Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on—to borrow half a quotation from Janet Malcolm—came close to passing out this week when CNN retracted its story about Wall Streeter Anthony Scaramucci and the three network staffers connected to the story resigned. Candid reporters and editors on six continents can direct you to stories they’ve published that turned out to be as false or as flawed at CNN’s Scaramucci story. That could have been me, everybody thought this week of the CNN kerfuffle. Thank God it wasn’t me.
CNN’s mistake, as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and Paul Farhi explained in separate pieces, appears to be a product, in part, of a breakdown in the network’s usual editing process. Scaramucci has accepted the network’s apology. Good for him.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say CNN shouldn’t have gone with such a flimsy, improperly vetted story. Unfortunately, journalism isn’t a hindsight business. Journalism happens in real time, against a deadline clock, and in a competitive atmosphere. Only ombudsmen, press critics and libel attorneys get to second-guess what they do.
In extending my empathy to the CNN 3—Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau and Lex Haris—I intend no defense of malicious reporters like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jay Forman, Jack Kelley, Janet Cooke, Jonah Lehrer, Christopher Newton and others who have deliberately filed fiction as fact to their editors. Go ahead, chum and feed them to the snakeheads for all I care. But I must defend honest journalists who have screwed up (as I’ve screwed up). “If you say you haven’t screwed up, you’re lying.”
As the Supreme Court noted in the landmark libel case Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment is of little use unless we provide “breathing space” for controversial reports that end up containing unintentional mistakes—like the CNN story—as long as they’re made without malice. As I’ve written before, journalistic errors aren’t a modern thing caused by the 24-hour news cycle or stimulated by Twitter’s itchy trigger-fingers. Show me a famous set of historical stories—the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Normandy invasion, the Cold War, the civil rights struggle, the 9/11 attacks or the day-to-day coverage of past presidents, and I’ll show you grievous errors in the reporting. From Tucson to Abbottabad to Mumbai, breaking news routinely tosses off condemnable errors of fact, usually made by conscientious reporters doing their best under intense pressure. The New York Times, you’d recall, famously acknowledged reams of defective pre-Iraq War copy. And Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, perhaps the most celebrated reporters of our era, famously botched a number of Watergate stories, as John Cook and other students of their work have noted.
Journalists deserve reprimands, time-outs and maybe even a few hours in the pillory for honest work gone wrong. But it’s a mistake for readers to overstigmatize all errors and sideline the responsible reporters, as Craig Silverman wrote in his 2007 book Regret the Error. Make accommodations for honest errors as long as news organizations correct the record, make the proper apologies and account for the breaches, as CNN appears to have done in the Scaramucci story.
If we don’t make accommodations for errors, we’ll be left with a press too timid to get the story. “It is nearly impossible today to imagine a newspaper being able to overcome the errors made in the course of the Post’s Watergate reporting and still be able to push the story to its ultimate conclusion,” Silverman wrote.
Cook, who runs digital investigations at Gizmodo Media Group, provides an editor’s eye view of the challenges reporters face when tolerance for errors fall to zero.
“Every story, no matter how battened down, has potential hidden land mines—a trusted source who maybe misremembered or mischaracterized, an unseen layer of context that you didn’t have access to, an assumption that the most rigorous editing process failed to challenge. There are a million ways for good-faith reporters to make good-faith errors, which is why good news outlets have a culture of correction and why defamation law … bars judgments against publications that make mistakes about public figures unless a finding of malice or negligence is made,” he tells me.
Earlier this week, Cook wrote my kicker for me when he tweeted, “One good way to reduce the rate of production of good journalism is to engineer an environment where mistakes are viewed as catastrophic.” Journalism can’t exist unless we give reporters the occasional right to get it wrong.