Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Since Donald Trump became president, there has been a seemingly never-ending series of articles and commentary about what went wrong, and in particular what the media did to enable his victory. Near the top of that list is the platform and free advertising ($2 billion worth, according to one estimate) given to him by TV networks like CNN, because they knew he would attract a crowd, in much the same way a car accident does. And also near the top of the list is the credulous reporting of stories about Hillary Clinton that were fed by hacked and leaked emails, creating the erroneous impression that both sides were equally guilty of political transgressions. Given the sheer volume of these “lessons learned” pieces, you might think it unlikely that something similar would happen this time around — but you would be wrong. A blizzard of news on Wednesday showed that the very same risks exist now, and some are not only failing to heed those warnings but failing hard.
Take NBC. In the wake of Trump’s refusal to attend a virtual presidential debate, the network not only offered the president his own town hall event, but scheduled it at the same time as Biden’s previously announced town hall. This is such a crass ratings-driven decision that it’s almost breath-taking — NBC is treating a debate between candidates for president as though it were the finale of a celebrity cooking show (Trump reportedly offered the network the opportunity to host his town hall but only if it was at the same time as Biden’s). More than one observer was reminded of what former CBS chief executive Les Moonves said about Trump’s presidency in 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” New Yorker writer Sue Halpern called the NBC decision “stunning and shameful”, and Yashar Ali of HuffPost said more than a dozen NBC sources expressed “frustration and anger toward their employer.” As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said: “the defining media story of this era is mainstream journalism’s refusal to deny Trump a giant megaphone.”
Meanwhile, in a flashback to the Hillary Clinton email story, the New York Post published a thinly-sourced and highly questionable piece alleging that Joe Biden’s son Hunter introduced his father to a Ukrainian executive whose company was later investigated for fraud. The alleged evidence for this story– by a reporter who has spent almost her entire career as a producer at Fox News — includes emails taken from a laptop that a computer repair shop owner said may have belonged to Hunter Biden (the owner later gave a rambling and disjointed interview in which he contradicted himself on the facts multiple times). And it appears that all the paper has are screenshots of these alleged emails, not the real thing. Despite this, the story was breathlessly promoted by the usual suspects, including Rudy Giuliani and Breitbart News, and was even picked up by other outlets, including Bloomberg. The Biden campaign released a statement saying there was no truth to the report, and that the candidate’s calendar shows he was busy when the alleged meeting occurred.
In a departure from what happened during the Clinton email story, the decision by both Twitter and Facebook to try to throttle the amplification of the Post story quickly became a big part of the conversation. A Facebook spokesman said the social network had already started reducing the distribution of the report while it was being fact-checked. This is a reversal of the usual procedure, which typically involves reducing the algorithmic promotion of a story only after it has found to be false. But Facebook’s head of security noted that he had recently warned of the potential for foreign interference, including “hack and leak” operations aimed at destabilizing the election, and that this kind of event requires stronger action. Twitter took the extra step of not just reducing distribution but actually preventing users from sharing the link, a decision that triggered immediate cries of censorship and some said could backfire. Senator Josh Hawley wrote the Federal Election Commission arguing that the blocking amounts to a donation to the Biden campaign and is therefore a rules violation.
As my colleague Jon Allsop has pointed out, one of the only potential saving graces of this whole Biden story, ironically, is that the sheer volume and frequency of Trump’s lying — not to mention his repeated demonization of the press — has made the information environment so chaotic and noisy that the Biden thing is almost certain to sink beneath the waves. With the Clinton story, it was arguably easier to get the media and the populace to focus on a single attack vector, whereas now there are literally dozens every day. On the same day as the Post story broke, for example, Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory that Osama bin Laden was kept alive and moved to Pakistan so that Barack Obama could have a “trophy kill.” In any other reality that would have been a front-page story, but now it barely merits a bullet point.
Here’s more on the media and disinformation:
Amplification: A number of disinformation experts including Laura Rosenberger of The Alliance for Securing Democracy warned that linking to and/or mentioning such a misleading story, even while debunking or rebutting it, serves to amplify the story. Some journalists and others took New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman to task for doing exactly this with some of her tweets on the story, many of which didn’t contain any context about how questionable the sourcing of the story is. Soledad O’Brien tweeted that “all my years of tweeting about the terribleness of Axios, the mess that is Politico and of course, the access-journalism that informs much of the NY Times political coverage is just one big overlapping Venn diagram today.”
Weaponization: In a recent research paper, Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler wrote about how part of Trump’s weaponization of the media involved taking advantage of journalism’s desire to maintain certain norms of behavior, including a desire to cover both sides of an issue even when one side is clearly more truthful than the other. We used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to host a series of discussions with disinformation experts — including Benkler himself — about the research and the implications for how the media and social platforms should be handling Trump.
Censorship: Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine, criticized not just the decision to block the Post story on Twitter and Facebook, but also the shaming of journalists who shared it. “This is the work of journalism—to ask questions, to probe, to find and share the truth,” he writes. “Haberman and Sherman were right to let their audiences know that The New York Post story exists, and they were right to challenge it. Many others in the media apparently believe the public cannot be trusted with such a challenging article. They have not merely shamed people for sharing it online, but also want to make it difficult for people to read the report at all.”
Other notable stories:
Free Press has released a 100-page essay as part of the launch of a new project called “Media 2070: An Invitation to Dream Up Media Reparations.” The essay and the project are calling for a national reckoning on the history of systemic racism in the US. “Media organizations were complicit in the slave trade and profited off of chattel slavery,” the essay notes. “Racist journalism has led to countless lynchings; southern broadcast stations have opposed integration; and, in the 21st century, powerful social media and tech companies are allowing white supremacists to use their platforms to organize, fundraise, recruit and spread hate.”
The great “unmasking” scandal collapsed this week, CNN reports. The conspiracy that Fox News portrayed as one of the greatest political scandals in American history, and that Tucker Carlson called a “domestic spying operation” fell apart after The Washington Post reported that a Justice Department investigation into the supposed scandal quietly ended with no charges. The story revolved around an intelligence report that included an anonymous source who was later “unmasked” by government order, and turned out to be Michael Flynn. At the time, Sean Hannity declared it to be the “biggest abuse of power” the country had ever seen.
Christopher Tedeschi, a New York emergency-room physician, writes for CJR about the dangers of doctors speculating on the president’s health in the wake of his COVID diagnosis. “Into the information vacuum have poured countless talking head doctors, in every media outlet,” he writes. “Their commentary has ranged from explanatory to speculative to maybe misleading; sometimes, they offer a prognosis for a patient they have never met. It’s understandable, on one level. The public needs to know the health status of elected officials. But it remains impossible to assess the clinical condition of a patient you don’t know, and irresponsible to do so.”
New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has released its ranking of the top 10 works of journalism in the past decade, and in the number one slot is “The Case for Reparations,” an Atlantic piece written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The list also includes an article by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” and the Miami Herald article by Julie K. Brown that first revealed some of the details of the sexual abuse of young girls by Jeffrey Epstein, “How a Future Trump Cabinet Member Gave a Serial Sex Abuser the Deal of a Lifetime.” The 1619 project from the New York Times also gets a nod.
There’s been a 200 percent increase in the number of fact-checking organizations worldwide since Trump was elected in 2016, according to data from the Duke Reporter’s Lab, as reported by Axios in its media newsletter. “It’s definitely a response to the extraordinary propensity for falsehoods that President Trump has exhibited as President and before that, during the campaign,” says Lucas Graves, an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of “What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism.”
Discourse, a blog collective run by former staffers at Splinter, has relaunched with its own dedicated website after leaving the Substack newsletter platform. It describes itself as a “worker-run, collectively owned leftist politics and culture website” and says that its mission is to be “part of a new wave of truly independent media and to do work that is fearless and wild and heartfelt, that stands with the people against the bosses, and that takes on establishments of all kinds.”
A Daily Beast report says that in recent weeks, Fox News’ Brain Room—the channel’s research resource for its journalists, which suffered disproportionately in the latest round of layoffs—”launched a behind-the-scenes operation that current and former staffers say is designed to reinforce and amplify Trump’s erroneous accusations.” Called the Election Integrity Project, an anonymous Fox News veteran quoted in the report said that while it looks like an attempt to report on election irregularities, “it’s an attempt to push more baseless conspiracy theories and scare the viewers into thinking the election is being stolen.”
A letter from the Nova Scotia government sent out to residents to warn about a pack of wolves on the loose in the province was forged by Canadian military personnel as part of a propaganda training mission that went off the rails, according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen. The letter told residents to be wary of wolves that had been reintroduced into the area by the provincial and federal governments and warned the animals were now roaming the Annapolis Valley. The letter sparked concern and questions among residents, but was later branded as “fake” by the Nova Scotia government, which didn’t know the military was behind the deception.