Another left-leaning media narrative with fact-checker cover went belly-up this week, as an Inspector General report found former President Donald Trump did not have Lafayette Square forcefully cleared of protesters so he could pose in front of a church last year.
“Fact-checked” mainstream media stories unhelpful to Republicans or conservatives – like ones related to Russia or vaccine development or police shootings or the origins of the Coronavirus – have later fallen apart or been amended, updated, corrected, or retracted over the past few years. And observers are taking note it doesn’t seem to go the other way.
“I have been through a lot of fact checks, and I cannot recall a check favoring the right half of politics that’s been reversed,” the conservative Media Research Center’s Tim Graham told Fox News. “This pattern of fact checkers having to walk back their supposedly all-knowing rulings underlines how eager they are to solidify Democrat narratives and undermine conservative journalism.”
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The latest example involves one of the more controversial episodes of Trump’s presidency. When the former president walked from the White House through Lafayette Square to visit a riot-torched St. John’s Church, protestors had already been cleared from the area. Many journalists concluded Trump had been the one to order the protestors out.
But an investigation released this week by Interior Department IG Mark Lee Greenblatt says U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service deemed it necessary to remove protestors from the park on June 1, 2020, in order to install anti-scale fencing. The decision was reached after at least 49 U.S. Park Police (USPP) were injured while policing protests days earlier.
At the time, there were numerous examples of media figures pushing the story that Trump demanded protesters to be cleared. CNN correspondent Jim Acosta asserted at a briefing that the White House had “gassed and pummeled protesters” so Trump could have a photo-op. MSNBC anchor Joy Reid said it happened so Trump could have his picture taken with a Bible. And CNN’s Anderson Cooper said it “obviously” happened for Trump’s photo-op.
The New York Times reported, “Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose At Church.” ABC News, MSNBC, NPR, the Washington Post, and other outlets also reported the story at the time. The Post produced a 12-minute video about how police “cleared the way for the president to cross Lafayette Square.”
The widespread narrative got cover from CNN’s fact-checker Daniel Dale as well, who stated in February that “they cleared peaceful protesters out of the way for a Trump photo-op” and anything to the contrary was false.
“When you fact check something and declare it as false as they later did, we get into a problem that erodes long-term confidence in the media by the general public,” former CNN digital producer Steve Krakauer told Fox News.
Krakauer, who also pens the Fourth Watch media newsletter, said fact checks had become “fetishized” in the mainstream press as more declarative of the truth than a traditional news report, with eye-catching ratings like PolitiFact’s “Pants On Fire” or the Washington Post’s “Four Pinocchios.” Politicians enthusiastically tout fact-checks when attacking opponents and raising funds; Hillary Clinton in 2016 frequently told people to read them during her campaign against Trump.
“It feels like this definitive slam … I think for a certain subset, it feels really good,” Krakauer said.
That aura of invincibility makes it even more damaging, Krakauer said, when they turn out to be wrong. It also raises easy criticisms of the media for lack of consistency, such as the Washington Post mothballing a fact-checking database for President Joe Biden three months into his term, after famously cataloguing Trump’s allegedly false statements for four years.
NBC News’ Ken Dilanian summed it up as he discussed the IG report on Wednesday, however, saying, “A narrative we thought we knew is not the reality.”
Not everyone has accepted the findings of the report, though. Acosta said Thursday the IG appeared to be “auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-a-Lago.”
Here are some other major media narratives with reports and fact-checks that required heavy corrections or retractions in recent years.
Wuhan lab-leak theory
The debate over the Coronavirus’s origins has prompted a wrenching re-examination of media biases and groupthink in recent weeks. Journalists and “experts” who once dismissed the notion it could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab known for its risky bat coronavirus research, have been forced to retract or re-examine their initial stories which had declared it “debunked.”
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A Washington Post fact-check video last year, which included among its sources a scientist with direct financial ties to the Wuhan lab, concluded it was “doubtful” that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But it and numerous news reports in the Post and elsewhere that declared the idea fringe or a conspiracy theory have received significant edits in recent weeks.
After Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized the video as akin to Chinese propaganda, chief fact-checker Glenn Kessler shot back that the “scientific animation” in the video showed it was “virtually impossible” for the virus to have jumped from the lab.
“We deal in facts, and viewers can judge for themselves,” he tweeted.
Now, the fact-check has been updated, with the note, “in recent months new evidence has tipped the lab leak theory onto firmer ground.” It cited intelligence that three Wuhan lab researchers were sick with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019. Critics like the Post’s own Josh Rogin have pointed out that reporters now changing their tune on the idea had ignored the facts supporting its plausibility all along.
Kessler published a timeline that declared the lab-leak theory was “suddenly” credible. He and other reporters have tried to excuse themselves by suggesting Republicans like Trump proposed the theory played into media dismissals of it.
“The Trump administration’s messaging was often accompanied by anti-Chinese rhetoric that made it easier for skeptics to ignore its claims,” Kessler wrote.
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PolitiFact and FactCheck.org were also forced to amend or update fact-checks that dismissed the lab connection. An article last year from Vox, a liberal site that “explains the news,” listed the lab-leak theory as a “conspiracy theory” that was “debunked.” But it has since added updates on how the “scientific consensus has shifted.” Another Post story that accused Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., of pushing a “debunked” lab-leak theory has added significant edits. The Post now says it “inaccurately characterized” his comments.
Moderna and Pfizer produced effective Coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2020, but multiple stories, including a NBC News “fact check,” found Trump’s claim that there would be even one coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020 to be virtually impossible.
The widely shared article last May said Trump’s prediction of having a vaccine by the end of the year was likely a pipe dream. It quoted Emory professor Dr. Walter Orenstein saying “a lot of things could go wrong.” Another said a vaccine in a minimum of 12 months was only doable under the “best of circumstances.”
“Experts say that the development, testing and production of a vaccine for the public is still at least 12 to 18 months off, and that anything less would be a medical miracle,” reporter Jane C. Timm wrote.
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A Miami Herald article on Oct. 23 declared, “Trump says COVID-19 vaccine is coming ‘within weeks.’ Experts say that’s not possible.” CNN cast doubt on Trump’s September suggestion that every American could receive a vaccine by April by quoting an anonymous source in a report headlined, “Trump says every American can get a coronavirus vaccine by April, but health experts say that’s not likely.”
MSNBC’s Ari Melber said it would require “basically a miracle happening” for Trump’s claim to come true.
ABC News also fact checked Trump’s vaccine debate claim by reporting that “A COVID-19 vaccine isn’t ready right now,” and by accusing Trump of overstating vaccine readiness timelines.
Georgia phone call
The Washington Post made a massive correction in March to a January report about a phone call between Trump and Georgia elections investigator Frances Watson, admitting it wrongly attributed multiple quotes to Trump based on an anonymous source.
The Post initially reported Trump told an official working in Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office to “find the fraud” in the state, which he lost narrowly to Biden, and that she would be a “national hero” if she did.
However, a newly emerged recording of the Dec. 23 call found he didn’t use those words. Instead, Trump said she would be “praised” when the “right answer comes out” and encouraged her to closely examine mail-in ballots in Fulton County, the heavily blue and most populated county in the state.
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The story was widely picked up. CNN also reported on the call citing an unnamed source, initially stating stating Trump said “national hero” and “find the fraud” in its opening paragraph. Many outlets picked up the story, including Vox, ABC News, and NBC News.
The past five years have been rife with examples of dramatic reporting on Russia-related stories that ultimately didn’t pass muster.
One of the most significant examples was a widely reported story in 2020 that Russia paid bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and received little to no pushback from Trump. However, a senior Biden administration official said in April the intelligence community only had “low to moderate” confidence in the Russian bounty story due to a reliance on “detainee reporting.”
A thread by conservative writer Drew Holden showed the extent of the coverage, with MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, ABC News, NBC News, Reuters, NPR, and a host of others reporting the story with certainty. In one story, CNN called the narrative “richly reported.”
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MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called it a whole new level of “bad.” MSNBC’s Joy Reid also completely accepted the story.
That’s hardly all, however, after years of stories alleging a Trump-Russia conspiracy and feverish coverage of the sprawling Robert Mueller investigation.
Last month, the Washington Post, New York Times, and NBC News had to retract reports that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had been warned by the FBI he was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign, as he sought incriminating information against Biden. The Post’s initial reporting was “matched” by the Times and NBC News in another common modern media misstep – outlets using the same unreliable sources but pointing to one another’s stories so as to claim credibility.
Left-wing MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell was forced in 2019 to give an on-air retraction to his report a day earlier that Russian oligarchs co-signed loans for Trump at Deutsche Bank.
BuzzFeed News set the media world ablaze with a 2019 story that Trump had directed former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, leading to feverish speculation of impeachment. However, the Robert Mueller team responded directly to the story and said it wasn’t true.
In 2017, ABC News’ Brian Ross reported Trump had directed future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to contact Russian leaders while still a candidate, sending the stock market tumbling as his critics rejoiced at the smoking-gun proof of conspiracy with the Kremlin. That same day however, ABC clarified that Trump ordered Flynn to do so after he’d been elected, a rather perfunctory action amid a presidential transition.
Jacob Blake incident
In August, police shot a Black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., while trying to arrest him after a domestic incident, leading to violent uprisings and protests in the city. The media widely reported he was unarmed, including in a USA Today fact-check declaring the notion he brandished a knife before the shooting “false.”
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He later admitted in a January ABC News interview, however, that he dropped a pocket knife and picked it up as he returned to his car, where he was shot in the back. That confirmed what prosecutors said a week earlier about Blake being armed with a “razor blade-type knife” as they elected not to charge officers in the shooting.
USA Today added an editor’s note with the new information but did not change its rating, saying, “ratings are based on what is known at the time. When this statement was made in August 2020, it was not clear what Blake was holding or when, given the grainy cell phone video and lack of detail released by police.”
The misleading narrative that Blake was unarmed was widespread. A CNN segment anchored by Jake Tapper at the time was titled, “Video shows police shoot unarmed Black man,” and Tapper himself declared Blake was unarmed in the segment. The online video segment was later stealth-edited to say, “Video shows police shoot 29-year-old Black man,” although Tapper’s commentary remains.
Trump Eagle T-Shirt Story
USA Today was forced to almost completely retract a fact-check that initially declared it was “true” that a Trump campaign shirt featured a “Nazi symbol” in the form of an imperial eagle.
After an outcry, USA Today announced it was “worth nothing … the eagle is a longtime US symbol, too.” It wound up changing its rating to “inconclusive.”
Fox News host Greg Gutfeld recalled even more examples of embarrassing media missteps during his opening monologue Thursday night.
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“Remember when Time reporter Zeke Miller wrote that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. Had been removed from the Oval Office? Outrage ensued. Turns out the bust had been there all along, he just hadn’t seen it,” Gutfeld said.
“How about when the media were convinced Trump had photoshopped his hands to make them look bigger for a White House picture? Or when the press said that Trump threatened to invade Mexico? These people lie more than I did when I was dating. Then there was the tale of Trump killing the fish in the White House koi pond by overfeeding them. Trump renaming Black History Month. Trump easing Russian sanctions. Trump recommending injecting bleach into your veins to beat COVID. All lies were reported as facts.”
Fox News’ Caitlin McFall and Brian Flood contributed to this report.