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Why Don't Americans Trust the Media?

U.S President Reagan bidding farewell to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev after the last meeting at Hofdi House, Reykjavik, Iceland. 12/10/86. (Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library)

I suspect I became cynical about the press a lot younger than most other people. In my teens during the Vietnam War, I was hearing about the war directly from people who had been on the ground in theater — long family associations with the military, friends and family on active duty from NCOs to full colonels/Navy captains, all provided sources that were at the very least not seeing the same thing as was being reported.

Later, when I was active in the Intelligence Community and cleared, I would see things authoritatively reported in the press that I knew weren’t true. I’m not sure that the specific examples I recall have been de-classified even yet, but here’s an analogy: Newsweek reported that Elbownia had no defensive cream-pie capability and wouldn’t for five years, but I, out in the field at an intercept site, had that week observed the Elbownians perform a successful cream-pie interception.

Newsweek had authoritative anonymous sources who, being anonymous, were unquestionable.

The lesson, of course, is not to trust anonymous sources. Ever.

President Trump made a similar point recently and, of course, the usually-outraged press were outraged.

Oliver Darcy of CNN is often good for a laugh, and on this, he did not disappoint:

This is a case where I think the president got it right, and if Oliver Darcy were at all self-reflective, he and CNN could learn a real and useful lesson.

Laying out all the examples would take a book, and I’m not sure I could stay awake long enough to read it, much less write it. Sheryl Attkisson’s list of (as of today, 17 December 2019) 106 Media Mistakes in the Trump Era provides a good bit of evidence though. (The original URL says “50 media mistakes” — it’s more than doubled since she first compiled the list.)

Go to the page and search for “CNN” and you find that CNN is named no fewer than 43 times.

For a slightly comical example, there’s Attkisson #6, when CNN claimed Nancy Sinatra was unhappy that a Frank Sinatra song being used in Trump’s inauguration. Nancy responded, “That’s not true. I never said that. Why do you lie, CNN?…Actually I’m wishing him the best.”

There are others, of course (hit CTRL-F/⌘-F and search for “CNN” to follow along.)

Reporter Telepathy

A fair number of them are places where reporters reported as fact what Trump was thinking. For example Attkisson #17:

The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo, and CNN’s Sara Murray reported the information in sentences and paragraphs that omitted attribution, as if it were an established fact. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz and Robert Costa wrote news articles in the style of opinion pieces and from an omniscient viewpoint as if they were somehow in the mind of Trump. For example, they reported, “Every time FBI Director James B. Comey appeared in public, an ever-watchful President Trump grew increasingly agitated that the topic was the one that he was most desperate to avoid: Russia.”

Now, of course, these reporters didn’t know that — at the most, they were reporting what some anonymous source told them.

CNN Burned by Anonymous Source

We’ll start with Attkisson #20:

CNN’s Gloria Borger, Eric Lichtblau, Jake Tapper and Brian Rokus; and ABC’s Justin Fishel and Jonathan Karl reported that Comey was going to refute Donald Trump’s claim that Comey told Trump three times he was not under investigation. Instead, Comey did the opposite and confirmed Trump’s claim.

And Attkisson #23:

CNN’s Thomas Frank reported that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials.” The report was later retracted. Frank and two other CNN employees resigned in the fallout.

And Attkisson #61:

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reports that President Trump has decided to fire a deputy national security adviser upon the First Lady’s demand. The Wall Street Journal reports the adviser has been “escorted out” of the White House. Later, it’s reported that neither case was true. “This did not happen. She is still here at the WH,” a senior official told the press. The adviser was reassigned to another job.

Attkisson #62 isn’t quite CNN itself being burned by an anonymous source. It was instead burned by a reporter for Der Spiegel who was his own anonymous source. Give it an honorable mention:

It’s discovered that nearly everything written by a Der Spiegel reporter, who had been honored by CNN, about a supposedly racist Trump stronghold town was fabricated–like much of his other work.

With Attkisson #75, we’re back to being burned by anonymous sources — so many of them they have to accept just being put together in a pile:

Multiple reporters and media outlets have provided false information and/or quoted incorrect anonymous sources as to the timing of the release of Special Counsel Mueller’s report on Trump-Russia collusion. The Washington Post said it would be out in summer of 2018. Bloomberg said it would be shortly after the 2018 Midterm elections. In February 2019, CNN, The Washington Post and NBC reported the report was coming the last week of February. However, it was not announced at that time.

Attkisson #103 is another one of those portmanteau items: it covers all the times that the media, including on many many occasions CNN, reported that the “dossier” had been largely confirmed and that in any case, it had only played a small part of the wiretap application. Of course, the Justice Department Inspector General’s report shows that these reports were all incorrect. (And of course, they were all sourced more or less anonymously.)

Trust but Verify

Those cranky old folks among you remember that phrase — Reagan used it with Gorbachev during negotiations for the INF Treaty in 1987. (This was amended to “Trust but help me out so I’ll have more flexibility” during the Obama administration.) My grandfather had it as “trust everyone, but always cut the cards.”

The legacy news media have put themselves in the uncomfortable position of selling a product that depends on their reputation. Every piece of “fake news” — things from anonymous sources who turn out to be wrong, like Comey’s expected testimony that he never told Trump he was not under investigation — cuts into that reputation. It’s no wonder that the media so objects to being called “fake news” — at the heart, it attacks their whole business model. Not the free press — they can still publish anything they like as long as the money holds out — but their business model, their planned approach to keep the money coming in.

CNN is failing at this, and as a result, CNN’s ratings are crashing — which means the money is no longer coming in at the rate they once enjoyed — for good reason. Railing against being called “fake news” won’t help.

The value of a news source is that it is trusted. But if CNN wants to be trusted, they first need to be trustworthy.