Brian Ross of ABC News made a colossal mistake last week, claiming then-candidate Donald Trump had instructed Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the campaign. In fact, Trump told him to do so only after he was elected.
Trump and his allies are using that mistake as proof that the mainstream media really is about “fake news” and unfair coverage, and shouldn’t be trusted.
“People who lost money when the Stock Market went down 350 points based on the False and Dishonest reporting of Brian Ross of @ABC News (he has been suspended), should consider hiring a lawyer and suing ABC for the damages this bad reporting has caused - many millions of dollars!” Trump tweeted.
Nonsense. As egregious as it was, all the Ross mistake proves is that media outlets are hamstrung by a characteristic that from time to time hampers every industry: They are staffed by imperfect human beings.
The Flynn plea agreement, which includes the former national security adviser’s full cooperation with the Robert Mueller investigation, was a damaging enough report on the morning Ross made his mistake, putting the burgeoning scandal directly inside the White House. Had Ross been right, it would have been worse because it would have been the first evidence that Trump was directly involved with potential collusion attempts during the campaign. (For clarity, that does not mean, as some observers have claimed, there is no evidence of collusion. Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and George Papadopoulos actively sought to collude - they have admitted as much after spending months repeatedly lying about any such attempts.)
ABC News corrected the Ross report and announced that he was being suspended four weeks without pay for a gaffe that contributed to a momentary dip in the Dow Jones industrials. In other words, a high-profile journalist was held publicly accountable for getting a high-profile story wrong. That’s as it should be but, sadly, is notable in an era when the president and others routinely make factually inaccurate statements and don’t correct them. ABC News’s action is a sign that it takes its responsibility as a fair arbiter of news seriously. You don’t own up to mistakes - a painful process for journalists, even if it is just a correction about a misspelled name - if your goal is to deceive.
Industries that own up to mistakes increase their credibility. Researchers have found that to be true even among doctors who make critical mistakes that lead to deformities or even death. Those doctors are less likely to be sued by those they harmed - because people understand that no one is perfect but appreciate an honest attempt to make amends. It’s also why news that the Mueller team quickly removed an FBI agent from the Russia probe this summer after it discovered he had made seemingly anti-Trump tweets isn’t cause for alarm; it’s another sure sign that Mueller won’t tolerate even the appearance of impropriety.
Trump and White House officials should emulate those actions rather than trying to capitalize on them politically.