Accuracy in Media

It takes a lot to kill a false narrative once the mainstream media creates one.

The office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the unusual step last Friday of declaring false a story on BuzzFeed that asserted President Trump had told his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about Trump’s involvement in the Trump Tower-Moscow project, which was never built.

BuzzFeed’s story, which appeared last Thursday, said Cohen “told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie” and that it knew this through “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages and a cache of other documents.” All were purportedly in Mueller’s possession.

Mueller “reviewed evidence to determine if there were any documents or witness interviews like those described, reaching out to those they thought might have a stake in the case,” wrote Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett of the Washington Post in “Inside the Mueller team’s decision to dispute BuzzFeed’s explosive story on Trump and Cohen.”

“They found none.”

Later on Friday, Mueller spokesman Peter Carr released a statement that read: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”

Rather than admit the story was not backed by any witnesses or documents, the media alighted on questions such as “What aspects of the story was Mueller specifically speaking about?” This lasted until he told the Washington Post unequivocally the entire story was false.

“Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect,” wrote Barrett, Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian  in “In a rare move, Mueller’s office denies BuzzFeed report that Trump told Cohn to lie about Moscow project.”

Politico led with “Mueller team disputes aspects of BuzzFeed report on Trump, Cohen,” in which the first paragraph read: “Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office is denying aspects of a blockbuster BuzzFeed news report that President Donald Trump instructed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about dealings related to a Trump Tower Moscow project … “

Unsurprisingly, Democrats and their friends in the media spent Friday talking of impeachment and how soon President Trump might be removed from office. “If Trump Told Cohen to Lie, Impeachment is Coming,” wrote “BuzzFeed’s Michael Cohn Story: If True, Trump Committed a Crime,” wrote the neverTrump publication National Review.

Columbia Journalism Review, a magazine that covers the industry from a liberal perspective, released a state-of-play article on Monday entitled, “BuzzFeed’s Trump-Cohen scoop is not dead yet” by Jon Allsop.

“While no other outlet could confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting, the story fed a frantic news cycle through Friday,” Allsop wrote. “Impeachment talk swelled as congressional Democrats demanded answers. Late in the day, however, the tone dramatically changed” with Carr’s statement. “Suddenly, the prevailing question in coverage was not whether BuzzFeed had finally nailed Trump, but whether its story could be trusted at all.”

The fact the condemnation of the story came from the Mueller camp itself “in defiance of a tight-lipped norm,” Allsop wrote, “gives it undeniable weight.” Yet, “commentators should be careful not to treat the special counsel’s office – whose inner workings are opaque – as the infallible, benevolent voice of God. In any case, the statement neither kills the central essence of the story (it does not take a position on whether Trump did, in fact, tell Cohen to lie), nor specifies exactly what Mueller thinks BuzzFeed got wrong.”

It quotes Aaron Blake of the Washington Post also questioning Mueller’s integrity. “Just like we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions about BuzzFeed’s report, we shouldn’t just assume it was completely botched based upon one denial, no matter how authoritative the denier.”

Why question Mueller’s unequivocal and unsparing denial? Because “reporters on the Mueller beat are struggling to reconcile the gap between the special counsel’s forceful denial and BuzzFeed’s forceful defense of its work.”

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