Covering the Trump presidency has not always been the media’s finest hour, but even grading on that curve, the month of December has brought astonishing screwups. Professor and venerable political observer Walter Russell Mead tweeted on December 8, “I remember Watergate pretty well, and I don’t remember anything like this level of journalistic carelessness back then. The constant stream of ‘bombshells’ that turn into duds is doing much more to damage the media than anything Trump could manage.”
On December 1, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross went on air and made a remarkable claim. For months, the media have been furiously trying to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Ross reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had just pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was prepared to testify that President Trump had instructed him to contact Russian officials before the 2016 election, while Trump was still a candidate. If true, it would have been a gamechanger. But Ross’s claim was inaccurate. Flynn’s documented attempts to contact the Russians came after Trump was president-elect, allegedly trying to lay diplomatic groundwork for the new administration. Ross was suspended by ABC for four weeks without pay for the error.
Later that same weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Trump transition official K. T. McFarland, charging that she had lied to congressional investigators about knowledge of the Trump transition team’s contacts with Russia. The article went through four headline changes and extensive edits after it was first published, substantially softening and backing away from claims made in the original version. The first headline made a definitive claim: “McFarland Contradicted Herself on Russia Contacts, Congressional Testimony Shows.” The headline now reads “Former Aide’s Testimony on Russia Is Questioned.” The website Newsdiffs, which tracks edits of articles after publication, shows nearly the entire body of the article was rewritten. (The Times website makes no mention of the changes.)
Still in that first weekend of December, Senator Orrin Hatch criticized the excesses of federal welfare programs, saying, “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves.” The quote was taken wildly out of context. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as well as journalists from Mic, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times reported that Hatch was directly criticizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, with some suggesting Hatch thought children should be put to work to pay for subsidized health care. Not only was Hatch not criticizing the CHIP program, he cowrote the recent bill to extend its funding.
On December 5, Reuters and Bloomberg reported that special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank account records of President Trump and family members, possibly related to business done in Russia. The report was later corrected to say Mueller was subpoenaing “people or entities close to Mr. Trump.”
Then on December 8, another Russia bombshell turned into a dud. CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb reported Donald Trump Jr. had been sent an email on September 4, 2016, with a decryption key to a WikiLeaks trove of hacked emails from Clinton confidant and Democratic operative John Podesta—that is, before the hacked emails were made public. (WikiLeaks is widely surmised to act as a front for Russian intelligence.) MSNBC and CBS quickly claimed to have confirmed CNN’s scoop. Within hours, though, CNN’s report was discredited. The email was sent on September 14, after the hacked Podesta emails had been made publicly available. CNN later admitted it never saw the email it was reporting the contents of.
This is just eight days’ worth of blundering. Since October of last year, when Franklin Foer at Slate filed an erroneous report on a computer server in Trump Tower communicating with a Russian bank, there have been an unprecedented number of media faceplants, most of them directly related to the Russia-collusion theory. The errors always run in the same direction—they report or imply that the Trump campaign was in league with Moscow. For a politicized and overwhelmingly liberal press corps, the wish that this story be true is obviously the father to the errors. Just as obviously, there are precedents for such high-profile embarrassments in the past. (Remember Dan Rather’s “scoop” on George W. Bush’s National Guard service?) But flawed reporting in the Trump era is becoming more the norm than the exception, suggesting the media have become far too willing to abandon some pretty basic journalistic standards.
Editors at top news organizations once treated anonymous sourcing as a necessary evil, a tool to be used sparingly. Now anonymous sources dominate Trump coverage. It’s not just a problem for readers, who should rightly be skeptical of information someone isn’t willing to vouch for by name. It’s a problem for reporters, too, because anonymous sources are less likely to be cautious and diligent in providing information. According to CNN, the sources behind the busted report on Trump Jr.’s contact with WikiLeaks didn’t intend to deceive and had been reliable in the past. Maybe so, but given the network’s repeated errors it’s difficult to just take CNN’s word for it.
But it’s one thing to use anonymous sources; it’s quite another to be entirely trusting of them. CNN decided to report the contents of an email to Donald Trump Jr. based only on the say-so of two anonymous sources and without seeing the emails. “I remember when I was [a staffer] on the Ways and Means committee and I would try and give reporters stories, and I remember the Wall Street Journal demanded to see a document,” former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer tells The Weekly Standard. “They wouldn’t take it from me if I didn’t give them the document, and I thought, ‘Good for them!’ ”