Journalism is not a fun industry in which to screw up. As the supposed custodians of the truth, writers and reporters are punished twice for their errors: for getting something wrong themselves, and for causing scores of readers to get something wrong as well. Mistakes, along with any triumphs, are relentlessly public.
This year, blockbuster scoops shriveled into lengthy corrections, hype over yet another presidential bid from Mitt Romney evaporated within an hour, and Leonardo DiCaprio was briefly and erroneously reported to have been starring in a film about bear rape.
If there’s any benefit to the walk of shame that follows each debacle, it’s that the rest of the media, or at least a couple good eggs, can learn from these mistakes. Beware the sloppy attribution, deleted post, or shady source: You might just end up on a year-end list of the worst media fails, like this one.
1. The Huffington Post’s phony ‘No Trump’ policy
With more than a hint of sanctimony, HuffPost in July laid down what it must have thought was a policy that would set it apart from the rest of the gullible press pack: It would be filing all news about Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to the Entertainment section rather than hard news. “Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow,” wrote D.C. Editor Ryan Grim and Editorial Director Danny Shea. “We won't take the bait.”
Other journalists immediately lampooned the move. The only other site that attempted to treat Trump as a side story was the New York Observer, which, for its part, is owned by Trump’s son-in-law (and whose editor publicly accused International Business Times of “greasy trolling” for simply asking why the paper had decided to forgo coverage of the candidate.) Still, HuffPost declared it was sticking to its principle.
And yet HuffPost — amid plummeting traffic — continued to line its front page with Trump news, run clickbait Trump posts by founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, and even feature Trump stories on the center splash of the site. Profiting off Trump clicks seemed to be a nonissue.
Despite the site's assurances, Trump’s campaign did not burn out. Eventually, months after his poll numbers refused to subside and he gobbled up more attention from his fellow candidates and the media, Huffington herself set out on a thinly veiled walk of shame and announced the site would be doing away with the supposed "no-Trump news" policy.
She still, however, refused to admit the stunt was a misstep.
“Our decision in July was made because we refused to go along with the idea, based simply on poll numbers, that Trump's candidacy was actually a serious and good faith effort to present ideas on how best to govern the country,” she wrote. “We continue to believe this to be true -- and will continue to let it guide our coverage -- but much has changed.”
2. Gawker collapses under its own sleaze
This summer, one of the original gossip shops of the internet was fed a crate of its own medicine. It’s a story Gawker itself would have covered the hell out of, were it not the website in question.
After it published a scandalizing story supposedly outing a Conde Nast executive as gay, Gawker caved to nearly unanimous outcry from readers and colleagues and removed the post. What followed was an internal struggle, a slew of resignations, a purge of leadership, and an eventual rebranding that promised “20 percent nicer" stories. Nick Denton’s snark emporium learned the hard way that, these days, a gay executive is a much less juicy story than a gossip website eating itself alive.
"I was ashamed to have my name and Gawker's associated with a story on the private life of a closeted gay man who some felt had done nothing to warrant the attention,” Denton later said amid the collapsing scenery.
3. MSNBC ransacks apartment as a nation groans
4. HLN puts a man named Fart on TV
Sometimes a botched news report can be a victimless crime: In September, CNN’s sister channel Headline News (HLN) booked the wrong guest to discuss the weighty issues surrounding National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden after the famed leaker joined Twitter.
Anchor Yasmin Vossoughian was apparently unaware that her producers had placed her live on-air not with reporter John Hendren, a correspondent at Al Jazeera English, but with Jon Hendren, a writer and comedian best known by his short but potent Twitter alias, @fart.
Mistaken identity became the theme of the interview, as Hendren slowly but surely revealed that instead of discussing the plight of Edward Snowden, he had joined HLN to talk Edward Scissorhands, the fictional character of the eponymous Tim Burton film, cast out from American life for his cold steel fingers.
“I think to cast him out, to make him invalid in society, simply because he has scissors for hands ... I mean that’s strange,” Hendren explained. Vossoughian did not appear to catch on. “People didn’t get scared until he started sculpting shrubs into dinosaur shapes and whatnot,” Hendren went on, his Twitter handle “@fart” inexplicably on display for HLN’s viewers.
5. Salon.com, generally
6. Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly spin tall tales
This year was an interesting case study in how different networks, specifically NBC and Fox News Channel, handle a problem child.
Easily the most recognizable face and voice at NBC, Brian Williams stepped down in shame after the military newspaper Stars and Stripes unraveled the “NBC Nightly News” anchor’s decade-long deception surrounding a 2003 trip to Iraq meant to boost his reporting credentials. While he’d long repeated a story placing himself inside a chopper hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire, Williams was forced in February to apologize and admit he had really been in a different aircraft far behind the attack.
By the end of the scandal, Williams vacated the “Nightly News,” spent months under investigation by NBC, and in October returned to TV in a much-reduced role as MSNBC’s on-call breaking news anchor.
Meanwhile, Fox’s ratings goldmine Bill O’Reilly faced the spotlight around the same time, having embellished several stories in print and on air from earlier in his career. A post at the Nation dismissed O’Reilly’s account of his time covering war in El Salvador, spawning further questions about his record until former colleagues, witnesses, and other reporters were crawling out of the woodwork to call out O’Reilly’s tales about the Falklands War, Northern Ireland, the L.A. riots, and a famous suicide.
Even when CNN found O’Reilly contradicting himself on tape , he never admitted any outright lies, nor did Fox suspend him or announce any kind of investigation. Still, O’Reilly and Fox did a fair amount of backpedaling over the ensuing months. Most notably, they confessed that when O’Reilly said he had witnessed several murders abroad (facts contested by the record and many witnesses), the Fox News star simply meant he had been shown photos of those crimes by the authorities.
Although both men were discovered to have, at the very least least, fudged the facts, only one of the two suffered any consequences in the fallout. Fox continues to headline O’Reilly as a part of “ the most-trusted name in cable news.”
7. Media mavens believe in ‘Carl Diggler’
The internet has not only multiplied the chances of reporters being drawn in by hoaxes, it’s also provided fertile ground for satirical sites in the mold of the Onion, and its BuzzFeed-pastiche, Clickhole. Combine the two and you’ve got a stew going.
Take for instance Cafe.com’s completely fictional and utterly believable Beltway hack columnist, Carl “The Dig” Diggler, a woefully earnest blowhard sculpted in the mold of political pundits such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen and National Journal’s Ron Fournier. He swings wildly from junk analysis (polling blip Martin O’Malley “has the nomination pretty much in the bag”) to more personal columns, such as his recent open letter, “I Have a New Girlfriend & Understand Intersectional Feminism Now.”
In fact, Diggler’s brand of gassy, too-clever-by-half punditry has been so convincing that several high-profile media figures have bought Cafe.com’s act, including Fournier himself. Apparently believing “The Dig’s” bio, Fournier is one of many victims of the prank pundit, including MSNBC’s Abby Huntsman, Cosmopolitan’s Jill Filipovic, and even presidential candidate Jim Webb, who went so far as to retweet a flattering column by Diggler to his supporters ahead of the first Democratic debate. (Webb later professed to have been in on the joke all along, and then dropped out of the race.)
@carl_diggler We've all got opinions. Appreciate your respect for mine. I certainly respect yours
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) November 11, 2015
8. The Daily Beast has a really, really rough year
The Daily Beast has been in growth mode since separating in 2013 from Tina Brown’s two-headed baby, the Newsweek Daily Beast Company (the other half of which became part of IBT Media). Media guru Ken Doctor earlier this year called it “one of the fastest-growing news and information sites year-over-year in the ‘General News’ category.”
But the Beast has also ballooned as a target for media critics: This year, it couldn’t stop getting stories -- very, very big stories -- flat wrong.
The site opened the year with a scoop blasted out on its front page that two-time loser Mitt Romney would be launching another bid for the White House. Reporting that there would be an imminent announcement from the former Massachusetts governor, the article’s headline was unambiguous: “Mitt Romney Is Running For President.”
This did not end up happening. Soon enough, editors scrambled to ditch the story, but instead of issuing a correction, the Beast simply altered its article entirely. The same link now reported that the Romney hype (which, it noted in passing, the Beast itself had generated hours earlier) was bunk.
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) January 30, 2015
A graver example occurred at the end of the year, when the Beast falsely identified one of the suspects in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Not only did the article confuse Navy veteran Syed Raheel Farook with his brother and the actual suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook, the site also published details and photographs of the wrong brother that were passed around instantly via social media. (A paragraph describing the apparently exotic basmati rice and sandals visible in Farook’s home did not go down well among many readers, either.)
Throw in a botched aggregation of a now-retracted report about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget and an anonymous hit piece on an Iranian-American who turned out to be imprisoned by Iran and the Beast seems to have made sure that 2016 will be a better year by default.
9. New York Times takes back two blockbuster stories
Just this month, the New York Times issued a major correction on a front-page exclusive reporting that San Bernardino shooters Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook posted support for jihad on social media. Not only did the flawed report dominate the last Republican presidential debate of the year, but shortly after its publication, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would screen social media posts of visa applicants trying to enter the United States.
The article, later rebuked by the FBI director himself, was the second botched story by the paper this year, by the same bigtime investigative team of Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt. The duo authored a widely condemned July report falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton was under criminal investigation, an error compounded when the Times initially altered the story without any correction.
“We should have explained to our readers right away what happened here, as soon as we knew it,” Executive Editor Dean Baquet said later.
10. BuzzFeed realizes that you can’t just delete things
Arguably the most successful of the new digital media startups, BuzzFeed faced some trouble in the ethics department this year after the site was caught once again deleting posts without any explanation. To make matters worse, an internal review determined that the deletions were due to pressure from advertising partners, Monopoly and Dove, after the posts in question criticized the brands.
The snafu paled in comparison to one that occurred the year before, when the company purged 4,000 posts without telling anyone and brushed off -- then took seriously -- rampant plagiarism by its star “millennial” writer Benny "BuzzFeed Benny" Johnson. But the continued ethical hiccups this year proved to some that the fast-growing content factory has some work to do before it can earn the prestige of legacy publications. As Slate's Will Oremus noted last year during the first post purge, BuzzFeed can no longer afford to act like a tech company, where deleting pages is no big deal, if it wants to be taken seriously as a media company, where such practices are normally frowned upon.
11. IJReview, generally
Speaking of that ex-BuzzFeed plagiarist, he ended up at this year’s breakout star of the vapid viral content racket, IJReview. It is a site Johnson himself once derided as garbage, completing the circle of life.