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Commentary: BuzzFeed, Twitter provide two black eyes for media

WASHINGTON – First, BuzzFeed ran a story Jan. 16 that asserted President Donald Trump told his longtime private attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about talks with Russia about a Trump Tower in Moscow. The sources? Two anonymous federal law enforcement officials.

By Friday of that week, a thin gruel of a story had put cable news in a ferocious feeding frenzy as pundits breathlessly pronounced that, “if true,” Trump should be impeached. Yes, they jumped on an anonymously sourced story that they wanted to be true, then cagily waved the “if true” disclaimer just in case reality intruded.

They would have continued to say “if true” for days, even as no other news organization could verify the BuzzFeed piece, had not special counsel Robert Mueller’s office ended their glee by issuing a statement roundly debunking it.

To recap, the story was wrong, and the only reason to give it credibility was runaway bias. While many journalists hung back and waited to learn more, the public saw an endless spool of anti-Trump pundits who were rewarded for their poor judgment with air time and knowing nods.

The next day, another epic media fail was born.

A brief video clip of a white male high school student in a Make America Great Again hat staring silently as a Native American activist stood before him beating a drum and chanting was unleashed on Twitter. A rush to ill-informed judgment followed.

The left dusted off every stereotype in its vault. Twitter users described the moment as a confrontation between smug privileged white teens and a besieged Vietnam veteran proud of his Native American heritage.

CNN contributor Reza Aslan tweeted, “Honest question: Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”

In a classic case of confirmation bias, mainstream news outlets went with the narrative that placed the blame on teens in MAGA hats. The Washington Post reported that the high schooler was wearing a “relentless smirk.” The story reported the assertion of Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer, that the kids were shouting, “Build that wall,” even though, the story noted, there was no video of the students chanting about a wall. Standards?

The Post story also framed Phillips as he wanted to be framed, the hapless “man in the middle” who was forced into unwanted confrontation.

Later, conservatives posted video that showed that Phillips — rather than being surrounded by students, as he had claimed — actually had approached the students.

The paper also ran a correction on its reporting that Phillips served in Vietnam. He did not.

Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-hat wearing teen, released a statement in which he denied smirking and maintained that he chose to remain silent and expressionless because he didn’t want to inflame a tense situation.

Many who posted nasty tweets about the students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School deleted them. Some even apologized.

Alas, others argued that white Catholic teens were not entitled to the benefit of the doubt. When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she’d never seen people “so happy to destroy a kid’s life,” an unrepentant Aslan tweeted, “She means a white kid. Brown kids? Well, they belong in cages.”

Actress Alyssa Milano refused to walk back the tweet she had posted on the standoff by the Lincoln Memorial: “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood.”

Noting that the students were on the Washington Mall waiting for a bus after participating in the anti-abortion March for Life, Milano argued, “Let’s not forget — the entire event happened because a group of boys went on a school-sanctioned trip to protest against a woman’s right to her own body and reproductive health care.”

Translation: Conservatives are fair game.

Conservatives are fair game for virtue-signaling conservatives. Twitter has turned into a forum in which people prove their goodness by berating others as unworthy, and conservatives also trash-talked the students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School.

In the heat of the pile-on, the National Review’s Nicholas Frankovich tweeted, “As for the putatively Catholic students from Covington, they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.” Frankovich later apologized, rightly copped to being “preachy and rhetorically excessive,” and deleted the tweet.

When Trump first entered the White House, there was a concerted move to keep him off Twitter because even his own staff was concerned that his often combative bursts on Twitter were, well, un-presidential. Like Aslan today, he would make assertions of questionable accuracy but stand by them anyway. Two years later, we are all unpresidential and the social media in reality is anti-social.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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