Speaking to graduates of the school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in 2019, New York Times podcast The Daily producer Michael Barbaro said the media’s number one responsibility then was to “earn back its credibility.”
Let’s think back for just a moment to where we were then:
Donald Trump was still president, and life in America was yet to be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response. This is six weeks before Robert Mueller testified before Congress, and three years before new ownership at Twitter released the company’s files about shadow-banning dissonant voices. Yet a prominent voice in the legacy media felt compelled nonetheless to tell the rising generation of journalists something that was actually true.
Columbia Journalism Review Jeff Gerth has taken that mandate to heart. In a four-part review of how the mainstream media covered Trump, Russia and the investigation, he finds plenty that went off the rails of best practice of objective journalism:
“News outlets and watchdogs haven’t been as forthright in examining their own Trump-Russia coverage, which includes serious flaws. Bob Woodward, of the Post, told me that news coverage of the Russia inquiry “wasn’t handled well” and that he thought viewers and readers had been “cheated.” He urged newsrooms to “walk down the painful road of introspection.””
Gerth goes on in the second installment to draw a stark and alarming contrast between the established practice of the press covering national security issues to how this changed in the coverage of Russia-gate, specifically James Comey’s actions after telling President Trump “I don’t leak, I don’t do weasel moves.”
Before, of course, he leaked his memo of that conversation. Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, then proceeded to coordinate disclosures about the investigation with useful media pegs:
“It was a twist to the symbiotic relationship between the media and the national-security apparatus; usually, reporters use pending government action as a peg for their stories. In this case the government cited the media for its actions.”
Now perhaps it makes more sense why CNN continues to use McCabe as a commentator far beyond his actual expiration date.
The whole manner in which the since-debunked Steele dossier was inserted into the media is itself an illustration of the upside-down nature of how the media and key Washington institutions reacted to the salacious report that veteran reporter Bob Woodward called “a pile of garbage.” The research firm Fusion-GPS, headed by two former Wall Street Journal investigative reporters, leveraged its relationships in the Fourth Estate to ensure the shoddy dossier got maximum coverage. Of special interest is the instruction they gave my old boss David Kramer not to share the material with the Wall Street Journal’s Alan Cullison because Cullison, who had spent years in Moscow, would see from the outset it was a fabrication. While there is nothing new about selective releases, the degree of deception involved here suggests an effort not to inform, but to hoodwink.
And even today, we remain somewhat in the dark about who actually paid for the Steele dossier. The list of potential sponsors ranges from vulture capitalist Paul Singer (when it was meant to benefit the Jeb Bush campaign) to the Hillary Clinton campaign to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who most recently made the U.S. news because he’d also allegedly been paying the FBI’s senior counterintelligence agent in New York City Charles McGonigal.
Gerth is not the first to conduct a post-mortem on one of the most glaring disinformation campaigns in recent American memory. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald breaks down some of the biggest media fails of that period here, and in 2021, The Washington Post removed two articles it had run about the dossier the heat of Russia-gate mania.
The New York Times, which has yet to return the Pulitzer Prize it earned for its correspondent and Stalin-stooge Walter Duranty penning glowing reports of the Soviet regime in 1931, which then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used as pretext for initiating diplomatic ties with a government that went on to murder 20 million of its own citizens, has been predictably slower to acknowledge its mistakes.
Still, the Grey Lady has in the last year “disappeared” some of its coverage from Russia-gate, following the lead of other outlets.
What Gerth has done is compile a useful case study in his series for the next generation of American journalists together with some sharp analysis. Regardless of where one finds oneself on the political spectrum, it is well worth a read.