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ABC News blunder helps Trump score a point in his war on 'fake news'

  • The ABC News blunder on Friday is the latest example of an overzealous anti-Trump news media.
  • President Trump's attacks are being used as an apparent excuse for journalists to abandon best practices and forget current and past misdeeds.
  • The push to oust Trump seems to have engulfed almost the entire industry and threatens its survival.
Brian Ross
Heidi Gutman | ABC News | Getty Images
Brian Ross

President Donald Trump's attacks on the news media continue to spook journalists, First Amendment defenders and government ethics experts. His comments are scaring the media and generally are unprecedented in U.S. history.

There's only one problem: Trump's got a point.

We all saw that in the starkest terms on Friday, as ABC News broke into its regular programming with a special report saying then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had directed Gen. Mike Flynn to make contact with the Russians in 2016. It turned out that report was woefully incorrect. The network had to clarify and then correct the story before suspending the reporter responsible, Brian Ross, for four weeks without pay.

There are a million possible excuses for a mistake like this that have nothing to do with politics or decay in the journalism profession overall.

First off, we know that working breaking news can be a pressure-filled environment that produces many honest mistakes. Journalism is often an ultra-competitive profession, especially in a high-profile story like this one involving Trump and the Russia investigation.

It could also be this was an isolated incident because the report came from Ross, who has made major errors in the past. For example, a few years ago he suggested that Aurora, Colorado, movie theater mass shooter James Holmes might be a member of the tea party because someone named "Jim Holmes" was listed on a tea party website. ABC had to apologize for that as critics believed Ross was trying to insert a left-leaning political bias to boost interest in the story.

In an even worse example, Ross reported that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may have been behind the 2001 anthrax attacks on the U.S. The White House said there was no evidence to back up those claims and then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he warned Ross and ABC not to report that claim. Fleischer took to Twitter this weekend to remind the public of that incident:

Yes, Ross is definitely someone with a track record that makes him look a lot like an outlier in the news media. But the danger here would be to use that as too much of an excuse. Ross is just a reporter, and not someone who can just make live special reports happen. There are supposed to be more safeguards against something like this happening.

It doesn't take a Trump apologist to feel ABC or other networks and newspapers are so willing to bash Trump that these kinds of mistakes have been inevitable. And if the industry tries to palm all on Ross himself, it will surely be repeated by others.

Naturally, it didn't take long for Trump and his allies to respond with a new round of attacks on ABC and "fake news." In this case, there was no doubt that Trump's enemies had handed them the opportunity on a silver platter.

The problem goes much deeper than what happened with ABC. Consider Trump's most recent attacks on CNN and the way the network responded:

Several CNN anchors and programs decided to not just respond to the president on Twitter, but they devoted significant portions of their live news programs to fight back. Perhaps the most unequivocal response came from Wolf Blitzer on his "Situation Room" program:

"For nearly four decades CNN has been constant here in the United States and around the world. Our journalists, in front of and behind the camera, risk their lives in the most dangerous of places every day, so you know the truth."

There's one problem with that bold response: We know it isn't true.

We know that because CNN itself admitted to the world back in 2003 that it routinely suppressed important stories of Saddam Hussein's atrocities and brutality in Iraq. Then-chief news executive Eason Jordan wrote the network wanted to protect the safety of its reporters and other staff in Baghdad. That was his explanation for why CNN didn't report what it knew about Saddam's regime in between the two Gulf wars.

At the time it seemed Jordan was expecting to be lauded for his efforts. The result was the opposite. Critics from the right and left pilloried him and the network for keeping a bureau open to continue to pump out sanitized, or as some would even call it, "fake" news.

We'll just have to take Blitzer's word for it now that CNN isn't continuing that self-censoring practice. But we do know that the "nearly four decades" part of his rebuttal is a documented untruth.

Of course, ABC News, CNN and CNN.com are competitors with us at CNBC and CNBC.com. But this column is not meant to bash a rival for competitive reasons. And, of course, Trump has bashed our parent company several times as well.

But the problem here goes beyond intramural rivalries and competition. The overall news media's credibility and viability is being threatened mostly by itself — far more than by Trump.

It's as if too many of us in the news media are taking Trump's attacks too personally. It has become an excuse to abandon journalistic ethics and safeguards that make journalism a profession in the first place.

Professionalism in journalism means more than just sticking to facts and fairness. It also means that we cannot take time out of our reporting duties to get into wars of words with the president of the United States or any other newsworthy figure. If we need to defend ourselves, that's best left to our lawyers and public relations departments.

We want a vigilant and skeptical news media to keep the White House and all our elected leaders honest. But Trump's first 10 months in office have exposed a news media that seems more like an opposing party hopeful for a chance to bring him down at any cost.

It sure seemed like that hope turned into desperation Friday in the ABC News debacle. And the reaction to it from other corners of the network was beyond unseemly, most notably during ABC's talk show "The View" when Joy Behar read that erroneous Ross report while she and the audience went wild.

Any objective person is left with an image of a media outlet squarely focused on attacking the president and then wildly celebrating the chance he has been weakened.

One final problem is that the news media is using Trump's attacks as a way to abandon all self-criticism. That self-examination and striving for improvement is the epitome of what it means to be a professional in any industry. No matter how dangerous Trump's criticisms of the news media may be, now is not the time to drop our standards. Too many news organizations now openly pit themselves as combatants against the Trump agenda. American journalism can't become like a European trade unionist movement that pushes for short-term goals but forgets to get better at its job.

Despite's Flynn's guilty plea Friday, Trump scored a major victory anyway. He can thank an unforced error by an overzealous reporter and an all-too-eager news department. This dangerous pattern will be repeated until top news organizations re-examine their operations and institute a better set of best practices.

If they don't, Trump won't have to destroy the American news media. It will simply destroy itself.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.