How the MSM Failed in 2016...and Why It Continues to Fail in 2020
The Fourth Estate craps the bed.
|Greg Olear||Mar 17|| 20||5|
LIKE HITLER BEFORE HIM, Donald John Trump loves to attack the news media. He did it again last night, calling out the venerable New York Times:
Matt Wolking (Text TRUMP to 88022) @MattWolkingNew York Times editorial board spreads fake news about White House response to coronavirus https://t.co/6p7xgSahUG
The irony here is that, generally speaking, Trump’s media criticism is not as wildly unfounded as most of his other claims. The examples he cites of “fake news” are invariably not fake. The individual journalists he calls out are almost invariably good. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for the last four-plus years, and particularly before James Comey’s hearing in March 2017, the mainstream media, or “MSM,” has failed in its core mission. And the very paper cited by Trump last night has been one of the prime culprits. In short, the Times has been a disgrace, but not for the reasons the president thinks.
I started working on this piece—which is really two pieces in one plus-sized dispatch—months ago, but have hesitated to share it, I think because critique of the media seems so Trumpy. The last thing I want to do here is pile on. So let me begin with an important caveat: “Mainstream media” is a term that does not mean every journalist at every media outlet, but rather the editors, publishers, producers, and pundits who collectively shape the media narrative. Further, many if not most working journalists are very good. Some are superb. Julie K. Brown and Brian Karem and David Corn and Vicky Ward and David Fahrenthold and Ashley Parker and Jim Acosta and Susanne Craig and Heidi Przybyla and Rachel Maddow are not the problem. Let me say that one more time: Many if not most working journalists are very good. Certainly most are actively trying to do their best. Even Chris Cillizza can’t help that he’s mediocre.
It’s the people in the background, behind the scenes, who are more to blame. Contrast how the Miami Herald treated Brown’s Jeffrey Epstein series with how the New York Times handled Craig’s Fred Trump/tax cheat expose. The former was everywhere for weeks, and remained so, and resulted in Epstein’s indictment and arrest; the sex trafficking rapist went from free man to dead in a prison cell in a matter of months, all spurred by Brown’s intrepid reporting. The latter, meanwhile, came and went like a cancelled TV pilot. What Craig revealed in that superb piece would have ended most presidencies, but the reaction by the MSM was a great big shrug emoji.
If an important investigative story is not promoted, not supported by the editors, not allowed to run, not allowed to even be looked into, that is not the fault of the front-line reporters. Woodward and Bernstein needed their editors to let them pursue the Watergate story, and they needed Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham to stand by them when its credibility was attacked. There is no shortage of Woodwards and Bernsteins (although the actual Woodward is not much of a Woodward these days). What we sorely lack are Ben Bradlees and Katharine Grahams.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are a host of complex and overlapping reasons why the Fourth Estate has crapped the bed, which we will get to in Part Two. But first, let’s look at how, exactly, it did so four years ago:
1. Trick or Treat: How the MSM Failed
On 31 October 2016, the New York Times published a news story that would prove to be the most consequential in recent memory. “Investigating Donald Trump,” the headline proclaimed, “FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” This was the paper of record announcing, in no uncertain terms, that the Trump/Russia story was bunk.
The authors, Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers, began by explaining what the FBI had been up to:
For much of the summer, the F.B.I pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats, and even chased a lead—which they ultimately came to doubt—about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.
The next paragraph slammed the door closed on all of this:
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into the Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
The third conflated Trump/Russia with the Hillary Clinton email brouhaha:
The F.B.I.’s inquiries into Russia’s possible role continue, as does the investigation into the emails involving Mrs. Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin, on a computer she shared with her estranged husband, Anthony D. Weiner.
While the piece itself was more balanced than the headline suggested, most readers walked away from the story—just nine days before the election!—convinced of three things:
1) The FBI was a monolithic organization;
2) The entire FBI had concluded that Trump/Russia was all smoke and no fire;
3) Clinton’s alleged use of a private email server for classified communications was an equivalent, or perhaps worse, offense than Trump’s alleged collusion with an enemy power to swing the election.
In actuality, none of those three takeaways was accurate.
It was the “Trumplandia” New York field office of the FBI, and not the Bureau’s elite counterintelligence division, that found “no link.” On the contrary, almost everything the larger FBI was investigating turned out to have legs. As Glenn Simpson, the founder of GPS Fusion, derisively remarked in his Congressional testimony about the 31 October article, “it was a real Halloween special.”
The Times piece had immeasurable influence in the months that followed. Most members of the mainstream media consigned Trump/Russia to the “conspiracy theory” oubliette, along with Sandy Hook Trutherism, vapor trails, and fake moon-landing pronouncements. With few exceptions, the story was only covered by a handful of intrepid journalists working at smaller publications: David Corn of Mother Jones, Michael Isikoff at Yahoo! News, Franklin Foer at Slate, Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider, John Schindler at the Observer. Other media outlets took an extremely conservative position on their coverage of Trump/Russia, giving Donald John Trump—whose ties to the mob, Russian and otherwise, were, or should have been, widely known—an undeserved benefit of the doubt.
Even at the time, the media’s aversion to the story seemed odd. That Russia was attempting to tamper with the election was not exactly controversial. The 17 agencies comprising the US Intelligence Community agreed that this was the case. Hillary Clinton alluded to it in one of the debates. Trump himself went on national TV and asked the Russians for help finding Clinton’s “missing” emails; later, his camp would claim this was a joke…but was it? In the last days of 2016, why was the New York Times, which had failed so spectacularly on Halloween, not atoning for its grievous mistake by investigating what it missed in October?
Because of the dereliction of journalistic duty by the mainstream media, anyone who wanted the truth about Trump/Russia had to actively seek it out. Twitter quickly emerged as the best and most up-to-the-minute source of information…but one had to know where to look. A few select accounts were must-follows: investigative reporters like Corn, Foer, Bertrand, and Schindler; former Clinton White House volunteer Claude Taylor; futurist Eric Garland, whose brilliant “Game Theory” thread of 11 December 2016 launched him into prominence; Seth Abramson, an adjunct professor and former defense attorney who was a veritable Javert in his pursuit of Trump/Russia; various anonymous but seemingly well-sourced accounts with names like Counterchekist and Tea Pain and Lincoln’s Bible and Alias Vaughn; and, especially, the provocative romance-novelist-turned-British Member of Parliament-turned investigative journalist Louise Mensch.
On Election Day, Mensch, writing for a tiny and now-defunct online news site called Heat Street, dropped an exclusive report claiming that the FBI had been granted a FISA warrant in October 2016 to investigate the Trump campaign “in connection with the investigation of suspected activity between the [Trump Tower] server and two banks, SVB Bank and Alfa Bank,” and, further, that this warrant covered “any ‘U.S. person’” connected to the investigation, including Donald Trump and three other individuals. FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. If a FISA warrant had been obtained, this meant that the Bureau had enough evidence of possible espionage or other serious criminal activity to convince a federal judge to sign the warrant. It meant, at a minimum, that the FBI was investigating Trump/Russia.
The media’s concern about Mensch’s “exclusive”…was that it was exclusive, and for months. While Foer and others had written about the two servers being in contact, not a single other news outlet had been able to confirm her FISA scoop. This meant one of two things: either she had sources so well-placed that no one else could rival them…or she’d been fed false information and the report was bullshit.
In the winter of 2017, alas, the smart money was on the latter.
Mensch had an unfortunate reputation as a “conspiracy queen,” her story directly contradicted the Halloween New York Times article, and, most ominously, none of the major media players had managed to confirm her FISA scoop. Indeed, when Mensch wrote an op-ed in advance of the 20 March 2017 Comey hearing for the same New York Times on 17 March, her credibility was attacked on Twitter by Susan Hennessey, editor of Lawfare and a Brookings Fellow, who concluded: “Either a previously unknown person has reliable sources no one else knows. Or someone heard rumors and published what others wouldn’t.” Hennessey echoed the thinking of mainstream editors everywhere when she tweeted: “If [a] major claim is made, it needs secondary confirmation within a few days. And if the best in the biz have been working their sources for months with nothing and unable to confirm, [the story is] presumptively unreliable.” The press had been unable to determine whether the rumored FBI investigation of Trump/Russia was even actually a thing. When asked about it, FBI Director James Comey always gave the so-called “Glomar” response: “I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Unable to say for sure if the Trump/Russia investigation existed, let alone confirm Louise Mensch’s FISA scoop, good journalists steered clear of the story. Bad journalists, however, took delight in “debunking” it. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, who’d built his career railing against the totalitarian state, nevertheless adopted Kremlin talking points in his lazy condemnations of Trump/Russia, muddying the waters for those of us on the left. On 17 March 2017, three days before the Comey hearing, Greenwald denounced the whole Trump/Russia affair: “Many Democrats have reached the classic stage of deranged conspiracists where evidence that disproves the theory is viewed as further proof of its existence, and those pointing to it are instantly deemed suspect.” (Never mind that no such exculpatory “evidence” existed, then or now). He concluded that “given the way these Russia conspiracies have drowned out other critical issues being virtually ignored under the Trump presidency”—this assertion was flat-out false, at least in the mainstream press, which had hardly Woodward-and-Bernstein’d the Trump/Russia story—“it’s vital that everything be done now to make clear what is based in evidence and what is based in partisan delusions. And most of what the Democratic base has been fed for the last six months by their unhinged stable of media, online, and party leaders has decisively fallen into the latter category.” This followed a previous piece in which he denounced Mensch and anyone else writing independently about Trump/Russia (like me!) as a “charlatan.”
On the right, meanwhile, there was Breitbart and InfoWars and Fox News—especially Sean Hannity, who broadcast his show without bothering to inform his audience that he was a client of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, and also a de facto policy adviser of Trump himself. Hannity insisted that Trump is innocent—the victim of a “Deep State” conspiracy.
So it’s no exaggeration to say that, as the sun rose on 20 March 2017, the day of Comey’s appearance before Congress, the future of Trump/Russia hung in the balance. On the “there's something there” side, you had Louise Mensch and a handful of solid journalists at small publications; on the “nothingburger” side, pretty much everyone else. Swayed by Mensch's logic after reading her “Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess” piece in January 2017, I held with the former, and had written extensively about Russia for weeks. But I confess to being worried the night before the hearing that Comey would continue to “Glomar” the FBI investigation (as Mensch herself predicted)—or, worse, announce that it was kaput and no charges would be filed. Everything that Mensch had written made perfect sense...but what if she was wrong?
Thus, when Comey stated, in his opening remarks, that “the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts,” and, moreover, that “[a]s with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” Team Louise was vindicated—bigly.
More than that, Comey’s statement served as an indictment of most of the pusillanimous mainstream media, which had been so wary of the Trump/Russia story. Now, at long last, they got to work. In the weeks that followed, there was a new MSM-driven revelation almost every day: the Paul Manafort/Ukraine $10 million money laundering bombshell; the Devin Nunes imbroglio; Mike Flynn’s shady relationship with Turkey and his astonishing offer of immunity; and the opening of the Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, in which expert Clint Watts of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security testified that, “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at time [sic] against his opponents.”
This was all great journalism…but it was too little, too late. The Fourth Estate had crapped the bed. The question is: why? And how can it avoid crapping the bed going forward?
2: Why It Failed, and Continues to Fail
It is a mistake to think of the mainstream media as a monolith. Even a paper like the New York Times, which published the shoddy reporting that helped give Trump the White House, and which employs the likes of Maggie Haberman, often produces excellent journalism (see “Craig, Susanne”). The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the McClatchy papers have been terrific more often than not.
The Mueller Report contained little that we didn’t already know from solid reporting. I am a novelist and copywriter who had zero sources beyond what I was able to glean from Twitter, from books, and from—critically—media reporting, and I was able to publish, a full year before the Mueller Report was released, a book that explained Trump/Russia—and that has held up remarkably well (full disclosure: Part One of this dispatch is an excerpt from that book). So it’s not that the information wasn’t out there. It was how that information was organized, presented, and covered that was the problem. And that is how the MSM failed.
The reasons for the media failure are manifold. Here are some of them:
Trump is like a locomotive, flying down the track, throwing shit out the window as he powers along. The media sees fit to cover every last particle of shit, as if it were somehow important. He makes one off-hand remark, say about buying Greenland, and the entire media apparatus trips over itself to cover said remark, even though it was never meant to be taken seriously. This has happened over and over and over again, from the moment he descended the escalator to this morning. Part of the job of the media is to sift through what Trump says and separate the wheat from the chaff. They fail at this on the daily—especially on the TV networks.
To be fair, Trump is the president, and therefore what he says is news, even if it’s bat-shit. But three years in, the media should have adapted to the fire hose of propaganda. For the most part, it has not. Kellyanne Conway and other brazen liars still appear on TV shows. CNN employs Rick Santorum and hired Corey Lewandowski. Fox News is essentially state TV, and hires GOP traitors like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Jason Chaffetz, and, in its boardroom, Paul Ryan, as soon as they scurry away from the White House and Capitol Hill.
Media companies are businesses. Quality investigative journalism is relatively expensive. Reporters work for months on a single story or series of stories, and there is no guarantee anything will come of it. Meanwhile, some stupid “listicle” in Buzzfeed will generate a gajillion pageviews, and some dumb thing Trump said trends on Twitter all day. When Jared Kushner bought (and ultimately doomed) the august New York Observer, a print publication known for the arch quality of its writing, he famously wanted to blow up the model and set up a pizzazzier Buzzfeed.
Revenue for media had been in decline before Trump. Eight years of No Drama Obama was bad for business. Donald Trump, the brash, kids-say-the-darnedest-things buffoon, was ratings gold, he was clickbait incarnate. Why not broadcast his rallies live on CNN? It’s not like he had any chance of actually winning. Better make hay while the Trump shines. The subscription rate at New York Times rose tenfold in 2016. CBS CEO Les Moonves famously remarked that round-the-clock coverage of Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damned good for CBS.”
Not every media operation was like the Washington Post, which took one of its best reporters, David Fahrenthold, and put him to work fulltime investigating Donald Trump’s charitable work. But, I mean: if easy, lazy journalism also yields more revenue, why not stick with it?
Trump/Russia is such a complex octopus of a story, with so many tentacles in so many different arenas, that newspapers simply aren’t set up in a way to properly report on it. Media companies organize their reporters by “beats.” Ken Dilanian covers national security for NBC News. Maggie Haberman is the New York Times White House correspondent. Cindy Adams writes about celebrities for Page Six. And so on.
In order to fully grasp Trump/Russia, you have to connect dots that, at first glance, seem unrelated. Paul Manafort’s activities in Ukraine are incredibly important. So is knowledge of the Russian mafiya and its relationship with Deutsche Bank. New York real estate plays a role, too. And one also must incorporate Donald John Trump’s beauty pageants, the divorce of Donald John Trump, Junior, and the personal biography of Azeri-Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, which seem frivolous by comparison. Media companies have people who cover all of this stuff individually, but no one whose job is to look at the big picture and connect the dots.
In short, the MSM is very good at churning out hard news, and very bad at providing context. It assumes you know who Paul Manafort is, why he is a key player in Trump/Russia, and what’s going on exactly with him. Most people can’t keep all this stuff in their head. They don’t want to. Every article about Manafort should contain two paragraphs at a minimum explaining his relationship to Ukraine, to Roger Stone, to Russian oligarchs, and to the Trump Tower meeting. Repetition is key.
The Associated Press is a not-for-profit cooperative owned by the U.S. member newspapers and broadcasters. Rather than have hundreds of papers send a correspondent to Tel Aviv or Moscow or Los Angeles, all of the papers pony up the cash to pay for AP to send a correspondent, and then the papers share that reporting. Thus, from its founding in 1848, AP has sought to provide news devoid of bias, so that the very biased papers of the time could all use it.
For seven years, I worked at AP, as a recruiter. I would occasionally sit in on the news meetings that happened every morning, where a bunch of editors from various beats would collectively determine what the top stories of the day would be. What was decided around that table was sent to member newspapers and broadcast networks. And this is why papers in Minnesota tend to carry the same front-page material as papers in Florida or Arizona.
It is impossible to game one of those meetings. There are too many smart, headstrong people in a news meeting to rig the system. But any time there is a gathering of journalists and editors, group dynamics take hold. “Groupthink” becomes a thing. Most of the time, this is to the good. In this age of conspiracy theory and “fake news,” the media should be conservative, in a non-political sense, about its reporting. Having a daily meeting, and a collective of smart editors, limits mistakes.
But it can also color the coverage. The hive mind might consider that X is a news story, because X has always been a news story. To suggest that X is not a news story, even if X is not as newsworthy as it might have been in the past, is difficult. For example, stories involving Cuba continued to get plenty of coverage when I was at AP, even though the Missile Crisis happened long before I was born; in my Gen X view, the editors were giving Fidel Castro stories more heft than they deserved.
Groupthink is not unique to AP. It exists everywhere. And groupthink is why the MSM covers Bernie Sanders with kid gloves, and gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, and made the Hillary email saga into the fucking moon landing.
To be clear, I think AP is awesome, and the people who work there brilliant, notwithstanding their curious contempt for the Oxford comma. I never walked away from one of those news meetings unimpressed by the intellect, knowledge base, and wisdom of the people in that conference room. On the other hand, AP makes mistakes, too: I recall that one of the editors at those news meetings, on conference call from the Washington bureau, was John Solomon.
Say you’re sitting at one of the news meetings. You have an idea for a story. It’s a good idea, but it’s a bit out there, a bit radical. Maybe it exposes the paper to potential litigation. Maybe it risks blowing up in your face. Maybe you’re afraid the editor, who is arrogant and something of a bully, will scoff at you, embarrassing you in front of your colleagues. So you decide not to say anything. You keep it to yourself. Easier to just report on X, like X has always been reported on.
Journalists tend to be the sort of people who don’t sit quietly, who will ask questions, who don’t get cowed. But there’s no question that inertia kills some impulses dead.
Both Sides, Now
Journalists are supposed to be objective, but in recent years, the expectation is that this be demonstrated in practice by “showing both sides of an argument.” This is a wonderful way to write news stories nine times out of ten. You can’t write about, say, the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal and only report on what the Commissioner of Baseball says; that would make the coverage biased and incomplete.
But there are occasions when it is simply not necessary to “both sides” a story, to give each position equal time. If you’re reporting on the existence of Nazi extermination camps, for example, you should have a quote from Adolf Hitler or a party representative somewhere in your article, but you do not need to dedicate half your news show to Joseph Goebbels flat-out lying about the existence of gas chambers. That is an extreme example, of course—hat tip, Mike Godwin—but this is exactly how most of the news shows cover the Trump Administration, which, not for nothing, is keeping human beings, most of them political refugees and asylum seekers, in camps—sorry, in detention centers—right here in the United States.
As the old saw says, the job of the journalist is not to quote one guy who claims it’s sunny outside and another guy who says it’s raining; the job of the journalist is to look out the window and tell us if it’s wet.
Lack of Diversity
Newsrooms are more diverse than they used to be, but they aren’t nearly diverse enough. And the CEOs, the publishers, the money men in charge of the media companies are virtually all money men. What’s the difference, really, between Jeff Zucker at CNN and Rupert Murdoch at Fox?
There’s also not nearly enough diversity, or enough turnover, at the Opinion section of the major newspapers. The New York Times remains the most influential of the dailies, and their op-ed writers include David Brooks (trends on Twitter periodically for being insanely out of touch), Bret Stephens (climate change denier), Maureen Dowd (crafter of witty sentences that say nothing of interest or value), and Thomas Friedman (lost his fastball over a decade ago). And when they try to skew younger and more “diverse,” they give a platform to…Bari Weiss? These are the people who help form public opinion. And most of them are lousy.
Some media people just flat-out suck. In 2016, for example, Chris Cillizza was way more invested in the Hillary email story than anything involving Trump—and seemed to have a soft spot for the now-president’s daughter. His 2020 analysis, if we can call it that, operates under the assumption that what Trump is doing is politics as usual. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a general fighting yesterday’s war. He is handsomely compensated for this ineptitude. It’s a fucking joke. And I like to pick on him because I used to like his stuff when he worked at WaPo, but there are plenty of others just as bad if not worse.
Jeet Heer of The New Republic explained the Fourth Estate’s collective reticence in this tweet of 14 February 2017: “Part of the reason I (and others, I think) resisted the Russia theory is that it seemed too stupid to be real. But sometimes life is stupid.”
I give Heer a pass for that. Kurt Andersen does a nice job explicating this in Fantasyland, which everyone should read. Basically, Americans historically have been so taken with conspiracy theories that when an actual conspiracy happened under our nose, the media collectively wrote it off. The boy had cried wolf too many times, but with Trump, the wolf was real.
Types of Consumption
I rarely watch news on TV. Only if there is something results-based happening: election returns, generally. I can’t stand the pace of the news shows. I hate that I have to wait for them to spoon-feed me the information. I’d rather watch clips of the interviews on Twitter and skip entirely the many minutes of tedious filler.
But watching, rather than reading, is how most people seem to get their news—young people especially. My son, who is 15, is fantastically informed. Despite me imploring him to read more, he gets his information almost exclusively from YouTube. That’s where we are now as a culture.
I have nothing against TV news, and plenty of the anchors do a fantastic job: Rachel Maddow obviously, Anderson Cooper, Lawrence O’Donnell, Ari Melber, and so on. (On the other hand, Chris Todd exists, and Fox & Friends). But it is a fact that consuming news on a screen is passive; reading news is active. Too much passive consumption of news leaves you open to someone easily changing the narrative. This is one of the reasons Fox News is so successful. It doesn’t require anything beyond flipping on the switch.
Conflict of Interest
There are people writing op-eds in newspapers, and offering commentary on the news shows, who are FARA-registered agents of foreign governments—but they never tell you that. Sean Hannity had Michael Cohen on his show a bunch of times, and never once mentioned that he was one of Cohen’s clients. Is FOX going to objectively report on the sexual harassment problem that was rampant at FOX? Is the Washington Post going to investigate Amazon objectively?
In the old days, journalists didn’t vote, because they felt that voting tainted their objectivity. Now they don’t reveal that they are shadow presidential advisers, because that would blow their cover.
Journalism, per se, is supposed to be objective. With that said, American newspapers have a long tradition of being biased towards certain parties or ideologies. William Randolph Hearst’s hawkish desires toward Cuba, echoed in his papers, helped start the Spanish-American War. The New York Times built its reputation after that conflict by promising to be objective. AP was objective out of necessity, as discussed, having to serve member papers of divergent political views.
We have slowly reverted back to the halcyon days of hawkish Hearst. The newspapers generally do a decent job separating hard news from opinion—the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page seems to be always in conflict with its actual reporters—but on TV especially, there is too much blur. News shows too often devolve into shouting matches, rude outtakes from Crossfire. There is too much “entertainment,” not enough substance. And it’s almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
If the transnational organized crime syndicate can own politicians, including the current occupant of the Oval Office, you really think they can’t also purchase journalists? Politicians are expensive, and yet one of our two political parties is completely compromised by Trump and his criminal overlords.
Journalists are pocket change in comparison.