Is Trump right about “fake news”?

Yes and no. Let’s look at the cases of CNN, the New York Times and the Denver Post.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” – Warren Buffett

President Donald is big on labeling things “fake news.” While his definition of the term amounts to “reporting that disagrees with me or calls me out on my many lies,” the truth is that, for reasons Donald wouldn’t be able to grasp, America actually does have a serious news credibility issue. “Fake news” isn’t new, and it does represent a toxic blight at the core of our republic.

I, for one, am hellishly unforgiving when news agencies lie to me, and it happens more than it should. There have been several cases through the years where newspapers and broadcast outlets with established, bedrock reputations for accuracy and integrity have alienated me for good with one cheap, cynical moment. In theory you can win a reader’s trust back if you work hard enough long enough, but that hinges on whether said reader is willing to give it one more go. This one isn’t. I don’t have time to read and fact check you for a decade to see if you deserve a second chance, so when it comes to journalism, it’s one strike and you’re out.

Let me share some examples with you.

CNN

It pained me, in the early days of the Trump regime, to see CNN singled out by Donald. When that happened, they were accorded an honored place as a leading light of the legitimate press. They were martyred. The attacks gave them credibility that they simply do not deserve. As real journalism goes, CNN has been a clown car for 25 years. It started, of course, when they used the first Iraq war to more or less invent reality TV, but the moment I walked away for good was during the Elian Gonzales “crisis.”

Here’s what I said about the case four years ago:

When the federal authorities broke in to take the kid, AP photographer Alan Diaz took a famous picture. CNN posted it along with their story. Here’s that picture.

elian gonzales original

I checked back a few minutes later, though, and something had changed. See if you can spot what happened.

elian gonzales crop

What do you see? What do you think was the point?

For the vision-impaired, picture one depicts the agent pointing a nasty looking automatic weapon at the man holding Elian Gonzales. Which is a pretty good photo. But it isn’t as thrilling as a picture of a federal agent pointing a nasty looking automatic weapon at six year-old Elian Gonzales, is it?

My conclusion: “This was a deliberate editorial decision that served no legitimate journalistic purpose. However, it served the purposes of entertainment and marketing quite enthusiastically.”

That was hardly CNN’s only crime against journalism. By this point we’d already seen CNN’s all-in participation in the Richard Jewell case and in 2013 they set about reaffirming long-disproven myths in the JonBenet Ramsey case.

CNN may, on occasion, commit legitimate journalism, but only a fool would believe they do so consistently and reliably. They are not in the journalism business. They’re in the entertainment business.

The New York Times

The Grey Lady. The iconic, unimpeachable soul of American journalism. Once upon a time, anyway.

My colleague here at S&R, Frank Balsinger, recently opened up on the NYTs decision to provide a forum for a climate denialist because lots of idiots agree with him, and if you’re still aboard the bandwagon as it careers directly toward Weekly World News hell, now might be a good time to jump.

However, those of us paying close attention parted company with the once-proud paper way back in 2005, when we learned that “reporter” Judith Miller was basically acting as Karl Rove’s typist, and then it got worse, as the Times essentially claimed journalistic privilege to provide cover for felonious behavior.

The line being universally propagated by the press in the Plame case is that it’s a press freedom issue. Sorry, but it’s not. It’s a press freedom issue only if the reporters are acting in a legitimately journalistic context.

Miller and Cooper are protecting friends, perhaps, or allies, or acquaintances. They may be protecting people who have been legitimate and valuable sources in the past. But they aren’t protecting sources at the moment – as I say above, you’re only a source if you’re acting in the context of the development of legitimate story. Just because you were a source last year doesn’t mean you are this year.

If the only story in sight at the moment is your own felonious behavior, you’re not a source, you’re a criminal.

And the guy protecting you isn’t a reporter, he’s an accessory after the fact.

The Denver Post (and most every other outlet that covered the Columbine shootings)

I’ve never experienced anything quite like Columbine, as yesterday, when some errand-running took me out Bowles Ave. past the school and Clement Park, I was stunned at how raw the wound still is all these years on.

A huge part of the anger I still feel surrounds the worst case of journalistic malpractice I think I have ever seen – the premeditated dissemination of lies by the Denver Post.

In case you’re not familiar with what happened, you might recall the famous Cassie Bernall/”she said yes” story, in which one of the shooters (Eric Harris, I think) allegedly put a gun to her head in the library and asked “do you believe in God.” According to the story, Cassie said yes, at which point Harris pulled the trigger.

This is archetypally compelling martyrdom fodder and the evangelical community here seized on it like a life preserver in high seas. The problem? It was pure fiction. As I noted in 2009 (and please, click all the links in this passage for more detail):

The mainstream press values the narrative above the facts. They were goths! It was the Trenchcoat Mafia! They were targeting jocks, blacks and Christians! Cassie Bernall said yes!

Lie. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. And damnable, intentional lie. Local and national “reporters” could have been outperformed by monkeys with Ouija boards.

Not that the run-of-the-mill press bumbling came as any real surprise – journalistic malpractice is well-known in Colorado. But ineptitude is one thing. Outright, overt, premeditated lies are quite another, and that’s exactly what both of Denver’s mainstream papers – the Denver Post and the recently-defunct Rocky Mountain News – did when they ran the “Cassie Bernall said yes” story as fact. They knew, by their own admission, that it was false, so why did they lie? Well, the lie seemed to be providing comfort to a grieving city.

Take that as the foundational operating principle for a free press and see where it leads…

To be clear: it never happened. The Post knew it never happened. And by the timeline revealed in their own comments, it’s clear that they intentionally published a story they knew to be false well after they knew the truth.

Thank the gods for Dave Cullen, Westword and Salon.

It’s one thing when a press agency makes a mistake. It’s one thing when they are misled by a source. It’s one thing when they make the wrong call on a debatable matter of principle. In these cases there is perhaps a road back to salvation, beginning with an apology and an open, honest commitment to do better.

There is no forgiveness ever for those who intentionally lie (especially if they never apologize, which I don’t believe the Post ever did).

Is President Donald right about “fake news”?

Well, yes and no. He’s certainly right that we’re beset by bad journalism and that many press agencies can’t be trusted.

Of course, no, because his ability to parse what is and isn’t valid journalism is based on the reasoning ability of a spoiled, tantrum-prone two year-old.

In a way it reminds me of all those conservatives who hated Obama. I spent years making clear my low regard for Obama, so hey, we all agree, right? Well, no. My issue was that he was a co-opted tool of the establishment. So if you hated him because he was a Socialist Nigerian secret Muslin, then you were as wrong as those who regarded him as a progressive savior.

It’s like in elementary school when the teacher would make you show your work. It’s not enough to have the right answer, it’s important that you have it for the right reason.

As it stands now, America has way too much fake journalism, and some of it indeed issues from CNN. But fake journalism on the whole benefits the corrupt. Careful what you wish for, Donald. The last thing you want is any part of a real press corps driven by nothing more than a commitment to the truth.

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More on journalistic credibility from S&R:

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