Taking a Closer Look at ‘Fact-Free Journalism’

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Two veteran journalists, Mark Tapscott and Brian McNicoll, join “The Bill Walton Show” to discuss the increasingly low standards of journalistic practice. Read a portion of the transcript, lightly edited, below, or watch the full episode above.

Bill Walton: Welcome to “The Bill Walton Show.” I’m Bill Walton, and today I want to talk about something that’s come up on an article that was published in Atlantic recently about Donald Trump. As usual with the Atlantic, it was a hit piece on Donald Trump, but the article was most notable because it had all sorts of sources for the story, which the author Goldberg who’s the editor, managing editor or editor of Atlantic journal declined to disclose their identities.

So I want to explore whether this is good journalism, bad journalism, and whether things have changed since I took a journalism class in college, 50 years ago. And with me to dig into this is a Mark… two veteran journalists, Mark Tapscott and Brian McNicoll. Both of them have over four decades experience in journalism. Most currently Mark covers Congress for the Epic Times. And Brian has been on some other shows with me and he is an independent journalist. And both of them have been writing and thinking about journalistic ethics for years. Brian, would you frame this issue for me, for us?

McNicoll: The Atlantic wrote a story. It’s based on four anonymous sources that says Trump called the soldiers losers and cowards. And there was a meeting of heads of state at one of the G7 meetings in Europe and they were going to have a side trip to a World War I cemetery or battlefield and our security determined that Trump couldn’t do it. It’s a two lane road in and out of there. And if they had to get him out, you could stop traffic and you could stop him from being able to get out. And we don’t take those kinds of risks with our president, whoever is president.

So the story says that, “We didn’t go because Trump didn’t want to go. And he thought these people were losers for dying in this battle.” So there were four anonymous sources, supposedly behind the Atlantic story. There are 21 people now on the record saying that is not true, including eight who were eyewitnesses to the events that day, and most of the other witnesses say that not only did Trump not say this that day, he’s never said anything that they know of disparaging the military.

Among the people who support Trump’s account of it, are a top aid to John Kelly, who was runoff as chief of staff of the White House and John Bolton, who was the national security director who has left the White House on bad terms and written an anti-Trump book. So, people who are not Trump’s friends support him on this, on the record and Goldberg has this four off the record or anonymous sources. And then you have the other strange sideshow of this other media outlets “confirming” with anonymous sources that Goldberg’s article. Okay?

So I can call you and say, “Gossip, gossip, gossip,” and you print it. Then I call all those other people, “Gossip, gossip, gossip,” and that’s considered confirming the story. There’s still no one on the record who’s confirms the story.

Walton: So but didn’t Bolton say something like, “Look, I was there. And if that had happened, it certainly would have been in my book first.”

McNicoll: Right? He hadn’t written a chapter. He said, “I’d have written a chapter on that.”

Walton: Mark, what’s your take on this?

Tapscott: The Goldberg story is especially embarrassing to me as an editor frankly, because Goldberg himself is the editor of the Atlantic and he knows better.

Walton: This is Jeffrey Goldberg.

Tapscott: Jeffrey Goldberg, right?

Walton: It’s not Jonah Goldberg at AEI. This is Jeffrey Goldberg.

Tapscott: Yeah. Who’s has a very different outlook on politics and government and generally does, but it’s embarrassing because it’s a classic illustration, at least in my view, of how to do bad journalism that destroys the credibility of journalists. I wish we had some kind of informal way of censoring if you will, journalists who do this kind of thing, because our credibility is in the dumps. It has been for some time, and this is the kind of story that just pushes it deeper and deeper.

McNicoll: Yeah. The people said that the polling is, only about 20% of the people trust what Trump says about the Coronavirus. Only about 12% trust what the media says.

Tapscott: Yeah, yeah.

McNicoll: You can’t even get trusted on what should be a pretty basic news.

Tapscott: Yeah. And used car salesman are more trusted than most of them.

McNicoll: That’s right.

Tapscott: I hate to say.

McNicoll: I would say they’ve earned it. To me that this is earned and distrust. You start ticking off the hoaxes, right? Russia hoax, Ukraine hoax, just in the last few weeks. Post office hoax, Trump played down the pandemic hoax. Right? It’s just one after the other. And you wait 48 hours and they’re all thoroughly debunked, but people keep talking about it.

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