SPECIAL REPORT: The Eight Worst ‘Fake News’ Stories of the Trump Years

Journalists bristle when President Trump criticizes them as “fake news,” and they complain that such criticism erodes the public’s faith in the news media as an independent watchdog on the powerful.

But Trump’s critiques wouldn’t have nearly as much impact if news organizations actually acted like careful, professional, independent purveyors of fact. Instead, they too often behave as sloppy partisans, carelessly jumping on one false story after another if they think it will prove their larger narrative that the President is unfit for office.

Sometimes, the “fake news” is about a small detail that suggests a broader pattern: the Time magazine pool reporter who wrongly claimed on Twitter that Trump had removed a bust of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Oval Office, perhaps hinting at a racial animus. In fact, the bust was right there, obscured from view by a Secret Service agent and a door.

Or it can be sheer sloppiness: ABC adorned two of its 2019 weekend newscasts with footage supposedly showing Kurds being bombed to oblivion after the President announced U.S. troops would leave Syria. The problem? The footage was taken at a Kentucky gun range two years earlier and had nothing to do with Trump, Syria or the Kurds.

There’s also the fraudulent headline that exposes recklessness in pursuit of imagined wrongdoing. Case in point: In June 2017, a CNN.com story claimed the Senate Intelligence Committee was investigating the head of a massive Russian investment fund who had supposedly met with Anthony Scaramucci (then a Trump insider who would briefly serve as White House Communications Director the following month). The story speculated that the two might have discussed the new administration lifting Russian sanctions.

But the next day, visitors to CNN’s Web page found a giant “Editor’s Note,” explaining that the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted....CNN apologizes to Mr. Scaramucci.” In the aftermath, the CNN reporter, Thomas Frank, along with assistant managing editor Eric Lichtblau and investigative reporting editor Lex Haris resigned on June 26.

Over the past three years, the examples of factual sloppiness have piled up. And there seems little doubt that there’s an agenda afoot — after all, how many of these embarrassing corrections have involved the retraction of a pro-Trump story?

NewsBusters has tracked it all during the first forty months of the Trump presidency. Here are our choices for the eight worst “fake news” stories of the Trump era, all pushed by supposedly mainstream journalists operating under the highest levels of professionalism. Judge for yourself:


1. The Imaginary Pee Tape: Ten days before Trump’s inauguration, CNN tried to rain on his big moment by unveiling “exclusive” information that top intelligence officials, including then-FBI Director James Comey, had briefed the President-elect about a 35-page dossier crammed with supposedly damaging information. As is often the case in Washington, the least-likely/most-gossipy parts circulated the most widely, including the highly-implausible claim that Trump, on a visit to Russia, had hired prostitutes to urinate on a bed President Obama had used during an earlier visit.

Of course, no news organization could confirm any of this, but it became a salacious bit of anti-Trump dirt that kept finding its way onto the airwaves. The high water mark for this below-the-belt charge came in April 2018 when Comey, a year after he was fired from the FBI, used a book tour to publicize this smear all over again. He found a willing audience in the Trump-hating press; an MRC study found CNN talked about the non-existent “pee tapes” 77 times in a mere five-day period.

It was nothing but vicious nonsense. A later report from the Justice Department’s Inspector General debunked the myth of a Russian “pee tape,” and found that “the FBI knew early in 2017 that it was a highly dubious story and kept Donald Trump in the dark.”


2. Fake News About a Flynn Deal with Mueller: During live “Special Report” coverage on December 1, 2017, ABC News chief investigative Brian Ross made the jaw-dropping claim that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn would testify that during the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump had “ordered him — directed him to make contact with the Russians, which contradicts all that Donald Trump has said to this point.”

If true, that would conceivably put the President in legal jeopardy; within minutes, Ross’s report was being parroted across the media and the stock market fell more than 300 points. But it turned out that Ross had committed one of the biggest blunders of his career: as Ross clarified hours later, Trump made the alleged request of Flynn not as a candidate, but during the transition — which made it merely an act of foreign policy, not collusion.

ABC suspended Ross for one month without pay and barred him from covering President Trump in the future. He has since left the network.


3. CNN’s Botched WikiLeaks E-Mail ‘Exclusive’: A few days later, on December 8, 2017, CNN.com published an early-morning story by correspondents Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb claiming Trump’s campaign team received an e-mail from WikiLeaks on September 4, 2016 with “a decryption key and website address for hacked WikiLeaks documents” that would not be publicly revealed until September 13.

Was this finally some proof of the collusion that anti-Trump media have been searching for? That morning and into the afternoon, all of CNN’s programs proudly touted a “Breaking News” banner with a “CNN Exclusive” that read the following: “Emails Reveal Effort to Give Trump Campaign WikiLeaks Documents.”

It turned out, the e-mail actually went out on September 14, 2016, after the information was available to anyone.

That afternoon, after hours of breathless hype, CNN issued an on-air correction read by Raju. The reporters however, faced no disciplinary action because, according to a spokewoman, they “followed the editorial standards process.” Some process.


4. Donald Trump, Secret Russian Agent: After the President, at a post-summit press conference, refused to contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling, journalists leaped to offering wild theories that the performance was evidence the Trump was a Russian agent. “We don’t know if Putin is his handler, his hero or his co-conspirator, but it’s obviously where his loyalty lies,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg declared on ABC’s This Week on July 22, 2018.

CNN’s Brian Stelter hosts the weekly Reliable Sources, a show that’s supposed to encourage responsible journalism. Yet he used his program to tout the crazy conspiracies: “Trump’s odd behavior with Vladimir Putin is compelling so many people to ask: ‘What does Putin have on Trump? Has Trump been compromised?’ All of those people, those experts, those reporters, they are looking at the fact pattern and seeing something strange, even sinister.”

The next morning, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson wandered away from reality on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “It’s as if Donald Trump has been weaponized over the years by Vladimir Putin to go in and do Putin’s bidding....It is astonishing how he has become such an effective and destructive virus created by Vladimir Putin.”

A few days earlier, CNN’s Don Lemon, used his network’s airwaves to float the notion Trump was guilty of treason: “Article III in Section Three of the Constitution says this, ‘treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.’” Lemon asked historian Douglas Brinkley to agree: “Do you believe the President’s actions fall anywhere within that definition?”

Such venomous speculation only harms the media’s claims that they are a fact-based institution.


5. Liberal TV Nets Trumpet Phony CNN “Exclusive”: On July 26, 2018, CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Carl Bernstein appeared on Cuomo PrimeTime to drop the “exclusive” bombshell claim that Michael Cohen would tell federal investigators that President Trump knew of the infamous Trump Tower meeting before it took place. It was exactly the sort of smoking gun that Trump-haters in the media had been yearning for since the Russia investigation began, and it quickly filled up liberal airwaves.

Cable news went nearly wall-to-wall, while the broadcast networks churned out a combined 28 and a half minutes touting the story on just their July 27 morning and evening news programs. Savannah Guthrie breathlessly opened NBC’s Today: “Breaking overnight, bombshell. President Trump’s longtime lawyer ready to deliver the goods....” ABC’s Good Morning America heralded them as “stunning new claims,” as Justice correspondent Pierre Thomas intoned that “these explosive new allegations are further evidence of the growing rift between President Trump and his former attorney....”

The only problem was, it was all fiction leaked anonymously to CNN and other networks by Cohen’s lawyer (and longtime Clinton lawyer and loyalist) Lanny Davis. The facts came out in late August after Axios reported that Cohen actually did not know if Trump had any knowledge of the meeting. Days later, Buzzfeed exposed that Davis was CNN’s secret source — even after Davis had gone on CNN to assert he was not the source. The broadcast networks that had loudly promoted the fake “bombshell” in July published minor “updates” on their web sites, but didn’t say a word on their airwaves.
 

6. O’Donnell’s Reckless Deutsche Bank Scoop: MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell began the August 27, 2019 edition of his 10pm ET Last Word program by teasing 9pm host Rachel Maddow as her show was concluding. “I may have some information,” he promised, pertaining to Donald Trump’s business dealings with Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

While O’Donnell acknowledged that his “information” came from only a single source, and that neither he nor anyone at NBC News had confirmed it, he inexplicably chose to air his inflammatory allegation on live television: “This single source close to Deutsche Bank has told me that Donald Trump’s loan documents there show that he has co-signers. That’s how he was able to obtain those loans. And that the co-signers are Russian oligarchs....That would explain, it seems to me, every kind word Donald Trump has ever said about Russia and Vladimir Putin, if true, and I stress the ‘if true’ part of this.”

The next morning, an MSNBC producer acknowledged that not only had no one at NBC even seen the documents, O’Donnell’s single source hadn’t seen them, either. That’s some “source.”

Once again, a journalist’s eagerness for a smoking gun to implicate the President led them to abandon any pretense of professionalism. With no confirmation from anyone else in the media, O’Donnell sheepishly abandoned his claims the next day, announcing on Twitter: “Last night I made an error in judgment by reporting an item about the president’s finances that didn’t go through our rigorous verification and standards process. I shouldn’t have reported it and I was wrong to discuss it on the air.”

 

7. Blaming Trump for Racist Mass Killings: Grotesquely seeking to exploit horrific tragedies for political advantage, some in the media actually accused the President of inspiring or otherwise supporting brutal mass killings in 2019. “The President needs to at some point look in the mirror and understand that the rhetoric.... give[s] permission to the most craziest people in America,” ABC’s Matthew Dowd charged after a synagogue shooting that left eleven dead in April of that year.

After a horrible shooting in El Paso, Texas in which the gunman singled out Latinos, killing 23, TV viewers once again heard journalists aim the blame at President Trump. “If you’re a white supremacist, you find the President’s words possibly inspirational, possibly comforting,” CNN’s Nia Malika Henderson claimed on August 5. A few hours later, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace falsely stated: “You now have a President, as you said, talking about exterminating Latinos.”

Those seeking to blame Trump personally for the evil acts of others found support in a March 2019 Washington Post analysis that claimed, according to the headline, that “counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes.” The problem: a pair of Harvard researchers trying to duplicate the study found political rallies had no effect on hate crimes. In fact, using the same methodology would actually show “Clinton rallies contribute to an even greater increase in hate incidents than Trump rallies.” Oops.


8. The Coronavirus “Hoax” Hoax: As the coronavirus spread in the U.S., so too did the fake news that President Trump had called the disease a “hoax,” when in reality he used those words to talk about Democrats’ attempt to exploit the crisis. The butchering of reality began just a couple of hours after the President spoke at a February 28 political rally, with Politico’s bogus headline: “Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax.’” That earned Politico a “false” rating from CheckYourFact.com the next day. The left-leaning fact-checker Snopes.com soon agreed, writing on March 2: “Despite creating some confusion with his remarks, Trump did not call the coronavirus itself a hoax.”

But those pesky facts wouldn’t stop some in the liberal media from pushing the phony version they preferred. On March 11, MSNBC’s Joy Reid misled viewers when she claimed “the Trump administration has struggled to present a coherent and unified message about the coronavirus outbreak, careening from downplaying it, with Trump tossing it off as a political hoax, to just seemingly scrambling.”

Three days later, CNN’s Boris Sanchez wrongly claimed the President has “suggested that this coronavirus epidemic — pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats.”

As late as April 7, NBC’s Tom Costello even bungled the liberal media’s fantasy version of what Trump supposedly said. Talking about a memo written by White House advisor Peter Navarro, Costello asserted: “He wrote that, again, on January 29, at the time that the President was suggesting this was all a hoax.” Actually, that would have been a month before the President said the words that have been so dishonestly distorted.

 

Thanks to Curtis Houck, Nicholas Fondacaro, Kyle Drennen, Geoffrey Dickens, Bill D’Agostino and the many other MRC staffers whose vigilant monitoring over the past three years contributed to this report.

 

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Research NB Daily Media Reality Check Coronavirus Trump-Russia probe ABC CNN MSNBC Fake News Lawrence O'Donnell Brian Stelter Brian Ross Michelle Goldberg Don Lemon Joy Reid