So finally it is clear, thanks to the exhaustive reporting of Jeff Gerth and the willingness of Columbia Journalism Review to ignore the peer pressure of the rest of the mainstream media, Russiagate is what it years ago began to look like, the QAnon of the American left.
Big questions immediately arise:
- Wasn’t it enough to dislike Donald Trump for the liar and con man he was and the internet troll that he became?
- Does it matter that American politics have reached the point where the dueling parties must make ultimate villains of those on the opposing side?
- Is there a difference between conspiracy theories driven by social media and conspiracy theories driven by mainstream media?
- Has the lust for journalism prizes finally succeeded in killing the healthy skepticism which once defined the best in journalism?
- And, possibly most troublesome, have mainstream media reporters forfeited their old role as government watchdogs and become brothers in arms with what some of them now call the “permanent government” as opposed to the elected one?
Let’s start with the latter since it marks the greatest threat to freedom any democracy will ever encounter. Germany’s democratic Weimer Republic of the 1930s fell not because of Adolph Hitler’s success at the ballot box – the Nazi’s never triumphed there – but because of Hitler’s ability to co-opt the German bureaucracy.
“Over the long period preceding Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Germany went through a numerical increase in bureaucracy and other categories of employees,” historians have observed. “Their share increased from 10.8 percent in 1895 to 17.1 percent in 1933, reaching a population of 5,517,000 people. This largely explains the fact that the most important measures taken during the initial period of Nazi rule include drastic steps by the National Socialists not only to ensure that the state apparatus is loyal to them but also to mobilize the latter to serve the new regime.”
Bringing them into the Nazi fold did not prove particularly difficult.
“When the Nazis assumed power in 1933,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “most German civil servants were conservative, nationalistic, and authoritarian in outlook. After political opponents were purged from the civil service, government workers shared the Nazis’ anti-communism and rejection of the Weimar Republic. They regarded the Nazi regime as legitimate and felt bound to ‘obey the law.'”
The U.S. “permanent government” has in this regard been covering its bases by buying up reporters for years. There is no good data on how many reporters are now working as government spokespeople, but the number of government-hired reporters handing out the news in the form of media releases likely outnumbers the reporters rewriting the handouts.
Worse yet, the adversarial relationship between the “flacks” doing “public relations” for the bureaucracy and working journalists has all but disappeared. They’ve buddied up so well it is considered politically incorrect for the latter to now refer to the former as “flacks.”
These realities of how the political system work is the reason – the exact reason – why Donald Trump – the man who set out to “drain the swamp” – was never going to pose a threat to American democracy despite those on the left, including failed presidential candidate and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, trying to paint him as an American Hitler.
Hitler, sadly for the world, had a much better idea of how to seize power than did Trump, who was always more entertainer than political player. This enabled him to win an election while at the same time ensuring his inability to truly seize power.
By the time Trump left office, the mainstream media would be mocking his failure to triumph over the alligators and mosquitoes. “SURPRISE: TRUMP’S “DRAIN THE SWAMP” PROMISE WAS A LOAD OF HOT GARBAGE,” a Vanity Fair headline would proclaim.
Of course he couldn’t drain the swamp. He was destined to fail from the start.
As the New York Times pointed out only a month after Trump arrived in Washington. D.C., the new president had “stumbled into the most conventional of Washington traps: believing he can master an entrenched political press corps with far deeper connections to the permanent government.”
“Washington Bureaucrats Are Quietly Working to Undermine Trump’s Agenda,” Bloomberg news headlined 11 months later above a story quoting the views of a professor of political science who understood the working of that “permanent government.”
“It’s an enormous challenge for a new president and administration to exert influence over the bureaucracy,” said David Lewis, chairman of the political science department at Vanderbilt University. “They know a lot more than the political appointees who come into the agencies. That gives them an advantage.”
Especially so when these temporary placeholders arrive as the appointees of a president who campaigned for office with a promise to put a lot of the ‘crats, as some call them, out of work.
This is the “Deep State” problem about which journalist Glenn Greenwald has written at length only to be ostracized by the mainstream media wherein he was a golden boy a decade ago. By the summer of 2018, The New Yorker was already trying to portray Greenwald as an ill-mannered rogue who had “exiled himself from the mainstream American left by responding with skepticism and disdain to reports of Russian government interference in the 2016 Presidential election.”
The high-brow, Big Apple magazine somehow confused network-ordered banishment with self-imposed exile, but never mind that. Suffice to say, Greenwald was banned from MSNBC, which likes to think of itself as mainstream though it regularly goes harder to the left than Fox News does to the right.
MSNBC continued to push Russiagate long after most other mainstream media had the sense to recognize there was a lot of nothing there and largely went silent with only a few still publicly hanging on to the conspiracy no matter how many might have privately continued to believe it had to be.
Conspiracy theories are hard to let go once you buy into them.
Thus Mother Jones’s David Corn has attacked Gerth’s “massive 24,000-word, four-part article” – an “attempted takedown of the media’s coverage” – as missing the point that Russiagate wasn’t about Trump colluding with the Russians to steal an election, it was about “Vladimir Putin attack(ing) the 2016 election in part to help Trump win, and Trump and his aides aided and abetted this assault on American democracy by denying such an attack was happening.
“Trump (thus) provided cover for a foreign adversary subverting a U.S. election. Throughout the thousands and thousands of words Gerth generates, he downplays or ignores these fundamentals and how the media in 2016 covered them (which was shoddily).”
Corns’ statement as to shoddy coverage is a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence at hand. Where exactly Corn finds the evidence to support his view that Putin, or other Russians, were trying to help Trump win is unclear, if they were trying to help Trump win.
Maybe Corn has a hotline to the Kremlin. Who knows. But without someone inside the Kremlin spelling out exactly what Russia wanted, it’s hard to believe that Putin, a product of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), would actually want to see a victory by Trump, a bombastic narcissist.
Narcissists are inherently untrustworthy and hard to play because they are always in the game for themselves and themselves alone. As a student of Russian history, Putin would be well aware of the mistake Stalin made in signing a peace deal with Hitler in order to invade and divide Poland, and Trump is every bit as big a narcissist as Hitler despite being a lousy political manipulator.
Nobody really knows who, if anyone, Putin wanted to be president, but a high-minded Clinton would be for Putin a better choice than an unpredictable Trump. Clinton might have talked tough on Russia from time to time, but Putin could always play to her well-meaning desires to save the world in the never-ending diplomatic push and pull between the U.S. and Russia.
Once Trump won the election, it should also be noted, Russia’s best play would shift to trying to push the Russiagate story because, as this country has witnessed, that story was capable of causing plenty of political chaos, and more than anything, Russia has long been about causing chaos within the U.S. government.
Such realities, however, are never going to change the minds of the Corns of the world. That’s the thing with conspiracy theories. They are a lot like cults. The more you try to explain to the true believers that they’ve been misled, the more deeply they believe. It is hard, bordering on impossible, to talk people out of such beliefs.
So the answer to the question of “does it matter” would be “no” given this is something about which no one can do much. It is what it is.
Unfortunately, on one very specific level, it does matter, and it matters a whole lot.
Russiagate, even before CJR’s effort to drag all the bad reporting out of the closet and directly expose it to the light of day, had become another nail in the coffin of the mainstream media’s fading credibility, and Gerth’s highlighting all the dirty details now is like going at the coffin with a pneumatic nail gun.
The mainstream media, largely due to its own behavior, has become increasingly marginalized, and it appears destined to become only more so as it continues to pitch itself to true believers willing to pay to read what they want to read. This is ironic in the sense there is a business here home to a lot of anti-capitalists undermining itself by behaving in a wholly capitalistic way.
It wasn’t by accident that online subscriptions at the New York Times saw a “Trump bump,” as many media described it, after Trump’s election.
“The paper has landed repeated scoops on the Trump administration. Trump has a tempestuous relationship with the Times, sitting for interviews with its reporters and executives and soaking up its coverage while frequently complaining about it,” the Associated Press reported in early 2019.
“The Times impressive performance (in internet growth) is taking place in a perilous media era. Gains from digital advertising have failed to offset a shortfall from the print side, and newsroom employment fell by nearly a quarter between 2008 and 2017, according to Pew Research,” the AP added.
Pew also tracks media credibility, and it found that by 2020 the Times was paying a price for having joined “the resistance,” as Clinton called the Trump opposition that arose after her electoral defeat. By the start of the new decade, Pew was reporting 42 percent of “Republicans and Republican leaners” said they distrusted the Times with only 18 percent expressing trust.
The numbers for MSNB, 47 percent distrust, and CNN, 58 percent distrust, were even worse, but all were winning (or at least doing better) among Democrats and Democrat leaners with 67 percent of Democrats and Democrat leaders trusting CNN, 53 percent trusting the Times, and 48 percent trusting MSNBC.
Among all Americans, however, no news organization in the country was trusted by a majority. ABC came closest at 48 percent and CNN, despite the widespread distrust of Republicans and Republic readers, was at 47 percent along with NBC’s network news. CBS network news wasn’t far behind at 45 percent, which was just above Fox News at 43 percent.
The Times was down at 35 percent, the reporters at the Old Gray Lady who once blasted Fox News for reporting partisan, unreliable news having become their own version of Fox News on steroids.
The trickledown from all of this has rained on all the legacy news organizations with roots in the old world dominated by newspapers. They are now widely judged on the basis of whether they are left or right with snap judgments as to their news coverage made off those judgments.
Said judgments are sometimes valid and sometimes invalid, but their consequences are less so. They have sparked troubling feedback. News organizations now regularly appear to be playing to their base subscribers in much the same way politicians play to their voting base.
As a result, mainstream media sources these days are often no more accurate than social media, and everyone in the country knows what a shit show social media. That said, in fairness to social media, it is not uncommon to read therein, or in social media comments posted on the websites of news organizations, the kind of reportorial questions that journalists should have asked before writing the story.
There are merits to the “cloud” of the internet just as there are demerits.
Where does all of this leave news consumers?
In a fractured and disturbed state, maybe, where no media can be much trusted, and where any media which seems to be putting on a full-court press to sell you its vision of the world should automatically be viewed with deep skepticism.
Along those lines, it might be a good idea if journalism prize competitions were rendered extinct. They have long encouraged journalists to bend the rules to improve the narrative. Long-gone reporter Janet Cooke, with her “composite” portrait of an imaginary, 8-year-old heroin addict she called Jimmy and her enhanced resume, was no fluke.
“It is tragedy that someone as talented and promising as Janet Cooke, with everything going for her, felt that she had to falsify the facts,” the late Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post,” said after Jimmy was found to be a fiction and Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was recalled. “The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous, and there is nothing to do but come clean with our readers, apologize to the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer Prizes, and begin immediately on the uphill task of regaining our credibility. This we are doing.”
Bradlee somehow overlooked the integrity and the responsibility of the editors who oversee that work. Interestingly enough, in Gerth’s so-called “takedown” of Russiagate, editors are seen asking the right questions designed to protect the integrity of the reporting, but then somehow seen ignoring the facts those questions never get answered before errant stories head to the presses.
It would be nice to believe this sort of thing happens by accident, but as one who has been involved with one Pulitzer Prize-winning project and familiar with others, I can testify that is not the case.
There is a disturbing tendency to shape news coverage to impress judges. I can personally remember one editor killing a proposed, in-depth reporting project because it would likely raise more questions than it would answer and that would never interest Pulitzer judges.
And there have been, in recent years, all sorts of questions raised about the accuracy of various Pulitzer-winning projects, including the NYT and Washington Post coverage of Russiagate.
The Times and the Post “shared an award for reporting on ‘Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connection to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration,” Gerth noted before reporting Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet telling the newsroom, “I think the Pulitzers make a statement.”
Gerth did not report what Post Editor Martin Baron told his newsroom. Instead, he wrote that “Baron declined to be interviewed but, in an email to me, defended the Post’s coverage, writing that “the evidence showed that Russia intervened in the election, that the Trump campaign was aware of it, welcomed it and never alerted law enforcement or intelligence agencies to it. And reporting showed that Trump sought to impede the investigation into it.”
There is no doubt Russian propagandists were trying to stir up trouble during the election just as American propagandists have for decades tried to stir up trouble in the politics of a variety of other countries. But pedaling bullshit hoping others will buy it is not intervening in an election; it’s more like participating in the democratic process in that election campaigns are always full of bullshit.
The Trump campaign, for its part, surely knew of reports of Russian “trolls” spreading propaganda online in the U.S. given that as early as 2015 it was reported that the Russians were trying, as Times reporter Adrian Chen put it in an interview with PBS, “to kind of pollute the Internet, to make it an unreliable source for people. and so that normal Russians who might want to learn about opposition leaders or another side of things from the Kremlin narrative will just not be able to trust it.”
It wasn’t, however, the responsibility of the Trump campaign, or any campaign for that matter, to investigate this sort of thing and alert law enforcement or intelligence agencies already charged with the responsibility of policing the tubes. And once elected, Trump didn’t try to “impede” investigations into these sorts of activities; he tried to silence accusations that he had been working with the Russians out of fear such accusations would undermine his presidency and, as is now known, there was no truth to those accusations.
But, as noted above, conspiracy theories are hard to kill, and when they are part of a Pulitzer-prize-winning package? Well then there is something of an obligation to defend them.
With Trump threatening to sue the Pulitzer Board (which he eventually did), Gerth wrote that the “board announced that it had commissioned two ‘independent’ reviews of the 2018 awards to the Post and Times; they both found that ‘no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes,’ so the awards ‘stand.’ The board did not disclose the identity of the reviewers or post their actual findings.”
This was, however, an improvement from the board’s refusal to even investigate the Times’ widely criticized “1619 Project,” which made the claim that the primary motive for the American Revolution was the preservation of slavery. The Pulitzer board dismissed questions raised as to serious factual errors in that reporting by suggesting, though never clearly stating, that factual errors were not an issue because the stories were entered in the prizes’ “Commentary” category. To wit:
“What’s eligible in that category, according to our organization’s published standards is “opinion writing containing well-reasoned and compelling argument on a topic or topics of public interest, whether originally researched or reported, informed by personal or analytical experience.” While our rules allow the entry of up to 10 articles, a single piece of writing may win in this category and many others.What’s eligible in that category, according to our organization’s published standards”” is “opinion writing containing well-reasoned and compelling argument on a topic or topics of public interest, whether originally researched or reported, informed by personal or analytical experience.” While our rules allow the entry of up to 10 articles, a single piece of writing may win in this category and many others.”
Apparently, Cooke’s biggest mistake was in putting her reporting entry in the wrong category. She might have gotten away with her little fraud if she’d claimed it was commentary. Or maybe not. The truth, or something close to the truth, still mattered at the start of the 1980s.
The post-truth world of today was then still far off. Trump certainly bears some responsibility for how things changed. But the responsibility is far from Trump’s alone. He hasn’t been the only playing fast and loose with the truth.
A lot of media has been in the mix there, both social and mainstream, and it’s hard to see where this ends. Some of it can be blamed on accident; to error is human. Some of it can be blamed on incompetence; the mainstream media is dying and even smart rats know to get off a sinking ship if there is land within swimming distance.
But some of the lying – as Gerth uncovered in investigating Russiagate – seems to stem from the willful behavior of people with means, motive and opportunity to mislead their fellow Americans. Not that this is a new thing. What is now called “fake news” was rampant in the so-called “penny-press publications” of the early 1800s.
Journalism survived and began a shift to higher ethical standards in the mid-1900s. The business became more trustworthy through the latter 1900s, though it remained imperfect.
Still, it has in the 21st century begun a slide back toward the Penny Press days. And it seems to be creeping ever closer to the year 1807 in which founding father Thomas Jefferson observed “that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”