Donald Trump’s war against much of the media and much of the media’s war against President Donald Trump is ongoing, and showing no signs of abating. These two groups openly despise each other, yet also seem to mutually benefit from their mudslinging battle. Trump is continuing to say mean things about the press and the press is saying mean things about Trump.
While the hostility is lasting from the campaign, the current battles revolve around leaks by former Obama officials and current bureaucrats. The leak campaign is designed to give the impression of treason by Trump and his advisors. Thus far, despite breathless headlines in many publications and news outlets, not a single named source has made a single verifiable claim of illegal activity. More than a few stories based on anonymous sources have fallen apart. The narrative push continues despite these journalistic problems.
There were three recent examples of media attacks on Donald Trump that, while perfectly appropriate, also made the media themselves look bad.
The New York Times‘ Glenn Thrush and Michael Grynbaum wrote a story that, due to an editing error, gave the wrong birthplace for White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer complained. A few reporters found this worthy of comment, tying Spicer’s complaint to Trump’s previous pushing of a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii as he claimed.
This Trump critic and Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star provides an adequate example:
A spokesman for Donald Trump is complaining that people are spreading false information about his birthplace. https://t.co/Tm5RZc2cHD
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 25, 2017
And here’s GQ special correspondent Keith Olbermann:
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) February 25, 2017
Hey, Trump spent years questioning the legitimacy of the duly elected president, so jokes about his administration’s staff birthplaces are on point, if that’s what you think journalists should be doing.
But also … comparing journalistic errors about birthplaces to the claims made by irresponsible, delegitimizing, and conspiratorial birthers might not be best message for journalists right now.
Anonymous Sources, Part 1
Our next example is provided by NBC News. It is also just one example of a theme that was floating around last week:
OK, so NBC News is pointing out that President Trump is complaining about unnamed sources now but that he previously was a practitioner of anonymous source reporting. Now, it doesn’t quite work in that Trump wasn’t a member of the establishment press so much as a private citizen when he was previously using anonymous sources, but we’ll let that slide.
Now what was he using anonymous sources to report on? He was saying that he had an unimpeachable but secret source who was giving him explosive information that delegitimizes Barack Obama. So is the point of the NBC News tweet that the news organization sees how unnamed sources can be used to spin wildly false narratives and conspiracies and that they should be avoided? Or what?
Anonymous Sources, Part 2
Our final example comes from media reaction to an anonymously sourced story. In this case the anonymous source is a White House official discussing a reporter’s behavior. According to the Washington Examiner, a White House source said that a Politico reporter laughed at a mention of the death of Navy SEAL Chief Ryan Owens. A Politico spokesman said the reporter was instead laughing at Spicer’s heated response about the SEAL’s death.
Now, I’m skeptical of all anonymously sourced stories, and encourage everyone else to be as well. It looks like we may have some folks who agree with me. Here’s a NYT reporter being extra skeptical:
White House used death of Navy SEAL to explain a press aide crying, then plants story accusing reporter of laughter https://t.co/zvcNbvjmVr
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 27, 2017
Here’s another journalist saying that reporters shouldn’t “become willing handmaidens” in leak campaigns.
— Julie Mason (@juliemason) February 27, 2017
Here’s a Washington Post reporter suggesting that bureaucrats and officials shouldn’t use anonymity to slime others:
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) February 27, 2017
Another New York Times reporter was indignant that a reporter would allow a source to hide behind anonymity to say something negative about someone else:
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) February 27, 2017
And here a Washington Post journalist has deduced that anonymous leaks can be used by compliant reporters to smear people!
My goodness, this is obvious what's going on here. https://t.co/c8nF0oYigB
— Steven Ginsberg (@stevenjay) February 27, 2017
If only we could apply those same exact deduction skills to the organized anti-Trump leak campaign being shoveled out at some of these same media outlets!
Now, I completely agree with these complaints! I agree with them not just when anonymous sources are used to target reporters, but when anonymous sources are used to smear non-reporters.
In fact, I hit my capacity for stories based on anonymous sources making unsubstantiated claims to trash others months ago, yet every few days we get another piece using anonymous sources trying to claim that White House officials didn’t just laugh at something inappropriate but committed treason, specifically by violating the Logan Act. To quote the better half:
Let’s talk about the Logan Act for a bit. Or rather, let’s talk about why serious people don’t talk about the Logan Act. The Logan Act is to national security laws about what phrenology is to medical science. Since its passage in 1799, no one’s ever been convicted under the Logan Act, and just about every legal expert agrees it is wildly unconstitutional and runs counter to the First Amendment. George Logan, the senator whose actions motivated the passage of the law, was never even charged under it. Seriously, the only man charged under the law was a Kentucky farmer who wrote a newspaper article in 1803 about American territories allying with France—and even he was never prosecuted. The fact the Logan Act is still on the books is an accident of history, and to the extent it has been discussed in modern times, it’s almost exclusively invoked by cranks and the conspiracy-minded.
Read the whole thing.
Better yet, let’s continue our skepticism about whether unaccountable, anonymous sources making questionable claims are the best bases for stories alleging treason — or disrespect for Navy SEALS.