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Friday, February 10, 2023
The media’s road to ruin its own credibility in war on Trump
Nearly seven years after most media abandoned standards of fairness in a stampede to defeat Donald Trump, it is widely accepted that those outlets can not be trusted to deliver accurate reports. Rather than perform the journalists’ duty of informing the public of news, many of today’s reporters and editors concoct narratives about events that consistently align with the agenda of the Democratic Party.
This overt embrace of partisanship is a major factor in two developments roiling the nation. The first is a hardening of polarization that deeply divides voters and leaves government unable to agree on solutions to even basic problems.
The second is that mistrust of the media is proving contagious, with Americans losing faith in most institutions, including those in the private sector as well as government.
Even the military, which long stood above the political fray, suffers from declining public trust, adding to fears that America is headed toward a second civil war and is more vulnerable to foreign adversaries.
Understanding this moment of peril is essential to appreciating the importance of a new work about how the media veered off track in its war against Trump. The author, veteran investigative journalist Jeff Gerth, follows the admonition to show readers what happened instead of merely telling them.
His exhaustive dissection in the Columbia Journalism Review is a case study that demonstrates in detail exactly where Big Media, especially The New York Times and Washington Post, made critical errors in their coverage of the Russian collusion story.
Naturally, all the key mistakes ran in the same direction. Most, including suggestions Trump and others committed treason, have never been corrected despite being proven to be false.
Times’ stubborn resolve
Gerth writes that even now, the Gray Lady brushes off his repeated questions about obvious inaccuracies with sweeping statements to the effect that “we stand by our reporting.”
In fact, the mountain of mistakes and exaggerations Gerth cites is so enormous that it had me thinking of “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel about shoddy journalism.
As in the 1938 book, fierce competition for the big story again resulted in sensational claims and assertions that were unrestrained by facts.
Thus, it is not incidental, as Gerth told me in an interview, that some people inside the Times early on “thought this was another Watergate and the paper was again getting beaten by The Washington Post.”
His subject is not virgin territory, of course, and many of us have written extensively about the disgraceful media performance that started during the 2016 campaign and continues. We now know that rupture with tradition was not a one-off, and the freedom from facts and fairness that marked the first Trump campaign coverage unleashed an unquenchable thirst for ideological combat.
Nearly every story in many outlets these days revolves around race, climate, transgenders or some other -ism that demands instant conformity with the far- left’s latest hobby horse. Meanwhile, the media act as battering rams against American history and culture, with law enforcement, the First Amendment and the nuclear family under assault.
Gerth’s work stands out as the definitive account of the origin of this modern nightmare and is uniquely valuable because he builds a brick-by-brick case. Reading the 26,000-word, multi-part project requires a commitment, but the payoff is total clarity.
Thanks to his precision and the organizational skills needed to keep a steady focus through reams of articles, interviews, testimony, reports and transcripts, some of them separated by years, never again can the culprits credibly claim innocence. If this were a trial, they would all be found guilty beyond any possible doubt.
A few gems he produced have made it into wider circulation. His interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post resurrected Woodward’s forgotten 2017 statement that the infamous Steele dossier was a “garbage document.”
Woodward told Gerth there was a “lack of curiosity on the part of the people at the [Washington] Post” about his criticism and he thought readers were “cheated” by bad coverage of Russiagate.
Some numbers Gerth produced bear repeating. The Times, addicted to anonymous sources, used variations of a “person familiar with” more than 1,000 times to shield its sources’ identity.
Showing how the wall-to-wall coverage consumed the nation, Gerth reports there were an astonishing 533,000 articles published about Russia and Trump or special counsel Robert Mueller in the 22 months of Mueller’s probe. The number comes from NewsWhip, a media analytics company, which said the articles led to 245 million interactions on social media.
Big sections of his piece focus on several articles in the Times and Washington Post that serve as a framework for his findings.
Those papers are fair game not only because of their large audience and influence, but also because they shared a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the collusion story.
The Pulitzer citation said the papers’ work “dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.”
The exposé that wasn’t
In reality, the totality of the newspapers’ work furthered confusion and misunderstanding and several cited stories have been discredited. For example, two of the 10 articles the Times submitted centered on the 2016 meeting Donald Trump Jr. and others from the campaign had with a Russian lawyer.
For weeks, the meeting was depicted as a “gotcha” moment, but the whole thing turned out to be much ado about very little. Yet the Pulitzers and the Times never acknowledged the overreaching claims.
Trump, whom Gerth interviewed twice, called for the Pulitzer board to rescind the prize and when it refused, he sued.
As Gerth notes, the board did reveal it had commissioned two “independent” reviews of the 2018 awards and both found “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.”
He adds that the board did not disclose the names of the reviewers it picked or release any actual work product, only the conclusion.
So much for media transparency!
Criticism of the Times also came from within the paper. As Gerth recounts, then-top editor Dean Baquet was blasted by the paper’s then-public editor, Liz Spayd. Gerth writes that Spayd, in an email to him, “complained that the Times was operating under different standards at different times.”
She said one article before the election was “downplayed” because the paper “didn’t know whether the allegations held up.” But she also believed that after the election, “the Times produced a steady stream of stories about whether Trump conspired with Russians to win the election without knowing whether the allegation was actually true.”
A post-election piece she cited ran on the front page on Feb. 15, 2017, and was headlined: “Trump Aides Had Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”
Spayd’s point about confusing caveats is accurate. Despite the sensational headline, a line in the story says: “Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business” instead of the election. Another line says, “It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.”
Naturally, all key sources were anonymous, but Jim Comey, then head of the FBI, later told a Senate hearing that the story “in the main, it was not true.” Asked under oath if it was “almost entirely wrong,” Comey said yes.
Spayd was later forced out and her job eliminated.
Another example involves former FBI agent Peter Strzok, whom Gerth says was an anonymous source for the Times. Although Strzok wrote emails revealing his hatred of Trump, and said the Republican would never become president because “We’ll stop it,” he also turned down an offer to join Mueller’s team. Writing to a colleague, Strzok said that was because “there’s no big there, there.”
Gerth writes that Strzok’s message, when it was revealed in 2018, “was cited dozens of times in news stories, including the lead of an article in The Wall Street Journal and further down in a piece by The Washington Post. The Times, however, did not mention the message in a story — that day, or in the coming years.”
That was typical of a flaw he finds — the frequent refusal of the Times to include information that would undercut its slant.
Although Gerth reports on the devious ways Hillary Clinton and her team fed the FBI and media false stories about Trump and Russia, I believe her role deserved a greater emphasis given its impact.
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Moreover, she has never fully accepted Trump’s victory as legitimate, a factor in the vast majority of Democrats continuing to believe Trump did not deserve to be president. That sentiment feeds into wide support for prosecuting the former president over nearly anything legions of left-leaning probers can come up with, which is itself a cause of polarization.
Gerth and I were colleagues at the Times years ago but hardly knew each other because he was mostly in Washington and I was in New York. We have talked several times in recent years and share a fondness for the high standards of fairness required of Times reporters in those days and lament the paper’s partisan turn.
He, too, believes journalism’s “declining credibility” and political polarization are “intertwined.”
He makes a smart suggestion in urging the Times and others to do post-mortems on their flawed coverage and cites as a model the paper’s probe into how it came to wrongly conclude Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
For now, he writes that journalism’s missions of “informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work.”