The media really does have a fake news problem, as President Donald Trump frequently likes to point out.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote, a free press is necessary and vital to the function of a free society. The First Amendment reinforces that.
But that doesn’t mean that media institutions should be free from criticism, from the president or otherwise. The recent media fiasco surrounding a misreported incident between Covington Catholic students and a Native American activist demonstrates why so many Americans find the credibility of some of the nation’s most venerated media organizations wanting.
Here are three major ways the legacy media damaged its reputation and revealed its bias.
1.) Botching the narrative, then deflecting blame.
The media botched the entire episode between the Covington Catholic students and Native American activist Nathan Phillips from the start.
Initial reports from legacy media outlets, like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, portrayed Phillips as the victim who had been peacefully protesting until being mobbed by kids in “Make America Great Again” hats.
That was wrong, and nearly the opposite of the truth.
Instead of doing due diligence to make sure the story was correct, these media outlets rushed to put together a skewed and uncritical narrative about Phillips and the students, who were subjected to online hate mobs and national condemnation.
As my colleague, Katrina Trinko, wrote of the mad media scramble: “Finally, they had a piece of proof that supported their cherished narrative: that most Trump supporters were bigots and racists who backed the wall and other initiatives because of their racist views.”
They were so eager to advance this narrative that basic journalistic standards were thrown out the window.
Then, the full story came out and exonerated the boys. What response did those same media outlets give?
Some issued genuine apologies for the failure, but many refused to accept that they played such a large role in spreading misinformation.
Writers for The Washington Post shifted blame to social media and even President Donald Trump. The Post actually ran with a headline that said, “A viral story spread. The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump Internet pounced.”
One of the article’s co-authors, Paul Farhi, also tweeted out an article pinning the blame on a random Twitter account, as if that somehow excuses or explains what transpired.
This is a legit mystery: Twitter account stoked the Covington controversy, but who was behind it? https://t.co/ffOJbIwGy2
— Paul Farhi (@farhip) January 24, 2019
CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers actually tweeted out that the real victims in all this were the journalists.
This ?@washingtonpost? story captures the real lesson of this episode—don’t succumb to orchestrated harassment campaigns against journalists.
“The Covington Catholic story went viral. The mainstream media chased it. The Trump Internet pounced.” https://t.co/Bu3zEeIFpE
— Kirsten Powers (@KirstenPowers) January 23, 2019
Perhaps they should consider that the fault is not in internet trolls and the president, but in themselves.
2.) The media failed to be skeptical.
One of the reasons this story spiraled out of control is the simple fact that members of the media failed to be skeptical of a story that seemed too good to be true.
They missed the fact that the Black Hebrew Israelites, a black nationalist group, had been instigators in the whole confrontation between Phillips and the Catholic students.
It was they, not the students, who had been hurling racist and homophobic comments. Worse, it turns out that Phillips had been dishonest about the whole incident and his background. He claimed to be just a humble man of peace, victimized by an unruly mob of Catholic students chanting, “Build the wall.”
That was completely inaccurate.
Video evidence showed that Phillips approached the students and chose to initiate the confrontation with them, and at no time could the students be heard chanting “Build the wall.”
Additionally, Phillips had not been a Vietnam War vet, as was widely reported, and had a history of instigation.
According to other reports, he also tried to disrupt a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with a group of other protesters.
None of this appeared in initial reports, despite how much it would have altered the story presented to the public.
3.) After all of these failures, many in the media continued trying to dig up dirt on Covington Catholic High School.
Perhaps worse than all these failures, many in the media simply couldn’t let the story go without tarnishing the Covington Catholic students.
NBC published a story with the headline, “Gay valedictorian banned from speaking at Covington graduation ‘not surprised’ by D.C. controversy.”
But if you read the story, it becomes apparent that the school says it didn’t allow the student to give his speech because he didn’t submit it on time and it was deemed too political.
On top of that, this wasn’t even the same school—just another Catholic school in the area. This is just one of the many, many smears the media has tried to cook up to tarnish the Covington Catholic students.
Perhaps instead of digging deeper to prove to the world their biases were correct all along, the media should behave more responsibly, ensure that it faithfully gathers the facts before publishing stories that could destroy the lives of children, and behave in a way that will convince Americans that they aren’t “fake news.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, an occasional contributor to The New York Times, wrote a brilliant critique of the legacy media’s standards in response to the Covington fiasco:
“How could the elite media—The New York Times, let’s say—have protected themselves from this event, which has served to reinforce millions of Americans’ belief that traditional journalistic outlets are purveyors of ‘fake news’? They might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term ‘journalistic ethics.’ Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.”
That’s right. But will they collectively learn the right lessons from this whole incident? I’m not seeing much evidence.
Jarrett Stepman is an editor and commentary writer for The Daily Signal and co-host of "The Right Side of History" podcast. Send an email to Jarrett.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.