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The Press Doesn’t Learn Things, Unless Those Things Are About How Great They Are

For the media, Monday was the first day of the rest of the Trump presidency following the letter from Attorney General Barr summarizing the long-awaited, everything-must-go, Watergate on steroids biggest deal in the history of the universe Mueller report. It didn’t go so great.

Many members of the media are now out there defending their profession against criticism they don’t even feel they should be facing, indulging in the tantalizing persecution fantasy that after all, Trump abuses and demeans them, and his base is openly hostile, so therefore surely the media are blameless and professional and it’s you people who are the real problem, right?

To paraphrase their white (or orange?) whale, WRONG!

There is a problem. And there is something to the critique that CNN’s Brian Stelter offers here:

Stelter is one of the few journalists willing to wonder even a little bit if there is anything to fix at all — so credit where due — but he caveats heavily, and leaves unanswered questions, and as result, is missing a big part of the target.

Stelter is right about an over-abundance of speculative reporting, but that’s not the big problem the media faces, nor what the public perceives the problem to be.

Also, members of the media are right that Trump is a dick, and especially so to them. But that isn’t the big problem either.

So what is?

The first 24 hour period of the new rest of the Trump presidency era would be to prove how professional and non-biased you are as a journalist. Instead, this is what the coverage looked like Monday and into Tuesday morning:

Do you see what happened there? Alisyn Camerota‘s irritated, eye-rolling delivery may be the most pronounced moment, but it isn’t the worst. It’s a good example, in the sense that clown makeup shows the extreme version of makeup, but the thing is, we can recognize clowns immediately.

The totality of the montage is what is telling. The pivot, the caveats, the reluctance, the defiance. They suggest Barr is under pressure from above, without any evidence, and imply his character is questionable without anything questionable about his character being raised. Especially note the choice of guests, and that those guests not only speculate still that there is collusion yet to be revealed, but actually use the same reasoning and arguments they’ve presented all along, for months and years, as if there were no intervening major event like, I don’t know, a concluded investigation to alter their talking points.

Andrea Mitchell in particular had two just terrible interviews, sampled above but covered in more detail and with full video here, that are the epitome of what has been wrong with coverage.

Now, you may be objecting that Fox News is way more biased, but it’s not Fox’s turn this time. They’re roasted every day. Pointing at Fox is just another easy out, like blaming Trump, so media can simply divert attention away from their own actions.

It’s reasonable to assume here that some folks in media, if any are even reading this, are thinking “well it DOES say he wasn’t exonerated, that IS a fact, and it IS news!”, but let me show you something.

That is moving the goalposts, and there’s no question about it.

The word we’ve heard for what seems like a lifetime is “collusion”. Here, just a day and a half after the biggest investigation in the history of time that was definitely going to finally expose that Trump colluded with Russia actually said that no one colluded with Russia–and despite Morning Joe‘s latest spin, it did say that–the new ad is focused on “obstruction of justice.”

Look, that is not just following the new angle, and it’s not just focusing on the unsettled charge. It’s not even merely moving the goalposts. It’s a fundamental dodge of the honest person’s responsibility to review their own behavior. It’s a complete disregard for having had the story wrong.

Do not doubt they had the story wrong. They were not simply posting updates to an ongoing investigation. There is simply no way to compile all of the video clips here, or the articles written, that have been all but certain about collusion. Beyond the winks and nudges, of which there were many, and beyond the innuendo, they brought on guest after guest to say that without a doubt the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and no question about it. They are still doing that this week, post-report. They do it in the clips above!

So they weren’t just reporting that the story was happening, they led viewers to believe that it was going a particular way, and that there would be a particular result, that it was all but certain.

Media critic Stelter asks two open-ended questions in his proffered mix of vigorous defense and minor critique of the media: “What did the sheer volume of the coverage signal to viewers?” and “Do Maddow’s viewers feel misled right about now?”

These are not questions that require an open end for pondering. The “sheer volume” signaled “Trump conspired with Russia to steal the election from Hillary.” That is also what their opinion hosts and guests have explicitly and implicitly communicated every day. Do Maddow’s viewers feel misled? This also has an answer.

Maddow viewers absolutely had the expectation that Mueller would find that Trump colluded with Russia. And now, they don’t feel that she led them astray. They believe that, because reality did not meet expectation, reality must have been tampered with.

Because that is how conspiracy theories work. It’s dot-connecting and innuendo and ultimately more theory to explain the theory. Exactly what happens in the clips above.

There isn’t enough virtual ink in the world to enumerate each of these points against the coverage to date, and it would be a futile exercise anyway. When a fact is contrary to the conspiracy theory, you either ignore the fact, claim the fact is not a fact, or make the theory even more sophisticated and complex enough to involve disinformation aimed specifically at your own ideas. That’s what Rachel and her viewers are doing right now.

And to those who remember the chariots racing to the collusion finish line bearing their standards and blaring their trumpets in righteous fury, it is also futile to list every point. You already know.

For those who know, and for those guilty, the problem isn’t proving what you’ve done, it’s convincing you that you shouldn’t have done it, and not to do it again.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare, As You Like It

“A fool think he needs no advice, but a wise man listens to others.” Bible, Proverbs 12:15

The fundamental issue that created the mess is the same one creating the unwillingness to correct it. This is the Dunning–Kruger effect, news edition. In this case, the inability to do it properly is also the inability to judge that you’re doing it improperly. Because it comes down to a core belief about the profession that is simply wrong.

Journalists believe, and are taught, that they are righteous. That their job is to be righteous. They buy their own PR about being the last line of defense, the noblest and most self-sacrificing profession, speaking truth to power.

Being a check on power is the distilled value of the profession of journalism. The fourth estate does not just act collectively as the voice of the people popularly to the voice of the people electorally, it also acts as a bulwark against massive untruth. Recording, repeating, telling, putting in context, challenging…these are the tasks of the profession, the group. Perhaps impolitic historically to call it noble, considering the connotations of nobility, but it is admirable.

But that is not your job, Don Lemon. It’s not your job, Mika Brzezinski (and good thing, too). It’s the overall job, not the individual.

That belief in one’s own nobility and righteousness, and unquenchable thirst to display it and be seen as it, is the biggest problem of all.

When a story breaks, and there is a report of a hate crime with salacious, politically-charged details, and few facts are known, and you’ve just been given the live report from the scene by a reporter, and the camera cuts back to you, News Anchor, if you shake your head and say “and this is 2019 in America” in earnest dismay, emoting your sadness at the injustice of the world and your commitment to finding justice: You’re. Doing it. Wrong.

That may sound absurd, but it isn’t. The Marine Corps has a war to win. A Marine has an order to follow. A battle to fight. An Army platoon to rescue. You do your job, don’t do the entire USMC’s job.

If you’re a news anchor, do your job.

Of course, that’s just one aspect of the problem with the coverage. It is an impossible task to give a picture of the totality of two years of news and reporting. There are, though, some important and specific points being made in the wake of this major story that they are now trying to say they never hyped. This article, from Charles Cooke at National Review, should be required reading for every journalist.

David Frum, writing for The Atlantic, yesterday offered this sarcastic concession on collusion.

Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.

Cooke first parenthetically reacted with “Check out the InfoWars-worthy ‘in large part’ bit!” He then responded at length to the MSNBC-ready blurb, and to Frum’s hype history, including saying there was “accumulating evidence” that Trump was undertaking a “coup.” Cooke deconstructs him expertly.

Aside from thrashing Frum (objective achieved), the point of the article was to argue for skepticism, or at least reservation in reporting and writing about so monumental a thing as the installment of a U.S. President by a foreign intelligence operation in collusion and cooperation with that politician and his entire party. Not to mention demonstrate that his idea of “we simply reported what happened” is a gross misrepresentation.

Skepticism, or at least circumspection, isn’t a big ask, but asking it two weeks ago, or two months ago, or two years ago made you an outsider in journalism.

Other examples require reading, too. At great length, in a modified and updated excerpt from his forthcoming book, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi made the somewhat objectionable but eye-catching comparison of Russia-gate to the WMD story of the first decade of the millennium.

His provocative subhed, ‘The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it” certainly drew a lot of readers, but the meat of the story is staggering in scope.

For example, referencing this article from Peter Baker at the New York Times which lightly conceded that there is some question about the validity of coverage to date, Taibbi wrote:

This is a damning page one admission by the Times. Despite the connect-the-dots graphic in its other story, and despite the astonishing, emotion-laden editorial the paper also ran suggesting “We don’t need to read the Mueller report” because we know Trump is guilty, Baker at least began the work of preparing Times readers for a hard question: “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?”

The paper was signaling it understood there would now be questions about whether or not news outlets like itself made galactic errors by betting heavily on a new, politicized approach, trying to be true to “history’s judgment” on top of the hard-enough job of just being true. Worse, in a brutal irony everyone should have seen coming, the press has now handed Trump the mother of campaign issues heading into 2020.

“The story hyped from the start was espionage,” said Taibbi, accurately characterizing coverage. The narrative was that there had been or continues to be “a secret relationship between the Trump campaign and Russian spooks who’d helped him win the election.”

That is still the argument being made on MSNBC this week.

The betrayal narrative was not reported as metaphor. It was not “Trump likes the Russians so much, he might as well be a spy for them.” It was literal spying, treason, and election-fixing – crimes so severe, former NSA employee John Schindler told reporters, Trump “will die in jail.”

Unlike here at Mediaite, Taibbi is focused primarily on old media and print media. But the point above is eminently applicable. Can there be any doubt of that looking at the clips above? Keep in mind those are from after collusion was not found.

It is so particularly on point to bring up the desire to “be true to ‘history’s judgment’.” That effort, which is not merely spontaneous in liberal media but also pushed on them relentlessly by activist sites such as Media Matters for America and purported fact-checkers like Snopes, is a fatal flaw in the design of the new media age. Even the most basic logic of it is obviously lacking. How can you be true to facts and to the judgment of history when that judgment is not only hypothetical but subjective?

Trying to be “on the right side of history” is an utterly self-indulgent and narcissistic quest, undertaken not for the sake of the greater truth or even the immediate truth, but for the satisfaction of one’s own needs and the perceived preservation of one’s own “legacy” in an era of information where every person believes they are a brand, and every reporter thinks they are a celebrity.

I could explain this personality disorder at length, but as with most things, the clown makeup is the best way to demonstrate the principle, and so instead of elaborating on the template simply picture Jim Acosta and you’ve got it.

At the Washington Post, Paul Farhi wrote about a particularly amazing take.

Among the theories commentators advanced was one by New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait, who speculated in a cover story in July about whether “the dark crevices of the Russia scandal run not just a little deeper but a lot deeper.” He suggested that “it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the [then-upcoming] summit [between Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin] is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.”

You may recognize Jonathan Chait from his many, many, many appearances on cable news as an expert on the collusion story, where he served in the role of telling viewers the certainty of criminal treason so the nodding host or anchor didn’t have to say it out loud, but that’s not why we’re looking at this excerpt.

Also from the story:

“Russiagate” has been a news media obsession since Trump’s victory in November 2016. The nonpartisan Tyndall Report pegged the total amount of time devoted to the story on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC last year at 332 minutes, making it the second-most covered story after the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. According to a count by the Republican National Committee released Sunday, The Post, the New York Times, CNN.com and MSNBC.com have written a combined 8,507 articles mentioning the special counsel’s investigation.

The cable news networks, particularly CNN and MSNBC, have added hundreds of hours of discussion about the topic, too.

The story undoubtedly was an important factor in shaping voters’ perceptions before the 2018 midterm election, in which Democrats won control of the House.

That is also an amazing excerpt. But the reason we are looking at them is not merely the content, it’s the context. That article about the media from the Washington Post which contains those damning excerpts doesn’t draw any conclusion. Like Brian Stelter’s contribution, it is raises excellent points but leaves the reader with no conclusion.

The media, if it asks the question at all, doesn’t answer it.

“But the conclusion of the inquiry has put a question once hazily debated into sharp focus: Did the mainstream news media mislead?”

That is amazing. It’s the unwillingness to learn or self-evaluate. They will answer “no, we did not mislead,” and that is, in fact, precisely the answer they are giving. CNN’s Jeff Zucker, the NYT‘s Dean Baquet, dozens of individual writers including Frum, and Joe Scarborough today on MSNBC are saying that very thing. We were not wrong, or even overwrought, and have nothing to be sorry for.

Because they believe they are righteous, and therefore right. Because rather than trying to be right, they are trying to be righteous.

And that is the why they can’t learn from criticism, or from failures. Not there aren’t great pieces of advice out there. It is only that they won’t listen. They can’t see it. Because being overwrought is no error if you’re on the right side of history. Being incorrect is no flaw when you’re morally correct. Because messing up isn’t messing up unless you’re messed up.

MSNBC and CNN — exemplified by Alisyn Camerota and the entire cast of Morning Joe — are the American Idol contestants yelling at the judges that they can in fact sing, and someday they’ll be big and famous and you’ll all be sorry.

But I have some news for those news folks. A lot of people are sorry right now. Sorry that the news we rely on is so driven by things other than the news, or in the case of Maddow viewers, sorry they got their expectations so high only to have them dashed. Sorry all around and everywhere … except where sorry would matter the most. The newsroom.

[Featured image via screengrabs]

Follow Caleb Howe (@CalebHowe) on Twitter

–post script–

Are you in the media? A reporter or a journalist? Did you manage to read this whole thing? And are you thinking to yourself “yeah but Trump is a liar and a racist and evil and loves Russia and there are other investigations and what about that”? Then you’re still wrong, here at the end. Because you are still clinging to him being the bad guy and you being the good guy. You’re the wrong one, not the good one. Work on yourself. There’s plenty of time, and there are plenty of people, working on him. You fix you.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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