Monday, January 21, 2019


Two controversial news stories that received widespread attention in the past few days, and have since come under scrutiny, point to some of the most important issues facing the news media today: accuracy and checking all facts.

First,'s report last Thursday that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen had been ordered by Trump to lie to Congress.

Buzzfeed posted the story Thursday evening, which stated: 

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.

The story drew wide-range reaction among many news outlets as the supposed bombshell gave them plenty to chew on for days, with some saying impeachment proceedings should begin.

On Friday, a spokesman for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller issued a strong rebuke of the story, stating:

BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the Special Counsel's Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's Congressional testimony are not accurate

Buzzfeed has since stood by its reporting, with Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith telling CNN on Sunday that the news outlet sought reaction from Mueller's office before any story was posted and essentially received a "no comment." He had the emails to prove it.

But many have piled on Buzzfeed, which has come under scrutiny in the past, but also shown true investigative journalism. Trump supporters claim this is a sign that the president's baseless past claims of fake news are true. That is not the case, of course, and even humorous given that Trump lies far more often than any news site.

It will take some time to see how the story plays out before we know if it's right or wrong. But to attack the entire industry for what may or may not be an honest and rare mistake is unfair. 

The story is an indication of how anonymous sources, who were the origin of this story, can be both useful -- if it is accurate -- and problematic if it turns out not to be.

I address many of these issue in my new book, Killing Journalism: How Greed, Laziness (And Donald Trump) Are Destroying News And How We Can Save It (Willow Street Press). 

Another story of note is the viral video of some Kentucky high school students at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday that appears to show them taunting some Native American activists who were chanting and playing music. 

See the partial clip that made the rounds below: 

Initial reports claimed the students of Covington Catholic High School had been verbally abusing the Native Americans and shouting racist taunts at them. Many were also wearing pro-Trump "Make America Great Again" caps.

But later reporting found a much longer video that indicated the incident began when a group of what USA Today described as "Black Hebrew Israelites" confronted the Native Americans and accused them of losing their native lands because they "worshiped the wrong god."

The video shows that the high school students, who were in town for the annual Pro-Life March, entered the fray only after it had begun and, according to some, were also confronted by the Black Hebrew Israelites who made anti-Catholic comments.

See the lengthy video below:

This story is another example of what can happen when home-made video is posted online with no real explanation and a lack of context. Accusations fly, reactions are heated and misinformation gets out.

In both cases, first reactions appear to have been based on reporting that was at least partially wrong or incomplete. In the viral news world, they spark widespread misunderstanding and too often leave the well-meaning journalists with a lot of explaining to do.

Both are also reminders that first reports need to be carefully handled with efforts to fully explain a situation and give time and resources to completely report it. 

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