President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed as of late reads like one long angry rant against the media. Sadly, they’ve given him the ammunition to do it with high-profile blunders by ABC and CNN. Trump basks in the glow of the “Fake News” spotlight, and his base supporters are more than happy to pile on.
On “Reliable Sources” this weekend, host Brian Stelter had Carl Bernstein of Washington Post fame along with Senior Editor of The Atlantic, David Frum. Stelter asked both for their view of the media criticism leveled by the President in light of recent events.
Brian specifically asked about a “string of errors” by the media this week, covering the Trump administration. The entire segment is worth watching, but Stelter asks his question just after the three-minute mark.
Well, they’re damaging in the sense this is taking place in a cold civil war in this country in which neither side seems to have much interest in the best obtainable version of the truth. Too many people in our citizenry and in our institutions are looking for information that re-enforces what they already believe, that buttresses their already held political prejudices, cultural beliefs, et cetera, et cetera.
At the same time, look, reporters, journalists make mistakes. Our record as journalists in covering this Trump story and the Russian story is pretty good, especially compared to the record of Donald Trump and his serial lying.
But hold on, Carl, you’re saying our record is pretty good. But why would — why would a Trump supporter believe that given this repetitive string of errors?
Credit to Stelter for asking that follow-up. Bernstein again repeated what he said previously about people looking for news that confirms their biases rather than the truth.
In one sense he’s right. Without a doubt, confirmation bias leads people to question the veracity of some news outlets immediately. Trump’s core base won’t believe a story as reported on CNN or in the pages of the Washington Post or The New York Times. Those who consider themselves part of “the resistance” movement will react the same to anything appearing on Fox News.
Bernstein’s assumption, however, comes across as short-sighted. There are plenty of people who voted for Trump that won’t dismiss a report from CNN or The Washington Post out of hand. It is those people Bernstein should worry over, not the hard-core Trump supporters.
Stelter then asked Frum:
David, what’s your advice for journalists in the situation and for readers?
I have more advice for readers. The mistake — you asked the question Brian, why should given these mistakes, why should people trust the media? I would say, the mistakes are precisely the reason the people should trust the media. Look, astronomers make mistakes all the time because science is a process of discovery of truth. Astrologers never make mistakes, or at least they never own up to them, because what they are offering is a closed system of ideology and propaganda.
Faced with wrongdoing circled by lies, the process of piercing the lies to uncover the truth about the wrongdoing is inherently not only difficult but adversarial, because the people are trying to find the truth are offered against bad faith actors engaged in concealment. So, they get partial pieces of the truth.
In the process, there are going to be overshoots and undershoots.
This kind of response will only fuel the anger, not extinguish it. Frum’s argument is a straw man in which he suggests the news consumer demands 100 percent accuracy from the media. He also suggests the dogged determination by reporters to deal with an administration so hell-bent on lying makes it understandable they would overshoot in an attempt to get at the truth.
Investigative reporters and political reporters are well-versed in the culture of lying that exists in Washington. They know the game, and they know how it works. To suggest they screw up because they take on such a burden dealing with an administration that lies like none other does a disservice to their work.
So what should the media do to earn back some of the trust they’ve lost knowing they will still make mistakes from time to time?
First, members of the press have to stop being baited by President Trump. He makes it easy with his impetuous nature and ability to reach millions with one tweet. When Jim Acosta smugly tweets, “We are real news, Mr. President,” it provides fodder for Trump and his supporters to behave dismissively when the media does make a mistake. Trump tweeted the following:
Very little discussion of all the purposely false and defamatory stories put out this week by the Fake News Media. They are out of control – correct reporting means nothing to them. Major lies written, then forced to be withdrawn after they are exposed…a stain on America!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2017
Naturally, the news media didn’t publish purposely false or defamatory stories. Trump’s goal is to elicit overly defensive reactions from reporters. Their work stands alone against this kind of nonsense. People understand that which is why Trump’s RCP average job approval sits at 37 percent.
Reporters should do their work and when they screw up, own it and move on. It doesn’t do anybody any favors to highlight how often they get it right. It does nothing but put them in a defensive position. They should allow their body of work to speak for itself.
Additionally, we are in an environment where getting the story out first tends to matter more than making sure the story is right. Everybody wants to find that one story that could lead to the downfall of President Trump. People credit Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with “taking down” Nixon. Woodward, however, said journalists do not take down presidents. He said the Watergate process began with reporting, but it did not cause the outcome.
Stories that promise to be “bombshells” require that much more scrutiny before publishing. Nobody can say for sure whether or not CNN’s Wikileaks story would have been held up if they waited another day or two, but would it have hurt?
In a day and age when the news media must rely more on anonymous sources for their stories, that extra bit of scrutiny could mean the difference between a big story or an embarrassment.
The media will remain under a microscope for the duration of Trump’s presidency. There will likely be more mistakes and errors.
The press needs to be better than Bernstein and Frum in dealing with the fallout.