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Where I Beg To Differ With CNN's Brian Stelter Over 'Fake News'

CNN's Brian Stelter's newsletter, sent to millions, misstates the issue with one story, labeling it "fake news." Jake Tapper piles on.
Where I Beg To Differ With CNN's Brian Stelter Over 'Fake News'

CNN media critic Brian Stelter sent his newsletter blast to his many subscribers tonight with a strong reproof to "left-leaning media" who reported on the story about the family in Lancaster, PA who reportedly endured harassment over cancellation of a school play.

Here's how it read:

Today in fake news...ADL: "It is important to stop the spread of misinformation""Jewish family flees after Breitbart falsely claims it complained about Christmas play." There were a batch of faulty headlines like this one from Slate on Thursday, all picking up on reporting from a local paper in PA, the Lancaster Online.

By the end of the day, the ADL issued a statement saying "news reports alleging that a Jewish family has 'fled' Lancaster County are untrue and damaging. We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays.Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation."

BuzzFeed's Jon Passantino tweets: "the false story was breathlessly reported in left-wing media, which blamed conservatives for the family fleeing..." Jake Tapper: "It baffles me how anyone on the left combatting 'fake news' can turn a blind eye to the click baiting within its own ranks. HEAL THYSELF..."

We covered that story at Crooks and Liars, too. Jake Tapper, Jon Passantino and Brian Stelter all missed the point, so I'm going to lay it out in easy-to-read form.

First of all, there were two sources for the story we wrote. One was Lancaster Online, the other was Philly.com. As it turns out, Philly.com relied upon the Lancaster Online story, who printed this direct quote:

When the parents saw the reader comments to the Breitbart story suggesting their address should be published, they pulled their child from school and temporarily left the area, according to the LancasterOnline story.

“There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” they told the website.

Philly.com wasn't clear at all in their original story about the source of their quotes. The Lancaster Online site requires registration to read their full story. But whatever the case, there were two sources, and Philly.com clarified long after we had already amended our story.


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Secondly, the focus of our story was not on whether the family fled or not, although our headline did say that. I still don't think it was clickbait, given that we thought we had two sources and it was an important piece of the story at the time.

However, our story was about what Fox News commentator Todd Starnes did with the original reports that the school had cancelled the play. Starnes turned a decision about best use of instruction time into a bogus religious liberty story, implying that this family's objection to their children's participation was at the heart of the cancellation.

By so doing, he left readers with the distinct impression that the school's decision was one intentionally meant to discriminate in favor of non-Christians and in favor of one Jewish family. That was his intent, it is his mission, he never wavers from it, and anyone who denies his spin is being purposely blind.

Third, it's pretty rich for Buzzfeed to lecture "left leaning media" on clickbait. Yes, they do some great reporting, but Buzzfeed built their traffic on listicles, fergawdsake. And they've had their own share of misses, so let's not go out there and dump on the rest of us.

This is my policy as managing editor of this site.

  1. If there's video, use it along with a transcript.
  2. If there isn't video but a report from a reliable source which is confirmed by a second reliable source, use it, but also link to the original report and make sure it's clear everything is sourced.
  3. In cases where there's an established, identifiable pattern of intentional distortion of a story to fit a narrative (like Starnes did), call it out, loud and clear
  4. If previously unknown facts or contradictions in the story emerge, update it as soon and as fully as possible.

We met those four criteria. Philly.com subsequently amended their story to indicate that the entirety of their reporting was based upon the Lancaster Online story. But by the time they had done so, we already updated the story, added a comment to Facebook indicating there was an update, added a comment under the story to the same effect, and made sure the conflict in accounts was clear. I noted the update in the headline, too.

It would be really nice, Jake Tapper, Brian Stelter, et al, if you'd actually have taken a look at the broader issue here instead of slamming "left-wing media" as clickbaiting with that story. Even though we were not cited by name, clearly the intent of those remarks was to tar all of us who reported it with the same brush -- TPM, Slate, Media Matters, Mediaite and more.

In the end, the ADL's statement does not change what Todd Starnes tried to do with that story. It doesn't change some of the vile anti-Semitic comments made on Starnes' story and the Breitbart article, which I read with my own eyes.

It doesn't change the fact that Fox News consistently distorts stories like this to shovel Christianity down our throats as the official state religion whenever they can. None of that changes because the family went on vacation instead of fleeing.

That's the story. And we told it.

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