In the waning hours of the anniversary of the president’s 2018 fake news awards, we were reminded that the problem of fake news persists today. Moreover, it seems to be growing. BuzzFeed published a now debunked bombshell report alleging, “President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials in an investigation of the matter.” According to BuzzFeed, Cohen admitted this after Robert Mueller’s investigators independently drew the same conclusions from interviews with multiple witnesses, internal company e-mails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.
Not surprisingly, this report triggered an avalanche of frenzied analysis and reporting by nearly all major news outlets because, as the article notes, “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.” As such, reporters informed us that “experts say the Trump-Cohen situation is reminiscent of [the] Nixon era,” and the prospect of impeachment was liberally discussed. In the Friday hours before 8 p.m., CNN used the words “impeach,” “impeachment,” and “impeachable” 82 times, while MSNBC floated these words 97 times. This despite being unable to independently verify the report, despite its two authors publicly disagreeing with each other regarding whether they had seen the documents in question, and despite one of the author’s history of scandals related to false reporting.
BuzzFeed is not an outlet known for its in-depth reporting. After reminding us that it was BuzzFeed that brought us headlines such as “19 Husbands Who Sent the Most Hillariously Random Texts Ever” and “10 Signs Your Cat Is a Wizard,” Tucker Carlson commented, “You might have thought, ‘How could BuzzFeed have gotten the one story that nobody else can replicate but that everybody else has been searching for?’ You might have asked yourself that question before repeating the key assertions in the story, mindlessly, and as if they were true.” Nevertheless, reputable news organizations promoted the report as their lead story, describing it with words like “bombshell” and “explosive,” somehow believing their breathless reporting and wall-to-wall coverage to be justified so long as they included the qualifier “if true.”
Several politicians capitalized on the news coverage, immediately calling for new investigations and the beginning of impeachment proceedings. Representative John Yarmuth (D-KY) Tweeted, “If true, which it appears to be, the @BuzzFeedNews report that Trump suborned perjury is an impeachable offense, and the House should begin the process.”
House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Schiff (D-CA) promised to investigate the matter, calling the allegations a “counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude.” Likewise, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) promised that because the president may have committed a federal crime, the committee’s job “is to get to the bottom of it, and we will do that work.” And House Judiciary Committee member Ted Lieu (D-CA) Tweeted, “This stunning Trump Tower Moscow story establishes a clear case of Obstruction of Justice, a felony. I’ve lost count now how many times @realDonaldTrump has engaged in Obstruction of Justice. Oh, fyi the first Article of Impeachment for Richard Nixon was Obstruction of Justice.”
However, these grandiose visions of toppling a presidency were checked when the Special Counsel’s office issued it first and only statement regarding evidence in its investigation of President Trump, saying, “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.” Apparently, BuzzFeed’s report was so erroneous—or at the very least, misleading—with such enormous implications, that the Special Counsel’s office felt compelled to break a silence that it has maintained for two years. The magnitude of such an action is profound, and it appears to verify and underscore the charge that fake news not only exists, it is also having a significant impact upon the course of our nation.
Many of the fake news stories of 2016–17 were sophomoric or character assassinations, such as:
- Trump offends Japanese by overfeeding fish
- The first lady of Poland refused to shake Trump’s hand
- Trump’s aides can’t figure out how to use the light switches
- Melania and Barron Trump will not move into the White House
- Trump’s voter fraud expert might have engaged in voter fraud
The frivolous nature of these reports is evident in hindsight, though it is worth recalling that the news media and many within our nation seemingly lost their collective minds over these issues at the time. And, of course, there were political or agenda-driven fake news stories, such as:
- The GOP healthcare bill made rape a pre-existing condition
- Russian hackers penetrated the U.S. electrical grid
- Pulse nightclub shooter used an AR-15 rifle
- House of Representatives voted to repeal a law that prevents the mentally ill from buying guns
- A woman died before returning home because of Trump’s travel ban
However, the fake news stories of 2018–19 seem to be far more significant. These stories have led to changes in policy, influenced the 2018 elections, have put federal workers and their families in danger, and nearly de-railed a Supreme Court Justice nomination. Recall just a few examples:
- Sexual harassment and rape claims against then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh
At a time when Kavanaugh’s opponents were desperate to prove a pattern of sexual harassment, Brian Karem wrongly reported that Montgomery County investigators were investigating a second sexual assault claim against Kavanaugh from his high school years. Likewise, the New Yorker published Deborah Ramirez’ accusation despite admittedly being so intoxicated that she had significant memory gaps. She even told her former classmates that she couldn’t be sure whether Kavanaugh was her offender, and the New Yorker could find no first-hand witnesses or even confirm whether Kavanaugh was at the party in question.
Furthermore, NBC sat on information they had contradicting Michael Avenatti’s claim that he had a witness who could support his client, Julie Swetnick’s, allegation of Kavanaugh’s participation in gang rape activity when he was in high school. And both CNN and The Hill spread a retracted sexual assault claim by a Rhode Island man without mentioning in their report that the Jeffrey Catalan had already apologized for mistakenly accusing Brett Kavanaugh.
- Mic writer claims Russian spy was in the Oval Office
“Shortly after it was revealed that a Russian spy was attempting to infiltrate right-wing networks, Mic writer Emily Singer claimed that same Russian spy was present during an Oval Office meeting with Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov. Singer claimed Russian spy Maria Butina was spotted in a photo of the meeting, citing the fact that she has red hair like the woman in the photo. The woman in the photo is actually NSC staffer Cari Lutkins.”[46
- TIME magazine’s cover addressed family separation at the border and featured Trump towering over a crying Honduran child
“Time Magazine published an infamous cover in June that showed a Honduran child crying at the U.S. border, apparently after she had been separated from her mother. The image quickly became the face of the ‘issue of family separations at the border,’ despite the fact that the child in question was never separated.
Later reports also revealed that, in contrast to common left-wing talking points, the mother and her child were not fleeing violence, and the mother had been previously deported from the U.S. In addition, the mother left three other children in Honduras and allegedly paid a smuggler to help her and her daughter cross the border illegally.”
- The Washington Post said Martha McSally accused Kyrsten Sinema of committing treason during a debate in the 2018 Senate race
Martha McSally accused Sinema of supporting the treasonous actions of others, not of committing treason herself.
- CNN reported that Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, was prepared to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Trump had advanced knowledge of a meeting between his son and Russians in Trump Tower
Even after Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, refuted the story, saying that Cohen had no information related to the Trump Tower meeting, CNN doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled down on its reporting.
For years, there has been a consistent pattern of fallacious or misleading news reports that have fueled highly divisive narratives that have often had real-world consequences. Particularly troubling is that the trend appears to be that these fake news stories are becoming more flagrant while also becoming more consequential. No longer can we afford to ignore fake news as a political feud between the president and the news media or as irrelevant. As noted in my book, The Fake News Epidemic and Its Perilous Trajectory, “Nobody expects the news media to be 100% accurate all the time. However, there is a consistent pattern of misrepresentation and selective reporting of the facts among many of today’s news outlets. This should concern us … not just because we rely upon these outlets for reliable information, but because this pattern could have significant spiritual consequences for our nation.”
As a nation, we risk provoking God to judgment by fostering this culture of lies (Jer. 9:1–9). “Many of our nation’s guardians of truth—journalists and reporters—have forsaken their commitment to objectively report the facts. Truth has become an acceptable casualty for the ‘greater good’ of protecting and promoting select political agendas. However, truth is not relative; it is objective. It is also an attribute of God. This is why God says in Proverbs 12:22, ‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord’.”
As Christians, we must take the increasing prevalence of fake news within our nation seriously. At its core, it is a spiritual fight between truth and error, but how will truth prevail if its champions choose to ignore the battle? We need not become political warriors, but we ought to hold people accountable for the veracity of what they promote and their methods of reporting. God has called His people to honesty (Exodus 23:1), and He has called us to both rejoice with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6) and to focus upon it (Php. 4:8). In Zechariah 8:16 and 19, God says, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another … Therefore, love truth and peace.” However, we cannot love truth if we refuse to defend it.
1. Leopold, Jason and Anthony Cormier. “President Trump Directed His Attorney to Lie to Congress about the Moscow Tower Project.” BuzzFeed, January 17, 2019. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jasonleopold/trump-russia-cohen-moscow-tower-mueller-investigation. Source: Way Back Machine. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://web.archive.org/web/20190118032157/https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jasonleopold/trump-russia-cohen-moscow-tower-mueller-investigation.
4. Haltiwanger, John. “‘It’s History Repeating itself’: Experts Say the Trump-Cohen Situation is Reminiscent of Nixon Era.” Business Insider, January 18, 2019. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-cohen-situation-richard-nixon-era-experts-2019-1.
5. Athey, Amber. “CNN and MSNBC Repeatedly Floated Impeachment Over Disputed BuzzFeed Report.” Daily Caller, January 18, 2019. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2019/01/18/cnn-msnbc-impeach-trump-buzzfeed-mueller/.
6. Tea Partiest. “Co-Authors of Sketchy BuzzFeed Report Can’t Even Get Their Stories Straight, Contradict Eachother.” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IK_7uiX3BTM (accessed January 22, 2019).
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21. Hartmann, Margaret. “Trump Under Fire for Improper Fish-Feeding Technique.” New York Magazine, n.d. Last Updated November 6, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/11/trump-under-fire-fore-improper-fish-feeding-technique.html.
22. Rocha, Veronica. “Trump Feeds Fish, Winds Up Pouring Entire Box of Food into Koi Pond.” CNN, November 6, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/06/politics/donald-trump-koi-pond-japan/.
23. Riotta, Chris. “Watch Donald Trump Handshake Rejected by Polish First Lady in Hilariously Awkward Exchange.” Newsweek, July 6, 2017. Last Updated n.d. Accessed January 24, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-handshake-poland-president-wife-melania-trump-smack-video-watch-632808.
24. Gerretsen, Isabelle. “Donald Trump Tried to Shake the Hand of Poland’s First Lady but She was having None of It.” International Business Times, July 6, 2017. Last Updated July 6, 2017. Accessed January 24, 2018. https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/donald-trump-tried-shake-hand-polands-first-lady-she-was-having-none-it-1629279.
25. Thrush, Glenn and Maggie Habermann. “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics after Stumbles.” The New York Times, February 5, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/us/politics/trump-white-house-aides-strategy.html?_r=o.
26. “First Lady Melania Trump May Stay in NYC Permanently and Never Move into the White House.” Us Weekly, February 1, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/first-lady-melania-trump-may-never-move-into-the-white-house-w464126/.
27. Steinbuch, Yaron. “Melania Trump Might Not Move to the White House.” The New York Post, February 1, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://nypost.com/2017/02/01/melania-trump-might-not-move-to-the-white-house/.
28. Burke, Garance. “AP: Trump’s Voter Fraud Expert Registered in 3 States.” The Associated Press, January 30, 2017. Last Updated January 31, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2018. https://www.apnews.com/80497cfb5f054c9b8c9e0f8f5ca30a62/AP:-Trump%27s-voter-fraud-expert-registered-in-3-states.
29. Christensen, Jen. “Rape and Domestic Violence Could be Pre-Existing Conditions.” CNN, n.d. Last Updated May 4, 2017. Accessed January 16, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/health/pre-existing-condition-rape-domestic-violence-insurance/.
30. Spellings, Sarah. “In Trump’s America, Being Sexually Assaulted Could make Your Health Insurance More Expensive.” New York Magazine, The Cut, May 4, 2017. Accessed January 16, 2018. https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/new-healthcare-bill-ahca-sexual-assault.html.
31. Eilperin, Juliet and Adam Entous. “Russian Operation Hacked a Vermont Utility, Showing Risk to U.S. Electrical Grid Security, Officials Say.” The Washington Post, December 31, 2016. Accessed January 19, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/russian-hackers-penetrated-us-electricity-grid-through-a-utility-in-vermont/2016/12/30/8fc90cc4-ceec-11e6-b8a2-8c2a61b0436f_story.html?utm_term=.2a07c55f60c5.
32. Sherman, Gabriel. “Experts Urge Clinton Campaign to Challenge Election Results in 3 Swing States.” New York Magazine, November 22, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/11/activists-urge-hillary-clinton-to-challenge-election-results.html.
33. Lampen, Claire. “A Brief History of the AR-15, the Weapon Behind the Deadliest Shootings in the US.” Mic, June 13, 2016. Last Updated June 14, 2016. Accessed January 24, 2018. https://mic.com/articles/146066/a-brief-history-of-the-ar-15-the-weapon-behind-the-deadliest-shootings-in-the-us#.dXrmGR6Yu.
34. Taylor, Jessica. “House Votes to Overturn Rule Restricting Gun Sales to the Severely Mentally Ill.” NPR, February 3, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2017/02/02/513126985/house-votes-to-overturn-obama-rule-restricting-gun-sales-to-mentall-ill.
35. Gorman, Michele. “Trump Overturns a Mental Health Regulation on Gun Purchases.” Newsweek, February 15, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/trump-set-overturn-guns-mental-health-regulation-557237.
36. Lang, Amy. “Detroit Family Caught in Iraq Travel Ban, Says Mom Died Waiting to Come Home.” FOX 2, January 31, 2017. Last Updated February 2, 2017. Accessed January 11, 2018. http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/local-news/detroit-family-caught-in-iraq-travel-ban-says-mom-died-waiting-to-come-home.
37. Visser, Nick. “Detroit Son: My Mom Died Waiting in Iraq Because of Trump.” The Huffington Post, February 1, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mike-hager-mother-immigration-ban_us_5891577ae4b0522c7d3e01ae. Source: Way Back Machine. Accessed January 23, 2019. https://web.archive.org/web/20170201062504/https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mike-hager-mother-immigration-ban_us_5891577ae4b0522c7d3e01ae.
38. Perisic, Kyle. “The Person Doxxing ICE Employees is a Professor at NYU.” Daily Caller, June 20, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/06/20/antifa-doxxing-professor-nyu-ice/.
39. Karem, Brian. “Updated: Supreme Court Nominee Kavanaugh Defends Himself Against Accusers.” Montgomery County Sentinel, September 24, 2018. Last Updated September 24, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://mont.thesentinel.com/2018/09/24/supreme-court-nominee-kavanaugh-faces-more-allegations/.
40. Athey, Amber. “CNN Political Analyst Publishes Dubious Report on Additional Kavanaugh Allegations.” Daily Caller, September 24, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/09/24/cnn-brian-karem-kavanaugh-allegations-police-deny/.
41. Farrow, Ronan and Jane Mayer. “Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Sexual Misconduct, from Brett Kavanaugh’s College Years.” The New Yorker, September 23, 2018. Last Updated n.d. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/senate-democrats-investigate-a-new-allegation-of-sexual-misconduct-from-the-supreme-court-nominee-brett-kavanaughs-college-years-deborah-ramirez?irgwc=1&source=affiliate_impactpmx_12f6tote_desktop_Viglink%20Primary&mbid=affiliate_impactpmx_12f6tote_desktop_Viglink%20Primary.
42. Stolberg, Sheryl and Nicholas Fandos. “Christine Blasey Ford Reaches Deal to Testify at Kavanaugh Hearing.” The New York Times, September 23, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/us/politics/brett-kavanaugh-christine-blasey-ford-testify.html.
43. Snow, Kate and Anna Schecter. “New Questions Raised about Avenatti Claims Regarding Kavanaugh.” NBC News, October 25, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/new-questions-raised-about-avenatti-claims-regarding-kavanaugh-n924596.
44. Carney, Jordain. “Kavanaugh Questioned about Rhode Island Sexual Assault Allegation.” The Hill, September 26, 2018. Last Updated September 26, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/408666-kavanaugh-questioned-about-rhode-island-sexual-assault-allegation?__twitter_impression=true&__twitter_impression=true&__twitter_impression=true&__twitter_impression=true.
45. Watkins, Eli. “Kavanaugh Denies Two Additional Accusations to Senate Judiciary Committtee.” CNN, September 28, 2018. Last Updated September 28, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/26/politics/brett-kavanaugh-allegations/index.html?utm_source=twCNNp&utm_content=2018-09-27T00%3A59%3A05&utm_medium=social&utm_term=image.
46. Athey, Amber. “Here are the Most Egregious Fake News Stories of 2018.” Daily Caller, December 22, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/12/22/worst-fake-news-stories-cnn-nbc-2018/.
47. Athey, Amber. “Mic Writer Spreads Fake News about Russian Spy in Oval Office.” Daily Caller, July 17, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/07/17/mic-writer-fake-news-russian-spy/.
48. Concha, Joe. “Mic Reporter Deletes Tweet Claiming Alleged Russian Spy was Photographed in the Oval Office with Trump.” The Hill, July 17, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://thehill.com/homenews/media/397480-mic-reporter-deletes-tweet-claiming-alleged-russian-spy-was-photographed-in-the-oval.
49. Athey, Amber. “Mic Writer Spreads Fake News about Russian Spy in Oval Office.”
50. Stanley-Becker, Isaac. “Arizona Race Gets Ugly as Martha McSally Accuses Kyrsten Sinema of ‘Treason’ Over 2003 Taliban Comments.” The Washington Post, October 16, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/16/arizona-race-gets-ugly-as-martha-mcsally-accuses-kyrsten-synema-of-treason-over-2003-taliban-comments/?utm_term=.a3f22f693e46.
51. “McSally Accuses Sinema of ‘Treason’ in Arizona Senate Debate.” The Washington Post, video, October 16, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/mcsally-accuses-sinema-of-treason-in-arizona-senate-debate/2018/10/16/5c0ed56e-d15e-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_video.html?utm_term=.fcf8ca5b2cca.
52. “Arizona Senate Debate.” C-Span, video, October 15, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.c-span.org/video/?452937-1/arizona-senate-debate.
53. Sciutto, Jim, Carl Bernstein and Marshall Cohen. “Cohen Claims Trump Knew in Advance of 2016 Trump Tower Meeting.” CNN, July 27, 2018. Last Updated July 27, 2018. Source: Way Back Machine. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://web.archive.org/web/20180729024135/https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/26/politics/michael-cohen-donald-trump-june-2016-meeting-knowledge/index.html.
54. Ross, Chuck. “Lanny Davis Obliterated CNN’s ‘Bombshell’ Report about Michael Cohen and Trump Tower.” Daily Caller, August 22, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/08/22/lanny-davis-dispute-trump-tower-cohen/.
55. Athey, Amber. “CNN Quadruples Down on Dubious Trump Story – Leaves Out Key Details.” CNN, August 28, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2018/08/28/cnn-addresses-davis-trump-tower-story/.
56. Zebell, Timothy. The Fake News Epidemic and Its Perilous Trajectory, 133. CreateSpace, 2018.
57. Ibid, 134.
58. Zebell, Timothy. “Really? Fake News Coverage of the President’s Fake News Awards.” Forerunners of America, January 18, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://forerunnersofamerica.com/article/really-fake-news-coverage-of-the-presidents-fake-news-awards/.
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