Reporting vs. Repeating In The Press

Brian Stelter swings and misses over why trust in the media is so low

Trust in mass media is lower than ever. But, as is the case with so many issues in the United States, it tells a much different story when looking at the numbers based on party affiliation.

The percentage of people who have a “great deal or fair amount” of trust in the press stands at 40%. It was lower in 2016 when it sunk to 32% but is still way down from where it was in 1999 when it was 55%. The partisan breakdown is revealing. For Democrats, the “great deal/fair amount” number is 73%. For Republicans, it is abysmally low at 10%. Independents don’t see the press in a positive light either. For them, it is 36%.

Brian Stelter of CNN took some time to explain what he thinks of these disparities. The CNN transcript for what he said is here. The video is below:

Note the title of the clip: Right-wing media repeats news instead of reporting it.

Brian’s first mistake was to automatically issue a “We’re better than Fox” statement when he coyly said, “…even though we’re not two sides of the same coin.”

But, of course, they are — the same as MSNBC. All three channels offer similar programming throughout the day and into primetime. I will say this, however. If I knew nothing about Fox News, and considering how often Brian, Oliver Darcy, and the hosts of New Day talk about Fox News, I’d assume the programming was nothing more than a loop of Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.

I’ve said before I think cable news gets way too much attention for the information viewed daily. The ratings encompass a mere fraction of the general public, particularly in the 18-54 demographic. As I’ve also noted, more people watch Lester Holt every night on NBC Nightly News than any cable news show on the air, and by a significant margin.

Brian went on to say something that made me actually laugh out loud. He said, “And as Matt Gertz of the liberal Media Matters noted, the thing about that partisan skew is that it means that negative press coverage is much more damaging to Democrats whose voters will believe it and less damaging to Republicans whose voters generally won't believe it.”

That is a crucial statement. And the important word in there is “believe.” One has to assume that press coverage of Democrats is equally hostile to that of Republicans for Gertz’s statement to have merit, and we know that is not true. It is no longer a debatable point in that press coverage skews more favorably to Democrats than Republicans.

So Democrats who “believe” the news do so because they want to believe it. Just as Republicans do as most people would rather have their biases confirmed than deal with fact-based reporting. That said, the landscape is littered with Democratic activists, talking heads, and pundits who will constantly bash the press for what they see as poor coverage of Democrats. For example, read the Twitter feeds of the Obama Bros — Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, and Tommy Vietor — who act like MSNBC is too conservative.

Brian then talks about repeaters — people on social media, talk radio people, cable news commentators, Facebook groups, etc. — who amplify what they want. But then he says the following, “And so much of what they are repeating, so much of the raw material for radio yakkers, and Facebook posters, and all the rest is from reporters, from the people pay to figure out what is true, not what they might want to be true, but what is true.”

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What he says there ties back to what people want to “believe.” And this is where Brian makes a big mistake in that he doesn’t acknowledge that some of what gets reported is not true.

Yes, all media outlets make mistakes. Reporters make errors. One of my biggest blunders was when I was with The Dallas Morning News, and we were making election recommendations. I wrote up the editorial recommending people support Rodney Anderson for the Texas House of Representatives. Except I wrote it out that we were recommending Rodney Harrison. Yes, the football player. It was an embarrassing error that made it the digital and print editions. We obviously issued a correction, but the damage was already done.

Now, you might say, “Well, wait a minute, Jay. Making a mistake is not the same as going with a story they want to be true.”

That is correct, except there are plenty of examples of a published story with thin supporting evidence. A perfect example is the Russian bounties story. The New York Times reported it. Here is the opening graf from the story that ran in June of 2020:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The story immediately blew up and primarily due to the report saying then-President Trump received the information in March of that year — and hadn’t done anything, and failed to raise it in a meeting with Vladimir Putin. A small window into how that story played to people’s biases — they wanted to believe it — can be seen in a sample of tweets from verified accounts. Click here to scroll through. Brian wrote in the Reliable Sources newsletter, “What the Russian bounty leaks really say about the Trump administration.”

Then-candidate Joe Biden was all over it. "The truly shocking revelation … if the Times report is true, and I emphasize that again, is that President Trump, the commander in chief of American troops serving in a dangerous theater of war, has known about this for months, according to the Times, and done worse than nothing.”

He doesn’t get points because he said, “if the Times report is true.” The more prudent response would have been, “I won’t comment on that unless we know it’s true.”

The problem is, at worst, it wasn’t true, or at best, relied on flimsy intelligence, and that didn’t show up in the Times story. It turns out the CIA had only “low to moderate” confidence in the intelligence they received. The original Times story said, “While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing Americans….”

Low confidence in the intelligence community is the equivalent of a “some guy told us” there were bounties offered for American troops.

It’s a story Democrats and the hard-core anti-Trump people believed because they wanted to believe it.

Two other recent stories Democrats wanted to believe was true but turned out not to be true: that border patrol agents on horses were using whips against Haitian migrants at the border, and the story about Oklahoma hospitals being unable to treat gunshot victims because all of the patients who were sick from taking ivermectin.

The “whips” story was poorly reported by people who weren’t there and knew nothing about reins managed to get border patrol agents put on administrative leave due to an investigation. President Biden declared, “These people will pay.”

It’s what Brian said next that made zero sense and is based on a somewhat smug viewpoint from people who work at more prominent news outlets:

If there's a solution to this, and I don't know if there is because we live in one American two media worlds, but if there is a solution, it's through reporting. It's through reporting not repeating, it's through doing the work and showing the work and showing how it happens every day.

And it's also through asking some hard questions about why is it the right-wing media outlets do so little reporting? Why do they employ so few reporters, and so many commentators and columnists, and opinion writers?

Why aren't their massive American newsrooms dedicated to journalism from a conservative point of view, a reality-based conservative point of view?

Why isn't there a New York Times of the right? Why doesn't that exist?

He doesn’t name the “right-wing outlets” he’s talking about, but I can point to four that fit within that realm: The Washington Examiner, The Washington Free Beacon, The Washington Times, and The Dispatch.

I am sure some eyes are rolling, and I know some people will read this (probably just the title) and roll their eyes. “Oh, yeah. The Examiner guy talking about the press. LULZ.” I get it, and I don’t care. You know what they say, right? “Opinions are like a**holes. Everyone has one.”

The fact is, all of the outlets I mentioned do plenty of reporting. Speaking for the Examiner, I say on the political front, David Drucker, Susan Ferrechio, Emily Brooks, Naomi Lim, Jim Antle, and Katherine Doyle are just as good as any team at the Times, Washington Post, Axios, Politico, or CNN. I would recommend Antle for astute political analysis over Chris Cillizza any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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I edit the Washington Briefing and business sections of the Washington Examiner magazine and save for Steve Moore’s column in the business section and Becket Adams’ new column called Media Malpractice; it’s all policy and reporting.

Josh Siegel is the best energy reporter in the business today. Zachary Halaschak does excellent reporting for the business section, as does Emma Loop, a freelance business writer. Grant Gross reports on cybersecurity each week, and Jamie McIntyre’s national security and defense stories provide in-depth reporting and analysis.

I don’t have to go into the same level of detail with the Washington Times and the Free Beacon, but they, too, employ many outstanding reporters going out and reporting news, not just “repeating” it. As for The Dispatch, that somewhat smug attitude that comes from some outlets took the form of NBC taking credit for something The Dispatch did first. It had to do with an interview with retiring Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzalez and a claim made by NBC:

Though the NBC piece didn’t have any of that, the story was nonetheless very well done, adding solid reporting from the congressman’s district. But it also included a claim that wasn’t true—that NBC’s interview was the “first interview” Gonzalez had done with a national media outlet since impeachment.

It’s the kind of journalistic chest-thumping that nobody in the real world cares about. But it was wrong, so I dropped the reporter a quick note praising the piece and giving him a heads up about the error.

He replied with a quick thanks and then added: “As for the mention of national outlet, I do understand where you’re coming from. I spoke with my editor on this though and we’re going to be keeping the reference.”

This struck me as an odd choice. 

“Huh,” I wrote back. “As I say, not a big deal to us. But now I’m curious: Why would you keep a reference that’s wrong, whether you talked to your editor or not?”

Moments later, a response: “It’s been run up the chain and is being changed to ‘major national news organization.’ Thank you for flagging.”

Ah yes, a major national news organization. “You guys over that at that piddly organization do not count!”

I would be remiss in not pointing to National Review, which, yes, does a lot of opinion and commentary, but they also have daily reporters. John McCormack is a terrific political reporter, and it was Charles Cooke who reported out, in detail, the story finally exposing Rebekah Jones as nothing but a grifter and liar.

When Brian asks about the lack of “massive” newsrooms at right-leaning organizations, he doesn’t seem to take into consideration that outlets such as CNN (AT&T), NBC/MSNBC (Comcast), and Fox News (News Corp), CBS (Viacom), ABC (Disney) have corporate owners with massive budgets. In addition, the New York Times and Washington Post are journalistic institutions with “massive” newsrooms due to their very existence — unlike the newsrooms getting gutted across the United States because it’s fast profit for hedge funds (Read McKay’s story. It’s terrific).

It brings me to Brian’s final question of, “why isn’t there as New York Times of the right?”

It’s an odd question because it operates under the assumption that the New York Times is of the left. In 2004, the Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, said, “Of course it is” to the question of whether or not the Times was a “liberal” newspaper. I should note that Okrent’s tenure ended in 2005. But even if you read it, he spends more time talking about the editorial and opinion pages than he does the news pages.

I suspect that if I asked Jeremy Peters, Nick Confessore, or Maggie Haberman if the Times was “of the left,” they’d say, “No.” Now, I’m not interested in debating the issue, and you know what I said earlier about opinions. However, if the Times is not “of the left,” then there is no need for a Times “of the right.” Right?

In the end, I think Brian gave short shrift to conservative-leaning outlets that employ reporters and do terrific reporting. I also think his view on media trust is myopic. It is far broader than he thinks, especially when bringing social media outlets into the mix and determining what is misinformation and what is not. Of course, that’s an entirely different discussion, as is what I consider to be flat-out drivel from people such as Jackie Calmes of the Los Angeles Times and Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post claim is a press that tries too hard to be fair and the bogus narrative of “both-sides” reporting.

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