MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell led off with what he thought was a blockbuster story the other night. On air, he said a single source told him a Russian oligarch had co-signed for a Deutsche Bank loan to President Trump. In his reporting, O’Donnell inserted two very dangerous words: “if true.”
When I heard him utter “if true” I knew he was in trouble. Back in the old days of newspapers it was common to read “if true” because it was difficult or even impossible to verify the facts around events in distant places. Thus, readers would see something like, “A huge battle unfolded at Antietam in Maryland. If true, thousands dead.”
In today’s media climate, there’s no room for “if true” because there’s no excuse for failing to confirm the facts one reports and most mainstream journalists and editors stick to the rules. Are there errors? Sure, but they almost always get corrected.
Contrast that with how conservative media outlets relentlessly pushed the Obama birth certificate baloney. Even a cursory search for facts would have proved Obama was born in the U.S., but it was just too juicy, so it became primetime fare night after night for a couple of years. Correction? Please.
O’Donnell would have been better served sitting on the story until he could authenticate what he’d learned. Instead, he chose to go with something someone close to Deutsche Bank allegedly told him.
Sure enough, Trump’s lawyers pounced the next day and O’Donnell was forced to retract his report on-air.
It’s still not known if what he said is indeed fact, but this is not the way a reputable news operation works. O’Donnell is also a primetime opinionator, so he needs to be especially careful. Perhaps he was thinking about the torrent of lies, distortions and half-truths pouring out of the White House and mistakenly thought “if true” would somehow slip by.
There has been a lot of solid reporting about the Trump administration, most all of it factual and verifiable despite the president’s incessant “fake news” whining. It’s been refreshing to see outlets go after the truth, find it, confirm it and report. O’Donnell only served to undermine all that hard work with his “if true” gambit.
Kevin Foley owns KEF Media in Atlanta.