Journalists don’t always do things right. But they’re people, too — we shouldn’t expect perfection, especially if you believe that “to err is to human.”
That said, it’s important for journalists to do the job right, and when mistakes are made they should be called out for them. Journalism is a public trust — and when that trust is violated, it’s a big deal.
We should expect perfection to be the goal journalists chase, because, and I’m paraphrasing Vince Lombardi here, even if they miss perfection they end up someplace great.
Lawrence O’Donnell didn’t “chase perfection” this week when he announced on his MSNBC program he had heard from a single source who said that portions of President Donald Trump’s tax returns contained proof he had obtained co-signers from Russian oligarchs. O’Donnell didn’t see the documents himself, his news organization hadn’t vetted the source, and it was based on a single person’s word, without verifiable evidence to corroborate the claims.
That’s shoddy journalism, which is below the standard that O’Donnell normally employs — and on Wednesday, he owned up to it, officially retracting the story because it wasn’t ready to be disseminated.
“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,” O’Donnell said in his apology, according to NBC News.
O’Donnell lamented that the story could be true — “We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate,” he stated on his program, but added that “it wasn’t ready for broadcast, and for that, I apologize.”
REALITY CHECK: We don’t know that anything @Lawrence reported was inaccurate, only that it was from a single source, & thus did not meet NBC’s standards.
The only people saying it was false are the President & his representatives, neither of whom have a reputation for veracity https://t.co/r48fJDZck3
— Andrew Feinberg (@AndrewFeinberg) August 29, 2019
We shouldn’t give too many kudos for O’Donnell over his apology — it is the mistake he made that deserves more attention than anything else. But we should also note that the actions of O’Donnell, in making his apology, demonstrate he has the moral integrity to admit when he is wrong.
If only the current president were the same way.
Trump is not a morally sound president — this is not a statement that needs much citation to prove as true, but as an example, let us recall his years spent on social media and in public statements remonstrating his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, accusing him of not being an American citizen.
A quick search at the Trump Twitter Archive for “birth certificate” is replete with examples of Trump sharing articles, making commentary, or otherwise implying that Obama’s birth documents from Hawaii were not to be trusted. The “birther” conspiracy has, at many times in history, been proven false — but Trump lamented in his pursuits, continuing to call into question the legitimacy of the former president even after fact-checkers proved him wrong.
In the 2016 presidential election, he finally relented, stating that Obama was in fact born in the United States. But he didn’t apologize for his role in the matter — instead, he shifted blame, saying it was Hillary Clinton who started the rumor. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said, per reporting from New York Magazine. “I finished it.”
Of course, that, too, is a lie — Clinton never promulgated the birther conspiracy. Trump’s ethics, even in shifting his message away from birtherism, were still unsound.
What’s more, whereas O’Donnell specifically stated he was apologetic for his errant journalism, Trump has never once apologized, to Obama, to Clinton, or to the American people he lied to, for his role in pushing the conspiracy theory against the former president. Not. Once.
And in private, it’s been reported that he still tells some that he doesn’t believe Obama was legitimately born in the United States, Vox reported in November 2018.
The poet Alexander Pope once quipped, “A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” When we admit fault, we grow from our mistakes.
O’Donnell has the opportunity to learn from what he’s done, and to do better than he did before in his reporting. He should still be held responsible for his mistakes, but his apology seems sincere and genuine.
Trump will never learn from his mistakes, however, because he will never admit to them — to do so, I imagine, is an admission to himself that he’s not perfect, that he’s flawed, just like the rest of us.
We should embrace O’Donnell’s humble apology as the standard, not just for journalists, but for presidents as well.