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'An unteachable moment': Another Trump-Russia reporting misstep raises questions

President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn upon arrival at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, after attending the casualty return at Dover Air Force Base, Del., for the four Americans killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Mainstream media outlets are again on the defensive after two widely-reported stories casting President Donald Trump in a negative light were disputed by those involved in recent days, raising new questions about when and how journalists should report information their outlets have not independently confirmed.

“Many people are saying that the Mainstream Media will have a very hard time restoring credibility because of the way they have treated me over the past 3 years (including the election lead-up), as highlighted by the disgraceful Buzzfeed story & the even more disgraceful coverage!” President Trump tweeted Saturday morning.

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Trump’s tweets often inspire furious factchecks and corrections from the press, but some journalists admit he might be right about this one.

“This is a bad day for us. It reinforces every bad stereotype about the news media,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Friday night after the network spent much of the day dissecting a BuzzFeed report that had just been disputed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.

Although Trump’s base has long embraced his attacks on “fake news” and his critics mostly tune them out, journalism experts agree another instance of apparent media sloppiness does nothing to help matters.

“It continues to hurt the credibility and trust of online and mainline news organizations when stuff like this comes out. That impact is going to outlast Trump,” said Scott Talan, a former journalist who teaches at the School of Communication at American University.

Citing two unnamed law enforcement sources, BuzzFeed alleged President Trump directed attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his efforts to negotiate construction of a Trump tower in Moscow. The report claims Mueller’s office learned of this from “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”

Published Thursday night, the story by Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold was immediately picked up by primetime news shows on CNN and MSNBC, where panels of pundits talked through the political and legal ramifications. It was the lead story on the cable networks for much of Friday, though it was covered much less by Fox News.

Less than 24 hours after BuzzFeed posted the story, Patrick Carr, spokesman for Mueller’s office, released the first statement he has made on the validity of a news report about the investigation in nearly two years, stating the story’s characterization of documents and testimony obtained by the office were “not accurate.”

Many outlets couched their coverage of the BuzzFeed report Friday with phrases like “if true,” and some journalists expressed deep skepticism. However, that does little to dampen the urgency of segments that seriously consider the impeachment of the president for suborning perjury.

“If your outlet is reporting on something, your outlet had better be able to stand by the truth of what you’re putting on the screen,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University. “To say, ‘According to...,’ to me, is a weak excuse.”

Part of the challenge of assessing the BuzzFeed story is Carr’s denial is maddeningly vague. Some saw it as a refutation of the central premise of the story, while others only read it as a denial that Mueller’s office possesses the specific testimony and documents cited. Carr has not issued any clarification.

Also complicating matters is BuzzFeed’s continued defense of its reporting, which the reporters say they have reconfirmed with their sources. Cohen might be pressed to address the matter himself when he testifies before Congress next month, but otherwise, it may not be clear what BuzzFeed got right or wrong until Mueller’s investigation is complete.

Either way, the damage is done.

“The media has this agenda,” said Don Irvine, chairman of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media. “They really want to go after Trump. They want to get him, so they jumped the gun on this.”

On the surface, the story seems plausible. Cohen has already said he lied to Congress to benefit Trump and to stay consistent with Trump’s account of the Moscow tower negotiations. Also, the story was supposedly based on other testimony and documents besides Cohen’s, sidestepping doubts about his personal credibility.

There were also many reasons to be skeptical, though. The reporters gave conflicting answers in interviews Friday morning about whether they personally reviewed the documents cited, and none of the other media outlets chasing the Russia story could match the reporting.

“If that sourcing were as deep as they wish they were, my guess is every outlet in D.C. would have the story,” said Nikki Usher, author of “Making News at The New York Times” and a professor at the University of Illinois College of Media.

Trump allies were quick to point out this is far from the first time an incriminating story about Trump and the Russia investigation was walked back after spreading across cable news and social media.

“America has never seen anything like this. All the media errors are always anti-Trump. That's not a bug, it's a feature. That's what happens when the press stops trying to report fairly and becomes a bunch of lefty activists,” Dan Gainor, vice president of the Media Research Center, told Fox News.

Members of the media stress that errors have generally been promptly and prominently corrected when discovered, and they have at times resulted in reporters being fired or suspended. It keeps happening anyway.

“We should have learned by now, but literally, for the mainstream media and cable news in particular, it’s an unteachable moment,” Berkovitz said. “How many times will you take the bait and just fall through the ice?”

By the time a correction is made, a story could have been the subject of hours of cable news speculation, shared by countless reporters on social media, and repeated secondhand on news sites around the world.

“You can’t stuff these genies back in the bottle,” Berkovitz said.

In the past, media outlets have been hesitant to report an exclusive story obtained by another source that could not be independently confirmed. Those standards seem to have shifted in recent years, whether because of Trump or because of the cutthroat media ecosystem that surrounds him.

“In the race for clicks and eyeballs and ratings and survival, news organizations are more and more likely, and dismayingly so, to take the work of another news organization and report on that,” Talan said.

It is a difficult balancing act, but when the audience is already discussing a story on social media and members of Congress are issuing statements vowing to investigate it, ignoring an unconfirmed report may not be an option. It can be handled more responsibly, though, by frontloading the uncertainty.

“The lede should be, ‘According to a source that we cannot verify,’” Berkovitz said. “There should be a disclaimer: ‘This could be hazardous to your mental health and the reputation of our outlet,’ and then go from there.”

Irvine acknowledged journalists operate in a tremendously competitive environment, but he warned the imperative to get the story first too often eclipses the more important goal of getting it right.

“I don’t see why we can’t get the news more carefully portioned out when it’s been sourced better and verified,” he said.

In the fallout from Friday night, another irresistible Trump-adjacent story emerged Saturday as video swept across Twitter of a bunch of MAGA-hatted high school students seemingly mocking and harassing a Native American man at a protest in Washington. Initial reports on social media indicated the teens chanted, among other things, “Build the wall!” at participants in the Indigenous People’s March.

As more videos and details emerged over the following 24 hours, the story grew more complicated. It appears the students were harassed by a third group of protesters first, and the teen who has borne the brunt of anger over the incident issued a statement insisting he and his classmates were not mocking the Native American man. Other witnesses maintain the students’ behavior was offensive.

Journalists sharing the story on Saturday night and discussing it on cable news Sunday did not reflect any ambiguity about it, stoking outrage at the students and at President Trump for ostensibly inspiring them. Usher noted the media’s rush to judgment was similar to the one that followed the BuzzFeed story.

“We have this kangaroo court on social media where people are judged guilty until proven innocent,” she said.

The reaction to BuzzFeed’s stumble underscores recent shifts in the media landscape. Many still associate the site mainly with whimsical quizzes and memes, but it has been building out a credible news operation for years. Cormier won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting before joining the company, and Leopold was a finalist for one last year.

Still, Michael Che joked on “Saturday Night Live,” “Look, BuzzFeed, we all think it’s great that you want to help, but this is not what we need from you. Y’all are BuzzFeed, you do memes and lists.”

In its haste to out-scoop traditional news outlets, BuzzFeed has drawn the president’s ire before. Two years ago, it was the first news site to publish former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier of unverified claims about then-president-elect Trump’s ties to Russia.

The decision led to multiple lawsuits and is still regularly cited by Trump as “fake news.” Editor-in-chief Ben Smith has defended the move as shedding light on documents that had floated around D.C. for months and had just been the subject of a briefing for Trump by then-FBI Director James Comey.

“Buzzfeed, in particular, has pushed the envelope on every single Russia story... They’re taking a bold risk to push the story forward,” Usher said.

Media mistakes may be more consequential now than they were during Trump’s first two years in office. The BuzzFeed story triggered immediate talk of impeachment proceedings among House Democrats, who now have the power to do something about it.

“It’s another example of the importance of being right, because politicians of all parties and stripes will use anything that’s out there as ammunition... If you’re in a fight in the forest to survive and you see a small twig that can be used to poke out your opponent’s eye, you will use that twig,” Talan said.

None of this gives Irvine much hope that similar mistakes will not happen again. As long as Trump is in the White House, he expects the press will do whatever generates traffic and ad dollars, even if it feeds into the president’s anti-media narrative.

“The media as a whole is going to have to have a collective moment of saying, ‘If we want to regain credibility, we have to sit back and slow everything down... Otherwise, this is not going to get better. It’s only going to get worse,’” he said.

What that could mean in the long run is not only that people will not trust the media, but that they will stop reading and watching all together.

“We’re going to start seeing a lot of news avoidance,” Usher said. “People are just gone, and it doesn’t help them want to tune in when the media is making these mistakes.”

All that said, what if the next bombshell report about the Mueller probe turns out to be true? Anyone who dismisses it out of hand will be hours behind the competition, and audiences will flock to the outlets that jump on the story.

“You’ve got a twin fear,” Berkovitz said. “One is what if we get it wrong, and the other is what if we’re falling behind?”

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