The Trump administration has been targeting reputable news organizations like The Times and CNN, calling them "fake news".
What is this administration trying to accomplish here?
TL;DR I have been as bi-partisan as possible.
President Trump is attempting to discredit the media as they attempt to expose aspects of his administration they find worthy of journalism. Some may be driven by editorial bias however the majority are reporting genuine news-worthy stories, often using direct statements and quotes from the Trump administration or Donald Trump himself.
Due to the lack of experience of the administration they have made clumsy mistakes which look, at first glance, to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the US Constitution, political affairs, legal structure and general all-round US civics. This is extremely embarrassing and de-legitimizes President Trump. In response to being unable to prevent this, the President has attacked the media directly trying to erode their credibility and trust.
The situation is made worse by the epidemic, as described by Trump, of information leaking to the Press from the judicial and law enforcement agencies, from the intelligence community, from the legislature and from Trump's own administration.
When questioned, anonymous staffers have said that the leaks must continue as they uncover more and more information they believe should be in the hands of the populace. Reports are that Admin staff are now using an encrypted chat platform called Confide to leak material freely.
His primary method of attack is to use the repetition of a simplistic phrase
Fake News. You are Fake News. Failing Fake News.
which plays well into the demographics of the voter base he is targeting; many of which distrust the Government or any suitably large organisation (which can be warranted given that the US Government engineered the biggest gold theft in history from the US populace) and ongoing cultural divisions between North and South USA. The Trump rhetoric is a lesser version of the message distributed by media outlets such as InfoWars. They share the same demographic and espouse conspiracy theory, paranoia and fear of Government, which Trump alludes to frequently with the qualifier
We don't know. We need to find out what's going on.
In addition Trump uses the propaganda technique, what-about-ism which is a common tactic for deflecting criticism or oversight.
Whataboutism is a term describing a propaganda technique used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world during the Cold War. When criticisms were levelled at the Soviet Union, the response would be "What about..." followed by the naming of an event in the Western world. It represents a case of tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy), a logical fallacy which attempts to discredit the opponent's position by asserting the opponent's failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent's initial argument.
Many of the media outlets targeted by the Trump administration are labelled as liberal which is a term used in the USA a pejorative by non-liberal voters. Some are, admittedly, outwardly liberal (CNN, Guardian) whilst others are attempting to strike a completely non-partisan reporting platform (BBC) although conspiracy theorists would argue otherwise.
This is part of a wider trend showing that Democrats are becoming more liberal and Republicans are becoming more Conservative with the USA becoming more polarised.
The Trump administration, and the President, have also sought to pivot the label "fake news" from referring to largely fabricated reports describing fantastical and untrue events which veer often into paranoid, anti-authority conspiracy theory to a more insidious label applied to the press corps as a whole; but also specifically any press institution classed as critical of the Trump administration.
This approach allows the administration to avoid direct criticism of individual events and policies by simply labeling the entirety of the press fake and thus, anything they print or investigate is fake by proxy. In doing so any nuanced investigation into any aspect of the Trump Presidency is smothered and overwhelmed as a figment of the fake news.
There is a discernible pattern and correlation showing that fake news is primarily endorsed, shared and buoyed by right-wing voters. Fake news / conspiracy theory often centers on anti-governance and dovetails with ideological views of Trump and right-wing voters meaning they are more susceptible to considering fake news websites as legitimate.
known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared eight million times;
"Pope backs Trump", "Hillary sold weapons to ISIS", "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead" - these fake headlines all went viral on Facebook in the run up to the election, gaining such high engagement that BuzzFeed published an analysis on how they had outperformed real news on Facebook.
Donald Trump also courted conspiracy theories. Initially, he suggested Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of JFK, perpetuated the myth of Obama not being born in the United States (which he later conceded) and repeatedly claimed climate change as a hoax all of which are the preserve of fake news websites.
Trump's unpredictability and his fueling of distrust of his opponents led to a growth in fake news that was supportive of him which now flames a cycle of de-legitimizing the established press making the term fake news essentially meaningless and more of a stick to beat the mainstream press with than a phenomenon in itself. Donald Trump said recently that "any negative polls are fake news".
There is considerable historical precedence to suggest that Trump is engaging in a wider de-legitimising of the Press in preparation for a wider assault on the Constitution, of which a free press, is a cornerstone.
Trump has continually referred to Fascist rhetoric directly (Drain the Swamp was from Mussolini) and he refers to the "lying press" daily which was also an early tactic of Adolf Hitler. In additional, many of his policies have been echoed in Fascist leaders throughout history but that deconstruction is for another post.
Mussolini established a High Commission for the press in the spring of 1929. Insisting that the Commission would not interfere with the freedom of the press, Mussolini’s Keeper of the Seals, Alfredo Rocco, nevertheless maintained an exception for “any activity contrary to the national interest,” “faithfulness to the Fatherland” naturally assuming the position of ultimate importance.
Journalists were, like all other professions, encouraged to see their occupation as one of many forms of service to the nation, to participate actively in the education and inculcation of the Italian people.
Right now, it is clear that far from embracing a transparent White House administration and striking a conciliatory tone with the free press of the world, Donald Trump is doubling down on his attacks and is taking punitive measures against what he considers to be a hostile actor in the 2017 United States of America.
Whether you consider the press hostile to Donald Trump or hostile to the USA is largely a question of your cultural upbringing and voter persuasion but a case to suggest Breitbart is a better custodian of Democratic First amendment rights rather than the BBC or the New York Times is nonexistent.
For instance, the New York Times, established in 1851, continually printed in New York, has won over 120 Pulitzer Prizes; more than any other newspaper organisation. It is considered a "Newspaper of Record" along with the LA Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
One whose editorial and news-gathering functions are considered professional and typically authoritative.
However, a number of historians and commentators have begun to draw parallels and conclusions from the timing of Donald Trump's outbursts and attacks. It appears that the most memorable attacks, often considered buffoonery, are synchronised with serious legislative events and revelations which become buried behind the latest "tweet-rage". This is speculation but not unprecedented.
There is a growing trend in reporting questioning the mental health of Donald Trump. Supporters of the President claim this is a distraction and unprovoked attack however in recent weeks more and more psychiatric and psychologist specialists have been speaking up using various news agencies and platforms to express alarm at his erratic behaviour. For instance, in a letter to the New York Times, 35 mental health professionals warned that the "grave emotional instability" indicated in Mr Trump's speech and actions made him "incapable of serving safely as president".
But the majority of mental health professionals have refrained from making public statements, following a self-imposed principle known as the "Goldwater rule", adopted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1973.
His attacks on the press are held as further indicators that he takes negative reporting about him or his administration extremely seriously and he cannot refocus on his task at hand until he has launched a counter-offensive against the aggrieving party. This is further evidence from mental health professionals that Donald Trump may lack the restraint required for the Commander in Chief role, a situation exacerbated by his continued endorsement of ideas which are best labelled as conspiracy theory.
So far, Trump's approach to the media, labelled as the MSM (Mainstream Media) by predominantly right-wing and/or libertarian demographics has played well with his core voter base who believe that the media bloc are part of a larger coordinated conspiracy against him and the right wing in general.
For instance; the Financial Times reports
Mr Trump’s most recent Gallup approval rating was 88 per cent among Republicans, which is historically normal, or even good, for a president within his own party. Even after a chaotic first month characterised by protests, the shambolic rollout of a travel ban, cabinet shake-ups and allegations of contacts with Russia, a dedicated core of US adults continues to approve of the job the president is doing.
This has culminated in the Republican Party releasing the "Mainstream Media Accountability Survey" which asks a series of questions focusing on the alleged shortcomings of the press, naming some media outlets.
Unfortunately for the President, his attacks are having the opposite effect as intended in the wider USA. Voter trust in the media is rising, almost daily, and the Legislature are becoming increasingly alarmed at his rhetoric.
Though he is polling better among his own party than some predecessors were at the same time including Bush and Reagan, Mr Trump’s overall approval rating remains lower than that of every other president soon after inauguration, at least since polling data became available in 1945. The main difference is that Mr Trump’s approval ratings among non-Republicans are much lower than other presidents.
Most tellingly, his daily claims that media outlets are failing (NYT especially) is being soundly rebutted by business reports showing the New York Times is showing rapid growth in subscriber numbers and quarterly profitability as well a stock price surge to the highest in 2.5 years.
His refusal to accept even basic facts is not helping his image as balanced and able to accept criticism; in fact, it paints a picture of a man creating his own reality around him in direct opposition to facts, truth and empirical evidence.
Part of the left and right divide comes from where Americans get their information. Last year, Fox News, the top news choice for Trump voters, became the most-watched cable news network on US television, surpassing the sports network ESPN for the first time. Nearly nine in 10 consistently conservative respondents told Pew they trusted Fox News, while only 6 per cent of consistently liberal respondents said the same.
Mainstream news outlets reported on Mr Trump’s low inauguration turnout compared to Mr Obama’s 2009 inauguration. According to a poll that week, fewer than a third of Trump voters agreed that Mr Obama had a larger turnout.
This information gap translates to tangible differences in the opinions US voters hold. In early February, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway mistakenly said that two Iraqi refugees perpetrated “the Bowling Green massacre”. No Bowling Green massacre ever occurred, a fact that many mainstream news outlets reported, but a majority of Trump voters still told pollsters that the non-existent massacre is why the US needs Mr Trump’s immigration executive order.
While the presumption is that most of the stories are disliked rather than false, note that some of the stories have been false.
The New York Times reported that there was a pattern of communications between the Donald Trump campaign and Russian officials. The FBI told the White House that they have not found that. Yes, we only know this from the White House, but that's not true of them. They know if they're telling the truth or lying. So from their perspective, this is an example of a false story. Or they're just plain lying.
CNN reported about an allegation that Donald Trump was involved in some kind of a sex act. Buzzfeed went further and posted the allegation itself. Apparently the story was entirely fabricated. CNN's side is that they were reporting on the rumor not the fact. This was undoubtedly frustrating, since the salacious details were published after it was already known that the allegation was false.
Trump said during the campaign that he felt that the media was too willing to print false information and that there should be better laws. This isn't new.
During the campaign, Trump also used false descriptions of his opponents. For example, calling Jeb Bush "low energy". That's also not new.
By world standards, the United States (US) is very lax against defamation, particularly against public figures. In most countries, the defendant of a slander or libel suit must prove a story true to avoid liability. In the US, the plaintiff must prove a story false to establish liability.
Note that this isn't necessarily the journalists making up stories, as Trump has charged. The more likely explanation is that the sources are misrepresenting the stories. As they are anonymous, no one can cross examine them except the original journalists. The source only needs to convince one journalist and an editor to get published. If the first isn't credulous enough, then perhaps the next will be.
Some people feel that Trump is exceptionally untruthful and that it is therefore fair game to respond in kind. Journalists are not being skeptical enough to prevent this.
Because, contrary to popular but wholly opinionated answer that was already posted:
Americans don't necessarily consider CNN and especially NYT as universally "credible".
A majority of Americans believe news organizations are too critical of President Trump, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Sunday.
51% of Americans said the media is too critical of Trump, while 41 percent think news organizations have been fair and objective.
Note that this is a poll of all Americans.
However, Trump isn't playing to all Americans.
He's playing to his base.
The split largely runs along party lines, with Republicans solidly backing Trump's belief that journalists have made up bogus stories in an attempt to damage Trump's presidency.
Asked if they believe the news media is "exaggerating the problems with the Trump Administration because they are uncomfortable and threatened with the kind of change Trump represents," 89% of Republicans agreed. Overall, the figure falls to 53%, with just 21% of Democrats buying in to the "fake news" claims.
This view of mass media as being partisan and untrustworthy was popular among Republicans well before Trump's entrance to political arena (and accounted for a big reason of popularity of Fox News cable channel, which positioned itself as "not liberal biased" from the start).
Some people on the right associate "Fake News" with things like Walter Durante's whitewashing of Stalin, and Dan Rathergate at CBS; as opposed to some articles on Facebook.
To further illustrate the fact that Trump is following his voters here, not leading, we have February 14, 2017 Fox News poll conducted by Anderson Robbins Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R); polling both landline and cellphones.
By a slim 45-42 percent margin, more voters say they trust the Trump administration to “tell the public the truth” than the reporters who cover the White House. Ten percent say neither.
The Fox poll last asked a similar question in June 2006. At that time, “news reporters” were more trusted than “government officials” by a 40-25 percent margin, with 26 percent saying neither.
Note the interesting thing: the trust in media is somewhat similar (negligible 42 to 40% drop - within error margin; meaning that Trump didn't have much of an effect).
Note that this is a registered voters poll.
Additionally, the poll results back the first part of my answer, that Republican base - or for that matter, independents - doesn't trust reporters - especially when covering Trump.
There are the expected partisan differences. Eight in 10 Republicans (81 percent) trust the Trump administration more to tell the truth, while roughly the same portion of Democrats trust the media (79 percent). Independents are twice as likely to put their faith in Trump as the press (52-26 percent), while 16 percent say neither.
Almost all Republicans (92 percent) and most independents (74 percent) perceive coverage as tougher on Trump. Some Democrats agree: 42 percent say it’s been tougher, 34 percent easier, and 21 percent the same.
The question title says the NYT is "reputable." That's debatable. There is a long laundry list of reasons to disagree. I'll look in depth at one -- their coverage of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax.
Here is the worst of the worst of their coverage. Keep in mind that this article was written four months after it was publicly known that there was ATM video of defendant Reade Seligmann a mile away at the time of the alleged crime. Yet the NYT wrote that:
an examination of the entire 1,850 pages of evidence . . . yields a more ambiguous picture. It shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong’s case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.
What, exactly, is "ambiguous?" Was there doubt that it was Seligmann in the video? Alternatively, did he tamper with the ATM's clock? And if so, did he also tamper with the electronic footprint of his ATM transaction -- bank records and so forth?
If you go to the NYT article, and search for the word "video" or "ATM" or "teller", you come up empty. So the NYT, which supposedly examined the "entire 1,850 pages of evidence" manages to write a 5,600 word article claiming that the picture was "ambiguous", while not mentioning precisely the evidence that proves it was not ambiguous in the slightest. Their story was torn apart that same day on multiple widely-read blogs, e.g. here and here. Yet the NYT, even 8 months later, was claiming that it had "generally reported both sides."
Still later, when prosecutor Mike Nifong was disbarred, the NYT wrote about it as a "surprise". Even as late as September, 2007, the NYT was changing an AP story in a way that created an appearance of ambiguity when there was none.
And keep in mind, all of this is just from the NYT's coverage of the Duke hoax. It's the same thing, year in and year out -- the NYT will selectively omit critical evidence that flies in the face of whatever conclusion they want you to believe. One could just as easily tear apart their non-coverage of Hillary Clinton's violation of 18 u.s.c. 793, paragraph (d). They kept on leading their readers to believe that "intent" was necessary to prove a crime. But look at the paragraph. Intent is not mentioned or required.
Examples like these are the reasons why plenty of Republicans do not consider the NYT to be a reputable source.
The leap from that to "Fake News" is obviously an exaggeration. But that's something Donald Trump does really well -- take a reality, then exaggerate it in a way that is memorable and lends itself to being talked about.
As an outsider to the whole "US media bias" debacle - and a foreigner - I believe that all the answers miss at least three important factors:
Information is power. If political system of any country is based upon voter casting his vote the importance of the voter to be adequately informed then it is of utmost importance to make sure the information is true and full. One can do all kinds of shenanigans with facts (or images or statements) so that they are facially true, but factually (or contextually) false. And if only there were instances in US history when press (or wider: mass media) fabricated news in order to gain power/influence/money from it...
Majority of US Media present itself as unbiased, neutral source of information. Opinions aside, this is demonstrably false across the journalistic scene. There is nothing wrong with being biased or non-neutral - I don't think it's even possible not to be so - except when one consciously and intentionally says one is unbiased while going way out of one's way to distort the information being transferred in order to benefit one's preferences.
US media - notwithstanding long traditions of high standards of journalism in general - instead of being the witness and monitor the social and political scenes are active players on those scenes. Once again - there's nothing wrong with that provided that is known to the public opinion. One can comfortably and in detail prove that reverse is true: that almost all major American media practice partisanship (sometimes to the extreme), while paying - albeit loudly - but only lip service to journalistic standards they purportedly embrace.
There was and is a qualitative and quantitative difference in the attention and depth the mass media dedicate to investigate things connected to - and I'm applying the terms widely - Left and Right in the US, with the latter getting majority of it, up to and including information that is obviously and provably untrue. Since Trump was on the receiving end of this bias for most of his campaign and as it mostly backfired then (I argue one of the factors that allowed him to win was the mentioned general bias of mass media against him) it is expected to work now (that is: after elections).
Success of any Administration is made or broken with information transfer; if that's distorted then said Administration can face huge problems. So at least someone grasps the problem: hostile media is bad, and as long as the principle of this hostility is "#NotMyPresident-because-I-don't-like-him-because-he's-not-fitting-inside-my-reality" benefits of being confrontational outweigh costs.
I would like to point out that this is not American phenomenon. This happens everywhere, and I can definitely say that in US it's more skilfully done (if not more subtly - Americans have virtually no experience with government controlled media thus do not parse propaganda well, so there's no need for subtlety) than in a lot of other countries. In some of them journalists are sometimes so brazen that they literally lie with straight faces while being live on air and when later called on it either ignore that or deny the fact.
Last note: I'm not bothered by, for example, Conway "making up Bowling green massacre", same as I'm not bothered by Clinton's "Sarajevo landing under sniper fire". While it may denote some trends one should be wary of, there is Grand Canyon of a difference between those and what, for example, Jonathan Gruber said about Obamacare and it's implementers, including Obama himself. And the way ot was handled by mass media is as telling as the fact itself.
Some numbers to prop up my "rant":
Mar 6, 2018 - Broadcast coverage of President Trump still 90% negative - Washington Times
This article on NPR even visualizes this problem - that Trump's coverage is unrelentingly negative. And it is ranging from 3 to 80 times worse than in Obama's case.
The accusations of liberal media bias are not new. The first credible confirmation of it was the documented cases in Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. And while it was often defended as simply glamorization of news for the sake of ratings (a modern equivalent would be link-baiting), the book's account has never been discredited as inaccurate.
The hysteria over Trump has been particularly telling though. And the fact that the news are proudly wearing their anti-Trump rhetoric on their sleeves is just as telling. Probably the most telling example of it is the accusations of Nazi sympathies back in the days when he was still running. They were made by media personalities (mostly situated in New York City) who were fully aware of Trump's personal history. So they knew that he was a loving and supporting father of a daughter who converted to Judaism (and of her Orthodox Jewish husband). The accusations of white-supremacism against a conservative website Breitbart (most of whose editorial staff is Jewish) were also laughable at best (and anti-semitic at worst). In fact, Trump is the only President in the US history to receive as many accusations of Fascism, white-supremacism, etc. from the media. At the same time, he is the only sitting US President who has more Jewish grandchildren than non-Jewish ones (to be honest, I don't know if Donald Jr.'s wife is Jewish, but if she is not, his children would be the President's only non-Jewish grandchildren).
The overall bar for accusations among the "mainstream" media against anyone supporting Trump seems to be that if there are any rumors or hearsay it is sufficient evidence to report. While the facts presented by the administration in its defense are often not reported despite being a matter of record. This stark distinction in the two standards for evidence is not only infuriating to the Trump supporters. It's also not lost on any fair-minded neutral observers. Arguably, it also merits the label "fake news".
In Western nations, the mainstream media used to be considered pretty reliable by the vast majority of the population.
In recent times, however, the mainstream media are increasingly being recognized as mere propaganda arms of the establishment. And in the US in particular, we see two flavors of propaganda, targeting different audiences.
One one side, there's the "Liberal" media, which perpetuates the party line of the Democratic party. CNN and the New York Times are prominent examples within this category. One the other side, there's the "Convervative" media, which perpetuates the party line of the Republican party. FOX New is the most prominent example within this category. Both sides often obsess about "the speck that is in their brother’s eye", while completely ignoring "the log that is their your own eye".
The reason for this, is because the American two-party system is really a plutocracy in disguise. And it maintains its shallow veneer of "democracy" by playing two personality traits against one another. Professor Jordan Peterson refers to those traits as “openness” and “conscientiousness”. People with a high degree of “openness” are typically good at innovation, but relatively bad at management. People with a high degree of “conscientiousness” are typically good at efficiently and effectively managing projects, but relatively bad at innovation.
Competitive tension between people with a high degree “openness” and people with a high degree of “conscientiousness” allows society to find a healthy balance between both and harvest the best of both worlds. However, this tension can be manipulated and used to divide a population into two seemingly polar opposites. The American mainstream media is used in this manner, steering people with a high degree of “openness” towards the Democratic party and people with a high degree of “conscientiousness” towards the Republican party.
Supporters of one party are taught to vehemently hate and blame supports of the other party, effectively dividing the masses while at the same time upholding the illusion that the US is an actual democracy. Hating the media of "the other" side is part of the package. "Liberals" are taught to see FOX are a tool of "Conservative" propaganda and "Conservatives" are taught to see CNN as a tool of "Liberal" propaganda.
The recent rise of Trump, however, seems to have caused a rare genuine schism in the American national political landscape. On one side, there's the old establishment, consisting of both Democrats and "Neoconservative" Republicans like McCain. On other side, there's the Trump administration, with a highly unusual mixture of Wall Street moguls and hardliner Zionists at the top and a large base of mostly Christian "Paleoconservatives" and White nationalists at the bottom.
The old establishment was caught off guard as they failed to predict the rise of the new establishment, which threatened its own power. Thus, as the new establishment rose to power, the old establishment media organs started vehemently attacking the independent online media as part of a new propaganda campaign. "Fake news" became the slur of the day, used by the old establishment to attack any independent media blamed for the rise of the new establishment.
The Trump administration, however, quickly realized the same term could be used as a slur against the mainstream media, which have been serving as propaganda organs of the old establishment for quite a while now. As such, they succeeded in neutralizing much of its propaganda value.
The role of the press is to report facts, not to give their opinions. The reader should be left to determine the conclusion of the facts. But, readers assume that what they are reading is true. If the "facts" given are false, or partially false, then the reader may be making conclusions that aren't supported by the real facts. This is labelled as "fake news." It's propaganda, or information given by an organization to form public opinion based on how the organization WANTS the public to think.
Editorial opinions, other the other hand, write "op-eds" to give their opinions. The reader can agree with the writer or not.
Two possibilities - One is that they are putting out misleading, biased or slanted information, and Trump wants to be assessed on actual facts, not misleading mud-slinging.
Two is that they are putting out information that is factually accurate, so he needs to try and create a cloud of doubt, chaos and/or confusion because those facts would not bode well for him if people believed them.
I assume you realise that all sides of every debate in history have used disinformation to persuade. CNN is fake news. Fox News is also fake news. Everything is fake news in as much that everything is the presentation of the truth through the lens of human bias. So calling something fake news is a statement of the obvious.
So why does Trump use the term so much?
Trump continually and proudly uses the term “fake news” simply because, like his supporters, he delights in the fact that it was the Clinton campaign and the leftist media themselves who first started using the term (in recent history) back in the fall of 2016 while concurrently indulging in it themselves.
The exact sequencing of use between the Clinton campaign and leftist media is unclear because, as Wikileaks showed, the lines between media and political organisations are themselves blurred.
The entire leftist politico-media complex used the term and indulged in the manufacture of it at fever pitch into the early weeks of 2017 to discredit Trump’s win and later undermine his policy choices.
Finally, after months of use against him, in January 2017 Trump hit back by starting to use the term himself, thereby calling out the hypocrisy.
This incensed the Left because Trump had successfully taken a weapon directed by them, turned it around and transformed it into a device to rally his base.
Propaganda and disinformation (“fake news”) has been used since the dawn of time.
Both sides know this.
Trump uses the term because it is absolutely true, because it is like catnip to his political opponents, because it rallies his base and because it is hilariously funny.
The mainstream press has been an embarrassment to dumpster fires for a long time, but the sheer volume of fake news about Trump, especially concerning Russia, is flat out disturbing. The following article is reproduced in it's entirety from Glenn Greenwald and should be required reading. I know this goes against precedent here, but hopefully people will value the exception. It's a great summation.
FRIDAY WAS ONE of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, and countless pundits, commentators, and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.
The spectacle began Friday morning at 11 a.m. EST, when the Most Trusted Name in News™ spent 12 straight minutes on air flamboyantly hyping an exclusive bombshell report that seemed to prove that WikiLeaks, last September, had secretly offered the Trump campaign, even Donald Trump himself, special access to the Democratic National Committee emails before they were published on the internet. As CNN sees the world, this would prove collusion between the Trump family and WikiLeaks and, more importantly, between Trump and Russia, since the U.S. intelligence community regards WikiLeaks as an “arm of Russian intelligence,” and therefore, so does the U.S. media.
This entire revelation was based on an email that CNN strongly implied it had exclusively obtained and had in its possession. The email was sent by someone named “Michael J. Erickson” — someone nobody had heard of previously and whom CNN could not identify — to Donald Trump Jr., offering a decryption key and access to DNC emails that WikiLeaks had “uploaded.” The email was a smoking gun, in CNN’s extremely excited mind, because it was dated September 4 — 10 days before WikiLeaks began promoting access to those emails online — and thus proved that the Trump family was being offered special, unique access to the DNC archive: likely by WikiLeaks and the Kremlin.
It’s impossible to convey with words what a spectacularly devastating scoop CNN believed it had, so it’s necessary to watch it for yourself to see the tone of excitement, breathlessness, and gravity the network conveyed as they clearly believed they were delivering a near-fatal blow on the Trump-Russia collusion story:
There was just one small problem with this story: It was fundamentally false, in the most embarrassing way possible. Hours after CNN broadcast its story — and then hyped it over and over and over — the Washington Post reported that CNN got the key fact of the story wrong.
The email was not dated September 4, as CNN claimed, but rather September 14 — which means it was sent after WikiLeaks had already published access to the DNC emails online. Thus, rather than offering some sort of special access to Trump, “Michael J. Erickson” was simply some random person from the public encouraging the Trump family to look at the publicly available DNC emails that WikiLeaks — as everyone by then already knew — had publicly promoted. In other words, the email was the exact opposite of what CNN presented it as being.
How did CNN end up aggressively hyping such a spectacularly false story? They refuse to say. Many hours after their story got exposed as false, the journalist who originally presented it, congressional reporter Manu Raju, finally posted a tweet noting the correction. CNN’s P.R. department then claimed that “multiple sources” had provided CNN with the false date. And Raju went on CNN, in muted tones, to note the correction, explicitly claiming that “two sources” had each given him the false date on the email, while also making clear that CNN did not ever even see the email, but only had sources describe its purported contents:
All of this prompts the glaring, obvious, and critical question — one that CNN refuses to address: How did “multiple sources” all misread the date on this document, in exactly the same way and toward the same end, and then feed this false information to CNN?
It is, of course, completely plausible that one source might innocently misread a date on a document. But how is it remotely plausible that multiple sources could all innocently and in good faith misread the date in exactly the same way, all to cause the dissemination of a blockbuster revelation about Trump-Russia-WikiLeaks collusion? This is the critical question that CNN simply refuses to answer. In other words, CNN refuses to provide the most minimal transparency to enable the public to understand what happened here.
WHY DOES THIS matter so much? For so many significant reasons:
To begin with, it’s hard to overstate how fast, far, and wide this false story traveled. Democratic Party pundits, operatives, and journalists with huge social media platforms predictably jumped on the story immediately, announcing that it proved collusion between Trump and Russia (through WikiLeaks). One tweet from Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, claiming that this proved evidence of criminal collusion, was retweeted thousands and thousands of times in just a few hours (Lieu quietly deleted the tweet after I noted its falsity, and long after it went very viral, without ever telling his followers that the CNN story, and therefore his accusation, had been debunked).
Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes, whose star has risen as he has promoted himself as a friend of former FBI Director Jim Comey, not only promoted the CNN story in the morning, but did so with the word “boom” — which he uses to signal that a major blow has been delivered to Trump on the Russia story — along with a GIF of a cannon being detonated:
Incredibly, to this very moment — almost 24 hours after CNN’s story was debunked — Wittes has never noted to his more than 200,000 followers that the story he so excitedly promoted turned out to be utterly false, even though he returned to Twitter long after the story was debunked to tweet about other matters. He just left his false and inflammatory claims uncorrected.
Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall believed the story was so significant that he used an image of an atomic bomb detonating at the top of his article discussing its implications, an article he tweeted to his roughly 250,000 followers. Only at night was an editor’s note finally added noting that the whole thing was false.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how many people were deceived — filled with false news and propaganda — by the CNN story. But thanks to Democratic-loyal journalists and operatives who decree every Trump-Russia claim to be true without seeing any evidence, it’s certainly safe to say that many hundreds of thousands of people, almost certainly millions, were exposed to these false claims.
Surely anyone who has any minimal concerns about journalistic accuracy — which would presumably include all the people who have spent the last year lamenting Fake News, propaganda, Twitter bots, and the like — would demand an accounting as to how a major U.S. media outlet ended up filling so many people’s brains with totally false news. That alone should prompt demands from CNN for an explanation about what happened here. No Russian Facebook ad or Twitter bot could possibly have anywhere near the impact as this CNN story had when it comes to deceiving people with blatantly inaccurate information.
Second, the “multiple sources” who fed CNN this false information did not confine themselves to that network. They were apparently very busy eagerly spreading the false information to as many media outlets as they could find. In the middle of the day, CBS News claimed that it had independently “confirmed” CNN’s story about the email and published its own breathless article discussing the grave implications of this discovered collusion.
Most embarrassing of all was what MSNBC did. You just have to watch this report from its “intelligence and national security correspondent” Ken Dilanian to believe it. Like CBS, Dilanian also claimed that he had independently “confirmed” the false CNN report from “two sources with direct knowledge of this.” Dilanian, whose career in the U.S. media continues to flourish the more he is exposed as someone who faithfully parrots what the CIA tells him to say (since that is one of the most coveted and valued attributes in U.S. journalism), spent three minutes mixing evidence-free CIA claims as fact with totally false assertions about what his multiple “sources with direct knowledge” told him about all this. Please watch this — again, not just the content but the tenor and tone of how they “report” — as it is Baghdad Bob-level embarrassing:
Think about what this means. It means that at least two — and possibly more — sources, which these media outlets all assessed as credible in terms of having access to sensitive information, all fed the same false information to multiple news outlets at the same time. For multiple reasons, the probability is very high that these sources were Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee (or their high-level staff members), which is the committee that obtained access to Trump Jr.’s emails, although it’s certainly possible that it’s someone else. We won’t know until these news outlets deign to report this crucial information to the public: Which “multiple sources” acted jointly to disseminate incredibly inflammatory, false information to the nation’s largest news outlets?
Just last week, the Washington Post decided — to great applause (including mine) — to expose a source to whom they had promised anonymity and off-the-record protections because they discovered that she was purposely feeding them false information as part of a scheme by Project Veritas to discredit the Post. It’s a well-established principle of journalism — one that is rarely followed when it comes to powerful people in D.C. — that journalists should expose, rather than protect and conceal, sources who purposely feed them false information to be disseminated to the public.
The Post made the right call to report off-the-record comments given they were offered with fraudulent intent. This should be done far more often to actually powerful-in-DC people who spread lies while hiding behind anonymity
Is that what happened here? Did these “multiple sources” who fed not just CNN, but also MSNBC and CBS completely false information do so deliberately and in bad faith? Until these news outlets provide an accounting of what happened — what one might call “minimal journalistic transparency” — it’s impossible to say for certain. But right now, it’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which multiple sources all fed the wrong date to multiple media outlets innocently and in good faith.
If this were, in fact, a deliberate attempt to cause a false and highly inflammatory story to be reported, then these media outlets have an obligation to expose who the culprits are — just as the Washington Post did last week to the woman making false claims about Roy Moore (it was much easier in that case because the source they exposed was a nobody in D.C., rather than someone on whom they rely for a steady stream of stories, the way CNN and MSNBC rely on Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee). By contrast, if this were just an innocent mistake, then these media outlets should explain how such an implausible sequence of events could possibly have happened.
Thus far, these media corporations are doing the opposite of what journalists ought to do: Rather than informing the public about what happened and providing minimal transparency and accountability for themselves and the high-level officials who caused this to happen, they are hiding behind meaningless, obfuscating statements crafted by P.R. executives and lawyers.
How can journalists and news outlets so flamboyantly act offended when they’re attacked as being “Fake News” when this is the conduct behind which they hide when they get caught disseminating incredibly consequential false stories?
THE MORE SERIOUS you think the Trump-Russia story is, the more dangerous you think it is when Trump attacks the U.S. media as “Fake News,” the more you should be disturbed by what happened here, the more transparency and accountability you should be demanding. If you’re someone who thinks Trump’s attacks on the media are dangerous, then you should be first in line objecting when they act recklessly and demand transparency and accountability from them. It is debacles like this — and the subsequent corporate efforts to obfuscate — that have made the U.S. media so disliked and that fuel and empower Trump’s attacks on them.
Third, this type of recklessness and falsity is now a clear and highly disturbing trend — one could say a constant — when it comes to reporting on Trump, Russia, and WikiLeaks. I have spent a good part of the last year documenting the extraordinarily numerous, consequential, and reckless stories that have been published — and then corrected, rescinded, and retracted — by major media outlets when it comes to this story.
All media outlets, of course, will make mistakes. The Intercept certainly has made our share, as have all outlets. And it’s particularly natural, inevitable, for mistakes to be made on a highly complicated, opaque story like the question of the relationship between Trump and the Russians, and questions relating to how WikiLeaks obtained the DNC and Podesta emails. That is all to be expected.
But what one should expect with journalistic “mistakes” is that they sometimes go in one direction and other times go in the other direction. That’s exactly what has not happened here. Virtually every false story published goes only in one direction: to be as inflammatory and damaging as possible on the Trump-Russia story and about Russia particularly. At some point, once “mistakes” all start going in the same direction, toward advancing the same agenda, they cease looking like mistakes.
No matter your views on those political controversies, no matter how much you hate Trump or regard Russia as a grave villain and threat to our cherished democracy and freedoms, it has to be acknowledged that when the U.S. media is spewing constant false news about all of this, that, too, is a grave threat to our democracy and cherished freedom.
So numerous are the false stories about Russia and Trump over the last year that I literally cannot list them all. Just consider the ones from the last week alone, as enumerated by the New York Times yesterday in its news report on CNN’s embarrassment:
It was also yet another prominent reporting error at a time when news organizations are confronting a skeptical public, and a president who delights in attacking the media as “fake news.”
Last Saturday, ABC News suspended a star reporter, Brian Ross, after an inaccurate report that Donald Trump had instructed Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, to contact Russian officials during the presidential race.
The report fueled theories about coordination between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, and stocks dropped after the news. In fact, Mr. Trump’s instruction to Mr. Flynn came after he was president-elect.
Several news outlets, including Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, also inaccurately reported this week that Deutsche Bank had received a subpoena from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for President Trump’s financial records.
The president and his circle have not been shy about pointing out the errors.
That’s just the last week alone. Let’s just remind ourselves of how many times major media outlets have made humiliating, breathtaking errors on the Trump-Russia story, always in the same direction, toward the same political goals. Here is just a sample of incredibly inflammatory claims that traveled all over the internet before having to be corrected, walked back, or retracted — often long after the initial false claims spread, and where the corrections receive only a tiny fraction of the attention with which the initial false stories are lavished:
Russia hacked into the U.S. electric grid to deprive Americans of heat during winter (Wash Post)
An anonymous group (PropOrNot) documented how major U.S. political sites are Kremlin agents (Wash Post)
WikiLeaks has a long, documented relationship with Putin (Guardian)
A secret server between Trump and a Russian bank has been discovered (Slate)
RT hacked C-SPAN and caused disruption in its broadcast (Fortune)
Russians hacked into a Ukrainian artillery app (Crowdstrike)
Russians attempted to hack elections systems in 21 states (multiple news outlets, echoing Homeland Security)
Links have been found between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund under investigation (CNN)
That really is just a small sample. So continually awful and misleading has this reporting been that even Vladimir Putin’s most devoted critics — such as Russian expatriate Masha Gessen, oppositional Russian journalists, and anti-Kremlin liberal activists in Moscow — are constantly warning that the U.S. media’s unhinged, ignorant, paranoid reporting on Russia is harming their cause in all sorts of ways, in the process destroying the credibility of the U.S. media in the eyes of Putin’s opposition (who — unlike Americans who have been fed a steady news and entertainment propaganda diet for decades about Russia — actually understand the realities of that country).
U.S. media outlets are very good at demanding respect. They love to imply, if not outright state, that being patriotic and a good American means that one must reject efforts to discredit them and their reporting because that’s how one defends press freedom.
But journalists also have the responsibility not just to demand respect and credibility but to earn it. That means that there shouldn’t be such a long list of abject humiliations, in which completely false stories are published to plaudits, traffic, and other rewards, only to fall apart upon minimal scrutiny. It certainly means that all of these “errors” shouldn’t be pointing in the same direction, pushing the same political outcome or journalistic conclusion.
But what it means most of all is that when media outlets are responsible for such grave and consequential errors as the spectacle we witnessed yesterday, they have to take responsibility for it by offering transparency and accountability. In this case, that can’t mean hiding behind P.R. and lawyer silence and waiting for this to just all blow away.
At minimum, these networks — CNN, MSNBC, and CBS — have to either identify who purposely fed them this blatantly false information or explain how it’s possible that “multiple sources” all got the same information wrong in innocence and good faith. Until they do that, their cries and protests the next time they’re attacked as “Fake News” should fall on deaf ears, since the real author of those attacks — the reason those attacks resonate — is themselves and their own conduct.
Update: Dec. 9, 2017
Hours after this article was published on Saturday — a full day and a half after his original tweets promoting the false CNN story with a “boom” and a cannon — Benjamin Wittes finally got around to noting that the CNN story he hyped has “serious problems”; needless to say, that acknowledgment received a fraction of retweets from his followers as his original tweets hyping the story attracted.