The Washington Post described the strange events of last week best: “BuzzFeed and ‘if true’: The day when no one knew anything.” Thursday evening BuzzFeed broke the bombshell story that, according to two anonymous law enforcement sources, the special counsel’s office had hard evidence that President Trump had ordered his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. The story broke like a tsunami across the media landscape, with news outlets around the world blindly parroting a story that none could confirm. Rather than wait until they could verify the basic elements of the story, outlets ran story after story that, “if true,” BuzzFeed’s scoop would mean the end of Trump’s presidency. When Fox News chose not to report a story it couldn’t verify, it was roundly criticized. Looking back on how the media covered BuzzFeed’s purported scoop, we are reminded that the media’s prioritization of speed over accuracy is one of the reasons it has lost so much credibility.
Despite not being able to independently confirm a single detail of BuzzFeed’s reporting, television stations rushed to cover the story. On Friday, CNN spent at least 6.6 percent of its airtime mentioning BuzzFeed, followed by MSNBC’s 4 percent and Fox News’ 3.2 percent. “Impeachment” was the word of the day, with MSNBC spending 4.3 percent of its airtime mentioning that term or “impeach” or “impeachable” or “impeaching” or “impeaches.” CNN was a close second with 3.8 percent of its airtime, while Fox News spent just 1.6 percent of its time on the word.
In a stroke of post-truth irony, stations freely acknowledged they had no idea if what they were reporting had a shred of truth to it. The phrase “if true” was everywhere, with CNN mentioning it 1.4 percent of its airtime, followed by 0.7 percent of MSNBC’s and just 0.5 percent of Fox News’ airtime. Mentions of “true” or “verify” or “verified” or “confirm” or “confirmed” or “unconfirmed” totaled 7.7 percent of CNN’s airtime, 4.8 percent of MSNBC’s and 4 percent of Fox News’.
In short, as they rushed to report a story they and their guests proclaimed would end Trump’s presidency, the stations simultaneously admitted they didn’t have a clue whether any of it was real.
The story’s rapid rise and fall can be seen in the timeline below, showing the percentage of worldwide English language online news coverage, monitored by the GDELT Project, that mentioned the story (all times are Eastern Standard).
The first hot takes began within an hour of the story’s 10 p.m. Thursday publication, but the story didn’t really begin picking up steam until 9 to 11 a.m. Friday as outlets rushed to release morning coverage of the apparently major story.
From 11 a.m. until 6 p.m., coverage remained steady but dropped sharply in the 7-8 p.m. period as news outlets digested the breaking news that the special counsel’s spokesperson, Peter Carr, had just issued a statement refuting the article’s reporting.
Following Carr’s statement, coverage increased 2 ½ times as outlets addressed the new development and reflected on its impact for the public’s trust in journalism during the Trump era. For its part, BuzzFeed stood by its story, leading to even greater confusion.
The story hit its peak at 11 p.m. Friday evening as outlets rushed out their last stories of the day, before fading just as quickly as it had arrived. Weekend commentary briefly resurrected the topic on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, but the story largely disappeared as of Monday.
The impact of Carr’s statement can be seen more clearly in the timeline below, plotting total coverage versus coverage that also republished the phrase “not accurate,” which was one of the most commonly used extracts from Carr’s statement. Notably, by Sunday his statement was no longer being published, but merely being summarized as a rejection of BuzzFeed’s reporting. In short, the story was no longer about Cohen, but rather about how BuzzFeed could have gotten things so wrong.
The caveat “if true” seemed to be everywhere on Friday, and the timeline below bears this out, showing the percentage of coverage of the story that mentioned this phrase.
Usage of the phrase peaked at 77 percent of all coverage by 10 a.m. Friday but dropped sharply over the course of the day to around 40 percent from 1 to 6 p.m., before dropping sharply after the special counsel’s refutation.
It is a truly remarkable commentary on the state of journalism today that at one point more than three-quarters of coverage of the BuzzFeed story included the caveat “if true.”
Of course, not all news outlets used that exact phrase. Many used terms like “unable to verify” or “unconfirmed.” Using the same list of words as above, the timeline below shows the percentage of coverage that included the caveat using any of these words.
Use of these words peaked at 90 percent by 11 a.m. Friday and decreased steadily through the day until Carr’s statement.
All of these misgivings about the veracity of BuzzFeed’s report didn’t stop the media from speculating about impeachment. The timeline below shows the percentage of coverage that mentioned that term.
Impeachment speculation ramped up around 6 a.m. Friday morning and hit a peak of 75 at 10 a.m. Even the special counsel’s refutation of BuzzFeed’s article doesn’t seem to have tamped down impeachment talk, with the discussion not really fading until Sunday.
Beyond the press’ willingness to run with a story it couldn’t confirm, one of the most confounding elements of the BuzzFeed story is the way in which the news site itself has remained steadfastly confident in its reporting even after Mueller’s office appears to have entirely rejected it. While this could merely be a face-saving effort, there is another possibility that is at least worth mentioning in our era of anonymous government leaks: the “canary trap.”
While it goes under many names, the basic idea of a canary trap is for an organization such as a government agency to deliberately distribute false classified information to its employees. Each person receives a slightly different version of the details or wording and when there is a leak, the unique details or wording of the leak allow it to be readily traced back to its source.
Deployed in certain government agencies as a counterintelligence measure and in the commercial world to deter press leaks, it is at least worth mentioning the possibility that BuzzFeed’s two sources were knowingly fed false information to identify them as leakers. Or, it could simply be that they misinterpreted the evidence before them.
Putting this all together, the events of the last few days put into stark relief why the media is facing a crisis of trust. The willingness of outlets across the world, including the nation’s most respected media organizations, to afford wall-to-wall coverage of a story that they couldn’t verify, reminds us that stories that criticize the president seem to be held to a very different standard than others.
There once was a time when media outlets would sit on a story until they could verify it themselves. Today, when it comes to Trump, the rule seems to be run first and ask questions later.
In an era where the president’s every action can lead news outlets to speculate he is secretly working for the Russians, one might ask whether BuzzFeed has joined him.
RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.