There are countless examples of untrue stories that have made their way into what is now called the “media,” including the Internet. 2016 Russian interference in the election was most pervasive in the spread of misleading stories. Bots that identified susceptible targets for tailored messages scoured the web and spread huge amounts of misinformation. The underlying motivations for Russian interference may have been as much financial as political, but the effectiveness of fake news cannot be underestimated and may have tipped the election.
President Donald Trump has chosen to take a combative approach to the media for reporting stories that are factual, or have the color of truth, lumping them in with junk news. Lyndon Johnson had bad press, too, and a domineering personality similar to Trump’s, though he came to office with more political skills. Johnson hated coverage of the Viet Nam War. In retrospect, the coverage was more right than it was wrong. Johnson, however, unlike Trump, tried to flatter and cajole reporters to alter his public image, to some effect.
CNN botched coverage of the senate investigation into Russia by presenting as fact what was speculation. It reported that a Trump related former advisor was being scrutinized for purported contacts with a Russian financial type though he wasn’t. The outlet was careless.
Speculation is a valuable part of journalism that often leads to truth but it’s unfair to present conclusions as fact until proven, or incontrovertible. The legal standard of proof comes in variations, the best known being criminal law’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There is, also, “preponderance of the evidence,” the standard required to support a civil case verdict. Proof, however, can be as low as the subjective “reasonable suspicion” needed for a traffic stop. Reasonable suspicion, identified as such, or otherwise qualified, should be the minimum standard for investigative reporting.
There are notable economies of scale. CNN has incredible financial and personnel resources that enable it to vet, check, and verify further. CNN admitted as much when it retracted the offending story and apologized. It was the right thing to do.
The irony in Trump’s anger at the media, which boiled over in a heated exchange between his Deputy Press Secretary and a reporter, is the President’s own affinity for exaggerations and untruths, including the birther and inaugural crowd lies. The recent front page of The New York Times enumerating Trump’s alleged calumnies was amusing to a degree but, perhaps, overkill. Everything Trump says is not false. The message the President might think on, however, is contained in the maxim that no one wins a fight against the press.