Last week’s sickening media meltdown means it is back-to-basics time for journalism on this continent.
The need for reportorial rehab began when major news outlets repeated a BuzzFeed report – based on unnamed sources – that the Robert Mueller investigation had been told by Michael Cohen that U.S. President Donald Trump directed him to lie to the U.S. Congress.
This story was picked up by major media and spread like wildfire until Mueller’s office intervened and declared the story untrue.
Next up was the case of the Covington Catholic High School boys’ encounter with First Nations activist Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C.
This was initially portrayed, even by the New York Times, as a swarming of Phillips (who was bravely beating his drum) by MAGA-hat-clad youths chanting “Make America Great Again.” It was supported by a video posted by a Twitter account that, according to CNN, has since been deleted. Additionally, interviews were conducted with Phillips, who was also identified as a Vietnam veteran.
The school and the Catholic church immediately announced investigations and threatened expulsions. Politicians of all stripes expressed shock. A reputational lynch mob formed on Twitter seeking to identify these “scum” by name and address. Some called for violence.
The lads were accused, tried, convicted and sentenced within hours. The frenzy itself fuelled more media attention, which in turn fuelled the frenzy. And so it went.
The trouble is, it wasn’t true.
Within three days, the story had not only become more nuanced, it had completely collapsed. Other than some pathetic sniping from the most resistant quarters, it became accepted that nothing of the kind had occurred.
Corrections were published by the New York Times and Washington Post noting that Phillips had not, in fact, ever deployed to Vietnam.
The damage this has done to public trust in journalism is, at this stage, incalculable. And all because (and no doubt there were a few brave voices shouting into the maelstrom) one of the most basic tenets of journalism was ignored: be skeptical of anything you’re told until and maybe even after you’ve checked it out.
Those of my (ahem, older) generation had this drummed into us by steely-eyed editors stabbing their often nicotine-stained fingers at us until we got it. People lie. People misread situations. Witnesses differ in their accounts of the same event. Find the truth.
And yet last week so many committed the worst sin possible against their craft – they assumed the truth, apparently overwhelmed by the impulse to signal their virtue. In doing so, they disgraced their craft.
At least that’s the conclusion to which all the evidence to date leads us.
No one, for instance, appeared to even wonder how Phillips, 64, could have been a Vietnam veteran when he turned 18 the same year – 1972 – that U.S. troop withdrawal from that country began.
In addition to lectures at the pointed end of nicotine-stained fingers, my generation of journalists was taught to worship at the shrine of a slogan on the wall of the legendary City News Bureau of Chicago, which was famous for its incubation of the likes of Mike Royko and Kurt Vonnegut.
It said, in large upper-case letters: “IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.”
In other words, you don’t repeat or even give credence to a competitor’s (BuzzFeed) story without confirming it with your own trusted sources and checking it out with people involved (Mueller).
It means you don’t publish or repeat a story based on a single source (Phillips) or partial picture of an event without checking it out by finding other people who can corroborate their version. You seek out others involved and those with no stake in the outcome to find out what really happened.
If your Mother says she loves you, you check with your Dad, your siblings, your grandparents. “Hey, did you ever hear Mom say she loves me?”
You do it because first and foremost you care about the truth.
There is little evidence that this is occurring. Many media need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask: “After last week, why should anyone ever believe me again?”
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC.