Don’t Cower Before Authoritarians and Liars

Oliver Contreras/SIPPL Sipa USA

Back on Friday, CNN’s Manu Raju made a major error in a report on emails tied to Wikileaks and Donald Trump Jr. As we discussed Friday afternoon, the nature of the error turned on the date of the email in question – September 4th versus September 14th. CNN had multiple sources read or describe the email to its reporter. But later in the afternoon, The Washington Post obtained the actual email, which was clearly dated the 14th. As noted, the difference was much more than the date. CNN corrected the story and had some pretty significant egg on its face.

Over the weekend in Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter he discussed this and two other stories. That’s what I want to talk about because I think it is an example of precisely what we should not, as journalists and citizens, be doing to respond to the civic menace of the Trump Presidency. The other flawed stories Allen mentioned were the ABC Brian Ross story which led to Ross’s suspension and then another by Bloomberg News about subpoenas to Deutsche Bank. I have a quibble on the latter piece. It’s not clear to me that story was actually wrong. As we noted, the White House denied the account but the bank likely would not have been allowed to tell them whether it was true or not.

But that’s not really the point. Though Allen is clearly on the right side of this argument, noting that the President is hostile to freedom of the press itself and the importance of preserving those freedoms. Yet he concludes with this …

Be smart: This is a battle of epic proportions. We have a president waging a relentless war against all media, minus Fox News and pro-Trump organs. The vast majority of one of our two political parties agrees with him and increasingly sees media as an enemy of the state. Only strong, responsible, accurate, non-hyperbolic journalism can withstand the assault. Make no mistake: This was a terrible week for the cause.

This comes after noting that …

The bad week for big news has President Trump feeling that he has moved the “fake news” argument from the fringe to the conservative mainstream, according to close Trump associates.

And this …

Republican support for the special counsel could be a collateral casualty in the credibility wars:

As I noted above, Allen certainly is not siding with Trump. I am also not trying to pick on him. He is simply representative of an attitude toward the situation I’ve seen from many others. The gist is that the President is at war with the media, branding it all as “fake news.” When reporters commit errors that makes the news actually somewhat fake if still mainly not fake. As Allen concludes, “Only strong, responsible, accurate, non-hyperbolic journalism can withstand the assault.” He even notes that Republicans like Lindsey Graham are going to war with Robert Mueller because of media black eyes in the ‘credibility wars’.

This is 100% wrong.

Journalists should sweat accuracy every day. Because they’re journalists. Because that’s what we do. People and outlets which don’t live up to those standards should lose credibility and maybe go under because of it. None of this should be part of measuring up to Donald Trump’s standard. We don’t have a fierce and uncompromising media critic as President. We have a President who is deeply hostile to press freedoms altogether. This is a straight line connecting his pre-political days with his Presidency. He doesn’t want better journalism. He hates the idea that news organizations are able to report things he doesn’t like. More generally, the press is an independent locus of power in a vibrant civil society. He wants all power. So the press is in the way.

We don’t know just why Lindsey Graham is suddenly shifting over to becoming a 100% Trump loyalists. It is certainly not because of a handful of rapidly corrected reporting errors. What is far more likely is that Graham is falling into line with the increasingly authoritarian, anti-rule-of-law American right, of which Trump is simply a symptom as well as a catalyst.

We have freedom of speech and press rights as the first amendment to the constitution. We don’t have to earn it. It’s a right. Journalists, like every other profession, make mistakes. They make mistakes and they get corrected. If they are particularly egregious news organizations can face civil penalties for those mistakes. We should not ignore the fact that the press is now involved in a herculean task of prying free the truth of what happened last year as the President, with all the authority of the state behind him, tries to keep it all hidden.

President Trump is a compulsive liar. As we saw in today’s Sarah Sanders press briefing, his staff may not have this personality defect but they lie reflexively as part of a larger political program – in this case claiming, even while knowing the opposite was true, that these errors noted above were intentional. This isn’t about improving the work product of media. It is a political campaign to destroy or at least diminish an independent locus of power in civic society, one that is key to civic freedom. President Trump opposes all of that. His jibes are intended simply to rally those who share his authoritarian vision for America.

Journalists should practice good journalism for the same reason they did two years ago and twenty years ago. They shouldn’t be focusing on clipping their wings or their voice because the temporary occupant of the White House is an authoritarian who has put himself at war America’s most basic and important civic traditions. The President is a serial liar. Here is an essay by a social scientist who studies lies noting how Trump’s lying is entirely outside of any norms for lying even among inveterate liars. This is a critical fight. But it’s in the nature of reporters, trying to pry facts from the maw of compulsive liars to make occasional mistakes. Correct and move on. They don’t have to meet Trump’s standards, someone who of course has none. Every day reporters do their job and maintain press freedom and independence is a winning day.