In the closing minutes of last night’s Super Bowl, viewers saw an advertisement by the Washington Post narrated by actor Tom Hanks that placed the newspaper — and the journalistic enterprise as a whole — at the epicenter of modern American history.
The ad reportedly cost $5.25 million:
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 4, 2019
Unquestionably, the First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among the most important rights enshrined in the Constitution. And most Americans would agree that the historic role of the Fourth Estate in holding those in positions of power accountable is critical for ensuring citizens can make informed choices about their representatives and government policies.
But are the self-congratulations of the Washington Post‘s Super Bowl ad really warranted?
Many critics of the news media industry feel that these outlets are insular, unduly elitist, condescending, biased, politically partisan, and generally unfair in their handling of political reporting. Just this morning, accusations were made that the Washington Post buried a claim of assault against Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax — a Democrat. Yet the Post published unverified, uncorroborated allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year:
A review of the Post’s record since the 2016 election shows that it has been far from unblemished. In fact, the Post has had to publish a series of retractions and extensive corrections on many of their biggest stories.
In December 2016, the Post reported that Russians had penetrated the U.S. electricity grid through a laptop at a Vermont utility. The Post framed this story within a broader infiltration narrative about Russia by invoking the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta email breaches. However, within hours the entire story had fallen apart — the infected laptop had never been connected to the utility’s grid. The Post chose to “stealth-edit” and expand the story; only after receiving great criticism did the paper retract the story and publish an editor’s note explaining the error.
A few weeks before that embarrassment, the Post published an article claiming that more than 200 well-known U.S. websites were part of a Russian effort to spread “fake news” prior to the 2016 election. The story quickly spread to other major media outlets. Some of the accused sites complained that the Post had smeared them absent any evidence, and questioned the source organization cited in the article, PropOrNot, and its opaque methodology.
PropOrNot refused to disclose how it compiled the blacklist or to reveal anything about itself. The Post had only described the anonymous group as “a collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” After considerable criticism, an editor’s note was added to the article distancing the Post from PropOrNot — it stated that the Post could not vouch for the validity of the claims, and added that PropOrNot had since removed some websites from the list.
Continuing to hype a narrative of alleged widespread Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Post claimed in a September 2017 front page story that President Obama had given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a “wake-up call” about fake news being pushed by the Russians on the widely used social media platform. After the article had been published, Facebook stated that the warning was only about “false news and information” — the Obama administration had not specified Russia, or foreign interference in general. The Post had to correct its “scoop.”
Last August, the Post accused the Trump administration of denying passports to Latino Americans who lived near the southern border by claiming that some had used fraudulent birth certificates. Wrong again: All of the policies cited by the Post predated the Trump administration. Additionally, State Department data showed that denials dropped considerably after the Obama administration. The Post article was so poorly written and contrary to readily available data that even the far-Left outlet Huffington Post slammed it, saying that the Post had withheld critical data and mischaracterized information. It also noted that the Post “stealth-edited” this article as well, without noting the changes from the original report. After getting called out for the “fake news,” the Post yet again had to append an editor’s note correcting their reporting.
These episodes don’t diminish some otherwise fine reporting done by Washington, D.C.’s paper of record over this period, but they do raise a number of concerns to some observers.
In each of these examples, the Post appears to have run with a bombshell story that was quickly contradicted.
And the corrections and apologies were never publicized with anywhere near the breathless hype as the original incorrect story. Despite claims of being “real news” subject to “layers and layers of fact checkers,” the Post appeared to have been forced to correct and retract their stories when they got it wrong.
The most troubling trend is that these errors seem to always benefit one partisan side, raising serious concerns about political bias. If you claim to be the guardians of democracy, fair treatment is expected.
Added to all this is a standard response painting themselves as victims when they get called out, with no real self-reflection about how the errors were made or how much damage they caused.
The Washington Post‘s Super Bowl advertisement last night seems to reflect an unwillingness to confront these very issues and how readily apparent they are to many. With the credibility of the news media at an all-time low, cutting down on the hubris and showing humility would appear to be the order of the day.