As new details emerge about the Obama administration’s broad spying-and-leaking campaign against the incoming Trump administration, reporters have a choice to make about whether to cover this story honestly, at long last. There is a brief window of time afforded the media to get the story right. They should take advantage of it.
Journalist Lee Smith already noted the seriousness of the problem facing legacy media after the implosion of the Russia collusion conspiracy theory they peddled. “Americans still want and need accurate information on which to base their decisions about their own lives and the path that the country should take. But neither the legacy media nor the expert class it sustains is likely to survive the post-dossier era in any recognizable form,” he wrote. “For them, Russiagate is an extinction level event.”
Many of our supposedly smart media elites are dinosaurs who are completely unaware of the asteroid headed right to them. Instead, they are doing their part in an all-hands-on-deck effort to continue pushing out Democratic talking points that got them into the mess. This week, that meant they regurgitated the Democratic claim that the Obama administration’s spying and leaking was “normal” and that to be concerned about it is nothing more than a “distraction.”
The Media Are in Too Deep
The less deft at pushing out the partisan talking point include MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who literally asked implicated former CIA chief John Brennan if he could “once and for all” explain to people who had heard about the scandal despite his corporation’s best efforts why it was no big deal. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo complained that a biased NBC News piece that itself attempted to wave away the scandal was not biased enough for his liking. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein begged Axios not to cover the issue lest it help Trump, in the way that covering Hillary Clinton’s email scandal may have helped Trump.
Susan Glasser at the New Yorker suggested that acknowledging the Obama administration’s recorded attempts to undermine a duly elected administration through spying and leaking was a form of political agitprop. Her husband Peter Baker over at the New York Times took the same line but went with the authoritative gaslighting approach in which he suggested it was odd that Trump would want to correct the false narrative that he was a traitor to his country and replace it with the truth that he was the victim of a coordinated attack to spy on his campaign, criminally leak against him, and force him out of office. CNN’s Jake Tapper, a journalist implicated in one of the early Russia hoax stories, reported for duty to spread this partisan talking point as well.
Many of these people are simply in too deep. They’re not giving back the awards they got for peddling the false story uncritically. To do so is a level of honesty they are not currently capable of. But not everyone needs to follow them. For liberal media who want to be honest, there is plenty of ground between shouting “OBAMAGATE!” in all caps and denying the spying and leaking ever happened.
Honest Reporting Could Help Trump — and Journalism
The big problem with covering the story honestly is what Stein himself pointed out — it might help Trump and Republicans. But they should look to left-wing journalists who were able to put aside their genuine dislike of the Orange Bad Man and his co-partisans and retain their journalistic integrity. These brave reporters, including Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté, Matt Taibbi, and Michael Tracey, managed to buck in-group journalistic and political pressure to report accurately about the political scandal.
Among the few journalists on the right who covered these issues well, there were many who weren’t particularly fond of Trump. Whether left or right or otherwise, skepticism of the intelligence community helped these reporters, certainly, but only in that they have been consistently skeptical across multiple administrations. These reporters are honest enough to say that political spying and criminal political leaking is not what our intelligence agencies should have been doing. This should not even be a debate.
A rather obvious intimidation campaign has been launched against any reporter who breaks with the groupthink on whether it’s a scandal (or even just a legitimate news story!) to spy and leak falsehoods against political opponents. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani alleged that merely reporting on the existence of public documents related to the spying and leaking campaign, as opposed to ignoring them, meant that CBS’ Catherine Herridge was problematic. No one could defend the journalistic merits of killing such an explosive story. These attacks on Herridge — which sadly did not result in a strong defense from her employer or colleagues — are chin music directed at everyone else who might be courageous enough to step out of the groupthink zone.
The media should know, however, that journalism’s trashed reputation is not going to go away by further suppressing the story. They’re not going to dig themselves out of their self-dug hole by taking swings at Herridge or other courageous reporters with their shovels.
It’s not even a difficult question to answer whether this story is newsworthy, but it does require a bit of courage. Journalists aren’t known for their courage so much as their belief that there is safety in crowds. Yet the world is eager to see if there are many real journalists left. No, not the types of journalists who give each other awards for peddling false narratives that the average American can see right through. But real journalists who can think critically when a spy chief or operative comes to them with a ludicrous claim about prostitutes and videotaped urination in a Moscow hotel or Jeff Sessions being a Russian spy or the key to the 2016 election result involving subliterate Facebook memes. Far too many journalists failed that test in recent years. But they have another opportunity to get it right.
Reporters are clearly kowtowing to Democrats in fear that if they win in 2020, they’ll act with vengeance against any reporter who failed to follow their dictates. It is in this light that the courage of the Taibbis and Greenwalds should be particularly noted.
Taibbi’s piece in recent days — “Democrats Have Abandoned Civil Liberties: The Blue Party’s Trump-era Embrace of Authoritarianism Isn’t Just Wrong, it’s a Fatal Political Mistake” — is worth a careful read. Vindictive punishment from Democrats is a legitimate concern, but these reporters should consider the very real possibility that the media’s obvious political campaign against Trump and Republicans will fail in 2020. Even as a face-saving measure, reporting honestly on this story could help them retain their positions from which to attack Trump and their hold on their jobs covering the next term.
The Truth Is Coming Out
It was one thing for reporters to stick with the false narrative through the disappointing conclusion of the Mueller special counsel report, in which no evidence of any American colluding with Russia could be found. They were able to make it through the embarrassing results of that report and the embarrassing performance of Mueller in the hearing about the report and were never confronted with a need for a mea culpa.
But if reporters think they can continue to ignore the very real concerns about politicization of intelligence agencies under Obama, or gaslight Americans by claiming such spying and leaking is normal and even good, they should wake up.
Unlike the Russia collusion fiction that was maintained by the Obama administration, holdouts in the Trump administration, and finally the Mueller special counsel posse, the spying and leaking campaign story is coming out with facts. Declassifications, court documents, and investigative reports have all shown the falsehood of the Russia collusion hoax and the truth of the spying scandal. More could be coming.
It was one thing to spin the Russia collusion hoax during a time of mass elite freakout. But now everyone knows it was false. The truth is an existential threat to journalists, which is why the more activist among them are scrambling to kill the story and paint it as a distraction. These reporters won book contracts, TV gigs, promotions, and political success by peddling the hoax. They truly can’t be honest about it.
But others who weren’t so complicit have a shot here. There is no getting out of this easy, so if there are any reporters who care about their reputation, much less the truth, they should get on the side of truth now.