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No Culpability in Spreading Bad Info?
I typically don't write columns based on Twitter conversations, but there was one yesterday involving CNN's Jake Tapper that I think is worthy of some discussion in regard to the spreading of media disinformation.
A little background first:
Last Sunday, Tapper interviewed Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has a new book out entitled, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal." The book focuses heavily on the national division caused by our increasingly tribal political culture, so Tapper asked Sasse to weigh in on President Trump's recent praise for Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte over his physical assault on a reporter (a crime Gianforte was convicted for).
USA Today summed up Sasse's response later that day with this headline: "Sen. Ben Sasse: Trump was being 'playful' in praising congressman's assault of reporter."
The piece's writer, William Cummings, further described Sasse's comments in the first paragraph:
"President Donald Trump was being 'playful' when he celebrated a congressman's 2017 assault of a reporter, Sen. Ben Sasse said Sunday – but he added that he did not think the rhetoric was 'OK.'"
Sasse's a frequent critic of President Trump (a rarity within the Republican Party), so it seemed a bit out of character for him to describe such rhetoric as "playful." And there's a reason for that: he didn't.
Here is what Sasse actually said:
"I think what you hear from a lot of Nebraskans, who also I think tune out most of the rallies, is there's sort of short-term/long-term thing going on, and people feel like the president's rhetoric is kind of short-term playful. I don't think it's okay, but I do think most people tune most of it out."
Sasse clearly stated that he believed other people interpreted what Trump said as "playful." But just in case there was any confusion, Tapper followed up on Sasse's response:
Tapper: "But, it's not playful to joke about assault, is it?"
Sasse: "No. The guy was convicted of a crime."
Needless to say, USA Today framed Sasse's comments completely wrong. And anyone who didn't watch the video, and relied solely on Mr. Cummings' account of what was said, was very much misled.
Was it intentional? It's hard to see how it wasn't. Sasse was awfully straight forward in his contention that he did not view Trump's remarks as "playful." That's why it was surprising, the next day, to see Jake Tapper share the USA Today piece on Twitter (with his nearly 2 million followers) — verbatim headline and all — without commenting on its clearly false context:
A number of Tapper's followers drew the natural conclusion. Here is just a few of their responses (some of the nicer ones):
Oh, what a hill to die on
— Molly Jong☠️Fast (@MollyJongFast) October 22, 2018
Particularly galling as Sasse tries to present himself as a moral leader.
— Ryan Roach (@RyanRoach5) October 22, 2018
Some people, including me, who'd watched the interview or had read the transcript, knew that USA Today had gotten it dead wrong. We asked Tapper why he would share the piece's default headline without comment:
I agree with Mr. Bell in his assessment that Tapper is normally fair. In fact, I view him as a respected journalist who makes a disciplined effort to get things right. And to Tapper's credit, he replied to some of our tweets:
Tapper is right in that he didn't create the false narrative. But he did choose to share it, as-is, without addressing its glaring inaccuracy (something he could have very easily done). That is... unless Tapper somehow, in some strange way, felt the headline was indeed accurate...
Isn't inaccurate? Give me a break. The context was presented as Sasse's view, when it clearly wasn't. I pressed Tapper on his defense of the headline, and he responded:
Kind of a bummer that addressing our concerns was a time consumer, but it was certainly enlightening.
Again, the criticism isn't that Tapper created false information. It's that he shared it without correction. Does that distinction let him off the hook? I don't think so. In fact, this is something that many in the news media often (and rightfully) criticize President Trump (and his supporters over): passing along junk.
To use an admittedly exaggerated comparison, Trump didn't come up with the ridiculous theme that Ted Cruz's father was somehow involved with the JFK assassination. A tabloid did that. But Trump spread it, and therefore lent it legitimacy. And he was rightfully raked over the coals at the time for doing so.
It seems to me that a respected journalist, especially one whose interview was clearly misrepresented, would choose not to parrot false information from that interview. So while USA Today deserves the brunt of the criticism here, Tapper deserves some too. Their readers and followers were done a disservice.
I suspect, by now, that Tapper probably realizes he screwed up. But since he never deleted the original tweet, I could be wrong.