On July 27, CNN reported that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, would be willing to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller that the president knew in advance of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his campaign and a Kremlin-linked lawyer who was allegedly selling dirt on Hillary Clinton. This revelation not only contradicted Trump’s denials, but also Cohen’s testimony to Congress. It was quite the exclusive—the closest we’ve come to ferreting out “collusion” since the last time CNN botched a big scoop.
The story, bylined by Carl Bernstein, Marshall Cohen, and former Obama administration political appointee Jim Sciutto, cited numerous “sources” with knowledge of the supposed bombshell. The Washington Post, chasing the same story, soon outed Cohen’s lawyer, the preternaturally mendacious Lanny Davis, as the source of the contention.
But Davis was forced to walk back the claim, first conceding that he “should have been more clear” and that he “could not independently confirm what happened,” and then he sort of apologized. (It’s worth noting that anyone who trusts Davis as a primary source for any story is likely to be either consciously allowing themselves to be duped or irreparably incompetent.)
Well, on Monday BuzzFeed ran another article in which Davis admitted to being CNN’s source as well, even though the network had initially claimed that Davis had declined to comment for the article—which turns out not only to be untrue but a ham-fisted way to hide the story’s origin.
“We stand by our story, and are confident in our reporting of it,” the network responded. Brian Stelter, CNN’s sometimes censorious media reporter, argued that “pro-Trump web sites are claiming that the CNN story was a ‘lie,’ and that it’s been ‘debunked.’ They might want it to be ‘debunked,’ but it’s not. The critics don’t know who CNN’s sources were.”
We don’t. Does Stelter? My guess is that the second source is Davis’ assistant. Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps Davis, not only the source of the story but also Cohen’s lawyer, is lying about his initial lie. But there are other sound reasons not to trust CNN’s position.
Let’s remember this is the network that maintained it had multiple sources on the record purporting to prove that Donald Trump Jr. was involved in an email correspondence with a random person about WikiLeaks and the DNC hacking before it was released to the public. That was back in December 2017. The article turned out to be bogus. Both independent anonymous sources somehow got the same exact date wrong on the exact same email. Not once has CNN explained how this miraculous event transpired.
Let’s also remember that it was CNN that cited multiple sources confirming that former FBI director James Comey was going to tell a congressional committee under oath that Trump had lied when the president claimed that the former FBI director had told him three times that he hadn’t been under investigation. That was in June 2017. The opposite turned out to be true.
Burn the source? No way. CNN hasn’t even really corrected the piece.
Around the same time, three CNN journalists were forced to resign after mistakenly reporting that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials.” The problem was that the reporters had relied on a single anonymous source. What if these other stories, including the Cohen scoop, also only depended on a single source? If CNN employed consistent standards, they would run out of reporters before the year was out.
There are dozens of examples of these innocent mistakes popping up on mainstream political media outlets over the past couple of years. And they always—always—skew in the same direction.
While bad behavior from sources is expected, the lack of skepticism from self-styled unbiased journalists is another story. A critical observer might even theorize that Trump-era partisan newsroom culture has made journalists increasingly susceptible to being deceived by sources that peddle convenient stories to fit preconceived notions.
Of course, we don’t have to watch CNN or trust it. It can conduct itself in any way it pleases. (Although, as Mark Meadows noted today, many times selective leaks from the DOJ and FBI are repackaged into news stories then used to justify the extension and broadening of criminal investigations. That’s a problem, maybe an even bigger problem than Trump’s empty threats to the media—two institutions that have developed a destructive symbiotic relationship.) But you would think there would be a modicum of self-reflection about the problems plaguing journalism. You would be wrong.
“The conservative echo chamber created that environment,” Chuck Todd said, explaining this weekend on “Meet the Press” the public’s distrust of the media. “It has been a tactic and a tool of the Roger Ailes-created echo chamber … It’s not based in much fact.”
Todd seems to be under the impression that conservative anger and distrust of the media sprouted up in a vacuum. In Todd’s conception, journalists were public servants dispassionately dispensing the facts to a reality-starved public before Fox News came along and ruined everything.
Now, it’s one thing to deny the embedded bias of political media—the left-ideological framing, skewed focus, and prejudiced coverage that’s forced conservatives to consume news through a filter for decades—and it’s another to ignore a bias that’s transforming into unethical advocacy.
Suspicion of the media was restive among conservatives long before Trump and Fox News exploited it. There will always be those who distrust any news that fails to confirm their worldview. But Trump’s “fake news” hyperbole has currency with many Americans because the political media too often lives up to their worst expectations.