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MSNBC and CNN had a rare network crossover on Thursday morning — and made an even less common commitment to “do a better job” of covering allegations against “Donald Trump and the Republicans” by engaging in journalistic skepticism.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” closed the 7 o’clock hour of its May 20 episode by interviewing CNN host Jake Tapper, who is promoting his new novel, The Devil May Dance.
Host Joe Scarborough and Tapper both agreed that their two networks have to be “more fair to candidates” of both parties, particularly when covering allegations against “Donald Trump and the Republicans.”
“Final question,” Scarborough announced. “We’re looking back … over the last five years” at “some of the stories we followed that ended up not being 100% accurate.”
Five years would include the 2016 presidential campaign and the entire Trump presidency.
“How do we do a better job?” Scarborough asked Tapper. “How do we be more fair to candidates, whether we’re talking about somebody like Hillary Clinton, where we’re getting leaked information from intel communities that may not be accurate, or Donald Trump and Republicans?”
Tapper said that networks had reported stories without sufficient “context” and clarity.
“Every time, you have to remind people: People are innocent until proven guilty, and a leak is not an indictment, an indictment is not a conviction,” Tapper said.
Reporters have a duty to “present as many caveats as possible” when covering seemingly scandalous accusations of wrongdoing, Tapper added. “And I think you’re right: There are a lot of us in the media — and I certainly don’t exempt myself — who should have or could have done a better job adding those caveats, making sure the people understood everything going on.”
“I think the more we can provide that context — you know, ‘Some intelligence believe this is true, others do not’ — the better our viewers will be, as long as we present as many caveats as possible,” he said.
He complimented Scarborough for his newfound commitment to objectivity and nuance.
“I see you trying to do a better job with that,” Tapper said. “I am certainly trying to do a better job with that, to make people understand that sometimes we’re doing the best we can with a lot of conflicting information. And we’re going to bring it all to you, and you can ultimately decide what you believe.”
That last line echoed Fox News’ now-retired slogan: “We report. You decide.”
Scarborough agreed that journalists must engage in greater due diligence than just regurgitating stories reported by other media.
“Yeah, it’s so important we don’t do what I think a lot of us have done in the past … We read something in The [New York] Times or The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post, or Financial Times; they write it, and we report it,” he said. “We need to slow down” before jumping to conclusions.
“I think you’re right,” he told Tapper. “I think that’s the texture we need to bring to these stories.”
“And for God’s sake, especially when we’re talking about whether people are guilty of a crime or not, it is way past time for us … to remind people that everybody’s innocent until proven guilty,” Scarborough said.
“And it’s not just against Donald Trump,” he added. “You can go back to Hillary Clinton and the leaks coming out of the FBI for a year, year-and-a-half during her campaign.”
“These are just leaks from intel operations,” he concluded.
Both hosts specifically said that American journalists must be more skeptical of leaks coming from members of the intelligence community. They singled out the largely discredited claim that the Russian government paid foreign jihadists a bounty for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
“There’s been a lot of criticism of the media writ large following stories that the intel community leaks out,” Scarborough said. “Like, for instance, bounties, Russian bounties on the heads of American troops, which now the Biden administration is casting doubt on.”
The New York Times broke the story last summer, implying that President Donald Trump had been slow to respond and feeding the narrative that Trump is unduly soft towards Russia. Then-candidate Joe Biden called Trump’s alleged inaction “betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation.” Although multiple government agencies questioned the story over the ensuing months of the campaign, only after Biden’s inauguration did intelligence agents report they had “low-to-moderate” belief in the authenticity of the Russian bounties story.
Tapper said the bounties story is “a great example” of the media getting the conclusions wrong.
What’s behind this sudden affirmation of standard journalistic practice? Have these two networks learned something from the embarrassment of the Russiagate fiasco?
Unfortunately, there are reasons to remain skeptical of their skepticism.
First, the timing conveniently coincides with the beginning of a Democratic administration, which should be subject to greater scrutiny — including ongoing allegations that President Biden received kickbacks from foreign business deals arranged in the name of his son Hunter Biden, or investigations of the president’s brother James Biden, or dark and amorphous questions about how much authority the 78-year-old president has over the policies of his own administration.
Is this the two networks agreeing that they will look the other way at Biden administration scandals?
Second, Joe Scarborough made a false equivalence between intelligence leaks about Russian bounties and questions about Hillary Clinton’s unsecured home email server. The two stories don’t compare: In one case, the intelligence communities now question whether the bounties ever occurred. The FBI never doubted that Clinton transmitted and received confidential material over a private email server that she set up inside her home, apparently to circumvent FOIA requests of her official email account. Then-FBI Director James Comey announced that he had recommended against charging the Democratic presidential nominee, during an election she was predicted to win, because he had found no evidence of “intentional misconduct” (although intent is irrelevant under the appropriate federal statute). One case involves a question of the story’s existence; the other turns on officials’ (dubious) legal judgment of acknowledged facts.
Regardless, this was a welcome discussion of the ways the two left-wing networks have failed their viewers and how to return to bona fide journalism. We’ll be watching — and holding them accountable — over the next four years.