by J. Peder Zane
Many iconic U.S. newspapers sport slogans that seek to explain their mission – and self-image. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” has been called “the seven most famous words in American journalism.” “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was an overtly partisan call to arms. But the most telling section of a newspaper’s true values is its “Corrections” page. That’s where journalism distinguishes itself from just about every other profession, routinely and straightforwardly admitting its mistakes. Who else does that?
It is a soul-crushing enterprise. A single misspelled name is all it takes to ruin an otherwise stellar article. We reporters may forget the topic of the piece we wrote last week, while the error five years ago is seared into our memories. But it is also crucial: Reader trust is the lifeblood of journalism. If you can’t believe what you read, why bother?
And yet, we do get things wrong all the time. Despite the self-righteous claims of too many news outlets, journalists don’t print The Truth. The “first draft of history” is necessarily messy and incomplete. What journalists have long promised readers is that we will do our best to get the story right initially and then set the record straight when better information emerges. This isn’t solely a commitment to high-minded ethics. It is also transactional: Journalists can so readily acknowledge errors because readers honor and reward our honesty. They forgive us our trespasses because we acknowledge them.
Unfortunately, this glorious compact between readers and journalists is evolving in dangerous directions, as news coverage becomes corrupted by the give-no-quarter partisan divide that shapes our politics. Increasingly, readers expect their favored news sources to advance their favored narrative, the facts be damned. And many news outlets, beset by immense economic challenges, seem happy to satisfy them to stay afloat.
A notable example is the stubborn unwillingness of major news outlets to correct clear errors in their coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation.
On Nov. 24, my colleague at RealClearInvestigations, Aaron Maté, wrote a detailed article highlighting a series of stories published by the New York Times and the Washington Post that contained “false or misleading claims.” The pieces he analyzed were either part of the entry the papers submitted to win a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for their Russiagate coverage or were written by reporters who shared in that honor. Significantly, the major errors and misleading assertions identified by Maté were not based on newly discovered information, but on documents and statements long in the public domain.
Before publication, Maté sent multiple detailed requests for comment to the reporters and newspaper representatives. All but one of his queries went unanswered. As of Feb. 7, neither newspaper has appended a single correction or clarification to the articles Maté discussed. Here are two examples from the Times that reflect the problems Maté found.
Example 1: On Feb. 14, 2017, the Times published a bombshell report that seemed to establish a Trump-Russia conspiracy:
Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.
Four months later, then-FBI Director James B. Comey undercut that story when he testified to Congress that “in the main,” the Times report “was not true.” Documents declassified in 2020 show that this view was widely held at the FBI. Peter Strzok, the top FBI counterintelligence agent who opened the Trump-Russia probe, described the article as “misleading and inaccurate.”
“We are unaware,” Strzok wrote, “of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.” Their view was corroborated by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, whose extensive Russiagate report contained no evidence of contacts between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officials, senior or otherwise.
Perhaps the newspaper’s sources had information that the men leading the probe were unaware of. At the very least, the Times should address such questions about the accuracy of its reporting. It has not.
Example 2: On Dec. 30, 2017, the Times reported that the FBI opened its Trump-Russia investigation because of evidence that the Trump campaign knew about an earlier hack of DNC servers:
During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat [Alexander Downer] in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign. …
The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired.
The key details of this Pulitzer Prize-winning article have been contradicted by the only two people involved. For starters, the Times creates the impression that intoxication prompted confession. Papadopoulos and Downer agree they each had a single drink. Where the Times specifically ties the conversation to the DNC hack, Downer says Papadopoulos never referred to hacked emails – or even “dirt.” “He mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging,” Downer said.
Maté also noted that the FBI’s July 31, 2016 electronic communication that officially opened its Russia investigation was similarly vague, reporting only that Downer had told the U.S. government that Papadopoulos had “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist” it by anonymously releasing damaging information about Clinton and President Obama.
In sum, the Times falsely reported that the FBI had significant and specific reason to take the extreme step of opening a counterintelligence probe of a presidential campaign – a direct link to the stolen emails. Instead, it merely had murky, and apparently second-hand, barroom gossip. As with the first example, it is likely that the Times was misled by its sources. That is no excuse to let stand work whose accuracy has been meaningfully undercut by the facts.
Because the paper has refused to address these issues, we don’t know why it stands by this reporting. Perhaps it knows things we do not. Regardless, it has an obligation to set the record straight. Silence is the enemy of transparency.
The Times is not operating in a vacuum. One reason it is not owning up to its errors is that the people whose goodwill it depends on – its readers and the larger journalistic community, including the board of the Pulitzer Prize – do not seem to care. I think they believe our country is at war with itself and that admitting that the most prestigious news outlets on their side made grave errors in reporting the biggest story of the last five years would give succor to the enemy. Perversely, acknowledging these errors would be an act of betrayal to the larger cause embraced by the increasingly radicalized minority of people who buy their product and pay their bills. Tout pour la guerre.
This sorry situation has been a long time coming. At least since the 1980s, conservatives have actively accused mainstream outlets of liberal bias. In a healthy society, the editors would have taken this seriously, using the criticism that seemed valid (not all of it was or is) to improve their coverage. Instead, over time, they have transformed the complaints into a rationale for becoming even more biased. They dismiss it all as right-wing talking points. Even, apparently, factual errors.
No wonder Gallup reports America’s trust in the media is near an all-time low. If you can’t count on journalists to set the record straight, why bother?
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J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.