2019 lessons for the media
The two biggest media misses of 2019 serve as perfect examples of what is plaguing the industry from a public trust and confidence perspective.
First, there is the rush to be first instead of accurate, allowing social media to dictate the narrative without anything resembling a meticulous vetting process. The Jussie Smollett fiasco is a prime example.
Remember what was presented as absolute fact after the story broke: Smollett decided to go outdoors, into a polar vortex, and walk to a Subway fast-food restaurant for a sandwich — at 2 a.m. He says he was then spotted by two men wearing MAGA baseball caps — in subfreezing temperatures, mind you — and recognized by them as an actor on a show that most Trump supporters are unlikely to watch. The two men, he said, screamed “This is MAGA country!” (remember, this is in Chicago) AND both men happened to have rope and bleach on their persons (talk about being prepared ahead of time).
Missing from much of the breathless initial reports was a very key word: Alleged. As in, “the alleged attack.”
“Celebrities, lawmakers rally behind Jussie Smollett in wake of brutal attack” — ABC News
“Analysis: The Jussie Smollett attack highlights the hate black gay Americans face” — The Washington Post
” ‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett attacked in possible hate crime” — CNN
“Empire star Jussie Smollett attacked in Chicago by men hurling homophobic and racial slurs” — NBC News
“Celebrities rally behind Jussie Smollett after brutal attack in Chicago” — Buzzfeed
Without that word, “alleged,” the supposed attack — and its context — is presented to the reader or viewer as gospel. And, given the obvious questions that emerged around the actor’s tale and utter lack of evidence, the story absolutely warranted the disclaimer of “alleged” until a foundation of facts could be gathered.
Fortunately, thanks to local reporters and law enforcement in Chicago, the story fell apart. Smollett still somehow got off, but his career is in tatters — as it should be for wasting everyone’s time, particularly an already-overwhelmed department like the Chicago Police Department (more than 530 murders in the city last year).
The Covington Catholic catastrophe also was a classic example of newsrooms allowing loud, partisan voices on social media to dictate their vetting process, or lack thereof.
To review what happened back on that cold January day, social media video of the March for Life rally in Washington appeared to show Covington, Ky., students, some of them wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, taunting a Native American man attending an Indigenous Peoples March. One young man became the focus of media attention after staring at the Native American — who approached the Covington student, not the other way around, as first described — for more than two minutes in what the student later described as an effort to calm things down. The student was widely portrayed at first as, essentially, the face of racism.
Many media outlets initially ran with that angle of the story. After all, it contained the perfect ingredients for media outrage because it involved young white men, it involved the Catholic Church, and it involved President Trump, since the kids were wearing MAGA hats. A trifecta for titillation.
“Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March” — The New York Times
“The Catholic Church’s Shameful History of Native American Abuses” — The Washington Post
“The Covington Students Might as Well Have Just Spit on the Cross” — National Review
The student subsequently sued several outlets, including the Post, for hundreds of millions of dollars.
What we witnessed with Smollett and with the Covington Catholic kids is similar to what we saw with the Trump-Russia collusion tale that finally was dismissed after the Mueller report’s release in April, with results that shocked many in the press who had pushed an opposite narrative for two years by working from the premise that President Trump had to be guilty. It is a media that works under this premise: guilty until proven innocent, particularly on cable news, where anti-Trump stories are gobbled up like seagulls eating at the beach. Throw anything negative about this president or his supporters up in the air, and it will be swallowed whole.
United Press International used to have a saying: “Get it first. But first, get it right.”
The Fourth Estate needs to embrace that now more than ever.