Blinded by Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Covering the Trump presidency has not always been the media’s finest hour, but even grading on that curve, the month of December has brought astonishing screwups. Professor and venerable political observer Walter Russell Mead tweeted on December 8, “I remember Watergate pretty well, and I don’t remember anything like this level of journalistic carelessness back then. The constant stream of ‘bombshells’ that turn into duds is doing much more to damage the media than anything Trump could manage.”
On December 1, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross went on air and made a remarkable claim. For months, the media have been furiously trying to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Ross reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had just pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was prepared to testify that President Trump had instructed him to contact Russian officials before the 2016 election, while Trump was still a candidate. If true, it would have been a gamechanger. But Ross’s claim was inaccurate. Flynn’s documented attempts to contact the Russians came after Trump was president-elect, allegedly trying to lay diplomatic groundwork for the new administration. Ross was suspended by ABC for four weeks without pay for the error.
Later that same weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Trump transition official K. T. McFarland, charging that she had lied to congressional investigators about knowledge of the Trump transition team’s contacts with Russia. The article went through four headline changes and extensive edits after it was first published, substantially softening and backing away from claims made in the original version. The first headline made a definitive claim: “McFarland Contradicted Herself on Russia Contacts, Congressional Testimony Shows.” The headline now reads “Former Aide’s Testimony on Russia Is Questioned.” The website Newsdiffs, which tracks edits of articles after publication, shows nearly the entire body of the article was rewritten. (The Times website makes no mention of the changes.)
Still in that first weekend of December, Senator Orrin Hatch criticized the excesses of federal welfare programs, saying, “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves.” The quote was taken wildly out of context. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as well as journalists from Mic, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times reported that Hatch was directly criticizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, with some suggesting Hatch thought children should be put to work to pay for subsidized health care. Not only was Hatch not criticizing the CHIP program, he cowrote the recent bill to extend its funding.
On December 5, Reuters and Bloomberg reported that special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank account records of President Trump and family members, possibly related to business done in Russia. The report was later corrected to say Mueller was subpoenaing “people or entities close to Mr. Trump.”