There was giant, ground shaking news in Washington this week. Someone leaked the content, in redacted form, of former FBI Director James Comey’s memos. The memos are notes Comey took on meetings with Trump administration officials, until he was unceremoniously fired in May 2017.
The memos cover the Russia investigations, the Steele dossier, transition politics, intel on various former administration officials of varying degrees of infamy, and of course Comey’s feelings about all of it and his feelings about having feelings about all of it. It is the flowery, contemporaneously written version of one side of the dramatic he-said, he-said that is the Comey-Trump relationship. These memos were the basis for the special counsel appointment.
As such, the memos are of great interest to everyone in national news. If you watched this week’s news in isolation, it would be abundantly clear this is the first time anyone in media had actually seen the seven memos. No wonder it’s such huge news!
If you’d watched any other coverage of the Trump administration over the last year, however, it’d be unclear why this is such a big deal. After all, the national media has been reporting on the Comey memos as if they’d perused them within an inch of their lives way back in spring of 2017.
In fact, not one person in media had so much as laid eyes on them until Thursday, but they have led newscasts and heavily influenced national news coverage, usually without any stipulation, since May of 2017.
The first “Comey Memo” story was Michael Schmidt’s May 16, 2017 story, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation,” which revealed in its sixth paragraph: “The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.”
This always struck me as a strange journalistic standard, and one that should at the very least be noted in all subsequent reporting on the Comey memos. I tried to mention that literally no person in media had ever seen the memos we were treating as gospel every time I was asked to comment on them.
I am highly skeptical that the same standard would have been employed by The New York Times had a fired employee of the Obama administration called a reporter with excerpts from a memo the reporter had never seen. I’m highly skeptical the excerpts thereof, no matter how trustworthy the source, would have been used to drive much of the national news for a year before anyone in media got a peek at the memos.
Often, a correct criticism of President Donald Trump is he violates norms. Too often, those who criticize him resort to violating norms themselves to fight him. The treatment of the Comey memos, with so little verification, is another norm violated, and another reason why Americans are skeptical of big scoops. One of the biggest of the last year was a high-stakes game of telephone until last Thursday.