by Mike Smith On a Friday evening, just over a week ago, The Washington Post sent the entire world into a tizzy with claims that Russian hackers had penetrated this country’s electrical grid. The Post reported that it was a Vermont electric utility where hackers found entry to our electrical production and transmission systems. The mere thought of hackers gaining access to our electrical grid is frightening. Industrial, financial, medical and government operations — just to name a few — could be disrupted, or even worse, shut down. It could throw this country, and the world, into chaos.
There was just one problem with the Post story: It was wrong.
Acting on a tip from someone within the federal government, the reporter for the Post neglected to verify the story before the newspaper published it on its website. If the reporter would have called the Burlington Electric Department, he would have discovered that the utility properly reported this incident to the federal government as soon as it discovered a suspicious string of code on a single computer that at no time was connected to the grid, nor was the computer in a position to compromise customer information. In fact, BED contacted the appropriate federal department earlier because it was a standard and routine reporting protocol, not because it was concerned that the grid had been compromised.
When reporters from The Washington Post finally did reach out to Burlington Electric, they soon discovered the flaws in their reporting. Over the course of the weekend the story in the Post changed and was eventually corrected. The newspaper ran another story last Monday that centered on what actually happened — that there was no confirmation where this malware came from, there was no indication that BED was specifically targeted, and at no time was the grid compromised.
Vermonters can be proud with how officials and the local media handled this story. Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service and Neale Lunderville, general manager of Burlington Electric, quickly provided accurate and timely information. This eased not only the concerns of Vermonters, but also of others throughout this nation.
To their credit the Vermont media quickly disseminated corrected information once they discovered the account they were repeating from The Washington Post article was flawed.
Undoubtedly, some will accuse the Post of promulgating fake news. What is more likely at play here is sloppy and lazy reporting, rather than intentionally falsifying a story. But unfortunately, the results are the same — an even deeper suspicion and mistrust of the press.
Recent polls show the American public has lost trust and confidence in the media. In a recent survey, the polling company Gallup found that only 32 percent of Americans believe news organizations report the news fully, accurately and fairly. Among Republicans the number is at a staggering low of 14 percent. In 1976 there was much more trust and confidence in the media, with 72 percent of Americans believing their news was accurate and fair. So what contributes to this mistrust?
The 24-hour news cycle has placed enormous pressure on the media to get news out quickly. Competition is fierce. Speed is sometimes more important than accuracy. If corrections are needed, then they are often done later. Speculation is welcomed with the absence of facts. This undermines the credibility of news outlets.
Social media have impacted reporting as well. The tendency of some reporters to tweet or post opinions, often snarky opinions, rather than report facts, has no doubt had an impact on how Americans view journalists. Reporters tweeting or posting editorial comments or commentary on the events or people they are covering can give a reader the impression there is an agenda behind any future reporting.
In addition, the number of ways news is disseminated nowadays allows Americans to seek out news outlets that agree with their particular views. At the same time news outlets try to attract these growing numbers of selective readers or viewers by shaping the news they report. If you are a liberal, you tend to read The New York Times, or watch MSNBC. If you are conservative, you may read the New York Post or watch Fox News. And while we may trust our own news source, we are deeply suspicious and critical of other news outlets. This has a polarizing effect where we tend to seek out only those sources that agree with us and denigrate and disregard other views or opinions.
All of this — including the bashing of the media by both the left and the right — has led to a deeper mistrust of particular journalists and the media in general. A way to counter this mistrust is with accurate, non-agenda-driven reporting.
And this is where The Washington Post went awry with its hacking story. The Post demands accuracy from others — especially politicians — but failed to provide it in this story. In the end, the newspaper looked like it was pushing an agenda rather than accurately reporting an event.
Mike Smith is the host of the radio program, “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM. He is also a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio and is a regular contributor to Vermont Business Magazine, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Governor Jim Douglas.