Mueller Findings’ Blow to Media Worth Its Own Probe: Part II

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  APR 1, 2019

“The end of the collusion illusion should also cause the media to do some soul searching about rushes to judgment. For two years, with the help of ex-Obama officials, they spun anecdotes of contacts between Russians and Trump campaign advisors into a conspiracy. With few exceptions they went well beyond First Amendment oversight into anti-Trump advocacy. But it was always odd that those individual Russia-Trump contacts never added up to anything or went anywhere, which is why we warned about waiting for the facts.”
Wall Street Journal Editorial, March 25

The initial wave of reaction to the Mueller investigation has produced a powerful undertow of criticism over the performance of the press. It should be addressed forthrightly, introspectively, and very thoroughly. Public trust in one of our most vital institutions and the ability of that institution to meet its constitutional obligation as a reliable witness to history are at stake.

The media are in a state of denial of any lapse in their professional judgment or work product. It’s an easy state to be in when the face of the criticism is President Donald Trump. Credible critics have difficulty being taken seriously because, until now, they have been branded as pro-Trump and dismissed as defenders of his faith and creed.

This, clearly is not just about Trump.

Reforming the press is a high mountain to climb under normal circumstances let alone when motives are questioned and circumstances make it hard to determine who’s the villain and who’s the victim. It’s like climbing Mt. Rainer in dress shoes, without a guide or safety rope. But it is a mountain that must be climbed.

The two years of agenda-driven coverage leading up to the conclusion of the report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III has made that conclusion undeniable to anyone with a mind even half open to unpleasant reality.

The need is not based entirely on the Mueller coverage, but what that coverage reflects—an emerging pattern of subjective, narrative-based, agenda-driven, inaccurate and often times irrelevant coverage. The need is based on the emasculation of what were once well-established standards of journalistic excellence and the heavy and excessive influences of social media, among others. The Russia probe is a good place to start.

Brit Hume, veteran analyst for Fox News and former ABC correspondent on coverage of the two-year long Mueller investigation concluded that it was the “worst journalistic debacle of my lifetime.”

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame said he did not find collusion in his research. “Of course I looked for it, looked for it hard.”

The crown jeweler among media critics is author and Rolling Stone writer Matt Tiabbi, who called the coverage a “death blow to American news media.” That quotation was contained in a Washington Post article by Paul Farhi, who still holds on to some old fashioned notions about balanced and objective reporting. He actually presented both sides and let it go at that.

Tiabbi wrote a very lengthy (nearly 10,000 words) review of coverage exposing many of the gaping holes in both reporting and the media’s refusal to set the record straight. He focused on inaccuracies, bias, unverified information, and agenda-driven reporting,

“Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is),” he wrote. “But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen on March 28:

“Put aside the rogues’ gallery of reporters and pundits who assured us that Donald Trump had conspired with Vladimir Putin to steal the presidency. What is most insidious are those who did have access to classified intelligence and led Americans to believe that they had seen what we could not: actual evidence of Trump-Russia collusion.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s 10 most egregious media mistakes related to the Russia probe, were cataloged in January long before the report was summarized. They included Trump being offered advance access to the Wikileaks email trove, a gem from CNN and MSNBC; and Paul Manafort’s clandestine meetings with Wikileaks Julian Assange that never happened.

Also included were a CNN lie about using Cohen attorney Lanny Davis, a notoriously partisan Democrat and Trump nemesis, as a source, according to Greenwald. There were 10 honorable mentions, leading off with ABC firing Brian Ross for misreporting the critical timing of Trump’s instructions to General Michael Flynn to contact the Russians.

If the media’s lapses were limited to the Russia probe, it would be unsettling enough, but their coverage of Russia was and continues to be a part of a pattern of narrative journalism, unmatched in my 40 years in Washington.

Media have excavated the journalistic landscape, transforming a pristine professional aspiration into an aggressive agenda-driven advocacy and an unbridled opposition to what they see as enemies of the state.

Former ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel told Marvin Kalb, a staunch media supporter two months ago that:

“I’m terribly concerned that when you talk about the New York Times these days, when you talk about the Washington Post these days, we’re not talking about the New York Times of 50 years ago. We are not talking about the Washington Post of 50 years ago. We’re talking about organizations that I believe have, in fact, decided as organizations that Donald J. Trump is bad for the United States.”

Jill Abramson, the only female executive editor of the New York Times in her book Merchants of Truth, reportedly said that ”Though Baquet (current executive editor) said publicly he didn’t want the Times to be the opposition party, his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump.” She said the same of the Washington Post.

Much of the new journalism is salted with Trump references or narratives associated with him. You just can’t escape the guy.

Look just at recent months, when a young high school student from Covington, KY was wrongly humiliated by the Washington Post, the networks, and other media in a rush to judgment over a heavily edited video of the young man standing face to face with a Native American activist on the national mall.

The truth came out but not before the lad and his fellow students—white Catholics here for an anti-abortion rally—were smeared. The truth was the young people behaved honorably and maturely.

Then came the explosive coverage of actor Jussie Smollett’s claim that two, white, pro-Trump MAGA hat wearing brutes carrying a rope assaulted him in Chicago. The media gave Smollett full access to the airwaves and news pages without questioning his story. It was apparently a total lie, but it fit the popular racist narrative for Trump supporters.

Then there was the case of the Post declining to publish sexual allegation charges made to the Post against the Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of Virginia a year before those charges exploded on the front pages of other news outlets.

The Post’s highly unusual treatment of the brutal murder of activist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis may be unprecedented. The Post has deployed and melded the assets of news, commentary, and advertising, all in the same publication to drive home the belief that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is personally responsible for the killing and must be punished.

The campaign has violated what used to be fundamental distinctions between news and opinion and news and advertising, already compromised by advertorial placements. The incident also seems to influence news judgments about other coverage including that of war in Yemen.

Journalist Shayrl Atkkisson has documented 70 media missteps since Trump took office. They included Trump not paying income taxes for 16 years, his removal of a Martin Luther King bust from the Oval Office, the resignation of the administrative staff at the State Department, Press Secretary Sara Sanders leaving, and CIA director Gina Haspel being in charge of waterboarding at a secret CIA prison.

They all left out my favorite, one that may have been a rare case of fabrication of facts rather than the manipulation of them.

It was ABC’s Tom Llamas’ anchoring a news story about a disc that Llamas claimed contained conclusive evidence of Trump’s infidelities. In the background was a shadowy photo of a disc sitting on a shelf in a small safe. Guess whose tape, according to Llamas?

Yep. Michael Avenatti.

The same Avenatti who apparently fabricated stories of sexual harassment by then Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh, was accused of spousal abuse, fired by porn star Stormy Daniels, and is now under arrest for alleged fraud and extortion. Incredibly, Avenatti was just recently given exclusive air time to defend himself.

He made the front Page of the Wall Street Journal April 1; wait a minute, that’s April Fools Day. Avenatti’s uncanny ability to exploit the anti-Trump obsession may well become one of the worst embarrassments of American journalism of this era.

The examples of this sea-change in journalistic behavior over the course of decades, but especially in the last several years, are numerous and telling. They’re verified by the startling statistics on the depth and breadth of media attention to narrative campaigns—tens of thousands of inches of copy, hundreds of hours of broadcast coverage, wall-to-wall chatter on cable and the Internet, all at the expense of subjects and issues presenting real challenges to people in their daily lives. It is saturation news and indoctrination that the majority of those surveyed don’t need and don’t want.

It is interesting that many defenders of the media are not reflective or reasoned as you would have reason to expect; they are defiant and sometimes angry. You listen and watch and wonder if, to borrow loosely from the famous line in Hamlet, ‘methinks thou doth protest too much.’

New York Times Editor Basquet, Washington Post Editor Martin Baron, and CNN News President Jeff Zucker all dismissed criticism of coverage, contending they in Zucker’s words “reported the facts as we knew them.”

As we know, that is absurd. His Trumpian view belies the on-air performances of infotainers such as Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Brooke Baldwin, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon, whose anti-Trump antics are as transparent as the pro-Trump love fests with Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade on Fox. The same can be said for the MSNBC stars Joe Scarborough and Rachel Maddow.

It’s no accident that these celebrities make millions a year. They know how to stoke a fire like any good pyromaniac.

Media writers Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post and Brian Stelter of CNN are equally as incredulous in their defense of their paymasters. Media should be proud, they say.

Finally, an important role has been played by the legions of cable news hired guns who irresponsibly stoked the flames that Trump was not guilty of just collusion, but of being a Russian spy and a traitor. Treason is crime for which you can be executed. The gallows is one way to get him out of office.

Among the bitterest and most baffling was former CIA chief John Brennan, who has since said he may have had bad information. That, coming from a former CIA director is a little disconcerting. He and former Intelligence chief James Clapper, an individual of solid reputation, have put cracks in the public trust of our intelligence community, but their activism pales in comparison to the damage done by those at the upper echelons of the FBI, whose behavior over the past several years has badly tarnished the Bureau.

The media continue to depend upon former FBI Director James Comey and others for “analysis.” The classic line, however, came from liberal historian, Douglas Brinkley who backpedaled on the charge of treason following the report summary, with this astonishing statement reported by the Washington Times: “The spirit of what Trump did is clearly treasonous.”

Again, you would think it reasonable then that some serious introspection and reflection on the state of the free press and the flow of information to the American people is warranted. It would be good for the country, good for earnest but vulnerable consumers of news, and good for the news industry itself.

The erosion of public trust in the media over the course of many years alone should warrant it. Between 2003 and 2016, according to Gallop, Americans with a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media fell from 54 percent, not a high number to begin with, to 32 percent. It recovered in 2017 to 41 percent, fueled by trust among Democrats. Almost 70 percent of U.S. adults said their trust in the news media has decreased over a decade; only 4 percent citing an increase. Most concerns, according to a Knight survey, were accuracy and bias.

The news media is the only social and political institution in this country that does not benefit from tough, independent oversight to the degree that it provides oversight of others, like American business, politics, government, education, and health care.

The time for self-righteous indignation and the arrogant dismissal of criticism from legitimate observers of the media is long gone. Ridding the nation of Donald Trump should not be a legitimate journalistic objective let alone imperative, even if it is a good business model.

Those who criticize the press should not be dismissed as disgruntled Trump supporters. That is a cop-out and it reinforces the already polluted atmosphere of hate and prejudice infecting our public discourse.

If you haven’t given some second thought to the hatred and anger surrounding us, you should. People can’t talk to each other without suspicion and a jaundiced eye. Too many simply can’t talk about certain subjects at all and that’s too bad. Tolerance, benefit of the doubt, civility, and trust are just not of value they way they once were.

It is scary.

The American media, from top to bottom need restorative introspection and ultimately reform. They share the blame for where we are, but we can’t get to where we want to be without them.

Come back to where you belong.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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