploded over the weekend show how fundamentally unfair that can be.
BuzzFeed is standing by its story accusing President Trump of urging Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, but it has been substantially discredited by that once-in-a-blue-moon denial from Robert Mueller's office, saying the information was "not accurate." Making a charge of that magnitude based on two unnamed sources, without being able to cite a single e-mail, text or document, is very risky business. The story was thin at best, especially when you consider the two reporters didn't talk to Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress over the Russian Trump Tower project and is facing a three-year prison term on that and other charges.
But the many news outlets that breathlessly promoted the BuzzFeed scoop, until it imploded, with an avalanche of segments and stories also have a black eye. The same goes for the Democrats who raced on the air, and onto Twitter, to talk about impeachment, based on uncorroborated allegations that were not matched by any other journalists.
Throwing in a couple of "if true" disclaimers doesn’t let you off the hook. And some journalists adopted the BuzzFeed allegations as true with even thinner caveats than that. The story, said MSBNC host Lawrence O’Donnell, "essentially" says that "here is the president of the United States in the Oval Office, presumably, on the phone, telling Michael Cohen to commit federal crimes and do it right there in the House of Representatives."
Keep in mind that BuzzFeed reported that Mueller's office had evidence and testimony about Trump allegedly suborning perjury, and that is what the special counsel knocked down. We now know, thanks to the reporting of Fox's John Roberts, that Rudy Giuliani played a role in the denial, since he was on the phone with Mueller's office Friday and both sides agreed parts of the story were false.
When CNN's Anderson Cooper said that at least some other news organizations didn't jump on the bandwagon, New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, to her credit, said: "No, but we all ran with it saying 'if true.' That was not that huge an asterisk, frankly."
All this plays into Trump's barrage of "fake news" criticism, and he didn't hesitate to call the Buzzfeed story a "disgrace to journalism."
Now to the other rush to judgment, involving students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. They were caught up in a confrontation with Native Americans at the Lincoln Memorial. It just so happens some of the students were Trump fans wearing red MAGA hats, feeding a certain narrative. And there was a video, that went viral, of student Nick Sandmann smiling as he's standing right next to Indian activist Nathan Phillips, which some interpreted as mocking.
An online mob took over, calling the students bigots and convicting them without a trial. Unfortunately, this was amplified by the media echo chamber.
But interviews and hours of earlier video made clear the story was more complicated. The students were shouting "school spirit" chants (with the approval of their chaperones) to drown out racially charged chants by a third group of black protestors, the Hebrew Israelites.
Sandmann, rather than inciting the confrontation, was actually approached by Phillips, who says he was being peaceful but whose story has been shifting. Sandmann said he smiled to show he meant no harm.
In a statement, Sandmann said that Philipps "began playing his drum as he waded into the crowd, which parted for him. I did not see anyone try to block his path. He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face. I never interacted with this protester. I did not speak to him. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had already been yelled at by another group of protestors."
Once the broader context was clear, some journalists began deleting tweets and expressing regrets.
Kara Swisher, the tech writer and New York Times contributor, wrote: "I was a complete dolt to put up this and several other obnoxious tweets yesterday without waiting to see the whole video of the incident and I apologize to the kids from Kentucky unilaterally."
Swisher had earlier posted her desire to be "finding every one of these s***ty kids and giving them a very large piece of my mind."
According to a Mediaite roundup, the New Republic's Jeet Heer deleted a tweet arguing the Trump-supporting students were "racist." CNN's Bakari Sellers deleted a tweet suggesting the kids should be "punched in the face."
CNN's Ana Navarro deleted one denouncing the "asswipe" parents of the students for teaching them "bigotry" and "racism."
And CNN host S.E. Cupp posted this yesterday: "Hey guys. Seeing all the additional videos now, and I 100% regret reacting too quickly to the Covington story. I wish I'd had the fuller picture before weighing in, and I'm truly sorry."
I give credit to those who forthrightly owned their mistakes. And there's a lesson here for all of us:
There's no harm in waiting for more details before denouncing people based on fragmentary information, even if you have to restrain yourself from joining the hot-take crowd.