Mistake News Isn't Fake News, but We Can't Let Trump Make News the Story

The golf course of my dreams, but I never get to swing a club.
The golf course of my dreams, but I never get to swing a club. Trilogy at Vistancia

The golf course of my dreams, but I never get to swing a club.
Trilogy at Vistancia
I gave up golf in total exasperation 35 years ago, yet the game has been invading my sleep for at least two decades.

It’s always a variation of the same dream. I’m walking on a golf course alone. Or there is a tournament going on, yet I’m strolling through the middle of the fairway, often in the opposite direction than the players. Last week, I was in a foursome with the former and current editor of my old newspaper. When it came my turn to tee off, my clubs disappeared.

And that's been the constant in all my golf dreams: I never get to play the game.

It's pretty easy to interpret. The dreams are about journalism. That’s our lot. We’re on the course, we get access inside the ropes, but only to observe. We don’t get to participate, as much as we might want to sometimes. Our job is to report the story,  present it, and let others decide what it means. Not to be part of it.

Yet I’m starting to feel the same frustration now with my profession that I felt with golf so many years ago.

Lately, it seems we are becoming the story.

Our mistake news is being discredited as fake news by our Commander in Tweet as he tries to sink our credibility to the level of his own approval ratings.

The major errors have been piling up faster than disgraced politicians.

Last week, the New York Times laid out a litany of recent gaffes on important stories:

• CNN incorrectly reported that Donald Trump Jr. received advance notice from WikiLeaks about its hacked documents. CNN’s sources were wrong. In fact, Junior got them a day after everybody else. CNN should have found the documents before airing.
• ABC News suspended reporter Brian Ross after he incorrectly reported that the president had instructed Michael T. Flynn to contact Russian officials during the presidential race. Doesn't that seem like a bit of information that merits some extreme vetting?
• Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and others incorrectly reported that Deutsche Bank had received a subpoena from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for President Trump’s financial records. Sloppy. Sloppy. Sloppy.

We're better than this, dammit. We have to be. The leader of the free world wants to destroy us. The only weapon we have to fight back with is accuracy.

Sure, some of it can be attributed to dwindling resources.

My first day in this business was December 12, 1969, 48 years ago Tuesday. Back then, it was like we weren’t just printing the news, we were printing money.

Naturally, corporations began gobbling up newspapers and broadcast stations. And CEOs got greedy.

In 1997, my newspaper in Akron, Ohio, earned 27 percent profit on $100 million revenue. But the next year profits were only 21 percent … that's still a 21-PERCENT return … and that wasn’t enough. The suits were addicted to more, not less. So they began to cut staff. And the downward spiral began.

That story can be repeated from city to city, state to state. The Lexington (Ky.) Leader, the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, AOL News, The Daily … all news organizations where I’ve worked … all gone. And I can't count the number of drinks I've had with hundreds of laid-off colleagues.

As news rooms were diminished, so was the vetting process.

Twenty years ago, almost any page one story had to be vetted by an army of editors. Your assigning editor read it. Then the city editor. Then the managing editor. If it was important enough, the editor-in-chief read it. And for the most significant projects, they brought in the lawyers to read it, too. Jeez, that was a pain. 

But we weren't done there. If your prose survived all those checks and balances, and many didn’t, the copy desk got a whack, where at least two more editors could inspect, dissect, and reject your carefully crafted work.

Today, I know of major news organizations where interns have posted their own stories online without being read by a single editor. Not that that happens at CNN or the Wall Street Journal ... but I can't imagine their recent mistakes got the kind of scrutiny we once gave major stories like the ones they botched.

And certainly we can't blame these errors on just of a lack of resources. We're plagued by something even more insidious: the 24/7 news cycle and the rush to be first. The early bird gets the traffic. That's right, we refer to readers as traffic.

Sometimes being a few minutes ahead of everyone else makes a difference; in truth, there are potentially a billion or more readers out there. If you report your story well enough, it will find an audience.

But all of us, myself included, have got to make sure we get it right.

Not just for ourselves — for our industry, for our democracy, and for the next generation of journalists as well. For the last few years, at the Arizona Republic and at Phoenix New Times, I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the best and brightest produced by universities from around the country. I'm not sure why they still want to go into this business, but they have skills I couldn't have imagined when I graduated. They shouldn't have to sift through the rubble we've left behind.

I realize, though, that I won't be around to see where journalism takes these kids.  I'll be 66 in a few months. A few years ago I tried to take up golf again, bought a new set of clubs, and promptly tore up my left shoulder.  The shoulder has been surgically replaced, but the clubs are still hanging, unused, in my garage.

But maybe it won't be too long before I take them down again, pull out a 5-iron, tee-up a ball, and play the game for real.

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Stuart Warner was the editor of New Times from 2017 to 2019. He has been a journalist since the stoned ages of 1969, playing a major role on teams that won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is also the author of the biography JOCK: A Coach's Story.