The Media’s Love Affair with Alternative Facts

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington in Kentucky is looking into this and other videos that show youths, possibly from the diocese's all-male Covington Catholic High School, mocking Native Americans at a rally in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

Two years ago, Kellyanne Conway was dragged over the coals for using the term “alternative facts” in defense of President Trump’s claims that his inauguration was the most watched in history. This claim wasn’t accurate, and Ms. Conway deserved to be criticized for her use of the term “alternative facts,” but as the Trump administration enters its third year, it’s become clear that the mainstream media’s outrage had little to do with respect for the truth and everything to do with their no-holds-barred assault on American Conservatism. Left-wing bias in the news is nothing new, but two recent and particularly egregious examples of the smear campaign serve to remind us how damaging agenda-centric journalism is to our nation.

Last week, reports that Trump instructed his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress became major news. On its face, this allegation is serious; telling someone to commit perjury is a Nixon-esque move and certainly falls under the realm of high crimes and misdemeanors. However, the story, initially published by Buzzfeed News, was filled with falsehoods. In fact, less than 24 hours after it was published Robert Mueller’s probe took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement refuting the article (keep in mind that Trump is no fan of the Mueller probe, which is investigating whether he colluded with Russia). We can rule out the possibility that Buzzfeed was duped into printing what they thought was a credible claim.

Jason Leopold, the primary author of the article, never bothered to confirm whether his sources (which were and still are anonymous) provided accurate information by conducting research on his own. He didn’t even ask Mueller’s office if they knew anything about the perjury claims; instead he provided them with a vague statement that wasn’t detailed enough to analyze for accuracy.

None of this stopped Buzzfeed from publishing the “bombshell” allegations, nor did it stop other respected news sources from providing wall to wall coverage of the report, some continuing the speculation even after it was debunked. No disciplinary action was taken against Leopold, who has a long history of dishonest reporting. Worst of all, Buzzfeed refuses to retract this blatantly false story.

The Cohen article was sloppy journalism at its worst, but at least its victims were adults in the public spotlight. The same cannot be said about this next story. When a photo of a Covington High School student wearing a MAGA hat smirking at a Native American man went viral, most journalists pushed the narrative that the student and his classmates surrounded and harassed him, all while shouting “Build That Wall!” in his face. The kids were denounced as racist and the Twitter mob unleashed its fury on them.

The student at the center of the controversy, who has identified himself as Nick Sandmann, saw his reputation destroyed and received multiple death threats. Meanwhile, the American Indian, Mr. Nathan Phillips, was interviewed by many major networks where he blamed the boys for the incident and portrayed them as hateful.

In spite of this and the fierce backlash the Covington students dealt with, there’s virtually no evidence to back up Phillips’ story. The incident was filmed, and if watched in its entirety, it becomes clear that the Covington kids were the victims, not the perpetrators. The footage shows it was Phillips who approached the boys and confronted Sandmann, who appears confused and uncomfortable, but never aggressive. Meanwhile, other Native American protesters, as well as a militant black nationalist group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, are heard screaming vile things at the kids. At no point in the video can the students be heard chanting “Build That Wall!” or anything remotely hateful.

The untruthful story could’ve been debunked immediately had journalists bothered to watch the full video, but instead, they listened to hearsay and used a photo taken out of context to craft an anti-Trump narrative. Luckily, once the whole story was revealed, many journalists apologized for their original reporting. However, the fact that respected reporters didn’t bother to verify the story even though the reputation and safety of minors was on the line is profoundly disturbing. It shows us the goal for most news agencies isn’t factual reporting, but making Republicans look bad.

The press is often referred to as the fourth branch of government, and this is a fitting nickname, as the free press is vital for democracy. However, journalists will only be trusted when they hold themselves to high standards while searching for objective truth. Once their mission becomes advancing a political agenda, their “reporting” becomes harmful. Instead of informing the citizens about current affairs, an ideologically motivated and dishonest media will lose the trust of half the country and never be able to stir up outrage when wrongdoing occurs.

Why should we expect the media to get people to demand that Trump be more honest, when those very journalists are willing to lie to get what they want? When respected news organizations can’t be trusted, then even more vicious liars and conspiracy theorists will be emboldened and polarization gets worse. This is the true danger of reporters who see the truth as a subjective set of alternative facts, and throw standards out the window in order to peddle lies that advance an agenda. If we want a more functional government and a less polarized society, a return to high journalistic standards and objective reporting is crucial.


Jacob Marie is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.marie@uconn.com.