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The Washington Post’s Fake News Doesn’t Seem to Matter

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:15 PM
Laura Hoy
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:15 PM
  • A defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post has been reopened, drawing attention to the paper’s misleading account of a confrontation between a teenage Trump supporter and an activist.
  • The paper is also defending itself against allegations that it sugarcoated the brutality of an ISIS leader in order to push an anti-Trump agenda.
  • While political bias in the media exists, it’s hard to quantify and even harder to change as most readers are willing to accept it.

The so-called ‘fake news’ debate in America heated up this week as the Washington Post found itself in hot water over two separate issues that appeared to suggest the paper was pushing an anti-Trump agenda. However, despite harsh criticism from the right, the Washington Post’s alleged left-leaning tendencies are unlikely to hurt its credibility among readers. In fact, accusations that the paper’s reporting is influenced by anti-Trump views could actually make Democrats trust it more.

Washington Post Sued for Defamation

Earlier this year, Nicholas Sandmann sued the Washington Post for defamation  after the paper suggested he and his high-school aged friends assaulted and intimidated Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist. After an edited video of the encounter became national news, the long-form recording of the event showed that Sandmann and his friends were actually harassed themselves and were trying to deescalate the situation. 

The lawsuit was originally dismissed, but this week U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman reopened the case. Bertelsman said three allegedly defamatory statements that claimed Sandmann “blocked” Phillips and “would not allow him to retreat” should be investigated further. 

Cases like these are hard to win, though. Florida trial attorney Donald E. Petersen  says the Washington Post’s First Amendment privilege will make it difficult for Sandmann to win. He noted that,

“Plaintiffs win in only 13% of defamation cases.  Nor are major media corporations likely to settle quickly.”

However, if the Washington Post did intentionally paint Sandmann in an unsavory light because he was wearing a Pro-Trump hat, that could be relatively easy to show through the discovery process.

“If I were plaintiff’s counsel, I would pursue the reporter’s browsing history.  Even if the reporter did not watch the longer video, its appearance […] along with the shorter video (which plaintiff alleges is misleading) may arguably satisfy the required knowledge (as in a willful refusal to verify their facts).  If the reporter or editor viewed the longer video, plaintiff has a decent shot at overcoming [the Washington Post’s] anticipated motion for summary judgment.”

Al-Baghdadi Headline Error

The Washington Post was again criticized for furthering an anti-Trump agenda later in the week when the paper described  Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar” in a headline. The headline was quickly changed from “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48” to “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist leader of Islamic State, dies at 48.”

The change wasn’t made before critics got hold of the original headline and accused the paper of downplaying al-Baghdadi’s brutality in an effort to minimize an event that the Trump administration considered to be a win.

Post spokesperson Kristine Moratti Kelly defended the paper saying it was a mistake that was changed quickly.

Does the Washington Post Write Fake News?

While the al-Baghdadi headline is unlikely to prompt much more than a day’s worth of Twitter banter, the Post’s time in the spotlight underscores the increasingly hostile discourse between the media and the conservative public. Media bias has long been a complaint  among Republicans who point to the fact that the number of journalists affiliated with the Democrat party is disproportionately larger than what’s found in the general public.

Perhaps they have a point, says Dr. Matt Grossman, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. In an interview, Grossman noted,

“It’s certainly true that reporters are more likely to be Democrats and liberals than the general public, and it’s also true that there’s plenty of situations in which people’s partisanship and ideology colors their views and their behavior.”

But Grossman also said it’s difficult to actually measure bias to see if that’s in fact the case. Studies show that many publications show bias toward one side for a period of time, and then start to lean the other way for another period.

donald trump, Washington post
For better or worse, Trump’s presidency has elevated the media bias debate. | Source: AP Photo / Pablo Martinez

“Bottom line,” he said, “it is reasonable to expect that the political complexion of reporters would matter for the content of journalism, but the actual studies investigating it have had somewhat mixed results with more showings of subtle biases than direct candidate preferences.” 

Trump, he says, has magnified this ongoing debate about bias in the media. It’s unclear whether Trump gets negative coverage because he creates it or because the press hates him. 

Credibility Questions

The answer to that question rests squarely in the center of the Washington Post’s current predicament. Was their coverage of the Covington students an honest mistake, or was it motivated by an anti-Trump agenda? If the coverage is proven to be politically motivated, will readers of the paper care? Jonathan Ladd, a public policy Georgetown University Professor says no,  adding,

“Measures of trust or belief in bias and what [media] you actually use, they’re not completely disconnected, but they’re only very loosely connected.”

In fact, according to Grossman, accusations that mainstream media is pushing an anti-Trump agenda is actually giving them more credibility among liberal readers. “Democrats, under Trump,” he said, “have actually become more trusting of mainstream media as the media has been seen as a check on Trump.”