Media

Be Smart: How the Mainstream Media Sweep Their Mistakes Under the Rug

A four-minute read

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The online news outlet Axios on Wednesday published a bombshell news story: Bernie Sanders, reporter Alexi McCammond wrote, was suspending his presidential campaign.

"It’s an end to the campaign of the leading progressive in the race—and the candidate who seemed to be the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination less than a month ago," the report stated.

The only problem: It wasn’t true. And this wasn’t a run-of-the mill error, but a miscue on arguably the most anticipated (and inevitable) political story in the country.

What followed from Axios was not an explanation to its readers of how it got the story wrong, but an excuse for how it was mistakenly published (Axios editor in chief Nicholas Johnston blamed process breakdown in a "fully remote" newsroom).

Axios’s response was an exercise in obfuscation and blame shifting. A tweet broadcasting the original story was disappeared without explanation. Days after the publication of the mistaken report, the author had not addressed her mistake publicly on Twitter, where reporters routinely explain errors and corrections to their pieces. The same was true of the official Axios Twitter account, which broadcast only the corrected report.

About that report: For hours after it was posted, it included no correction acknowledging the initial error. That correction lived on its own web page, buried on Axios’s website.

Traditionally, news organizations append corrections either at the top of, or at the bottom of, news reports. Axios has done just that in the past, posting corrections to reports about Uber’s move to fire employees in the wake of a harassment investigation, for example, and again in regard to claims from a former adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky about President Donald Trump’s demands, communicating with its readers transparently about the error and the update to the story.

It is also what Axios did nearly four hours after posting its botched report—after Bloomberg News presidential politics reporter Gregory Korte posted a screenshot of the original piece, which ran under the headline "Bernie Sanders Suspends Presidential Campaign," and a second Bloomberg News reporter Laura Litvan, apologized to her Twitter followers for creating confusion by tweeting the original report.

It was more than Axios’s McCammond did. Neither she nor Johnston, the editor in chief, have provided an explanation for the error except to say, in an anodyne company statement, that "our process for full approval in a fully remote newsroom broke down."

One imagines that an error of the same magnitude from a conservative reportorial outlet would not be treated with the same level of understanding with which it was received by Axios’s mainstream media counterparts. Media reporters at the country’s top newspapers didn’t muster a tweet about the incident. Mediaite, an online publication devoted to covering print, digital, and television media, covered the story this way: "Bernie Sanders Swats Down ‘Absolutely False’ Report Claiming End of Campaign After Twitter Frenzy."

The incident reveals the insidious way in which the mainstream media, which have spent the past three years obsessing about the spread of fake news, operate like a cartel, ruthlessly enforcing standards on outsiders but refusing to police themselves.

That’s also why you didn’t hear more about the Washington Post’s botched report indicating that Russia had hacked the U.S. power grid (it hadn’t) or the shoddy 60 Minutes report that the federal employee who blew the whistle on President Donald Trump was under federal protection (he wasn’t); it is also why ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony that he had never visited Prague, which contradicted a McClatchy News report and the claims of dozens of journalists on national television, received coverage largely in the conservative press.

There are certainly Axios employees—and members of the competition—who understand what happened and why, but who are unlikely to speak up. That would make the cocktail parties awkward. Assuming there are cocktail parties in the post-corona future.