January 17, 2022

[Above: CNN covers, and fact-checks, ABC News days after they botched a video of CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. -- C&L Editors]

Published with permission of PRESS RUN, Eric Boehlert’s must-read media newsletter. Subscribe here.

Stubborn ABC News executives refuse to acknowledge a costly breach at the network that prompted bogus, right-wing attacks on a key administration official who is trying to shepherd the country through a pandemic. It’s the latest example of elite news outlets that won’t come clean about glaring mistakes — often involving Democrats — while at the same time they demand transparency from public officials.

The clear misstep came when “Good Morning America” edited an interview with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky. In the TV clip, she discussed how a recent study of vaccinated people showed Covid-19 deaths were restricted mostly to people with preexisting medical conditions: “The overwhelming number of deaths — over 75 percent — occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities.”

But in the editing, ABC omitted the context that Walensky’s “75 percent” was in reference to a tiny percentage of fully vaccinated people who got sick or died.

Thanks to the botched presentation, Republicans, Fox News, and anti-vax zealots seized on the clip and claimed that 75 percent of all Covid-19 victims — 800,000 and counting— suffered from comorbidities. They used the ABC blunder to bolster their bogus claims about how masking and vaccines don’t work and that the government has been lying about the pandemic for years.

The firestorm generated by ABC’s misrepresentation became so intense that Twitter blocked the clip from being shared.

It’s especially egregious that ABC won’t come clean about its failure because the network’s miscue created news — it generated real confusion and the CDC found itself under siege for days thanks entirely to ABC’s misstep. If ever there were a time for a news outlet to step forward, provide guidance, and concede mistakes were made, this was a prime example.

Instead, leaders at ABC News abdicated their responsibilities, which in turn makes the network’s demand for accountability from others seem hollow and hypocritical.

Transparency and accountability used to be hallmarks of respectable news operations, which often employed ombudsmen or public editors who served as the readers’ representative and held newsrooms responsible. Today, the message being sent is that journalists don’t have to acknowledge obvious mistakes and shortfalls, and that news outlets are more committed to riding out controversies instead of addressing them.

And Democrats keep getting hurt in the process.

Rather than admit failures in its 2016 campaign coverage, the New York Times famously fired its public editor after she wrote two columns criticizing the paper’s coverage of Russia’s election interference — she said it was too slow, too timid. Times editor Dean Baquet was so upset about the critique he took the extraordinary step of criticizing her in the pages of the Washington Post.

There still hasn't been any meaningful media acknowledgment of the signature sexism that dominated in 2016. The press remains much more committed to the idea that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely flawed or a "bad" candidate, that way scribes don't have to acknowledge the obvious sins of the coverage. Why is it important for the press to admit mistakes? Because that's how lessons are learned and how bad behavior is fixed.

In March 2019, the media opted to foolishly play along with Attorney General William Barr's dubious, three-and-a-half page “exoneration”  summary of the Mueller Report, pretending the cherry-picked document was a credible stand-in for the contents of the sprawling, two-year investigation. Using only the Barr press release, which didn’t quote a single, complete sentence from the Mueller Report, the Times crowed that the probe had delivered a “powerful boost” for Trump’s re-election run.

When it soon became obvious that Barr had simply lied about the contents, the press never offered up any mea culpas — never explained why journalists took the word of a partisan Trump appointee like Barr as fact, and spent weeks commenting on the Mueller report without ever reading one page of it. Journalists, who typically demand access to documents when evaluating investigations, made sweeping conclusions based on no evidence. The "Mueller report is out," CBS News erroneously announced. It was an extraordinary failure of journalism, and one that reporters, editors, and producers didn’t want to address.

Then late in the 2020 campaign, NBC’s “Today” show got duped by the Trump team, which ripped a video clip of Joe Biden out of context to make it look like he thought George W. Bush was still president. "Biden making headlines overnight after appearing to confuse his opponent's name," NBC reported the next morning. "It comes as the former Vice President was pressed to respond to the president's claims that Biden is mentally fit to serve." Instead of apologizing to Biden for the egregious error, NBC attached a pointless editor's note to its original, erroneous report.

It’s not too late for ABC News to do the right thing and concede its failure. It shouldn’t be that hard for journalists to hold themselves accountable. Last year, I deleted and apologized for a PRESS RUN column as soon as I realized the premise — based on faulty research I had done — was incorrect. If a newsletter writer like me to can admit mistakes, why can’t ABC News?

Published with permission of PRESS RUN, Eric Boehlert’s must-read media newsletter. Subscribe here.

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