We are living in the most breakneck news cycle of our lifetime, accelerated by the tweeting, taunting, and tactics of our reality TV star president. It can also feel like the most polarized political climate in generations. On top of that, we are in the midst of one of the most secret and high stakes investigations in memory, about which every news outlet in America is feverishly trying to score a scoop. This combination of news, politics, and journalistic competition can create a perfect storm for the production, and ill-advised amplification, of incorrect information.
Consider the major news of the last week. BuzzFeed breathlessly reported that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the deal-making related to building a Trump Tower in Moscow. The immediate reaction invoked the specter of looming impeachment. This was before a single other news outlet could match the story. On Twitter that evening, I agreed that if the story proved true, it would be game-changing, but reserved any further judgment until there was more proof.
Part of the reason for this was my view that when utterly damning and flat allegations of criminality surface against a sitting president, it can be dangerous to instinctively jump on the bandwagon of people calling for impeachment. Among other things, it seemed odd that though BuzzFeed was reporting Cohen advised the Special Counsel that Trump directed him to lie to Congress, Mueller’s December 7 sentencing memo contained no such allegation. That might not seem so unusual, except that the sentencing memo SDNY filed in the case involving Cohen’s hush-money payoffs, explicitly stated that Cohen acted “in coordination with” and “at the direction of” Individual-1, a.k.a., Donald Trump.
This asymmetry between the two memos isn’t dispositive, but given the gravity of the BuzzFeed report, it was certainly a reason for pause. Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, Mueller, through his spokesperson Peter Carr, issued a statement taking issue with the accuracy of BuzzFeed’s report. It was a rare statement and an even more rare rebuke of a press outlet.
The point here is not to pile on the BuzzFeed reporters some of whose reporting may yet turn out to be accurate. The point is for us to take a breath and exercise restraint and prudence when we next encounter “bombshell” reports and scoops that are sure to be published in the coming weeks and months.
As I discussed with Anne on the CAFE Insider podcast, citizens should perhaps adopt their own version of a common journalistic standard. Many reporters won’t move forward with publishing a story until they have obtained at least two sources. Likewise, perhaps we shouldn’t accept the correctness of a blockbuster allegation unless there are at least two media sources reporting the same fact.
We know that we should take a step back and distinguish between facts and speculation. The challenge comes when strong political feelings, coupled with the desire for certain news stories to be true, can work to suspend common sense and skepticism. A feeding frenzy follows, not to mention extreme disappointment when a fuller picture emerges. This reflexive reaction erodes the credibility of future credible reports and allows the president and his team to weaponize even good faith mistakes by news outlets.
This cautionary principle, by the way, applies not just to the president but other sensational news reports as well, like the viral videotaped encounter between a group of male students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American elder. Initial video of the incident led to widespread condemnation and outrage over the boys’ behavior. But soon enough, additional footage emerged painting a more complex picture of the events.
So again, I don’t mean to sound like a scold, but let’s try to exercise restraint until enough facts become known, and until we have reviewed the evidence. And we’ll be more likely to maintain what’s left of our sanity, amidst the craziness that will no doubt abound in 2019.
BEST OF ENEMIES
Tense political climate and lack of civility aren’t new to American history. For nuggets of insight, watch the documentary Best of Enemies.
The film tells the story of the legendary debates between two famed intellectuals and ideological opposites – William F. Buckley Jr., the neoconservative founder of National Review magazine, and Gore Vidal, the leftist novelist and polemicist. The debates – a series of ten – took place during the 1968 presidential election and against the backdrop of heated disagreement about race relations, the Vietnam War, and cultural pluralism.
ABC News recruited Vidal and Buckley to debate each other in hopes of climbing out of a ratings slump. The two faced off as the media executives had anticipated, their exchanges devolving into personal insults. The unscripted wrangling thrilled viewers. It was, “intellectual debate as blood sport,” Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus said of the matchup. Broadcasters took notice.
The Buckley-Vidal debates, it is said, forever changed political TV coverage, producing a new breed of outsize personalities that dominate our contemporary era of cable news shouting matches. Today however, Buckey’s and Vidal’s intellectual heft, high-mindedness, and erudition are hard to come by. They were men of letters.
The film, produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, was awarded the News & Documentary Emmy for Outstanding Historical Documentary. It’s available on Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services. You can also watch a clip from the most epic of the ten debates on YouTube here.
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THE SPECIAL COUNSEL SPEAKS
If you haven’t already, listen to the latest episode of the CAFE Insider podcast, “The Special Counsel Speaks”
Key takeaways from the latest episode of the CAFE Insider podcast. Preet and Anne dig into the BuzzFeed story and the Special Counsel’s statement calling the report inaccurate.
• What do prosecutors consider when deciding the best way to respond to reporters? It is likely that the Special Counsel’s decision to respond to the BuzzFeed report stemmed partly from concerns over lawmakers’ stated intention to open investigations into the matter, even as soon as this week, and calling for the president’s impeachment. While prosecutors generally do not comment, so to avoid compromising investigations, there are exceptions. In the instances when a reporter’s scoop is dangerously incorrect, a prosecutor will feel it is in the interest of justice to respond.
Take this example: A reporter tells a prosecutor that he is prepared to report that Senator X is under investigation for possession of child pornography, a fact the prosecutor knows to be false. The prosecutor will consider making an exception to the blanket “no comment” rule in order to prevent reputational harm that could befall an innocent person.
A bigger challenge arises when a reporter’s story is partly true and partly false. Say the reporter in our example tells the prosecutor that he intends to publish that Senators X and Y are under investigation. The truth is that an active investigation is open only into one of them, Senator Y. The prosecutor is faced with a conundrum: telling the reporter that Senator X is not under investigation would imply that Senators Y is, thus confirming a part of the reporter’s scoop and potentially undermining the investigation. On the other hand, responding “no comment” risks reputational harm that the publication of the report would cause to Senator X.
• What if evidence surfaces that Trump knew Michael Cohen was going to lie to Congress, but did not direct him to lie, as BuzzFeed reported, what then? The failure to report that someone is about to commit a crime does not generally result in criminal liability. There are some exceptions to this rule, like the duty on police officers to intervene when they know a crime is about to unfold. Under 18 U.S.C. 1622, “Whoever procures another to commit any perjury is guilty of subornation of perjury.” Having mere knowledge that someone will lie would not amount to procuring a lie, thus taking this hypothetical beyond the reach of this statute but not out of the ambit of a plausible article of impeachment.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer are this week’s guests on Stay Tuned. This sneak peek of Thursday’s interview looks at the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy the FCC introduced in 1949 and repealed in 1987. Regulations under the Fairness Doctrine required licensed broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to controversial issues of public importance and include opposing views on those issues from people best suited to present them.
Over the years, it’s been suggested that perhaps the silos of cable news warrant a revival of the scrapped policy. Although the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine on First Amendment grounds in a 1969 case, Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC, subsequent cases have cast doubt on its constitutionality and valid concerns have been raised that the doctrine chills rather than promotes free speech.
Julian Zelizer, on the aftermath of the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal: “Right after, you have the proliferation of conservative talk radio. This is the era of the Rush Limbaugh, Bob Grants, and this new approach to news where you can be openly partisan, you could totally present one side, and there are no more restrictions. And just about ten years later, Fox will go on the air and this becomes the model of how to do business. So it removed a really important restraint that existed, a counterpoint to more polarized kinds of information, and that’s the framework in which many people would then understand and hear about what’s going on in Washington.”
Kevin Kruse, on whether revoking the Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea: “I think it was a bad thing. I think it broke down one of the last remaining public commons in the media in terms of the way in which information was processed. That said, I think had it not been struck down and had it remained in place for radio and broadcast television, the pace at which cable was going would have easily eclipsed it. And so maybe Limbaugh doesn’t take off as a talk radio host; maybe he takes off as a cable news host instead. I think that this craving for a partisan media was out there and was going to come about one way or another.” [Condensed and edited for clarity]
What do you think? Should fair and balanced news coverage be achieved through legislation?
And don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, which drops on Thursday, 1/24.
SOMEONE TO FOLLOW
David Frum is a Senior Editor at The Atlantic and former speechwriter to President George W. Bush. His Twitter feed brings an even-keeled perspective to issues dividing America. Follow him @DavidFrum.
PRE-ORDER PREET’S BOOK “DOING JUSTICE”
“Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” ships March 19. It is also available as an audiobook. Pre-order here.
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