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A tough weekend for the news media

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington in Kentucky is looking into this and other videos that show youths, possibly from the diocese's all-male Covington Catholic High School, mocking Native Americans at a rally in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

An article that President Trump derided as "a disgrace to journalism" received a stalwart defense from its editors -- while a viral video that occasioned strident criticism of the president's supporters later wound up prompting a round of bipartisan apologies to those very supporters.

In what was assuredly a tough weekend for the mainstream news media, the pair of controversies underscored the ongoing debate in the country over "fake news" -- or as the phrase tends to appear online, #fakenews.

The first incident erupted after 10 p.m. Friday night when BuzzFeed published a story, based on anonymous sources, alleging that Mr. Trump's longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, had told federal prosecutors that the president had directed him to lie to Congress about the time frame during which, in 2016, the pair had pursued the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

As the story reverberated across other print outlets, social media, and the cable TV channels, leading Democrats cited the story as possibly presenting possible an avenue for impeachment. There was only one problem with it: a central figure in the investigations surrounding the president and Cohen shot it down.

Still later on Friday, the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the rare step of issuing a statement challenging the accuracy of the BuzzFeed article. "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," said Mueller spokesman Peter Carr -- whose duties more typically involve responding to reporters' inquiries with a terse "No comment."

Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the white House on Saturday, en route to a visit to Dover Air Force Base, President Trump pounced on the rare rebuke from the special counsel. "I think that the BuzzFeed piece was a disgrace to our country," he said. "It was a disgrace to journalism. And I think also that the coverage by the mainstream media was disgraceful."

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben White stood by the sourcing of the reporters on the story, Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, and challenged the Mueller team to specify what they got wrong. The special counsel's office did not take up that challenge.

Still, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin conceded that large segments of the American electorate would frame the BuzzFeed episode in terms similar to those the president uses when he issues his famous war cry of "fake news." "The larger message that a lot of people are gonna take from this story is that the news media are a bunch of leftist liars who are dying to get the president, and they’re willing to lie to do it," Toobin said during an appearance on "Anderson Cooper 360" on Friday.

"Real journalism has died"

The second story blew up on Saturday, when cable news channels and social media endlessly replayed video that appeared to show a smirking young man in a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat -- a trademark of the president's 2016 campaign -- confronting, even insulting, an elderly Native American man as the latter banged a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial and other students, many also wearing MAGA hats, cheered and hooted.

Critics of the president swiftly seized on the video as evidence of the cultural insensitivity, if not the overt racism, of Trump supporters. The smirking young man was quickly identified as Nick Sandmann, a junior from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who was visiting the capital to take part in the March for Life Rally. The Native American man, who swiftly made the round of CNN and MSNBC, was a Vietnam veteran named Nathan Phillips, an Omaha tribe elder.

"The tense moments now being replayed over and over again online, when a young man got right in his face," CNN anchor Ana Cabrera said of Sandmann's encounter with Phillips. Joy Reid of MSNBC noted with dismay how the students had chanted "faux Native American songs" to taunt Phillips.

Even some prominent conservatives piled on, including Rich Lowry of National Review, Meghan McCain and Charlie Kirk -- only to issue contrite apologies to Sandmann and his fellow students later on.

As it happened, additional footage surfaced showing that it was Sandmann and his fellow students who were first assailed by a group of African-American demonstrators, identifying themselves as "Hebrew Israelites," who apparently took offense at the MAGA hats and began peppering the Catholic students with profane insults, including calling them "child-molesting f*****s."

A trio of adults who chaperoned the Covington trip to the capital told WKRC that their students were "targeted from the get-go" and subjected to lewd insults that one mother called "horrible" to watch.

At that point, Phillips sought to interpose himself between the two groups, but the Vietnam veteran strode directly up to Sandmann and continued banging the traditional animal-skin drum just inches from the student's nose.

"I never interacted with this protester," Sandmann said later in a statement. "I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me."

"Ultimately, the takeaway from this is that real journalism has died," said L. Brent Bozell III, founder and president of the Media Research Center, a conservative group that tracks left-wing bias in the news media. "Journalism 101 shows that there should be two independent sources for any story. In the case of these [two stories], there were no independent sources...and everyone ran them. This was such a desire to go after conservatives -- specifically Donald Trump and the pro-life movement."

A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found Americans' distrust of the news media rising to new levels. The survey found Americans believe 62 percent of the news they get from newspapers, television, and radio to be biased. They also consider more than a third of the news they receive from these sources to be "fake" -- presented as true when its purveyors know it to be false. These numbers grew when survey respondents were asked to evaluate the reliability of news they receive from social media sources.

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