Anonymous sources too good to confirm haunt media attacks on Trump
CNN’s publication and retraction of a story about the Trump-Comey conflictillustrates the biggest bias in journalism: the bias in favor of “The Story.”I think much of the re[orting about President Trump is unfair. I think it reflects not only the hatred of the media responsible for reporting it but also the group think that seems to control the temperament of their stories. The Washington Post has also had several inaccurate stories about Trump but their "fact checker" is more likely to nitpick something Trump said than look at the errors made by the paper.
Similarly, the high-profile reporting by The New York Times on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was at least partially refuted by Comey. He asserted that “in the main” a February story about alleged contacts between Trump lieutenants and Russian government officials was not true. Hours later, the New York Times reported Comey’s comments, but largely stood by their original story.
From my 23 years as a reporter at The Washington Post, I learned from journalism’s giants that bias must be guarded against with vigilance. Legendary Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee grilled reporters when major stories were based, as the CNN and Times stories were, on anonymous sources. Time and time again, Bradlee emphasized the importance of “getting it right,” a need that is heightened when nameless sources are used.
The pressure on reporters and columnists to publish stories that grab headlines and attention often causes them to overreach. This is what Bradlee’s successor as Editor, Len Downie dubbed “the bias in favor of The Story,” something Downie pushed editors to be aware of, and guard against.
For me as a reporter, the rule of thumb for stories based on anonymous sources was to have at least two sources. When I was covering the Justice Department and FBI for The Post, I also sought to avoid major reporting errors by establishing relationships of trust with the FBI Director and the Attorney General—and giving each of them the opportunity for feedback before publication. I also strived to ensure fairness in addition to accuracy by asking myself the following question: Would I feel the story was fair if it was written about me?
Whatever happened at CNN, I give the news organization, and the authors of the Comey-Trump misfire, credit for correcting the story and publicly admitting their mistake. The Times might consider a correction of their own given Comey’s testimony. Hopefully in the future, big stories based on anonymous stories will be subjected to greater scrutiny.