Lessons from media mistake #100 in the era of Trump

The following is a news analysis.

Note: On Sat. Nov. 30 Newsweek reported firing the reporter in question. Details here.

This point isn’t to pick on someone in particular. It’s to learn what the latest media mistake in the era of Trump tells us about some badly broken national journalism.

The misreporting occurred on Thanksgiving Day. It made #100 on my list of major media mistakes. It was committed by a political writer at Newsweek.

The writer called it an “honest mistake.” But I suggest it’s something far more serious, from a journalistic standpoint. I’ll explain why.

First, we’ll review the errors.

Newsweek’s Jessica Kwong wrote:


Of course, this proved to be untrue. President Trump actually spent Thanksgiving traveling to Afghanistan, speaking with U.S. troops, and serving them dinner.

Even more startling: it’s the second year in a row that national media made the same mistake. Last year, NBC falsely reported that Trump was the first President since 2002 not to visit the troops at Christmastime.

Here are the main issues behind the Newsweek reporting.

1. Lack of basic reportorial knowledge

I’m not a political reporter nor do I closely follow the White House. Yet one thing I wondered on Thanksgiving morning was whether Trump would visit the troops on Thanksgiving or Christmas (or both) this year. All recent presidents have done so.

One would think a national political reporter and any editors would know to be watching for the annual “surprise visits.” It’s hard to imagine that someone entrusted to write and edit political material for a national publication doesn’t have this basic thought process. It makes one wonder about the supposed expertise about those writing important national political stories.

2. Failure to attribute

The Newsweek article would not have been wrong and unjournalistic had the reporter, Kwong, not included her own assumptions and supposition. Or, if she received the bad information from a source, she would not have been wrong if she had she included proper attribution as basic standards call for. For example she could have written:

President Donald Trump has been spending his Thanksgiving holidays at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, which he calls the “winter White House,” and [resort officials/White House officials say] this year [will be] no exception.”

Often in today’s news stories, journalists have abandoned the basic practice of attributing information to its source. They improperly declare information to be factual even though they do not know it firsthand to be true. This was one of the problems with the Newsweek snafu.

3. Failure to fact check

There’s an old saying: “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” As silly as it may sound, these are words for a journalist to live by. One thing I’ve learned in all my years is that no matter how obvious something seems, no matter how many other reporters have the same interpretation, no matter what the video seems to clearly show — it is frequently wrong. Frequently.

That’s why when writing a news story it’s important to follow the basic journalism standard of checking your assumptions. Kwong should have contacted the White House to see if her assumption that Trump would be golfing on Thanksgiving was true. If they told her it was, she need only attribute that and — even if he ended up in Afghanistan — she couldn’t be journalistically faulted for the bad information because it would have been attributed to its proper source, not words as if coming out of her mouth directly.

4. Failure to “correct”

Although Newsweek corrected the story– they didn’t really correct the story. They called it an “update.” This disingenuous. There was no real update. The story hadn’t changed. The reporter simply learned that her information was false and had to change it.

That’s a correction. At least it should be. It’s probably worth an apology, as well.

5. False information remains

Even after the correction, Newsweek retains the false headline stating that Trump golfed on Thanksgiving. He didn’t.

The same lessons can be said of many media mistakes. If Time magazine had bothered to follow basic journalism standards and ask the White House, they would not have falsely reported that Trump had removed the bust statue of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office the day he was inaugurated.

If proper attribution had been used and fairness standards followed, NBC, CNN and The Washington Post would not find themselves being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars by a Catholic High School student who was smeared and whose actions were widely misrepresented on the news.

I’m not suggesting that we should be infallible and never make mistakes. We’re all human.

However, I think that given the evidence now in hand, it’s hard to argue there’s not bias at the root of this rash of mistakes. They are bush league errors that would have garnered students in journalism colleges an automatic “F” on an assignment. At least that’s the way it used to be. National journalists and their editors should know better.

But more significantly, the mistakes are almost entirely– if not entirely–in one direction: the one that makes Trump look worst. If they truly were “honest mistakes,” wouldn’t half of them.. or at least a handful.. cut the other way?

Yet nobody mistakenly reported that Trump spent the holiday in Afghanistan with the troops when he’d actually been golfing at his resort. The opposite was reported.

Nobody mistakenly reported that Trump paid a high rate of taxes only for us to learn, when the records were released, that he didn’t pay any taxes. The opposite was reported.

On election night in 2016, nobody called a state win for Trump that he’d actually lost. The opposite was reported.

The misquotes, the anonymous sources who prove wrong, the improper context– they all cut in the direction of being anti-Trump.

I often hear people retort that Trump lies more than the media. The implication is that somehow the media’s mistakes are justified because of what we believe the flawed moral character of the target to be.

These are dangerous arguments, in my opinion, from a journalistic standpoint. Our obligation is to cover our subjects fairly and to maintain the same standards even when we don’t like the subject– especially, perhaps, when we don’t like him.

Otherwise, why have standards?

The way we cover those we perceive as the enemies of our own views helps define how good we are, as journalists, at the job we’re entrusted to do: covering the news.

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21 thoughts on “Lessons from media mistake #100 in the era of Trump”

  1. Obama played golf every weekend and several times during the week. Where was the MSM when he was throwing huge parties another weekly occurrence? Where were they when he kicked of all service members from the military golf courses he played on during these weekends and mid-weeks? Nowhere!! Trump plays golf on his own course and the world ends. Trump visits the Troops during Thanksgiving and Sharyl Attkisson has to point it out to MSM because they’d rather lie than admit Trump was doing something very Presidential and our military appreciated if. No big hoopla. Just showing our military their commander and chef cares about them and wanted to prove it. Something Obama and Clinton NEVER DID!!

  2. I remember about a year ago Donald Trump, Jr. was on Fox & Friends –interview centered on his relating how dad was TOTALLY committed to jobs, taxes, encouraging prosperity and related economic issues. Later that morning I stumbled on a Newsweek internet headline basically stating : “”Trump Son Admits Father is Obsessed with Money” –Liberal journalism—typical

  3. You are an actual journalist. You report and don’t try to be the story. You are among the 1 percent. Most so called journalists have earned the title of fake news and are actual enemies of the people.

  4. Sharyl: As a Journalism grad in the day, all stories had to have sources and cover the basic Ws (who, what, where and why and HOW). Opinions were reserved for the editorial pages.

    A story wasn’t a story unless it had a source. Today what passes for news is a crime. Bias is rampant. It is sad. I don’t know if reporting the news will ever be the same. It certainly won’t be trusted, at least by me.

  5. Sharyl, as always, your reports are thorough, thought-provoking, fair, and hard-hitting (with no discernable concern for where the chips may land).
    May God richly bless you for your courage and your honesty.

  6. Sharyl:
    I was a television news reporter/producer for more than three decades. In the late nineties growing interference from management and a decline in journalistic ethics caused be to walk away.
    Since then I feel the state of journalism has generally sunk lower and lower with each passing year.
    Since Donald Trump was elected the coverage has become unabashedly bias . I see “journalists” saying and doing things that would have resulted in immediate termination back in the eighties. Western reporters used to laugh about the propaganda masquerading as journalism in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today I see and read reports In the US that make the old “Pravda” look like a purveyor of truth. I am so glad you have hung in there and continued as a legitimate reporter. I honestly feel that thanks to you and other rare hold outs, real, honest reporting will come back to the land of the First Amendment. We can only hope.

    1. I agree. It seems the way regulated industries capture the regulators, the government has captured much of the MSM, using tools of force such as threatening to withhold broadcast licenses, the very much used denial of access to journalists who don’t always write favorable articles about a politician, the related practice of getting “scoops” from government officials provided they’re a friendly journalist, the offer of high paying government or campaign jobs (speech writer, communications, PR) via the government/MSM revolving door, etc.

      Regarding the use of anonymous sources, why isn’t the MSM revealing who told them false stories after those stories are proven to be false? Seems to me journalism ethics and honesty, requires reporters to out people spreading false stories under the color of anonymity; otherwise, the MSM becomes an outlet to facilitate the spread of false information about others.

      Sharyl – can you comment or provide insight into this? Seems there’s been many cases of the MSM facilitating lies and smears via anonymous sources they’ve kept anonymous. The only argument I can think of for keeping lying anonymous sources anonymous, is that the MSM doesn’t want to reveal a source if the MSM turns out to be wrong. But there have been too many liars kept anonymous.

  7. The libermedia are disgusting and in a JUST world would be declared an illegal enterprise that is undermining the GOVERNMENT OF THE USA with their lies and collusion with traitors! Thank you Mrs. Atkinsson for being HONEST and PROFESSIONAL!

  8. If it wasn’t for LOW standards, the media would have NO standards. I find it appalling that these “Journalists” either do not know how to do their jobs OR they deliberately lie. They should lose their Constitutionally protected status for all of these lies and smears that ONLY GO ONE WAY. That’s not a mistake, it’s deliberate lying and smears. CNN and MSNBC should lose their FCC licenses as well.

  9. As dangerous as this #BigMedia campaign is. The USA system and us knuckledraggers will course correct. Pres “GW Bush said The mighty Ship USS UNITES States of America always veers one direction then the other, but always on course to a better future”
    Apology to Laura Bush for less eloquently sharing her words.
    The markets & The People are Tuning out the politics. Burn me once… Burn me 100 times with your $10M salary….

  10. Excellent commentary. I appreciate your work on Full Measure and other efforts by Sinclair to produce valid journalism. I was a broadcast journalist, anchor and News Director. Both print and electronic journalism is bankrupt and needs strong and ethical leadership now.

  11. Once again, excellent unbiased reporting. And now it appears that Newsweek has released Ms. Kwong from her employment, but without really correcting the record or owning up to the error.

  12. Also to note, the self-censorship MSM is applying to themselves.
    After the first Democrat debate, NPR/PRI did not mention candidate Tulsi Gabbard once, even though she was the MOST searched candidate during the debate (according to Google).
    Not a single liberal MSM news outlet mentioned Biden had a eye vessel pop during the 4th debate.

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