If you thought the results of the 2016 election would cause members of the news media to do a bit of soul-searching about the tenor of their coverage, you were wrong. If you thought they might want to understand why their hysterical attempts to take down Donald Trump were all for naught, you were mistaken. And if you thought they were interested in understanding why media trust numbers just hit record lows, you were delusional.
After spending weeks post-election complaining about the rise of so-called fake news and attributing Hillary Clinton’s loss to its proliferation, a large number of members of the esteemed fourth estate decided that what America needed wasn’t less fake news, but a different kind of fake news. The kind of fake news that confirms their own biases and calls into question the credibility of those they oppose.
Take, for example, this salacious detail Politico reported about Wall Street banker Steven Mnuchin, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Treasury secretary. According to the Politico report, which was quickly gobbled up and redistributed by every major media outlet on earth, Mnuchin foreclosed on the home of a 90-year-old widow over a 27-cent debt.
Here’s Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert’s description of what happened:
Donald Trump wasn’t the only person to see opportunity in the 2008 housing collapse. As the economy recovered from the rubble of failed banks, foreclosed homes and government bailouts, Steven Mnuchin emerged a winner.
That success is coming back to haunt the hedge fund manager and Hollywood producer who is Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary. OneWest, a bank Mnuchin and his partners established during the collapse, has taken steady fire from regulators and consumer advocates for myriad failures ever since.
In Florida, the company foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman after a 27-cent payment error
Pretty horrifying, right? It would be, if any of it were actually true. According to Ted Frank, a seasoned litigator who runs the Center for Class Action Fairness, the whole thing is bogus. Not only did Mnuchin’s company not have anything to do with the litigation against the woman, her home was never foreclosed on, either. The suit that was filed against her was based on faulty paperwork by the mortgage servicer and quickly dismissed, at which point the bank that was involved put an offer on the table to pay her for her troubles.
In short, the news was completely fake, but that didn’t stop CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Huffington Post, and many others from spreading the fake news as far as the eye could see. If you search Google for “mnuchin 27 cents,” the search giant currently returns over 95,000 results.
Former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse giddily spread the false Mnuchin report on Twitter, garnering over 4,700 retweets and 3,500 likes. When Frank, the practicing attorney, pointed out the myriad errors in the story and cited multiple court filings to prove his point, Greenhouse attacked him and called him a liar. That wasn’t the first time Frank had to correct misreporting from Greenhouse, nor was it the first time the New York Times reporter refused to admit error or issue a correction:
@tedfrank I was valedictorian of my NYU law school class so I do understand labor law. I suspect that hardly any companies do what you say.
— Steven Greenhouse (@greenhousenyt) December 28, 2016
Then there’s the story of how Donald Trump, in one of his first acts as president, removed the bust of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. Time Magazine reporter Zeke Miller, who was designated as the pool reporter for the White House press corps on Friday, breathlessly reported that while Trump had replaced the famous bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office, he had also removed the MLK bust that had been placed in there by America’s first black president. The rest of the pool dutifully spread Miller’s report. It caught on like wildfire.
But it wasn’t true, either.
A reminder of the media danger of tweet first check facts later https://t.co/dYqwRv1p0f
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) January 21, 2017
The basis for Miller’s report? He didn’t see the bust, so he assumed it must not have been there. After he was forced to correct his egregious error, Miller disclosed that he just hadn’t seen the bust because it was “obscured” by a person and a door. Well, then. Miller, a trained journalist, apparently did not see fit to actually ask a single human being who works in the White House whether the MLK bust had been removed, or to make sure that he had scanned 100 percent of the room to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. In his defense, though, it’s not like he was literally standing in a room full of White House staff who could’ve shown him the bust had he only asked them where it was while he was reporting that it was missing.
Don’t worry, though: there’s more. Author Richard Hine tweeted that Trump “literally blew a kiss” to FBI Director James Comey during a White House meeting on Sunday. He didn’t. As of Monday morning, Hine’s claim had been retweeted 8,000 times. That wonderful bit of fabrication was instantly spread by ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum, Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald, BuzzFeed editor Hayes Brown, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, New Yorker writer Ben Taub, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias, and Slate editor Mark Joseph Stern, among others.
Not wanting to be left out, TPM publisher Josh Marshall then declared that Trump had given Comey, who many Democrats say unfairly intervened in the election by announcing that the FBI was conducting a criminal investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a “hug.” The intended implications were clear.
Like so many others who got caught feeding fake news to the masses, Marshall was forced to correct his initial report (perhaps he shouldn’t have outsourced his fact-checking operation to Angela and Strawberry).
“The text above was based on the White House pool report,” he wrote. “However, now having watched the video myself, ‘hug’ seems overstated.” The esteemed pool report, you’ll recall, was also the source of the MLK bust nonsense. The error didn’t prevent Marshall from leaving up his false tweet, though. That fake news isn’t going to spread itself, after all.
And these people wonder why only 8 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in the news media? The simple fact that so many Democratic activists with bylines fail to understand is that their behavior doesn’t make Trump less effective. If anything, it empowers him. He didn’t win in spite of the media’s obvious efforts to derail him throughout the 2016 general election; he won because of it. His supporters aren’t turned off by so many journalists’ seething and open hatred of him; they are energized by it. These people, who really want nothing more than to be left alone, watched as the media characterized them as nothing more than a bunch of stupid, truck-humping racists who probably haven’t even seen Hamilton, let alone a production by the original cast.
The dripping disdain for Trump and his supporters that started last year and has only intensified with each passing day is not going to make people trust the media more, and it’s not going to make Trump any less powerful. It’s going to make the media even less trusted, and it’s going to drive even more Trump voters toward sources of news over which the traditional media have zero control or influence. That’s not a good outcome. Not for Trump, not for voters, and not for the media.
This country desperately needs a source of information that is deemed credible by people across the political spectrum. It needs a free press that is capable of and willing to hold everyone in power accountable, regardless of their party or their ideology and regardless of their personal feelings toward whomever happens to be in charge. We need a press that believes in the rule of law rather than rule by men. And we need a media establishment that cares more about getting facts right than about anything else.
Judging by the type of coverage we’ve seen since the election, that institution does not currently exist in this country. What exists instead is a multitude of news ghettos whose residents pick and choose which alt-reality they want to believe. Oh, you want to believe eleventy bajillion people attended Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.? Well, here you go! And you want to believe the Russians literally hacked voting machines to deny Hillary her rightful place in the Oval Office? Fantastic! Here are some fake facts for you to post on Facebook and Twitter. Or maybe you’re a longtime member in good standing of the mainstream news media who desperately wants to believe that fake news is everybody else’s problem and that your industry’s rock-bottom credibility numbers are totally not your fault? Or maybe even that the lack of trust and credibility is a mirage? Perfect: here’s a meticulously curated Twitter feed of like-minded J-school alumni who can whisper sweet nothings in your ear about how vital and trusted and fierce you are.
I have a simple request: stop it. Just stop it. Take a deep breath. Maybe sit out a few rounds. Go scream in a pillow or take a walk, because you need a break and some freaking perspective.
Stop running around with your hair on fire hysterically declaring that the republic is over because a politician you don’t like said something you don’t like about another thing you don’t like. Stop incredulously spreading every single rumor that just happens to conform with your biases. Stop crying wolf at the hint of a rustle in the bushes. This desire to believe and spread anything and everything that reflects poorly on your political opponents makes you look like an idiot, and idiots aren’t generally known for their ability to persuade and influence. Even if you’re not a big fan of facts, at least acknowledge that spreading fake ones makes you a less effective partisan activist.
This country needs a free press that is capable of establishing trust and credibility regardless of who or what it’s covering. So instead of continuing to give tens of millions of people an excuse to believe we’re all a bunch of hysterical Chicken Littles who are completely full of crap (and doing that every. single. day.), let’s give them a reason to believe we’re capable of getting the most simple of facts consistently right.
That’s not possible as long as you’re gorging on fake news. So stop it already.