News analysis:

The President has no robe

Monday, February 6, was something of a nightmare for reporter Karn Dhingra.

He covers city hall and county government for a small daily in Victoria, Texas – which sits about equal distance from San Antonio, Houston and Corpus Christi. Things started out great. He’d scored a scoop that was running on the front page that morning. He discovered the city council was trying to quietly hike the salaries of the city manager and the city attorney – while the rest of the municipal staff wasn’t getting anything. The problem was that Dhingra had misread the complex and poorly written council agenda item. No salary hikes were in the works for anyone.

By 8am that Monday, Dhingra was sitting uncomfortably with his bosses and the two aggrieved city officials. Shortly after Dhingra’s story was corrected on the paper’s website and he was assigned a follow-up story for Tuesday that would clarify the error.

But the managers of the Advocate weren’t done. The paper’s editor, a guy named Chris Cobler , posted a fairly long blog that took full ownership of the mistake with the promise of an internal review aimed at preventing anything similar from happening again.

Even a year ago these events playing out in a small Texas town wouldn’t have attracted even scant attention from the outside. But today it did.

A big part of the American public – from the president on down – is seemingly convinced that the mainstream newspapers routinely publish ‘fake news’ and then refuse to acknowledge the subterfuge.  As a veteran of newsrooms for nearly 30 years – who has more than his share of Monday mornings similar to Dhingra’s – I can assure that perception is pure fantasy.

Every day in newsrooms all across the county –  publishers, editors and reporters go through the same painful process of admitting they’ve made a mistake and publicly correcting it. It’s easy to ignore because most of the time, newspapers keep the retractions in a little box inside the front section. But newspapers run that box every day and almost every day there’s something in it.

In fact, on the same morning that Dhingra’s retraction ran, The New York Times published corrective amendments to eight of their stories that had run in recent days.

One of the reports fouled up a quote from the president of Taiwan. Another misstated the name of a D.C.-based advocacy group. Another got the age of a pro golfer wrong. Two were in obituaries; one was an editor’s error; one was in a photo caption.

I bring the Times up because that same week, the editors of the paper were embroiled in a controversy with President Trump over an item in a Sunday story. It was a feature on how the new White House staff was struggling with mundane tasks such as finding light switches in some offices and keys to some doors. And it included an anecdote that the president sometimes dons a bathrobe after hours and goes exploring his new residence.

Apparently, President Trump really hated the bathrobe reference and he sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to complain about it. Spicer said the president doesn’t even own a bathrobe, complained the story was rife with erroneous information and that it qualified as “literally the epitome of fake news.” The Times has stood by the reporting and so far no correction has been published. Thus, the obvious question is raised – who is right, the Times or the White House?

Setting aside for the moment a second obvious question (who cares?), understanding the conflict is important. The willingness of the new president to whitewash everything he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’ is more than troubling. At the same time, there are too many examples of poor reporting and bad editing leading to mistakes that get swept under the rug. The first step in arbitrating the dispute is recognizing how the Times got the information about the bathrobe in the first place. I would argue they most likely didn’t invent it and I’d say they most likely didn’t actually see the president wearing one either. Someone told them about it.

So the next question focuses on the source. The Times didn’t say who told them about the robe, so it could have been anyone from domestic staff inside the White House, to any number of high-ranking government officials – which could include a visitor, perhaps even a Democrat, like a Senator or maybe even a former resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The editors might have asked the reporters who told them about the robe during the editing process and then decided to include the reference because they believed the source was credible. That decision would have been revisited the next morning when the White House spokesman registered such a vigorous denial.

Under normal circumstances, when a representative of a public officials calls a report or parts of a report into question, it is typically required that the news team to go back to their source and check the item in question. Was it really a bathrobe? Could it have been more like a cape? What about one of those big jackets that football players wear on the sidelines during chilly games in December?

If the source is anything less than adamant that it was a bathrobe and not some other kind of garment – the editors would most likely order up a correction. It is possible that the relationship between the White House and the Times has become so toxic that the editors didn’t bother with the re-check. If so, shame on them.

There is also a scenario where the source got it right, that it was a bathrobe and President Trump just didn’t like that image of himself in the news pages of the Times. This scenario is just as likely as any to be true, based on a couple hundred years of powerful politicians trying to spin away an inconvenient truth. And it has been well documented that Trump has a fairly long record for employing this tactic. There remains one additional test that readers should utilize when evaluating a standoff over news: which side has the most to lose if the item is proved inaccurate.

I would argue it’s the newspaper that is most at risk. Perhaps our industry has already lost many of you. Poor reporting, bad editors and disengaged publishers have all contributed to the degradation of credibility for newspapers. But unlike politicians – who sell vision and partisan principles – the product newspapers’ sell is credibility and many dedicated journalists around the country are still trying to protect the franchise.

Cobler, the small-town editor in south Texas, said it well when he address the front-page error his reporter had made about the council raises: “Every error damages out credibility,” he said. “But the best way to maintain readers’ trust is to admit when we’re wrong and that’s always been our policy.”