The spectacle of President-elect Donald Trump’s first post-election press conference, held 64 days after the election, was unprecedented. Like a pack of rabid dogs, the White House press corps displayed more ferocity in 10 minutes with Mr. Trump on Wednesday than they had in eight years with President Obama.
Understandably, there was pent-up demand for answers to questions: about policy, about campaign promises, about ethics, about Russia.
But there was an entirely different feel to the level of “accountability journalism” that was on display yesterday.
It felt like the media believe they are the angels and Mr. Trump is the devil. Rhetorically speaking, they want his head on a pike.
But Mr. Trump will not be cowed. Unlike most politicians, he sees these reporters for what they are — and is willing to say it to their face.
Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t need the press to deliver his message, and if things keep going as they have to date, he may conclude he can ignore them entirely.
The source of the intense friction were two salacious reports yesterday. The first, by CNN, was more fair and responsible than the second, by cat-video purveyor BuzzFeed, which is among the least journalistically ethical productions that I can ever remember.
The CNN revelations were limited in scope, reporting — without going into specifics — that classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.
According to CNN, “The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work U.S. intelligence officials consider credible.”
The cable network said the FBI was investigating the allegations, but has not confirmed many “essential details” about the charges against the Republican nominee.
For now, let us set aside the deeply troubling development that a presidential briefer may have leaked the existence of — and then the actual documents.
I have no idea if CNN’s reporting is accurate here. My strong suspicion is that it is accurate. But they did not publish the “dossier.” Why? Because they are a responsible news organization.
Later BuzzFeed decided to publish the entire dossier without verifying its accuracy. But verifying accuracy is what news organizations do. That’s what separates them from an anonymous Twitter account.
Among the claims in the dossier: Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen supposedly met on a certain day in Prague with a Russian operative. The problem? The University of Southern California baseball coach confirms that Mr. Cohen was in the Los Angeles area on that day with his son. In fact, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reviewed Mr. Cohen’s passport, which had no record of any trips to the Czech Republic.
Verifying that claim would have been relatively easy. Why did BuzzFeed throw basic journalistic ethics out the window?
The clear answer is that they had a burning desire to be first. That desire overwhelmed their desire to be accurate.
That’s a big problem.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, a respected journalist who once worked at Politico, wrote to his reporters Tuesday night explaining why the news website published an unverified document. His basic answer: “Americans can make up their own minds.”
In my view, hiding behind the claim of “transparency” is lame and disingenuous.
If BuzzFeed is going to publish everything, “erring on the side of publishing,” then why have editors at all? What do those editors do all day?
Will BuzzFeed be publishing unverified reports it has received about the Obamas over the past eight years? The Clintons? How about the Kennedys?
Or is there a new standard that only applies to Donald Trump?
I have many questions that I would like answered by the incoming Trump administration, as do many voters. But the news media appear intent on trying to destroy Mr. Trump, by allowing the same “fake news” they decry in other cases to make it onto the broadcasts, into their newspapers and atop their websites.
It is as if the only question editors at news organizations like BuzzFeed ask are: 1) Are we first? 2) Does it hurt Mr. Trump? If the answer to both is yes, then they publish.
Accuracy must be the primary goal of journalism. Of course, the press must be aggressive and seek accountability, but it must also be accurate.
Confidence in the mainstream media is at an all-time low. What we saw yesterday partially explains why.
One of my favorite sayings is this: “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and just a minute to ruin it.”
BuzzFeed, your minute is up.
• Matt Mackowiak is the president of Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. He is the host of a new national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” produced in partnership with The Washington Times. His podcast may be found at WashingtonTimes.com/mackonpolitics.
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