In a column on Monday, Jill Lawrence, an editor and columnist at USA Today, imagined what Donald Trump would sound like if he ever issued thorough corrections and apologies for his falsehoods. “I deeply regret and apologize for the serious error I made when I insisted numerous times that up to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, denying me a popular vote victory, and that there was ‘serious voter fraud’ in California, New Hampshire and Virginia,” one entry in the thought experiment read. “Election officials and researchers have assured me that based on their investigations and studies, this is not the case. The facts presented by these experts have convinced me that fraud is a minor problem in our elections, and I am disbanding the taxpayer-financed commission I set up to address it.”
The chance of Trump ever saying something like this is negligible, of course. Yet, whenever a media organization makes an error in a story about him, the President is all over it. In a series of tweets over the weekend, he seized on a CNN report from Friday, which implied that in September, 2016, members of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump, Jr., potentially received advance access to e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee. On Friday afternoon, CNN corrected its story, acknowledging that it had got the time line wrong, and that it couldn’t stand by the implication.
“Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday,” Trump declared in a tweet, on Saturday morning. He then compared the CNN story with one that ABC News had been forced to correct a week earlier, in which Brian Ross, a veteran correspondent, had reported that Trump, when he was still a candidate for President, asked Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, to make contact with Russian officials. “They were caught red handed, just like lonely Brian Ross at ABC News (who should be immediately fired for his “mistake”). Watch to see if @CNN fires those responsible, or was it just gross incompetence?” Trump went on. Of course, Trump has been singling out reporters and news organizations as “fake news” since the start of his Presidency. He began doing it in January, during a press conference at Trump Tower, which was held the day after BuzzFeed published an opposition-research dossier that claimed, without corroboration, that the Russians had a sex tape of Trump consorting with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel. CNN was one of the news outlets that reported the contents of the dossier, and, when the network’s Jim Acosta tried to ask him a question, Trump turned on him and said, “Not you. Your organization is terrible.” After Acosta tried again, Trump snapped at him, “You are fake news.”
Until that moment, there had been a debate about whether President Trump would adopt the same bullying, dismissive behavior that Candidate Trump had exhibited during the campaign. At least in theory, Trump, once he reached the White House, could have adopted a less overtly antagonistic approach to the media, exploiting the mystique and visual props of the Presidency to try and broaden his appeal. That’s what Ronald Reagan did, for instance. But his exchange with Acosta was the clearest early sign that he had no intention of following Reagan’s example.
Trump decided to stick with all-out warfare, and his attacks on the press are, lately, growing even more antic. Also on Saturday, he called for the firing of the Washington Post’s David Weigel, who had tweeted out (and quickly deleted) a photograph of a half-empty stadium in Pensacola, Florida, where Trump spoke on Friday night. (Other photographs confirmed that the stadium was much fuller by the time Trump appeared.) Referring directly to Weigel, Trump wrote, “FAKE NEWS, he should be fired.”
Trump still wasn’t done, not nearly. On Monday morning, he returned to Twitter and slammed the Times, which, in its Sunday edition, had published a lengthy and not entirely flattering piece about his daily routine. “Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day – Wrong!” Trump said. “Also, I seldom, if ever, watch CNN or MSNBC, both of which I consider Fake News. I never watch Don Lemon, who I once called the ‘dumbest man on television!’ Bad Reporting.” On Tuesday morning, the reëmergence of women levelling sexual harassment charges against him was the source of Trump’s wrath. “Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia – so now they are moving on to the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met,” he tweeted. “FAKE NEWS!”
What to make of all this? Note, first, the deep and incurable narcissism that afflicts the President. His message attacking the Times came about an hour and a half after a man attempted to detonate a suicide bomb in the New York City subway. Did it not occur to him that, as President, he should forgo the whining tweet and express his best wishes to the residents of his home town? A second point that needs to be emphasized is the aberrant nature of Trump’s attacks on the press. Previous Presidents occasionally challenged individual stories, and even particular news organizations. (Recall Barack Obama’s critical comments about Fox News.) But they didn’t accuse the media of deliberately spreading falsehoods, an accusation that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, repeated on Monday. “There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people, something that happens regularly,” Sanders said in her daily briefing.
There is also no recent precedent of Presidents singling out individual reporters in their public statements and demanding that they be fired, as Trump did with his attacks on Ross and Weigel. Trump is well aware that the subjects of his tweets will be subjected to vitriol and harassment at the hands of his online army of supporters and trolls. This is yet another example of Trump debasing his office and poisoning American politics—all in a blatant effort to change the narrative and divert attention from his own troubles.
There is no evidence that ABC News or CNN deliberately misled their audiences. Sloppiness rather than deceit seems to have been responsible. ABC News has acknowledged that its story “had not been fully vetted through our editorial standards process.” CNN’s report appears to have been based on an e-mail submitted to the House Intelligence Committee that the network’s reporters didn’t actually see before publication. (In its story, CNN quoted “two sources who had seen the e-mail.”) Especially when reporting on a subject as explosive as the Robert Mueller investigation, news organizations need to make sure that they get the details right. In these instances, that didn’t happen. But, once the mistakes in their stories were pointed out, CNN and ABC News both corrected them. ABC News also suspended Ross and issued a statement of regret for publishing its report. Weigel apologized for his error as well, even though his tweet was of little consequence.
We should be thankful that journalists hold themselves to higher account than Trump does. As Lawrence wrote in USA Today, “No real journalist deliberately makes a mistake; that is what we fear most, what keeps us awake at night.” Moreover, when mistakes are made, it is often other media organizations that point them out. The Washington Post revealed that CNN had got the date of the e-mail to Donald, Jr., wrong. Numerous outlets queried Ross’s Flynn story before it was corrected. The American news media sometimes fall victim to groupthink and herding, but the press is too fractious and competitive to be part of a conspiracy.
Looking ahead, the right way for members of the media to respond to Trump’s attacks is to stay calm and recommit to aggressive but scrupulous reporting. As the Mueller investigation closes in on the President and his top aides, there may well be even more tumultuous times ahead. Rather than trying to prejudge the outcome, the media’s job is to report the news as it emerges, and to provide an outlet for sources who have information that they think the public needs to know about. In today’s Washington, such sources are perhaps more plentiful than ever.
By all means, let the editorial boards and commentators call out Trump for his incipient authoritarianism. As some of them have pointed out, there is a long history of would-be autocrats looking to stigmatize the press. But for now, at least, the First Amendment is still in place, and the most important thing is for reporters to keep reporting doggedly and accurately. In the vast majority of cases, that is what they have been doing for the past year. That is why Donald Trump is so mad at them.