Just how independent is “independent confirmation,” anyway? Becket Adams raises this key point in media herding in the aftermath of the collapse of the Washington Post story about Donald Trump’s call to a Georgia elections investigator. Rather than pressuring the official to “find the fraud” with the implication that the investigator should make it up, Trump instead wrongly insisted that an investigation would uncover fraud.
John wrote about this last night, and about the lack of corrections thus far at other media outlets. Adams extends the argument past corrections to wonder just how those outlets presented their reports in the first place. How could they have possibly “confirmed” a false story? And isn’t that a bigger scandal than what the Post did?
If you can believe it, the Washington Post bungling its “bombshell” report isn’t the most scandalous thing about this episode in media malfeasance. No, the most scandalous thing is: Several newsrooms claimed they independently “confirmed” the most damning details of the Washington Post’s since-corrected “scoop.” …
The uncomfortable questions we are left with now are: To whom did these news outlets speak? How did the source or sources get the details of the phone call wrong? Are there additional examples of the media reporting bad information provided by anonymous sources we don’t know about, merely because there’s no contradictory audio or video? Just how many anonymously sourced stories are not true? If it can happen this easily, who is to say it doesn’t happen often? Further, how many of these bogus stories have enjoyed the backing of supposed independent corroboration when, in fact, newsrooms most likely talked to the same person or people?
How does one “confirm” something that is not true?
As Adams points out, this is one problem with using anonymous sources. Other competing outlets might end up talking to the same sources without realizing it, which means “independent confirmation” doesn’t mean squat. It clearly didn’t in this case, and this is almost certainly not a singular moment in herd journalism.
There is a place for anonymity in reporting, but it should depend on the gravity of the issue at hand. In the case of a notoriously grudge-holding president arguably trying to intimidate election officials, one can understand why sources would want to be anonymous and why the first media outlet would operate on that basis — assuming they got enough sources to corroborate the story. However, other outlets claiming to have “independently confirmed” the initial report should demand on-the-record corroboration or leave the story to their competitor — if for no other reason than to preserve their own credibility. All of these outlets failed miserably, but the most egregious failure is those outlets that rushed to report they’d independently confirmed something that wasn’t true in the first place.
And it’s pretty clear why these editorial choices were made. If it had to do with Donald Trump, media outlets couldn’t be bothered to stick with journalistic standards. They wanted to build a narrative, and if a claim supported it, they weren’t terribly concerned about corroboration or confirmation.
Unfortunately, most of them won’t learn a thing about the need to stick to standards from this disgrace, either. For instance, here’s the headline on NBC’s update of the story this morning:
Audio of fmr. President Trump's call with Georgia elections investigator offers new details. https://t.co/gPgmgvrnHV
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 16, 2021
You have to get to the eighth paragraph to find any mention of NBC’s false reporting on the call, minimized to an admission of having “misquoted the exact words”:
Earlier reporting by NBC News and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, misquoted the exact words Trump used to urge Watson to look for fraud based on Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs’ account of Watson’s recollection of the conversation.
The “new details” are that Trump didn’t threaten Frances Watson. Trump was still wrong about his insistence that massive fraud had taken place, but he wasn’t trying to intimidate Watson. NBC’s attempt to shift this to the Washington Post is pretty pathetic after its “independent confirmation” two months ago, too.
Update: There have been claims that the Washington Post “made up the quotes,” but that’s not what appears to have happened. The Post’s reporter on the story, Amy Gardner, got those quotes from her source. As a reporter friend reminded me, this took place just after the audio of Trump’s call to Brad Raffensperger had been made public, and the call itself from a president to an investigator is already pretty irregular. The White House didn’t dispute the quotes at the time, which makes the Post’s error far less egregious than those of the other media outlets which claimed to have “independently confirmed” those remarks.