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The End of Media History and the Last Honest Man

Ever since postwar American journalism sacrificed its soul on the altar of celebrity sometime in the mid-'80s, a terrible day of reckoning for the craft has been in the works.  The "gets" and the gotchas, the "how do you respond to" questions, the how-do-you-feels; the unseemly scrums, the willingness to endure any humiliation from their betters in the hopes of basking, however fleetingly, in reflected glory -- that day finally arrived this week with a series of unforced errors that has stripped bare the profession's pretenses to objectivity and truth-seeking, and exposed them for the tawdry, politicized whores they really are.

Harsh words, perhaps, but the truth hurts.

The most recent spate of self-inflicted media disasters is not the end but the beginning -- of the media's end.  Brian Ross should have not been taken off the Trump beat by ABC, but should have been fired outright for incompetence in his eagerness to further tarnish Michael Flynn.  News reports that the Grand Inquisitor, Robert Mueller, had subpoenaed Trump family records from Deutsche Bank turned out to be false. Most egregious of all was the CNN cock-up in which one of its reporters rushed on the air with an anonymously sourced "scoop" that turned out to be the biggest nothingburger yet served up by Jeff Zucker's hell's kitchen of mis- and disinformation:

As CNN's very own in-house apologist noted:

CNN on Friday corrected an erroneous report that Donald Trump Jr. had received advance notice from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks about a trove of hacked documents that it planned to release during last year’s presidential campaign.

In fact, the email to Mr. Trump was sent a day after the documents, stolen from the Democratic National Committee, were made available to the general public. The correction undercut the main thrust of CNN’s story, which had been seized on by critics of President Trump as evidence of coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign.

It was also yet another prominent reporting error at a time when news organizations are confronting a skeptical public, and a president who delights in attacking the media as “fake news.”

Well, how about that? In fact, it was fake news, as fake as it gets, and CNN has nobody to blame but itself -- its zeal to take down the president, its eagerness to swallow any horse manure fed to it by unknown, and very possibly imaginary, "sources," its unconscionable decision not to name and shame the "sources," and its own sheer lack of professionalism.

A 2016 email sent to candidate Donald Trump and top aides pointed the campaign to hacked documents from the Democratic National Committee that had already been made public by the group WikiLeaks a day earlier.

The email — sent the afternoon of Sept. 14, 2016 — noted that “Wikileaks has uploaded another (huge 678 mb) archive of files from the DNC” and included a link and a “decryption key,” according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.

The writer, who said his name was Michael J. Erickson and described himself as the president of an aviation management company, sent the message to the then-Republican nominee as well as his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and other top advisers.

Oops.

Here's how CNN explained its goof:

As somebody or other noted on Twitter, that's not a correction, it's a retraction. Naturally, this disaster played right into the hands of the man it was supposed to hurt: President Trump:

President Donald Trump on Saturday slammed CNN for having to correct a report about his son Donald Trump Jr. on Friday, saying the network made a "vicious and purposeful mistake."

"They were caught red handed, just like lonely Brian Ross at ABC News (who should be immediately fired for his “mistake”)," the president wrote on Twitter early Saturday morning. "Watch to see if @CNN fires those responsible, or was it just gross incompetence?"

To anyone over the age of 50 in journalism, this was simply astounding. One of any reporter's first principles is to be skeptical of freely proffered skinny, especially from sources who demand anonymity in exchange for your possible career advancement. Not every disembodied voice on the phone is a "whistle blower" nor is every random email a Pulitzer-in-waiting -- such "sources" are in fact as self-interested, and sometimes malevolent, as anybody else with an axe to grind. That today's doe-eyed reporters fall for this ruse time and again speaks not only to the hiring practices of these crumbling journalistic edifices, but of the mind-set of those doing the hiring. Personnel, as the saying goes, is policy.

Then again, far too many national reporters are not only wet behind the ears, but they've reached what used to be the big leagues of journalism without proper seasoning in the minors. The scrubs are where you start out, writing the weather stories, covering the cop shop and local town meetings. Then, if you're any good and don't screw up too often, you catch the eye of a top scout and graduate to Triple A ball, where you hope to grab the attention of your organization's manager or GM and get your ticket to the Show.

What you weren't supposed to be was an already politicized partisan graduate of the Ivy League with a grudge against "injustice" and a sense of entitlement, but not quite smart enough to get into Harvard Law, where the real action is. And don't give me Watergate:

So do I: I was a young reporter on the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle at the time, trying to learn my trade. Watergate demonstrated anew the power of the press, but the fallout from the profligate use of anonymous sources since has been terrible. Once the burden of proof or even motive was off the "source," everybody and everything became fair game; as Ed Driscoll notes elsewhere on this site, we're in the pitchforks and guillotine stage of the media's rewrite of the French Revolution now, with tumbrils plying the routes between the newsroom and the Place de la Révolution, and heads falling into the baskets on a daily basis. And you know how that ended for just about all concerned.

What can journalism do to repair its tattered reputation? For one thing, it needs to stop responding like this:

A CNN spokesperson previously told POLITICO that the reporters involved in the latest correction, Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb, would not be disciplined. “There will not be any disciplinary action taken because every procedure put in place as part of the editorial process was followed,” the spokesperson said. “People don't get fired at CNN for making a mistake. They get fired when they don't follow editorial procedures.”

If that's its"editorial process," then CNN has a bigger problem than it thinks. Reporters learned many lessons from Watergate, almost all of them bad, and one of the worst was the "two-source" rule that allowed Woodward and Bernstein to get information into print that wouldn't have otherwise passed muster.

In Woodward's book, "All The President's Men," the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrote that "gradually, an unwritten rule was evolving: unless two sources confirmed a charge involving activity likely to be considered criminal, the specific allegation was not used in the paper."

What if both sources are lying to you? What if you're being played -- after all, Lyndon Johnson did it to the sainted Ben Bradlee himself. What if you're being manipulated -- in this case, willingly? Worse: what if the reporter, actively part of the so-called "resistance" to the 2016 election, views himself as on the side of the angels, and does his bit to help the arc of history bend a little more toward "justice"?

Of what if, as I tweeted earlier today, it's this:

Forget Russia; this is the real story. Does any journalistic organization want to get to the bottom of that? Is there one honest reporter left on their staffs? Or will the tumbrils come for them, too?

 

Follow me on Twitter @dkahanerules