Scoops Over Truth

I’ve been spending a lot more time on Twitter and watching cable news lately than is good for my mental health, but I’m constitutionally incapable of totally staying out of the news cycle when big things are happening. And given that we’re living in what appears to be a slow motion apocalypse, things are always happening.

It’s been frustrating to watch the way cable news outlets have covered Trump. Newspapers less so and digital outlets are a mixed bag. (Cable news and Twitter are apparently the only places the president goes for info, so it’s worth examining what kind of message he’s getting.)

There are a lot of things about this administration that are unprecedented because neither the POTUS or the (largely) amateurs he’s brought in respect the office or the norms of the institution and are happy to violate them no matter who they hurt. Every White House Press Secretary spins, but this may be the first time we’ve had one tell the American people to not believe their lying eyes–literally, with photos–while spouting something easily falsifiable. Nor have we had an admin that shamelessly and arrogantly ignores advice and input from the intelligence community, at the risk of American lives. Nor have we had one blindside Congress with multiple executive orders, some of which appear to be unconstitutional–in the first week of office, no less.

And for this reason, covering the Trump administration is not a normal journalistic exercise. But yesterday I saw Frederika Whitfield read, whole cloth, a statement from the Trump administration, as it came in, that among other things claimed that the Obama administration had earmarked the same countries as sources of terrorism-related immigration. MSNBC’s Ari Melber, correcting here, later:

The statement was read, in its entirety, and pundits were asked for a response on the fly. Nothing in the statement was checked before it was presented to the public. It was presented as if it were an ex cathedra pronouncement from the mouth of god herself. Lest it seem like I’m picking on Whitfield here, this has been standard practice for all the networks. She’s just doing what everyone else is doing.

Why? Because the White House putting out an error-riddled (intentionally or incompetently) statement that anyone with access to Google could verify or falsify is not normal.

But at this point, everyone should know that and be responsible–and responsive. That this isn’t normal is no excuse for the broadcast version of stenography. (This is also where newspaper journalism is better. The Times or the Post just printing the statement with no examination or annotation would be unthinkable.) At any rate, this has got to stop, because the first time you put whatever the admin says/is lying about now out there with no fact checking, it becomes gospel for the vast majority of people who are watching.
And the only motivation for doing it like that is to have the statement out there first. (And it’s not even really a scoop when you consider that it’s a statement from the WH that every other network got or will get.) I realize cable news is held to a lower standard by many in the journalistic community, but for better or worse, much of America gets its news primarily from TV. News networks cannot prioritize scoops over truth.