After the 2016 Presidential election, many in the media sought to understand how they got things so wrong. You might even say they began formulating a collective ‘autopsy.’
As most of you will recall, virtually everyone in the media — anchors, pundits, analysts, contributors…even the coveted data scientists — were all but certain that Hillary Clinton would become the next US President. (The data scientists at The Huffington Post actually gave Mrs. Clinton a 98.2% likelihood of winning.)
Some on the right will argue that the media as an institution has a liberal bias, and that argument actually carries weight not only in public perception but also according to the research.
In a MRC/YouGov poll conducted in the days after the 2016 election, 59% of all respondents perceived the media coverage as favoring Hillary Clinton — while only 21% felt the coverage favored Donald Trump. And from 2008, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy concluded in its research that there was in fact media bias favoring the Democrats in the 2008 election.
Still, no one really expected the media to come out in the wake of the 2016 election and conclude that their greatest mistake was their own, left-leaning bias.
(Even if, to put simply — it was.)
Instead, after blaming Russia and enabling Hillary supporters as they therapeutically clung to her popular vote win — the consensus among many in the media eventually landed on “fake news” as having helped tilt the election in Donald Trump’s favor.
“Fake news” was effectively determined to be news items that were partially or entirely inaccurate, and that spread too quickly to ever be fully recalled. For example, a news item goes out to millions of readers — but only thousands end up getting the corrected version. This is absolutely a legitimate concern, particularly at a time when information spreads so quickly to so many people across so many devices. (And let’s face it: While you may slow down to look at the car crash on your way home from the office, not many people slow down the next morning to admire how nicely it got cleaned up.) Still, whether or not “fake news” cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency is a question we may never get the answer to. All we know for sure is that media experts like CNN’s Brian Stelter, and Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg, point to “fake news” as playing a very real role in the 2016 campaign.
But here’s the problem…
It’s no secret that President Trump ran his campaign largely in opposition to the media, and that his tone hasn’t changed much since then. The growing concern among many observers is that, in order to discredit and ultimately weaken President Trump, the media may be leveraging the same “fake news” tactics that they claim to — and should — abhor.
Take CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, who on November 22, 2016 tweeted a story lamenting fake news.
Fast-forward to January, and Jeff shares a tweet to his 189,000 followers implying that the Trump Administration is setting up a reality-style showdown including dueling Twitter pages. Over 1,000 retweets! Word spreads fast!
About 30 minutes later, Jeff concedes that actually…not so much. But only 159 retweets for this one; a small fraction of what his inaccurate tweet has and continues to rack up.
Or how about CNBC reporter John Harwood? John knows the pitfalls of fake news, as evidenced by a tweet he shared back on January 5th about Russia’s use of it.
Now fast forward a few weeks to a tweet John posted on January 28th to his 111,000 followers, which has since generated over 3,000 retweets on this claim…
An hour later, John issues the correction…which gets less than 1% of the traffic and traction that his initial claim — his “fake news,” if you will — is still getting.
NBC News’ National Correspondent Peter Alexander garnered a whopping 6,811 retweets (as of this writing) for this claim that he shared with his nearly 100,000 followers…
And less than an hour later, here’s the correction which — you’ll notice — again has only a tiny fraction of the traffic his initial claim got.
In total, the incorrect news — the fake news — pushed over social media by these CNN, CNBC and NBC News heavyweights has been shared over 11,000 times to countless other news consumers. The corrected versions of their fake news items have been shared just over 600 times. (11,011 vs 610 as of this writing.)
The appropriate action for Jeff, John, Peter and the countless other examples that exist — would be to take a screenshot of the ‘fake news’ item, then delete that tweet, and include the screenshot with the corrected item. This provides accountability for the information that was deleted, while also preventing the ‘fake news’ item from continuing to circulate without correction. For some reason, however — Jeff, John nor Peter seem to care enough to invest that extra 30 seconds in the name of journalistic integrity.
Enter Spencer Woodman, and the hottest news item of the day: A Federal Judge striking down the Trump Administration’s temporary travel ban from 7 countries deemed to be “of concern” with relation to terror and vetting. Spencer, a self-described News Reporter with a modest 2,500+ followers on Twitter, posted a video from the courtroom where the judgment was issued. In the video, an attorney for the Trump Administration argued that “We actually don’t think you’re supposed to look at whether it’s rationally based.” Taken on its own, the indication from that quote is that those arguing on President Trump’s behalf don’t want the court to consider whether or not the Executive Order is itself rational. That’s a pretty damning indictment of the Administration’s own rationale for issuing the EO, and preparedness to defend it. However, as educated legal experts were quick to point out, “rational-basis scrutiny” is a legal term used to determine constitutionality. So what does Spencer do? His tweet had racked up over 4,500 retweets in just a few hours. He was practically famous! That’s almost twice as many retweets as he has followers! Here’s what Spencer did, as you can see, to exponentially less fanfare…
He deleted the inaccurate/misleading tweet entirely, so that others couldn’t continue using it to promote what we can safely call “fake news.” But not only did he not get commensurate recognition for leading by example with journalistic integrity, he was actually chided for it by Bill Scher — a contributor to both Politico Magazine and Real Clear Politics.
The exchange, in its entirety as of this writing, is below…
So what are we to make of all this? The media, at least in part, blamed “fake news” for their having
lost wrongly predicted the 2016 election. The person who won, President Donald J. Trump, shares the public’s perception that the media has been biased against him — and has been vocal in his distaste for that media. That media has increasingly been trafficking in the ‘fake news’ they claim to lament. Whether they’re doing so purposefully or unintentionally is an unknown, but their lazy clean-up efforts — which allow the ‘fake news’ to stand — are on full display for all to see. And when we finally do find an example of a ‘fake news’ item being appropriately accounted for and disposed of, we find hand-wringing from others in the mainstream media who saw the correction as “overkill.”
(h/t T. Becket Adams for originally identifying the Zeleny, Harwood and Alexander tweets)