The Breakdown of Trust in the Media

As I was pulling together items for Quick Takes yesterday, the story of Trump’s meeting with television network executives and anchors was unfolding. I had seen CNN’s reporting on it via Brian Stetler, which had characterized only one source in the room as saying that “there was ‘real progress’ made with regards to media access to Trump and his administration.”

About that time, people were beginning to talk about a report in the New York Post that told a different story.

“It was like a f−−−ing firing squad,” one source said of the encounter…

“The meeting was a total disaster. The TV execs and anchors went in there thinking they would be discussing the access they would get to the Trump administration, but instead they got a Trump-style dressing-down,” the source added.

A second source confirmed the fireworks.

I weighed whether to change and report this take on the meeting instead. Two things stopped me. The first was that this was reporting from the New York Post as opposed to CNN. I gave more credence to the latter. Secondly, I thought that it might be important to give this story some time. Often the most explosive interpretation turns out to be more click-bait than truth, and I didn’t want to get caught in that trap. Better to wait and see.

This morning, I read David Remnick’s accounting of what sources told him. Apparently the NY Post wasn’t exaggerating…at all.

In the presence of television executives and anchors, Trump whined about everything from NBC News reporter Katy Tur’s coverage of him to a photograph the news network has used that shows him with a double chin. Why didn’t they use “nicer” pictures?

For more than twenty minutes, Trump railed about “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. When he was asked about the sort of “fake news” that now clogs social media, Trump replied that it was the networks that were guilty of spreading fake news. The “worst,” he said, were CNN (“liars!”) and NBC.

That’s when I decided to go back to Stetler’s report at CNN this morning and found that it had been re-written almost entirely. I bolded what was added after the opening paragraph:

Executives and anchors from the country’s five biggest television networks met with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Monday afternoon.

And they got an earful.

Trump vented about media coverage, according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was highly critical of CNN and other news organizations.

There is no mention anywhere on the page that the article was altered from it’s original form.

I tell you this story, not because it is a terribly significant one, but because I’d like to demonstrate how I gave a major cable news organization the benefit of the doubt…and got played. I understand that the terms of the meeting with Trump were that it was off the record and CNN’s took that into account in their initial reporting. In many ways, it was all of the network news organizations that got played by Trump in their assumption that he would behave with the decorum of his predecessors. But you have to wonder what it takes for them to finally catch on, because that has happened over and over again.

What I’ve learned from this experience – unfortunately – is that my initial assumption that CNN deserves more credence than a source like the NY Post is perhaps misplaced. And while I will continue to avoid jumping too quickly on click-bait sensationalism, I suspect that my story mirrors what a lot of people are experiencing with the media these days. Trust is eroding and that is bad news for all of us.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.