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Why Media Failure Is A Major Story Of Our Time


The following is a transcript of my radar on Thursday’s edition of “Rising” on Hill TV.

People used to make the mistake of treating media criticism like front-page news when it probably belonged on A2. Most of the time, a story’s substance still warranted more attention than the media’s treatment of it. But if newspapers still mattered today, media criticism would belong front and center just about every single morning. The daily failures of the legacy media are so severe and so damaging, they now deserve just as much attention as the very news our news media is failing to cover.

That is to say, media is the public’s primary window into public affairs. That window is now cracked and fogged to the point where the image is entirely unrecognizable on the other side.

Yesterday, Mark Lee Greenblatt, Interior Department Inspector General, released a 37-page report on his department’s ostensibly exhaustive, independent watchdog investigation into the events of June 1 in Lafayette Square, that historic patch of park land just north of the White House.

Lafayette Square was the scene of a memorable clash between protesters and police on the evening of June 1, after which then-President Trump walked through the square, from the White House to St. John’s church, where he posed with a Bible and said, “We have the greatest country in the world. We’re going to keep it nice and safe.”

The entire legacy media reported that the park was cleared in connection with Trump’s “photo op,” which immediately hardened into a narrative they treated like Gospel: Trump deputized police to violently clear peaceful protesters for the sake of a photo op. Take this report from George Stephanopoulos: “The administration asked police to clear peaceful protesters from the park across the White House so that the President could stage a photo op.”

Glenn Greenwald collected just some of the many, many stories that aged so poorly. Here’s an excerpt from his Substack:

“Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op,” read the NPR headline on June 1. The New York Times ran with: “Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church.” CNN devoted multiple segments to venting indignation while the on-screen graphic declared: “Peaceful Protesters Near White House Tear-Gassed, Shot With Rubber Bullets So Trump Can Have Church Photo Op.”

The few journalists who did their jobs correctly, including my colleague Mollie Hemingway, were viciously mocked. The dynamic reflects a toxic combination of arrogance and incompetence. And the ratio of arrogance to competence is wildly out of whack.

Greenblatt’s investigation explicitly disputes the media narrative. He also shows his work, providing pages of evidence based on many interviews to support a more factual rendering of the day.

“The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church. Instead,” the report says. “The evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31.”

“Further, the evidence showed that the USPP did not know about the President’s potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1—hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park,” according to the document.

Now I’m not going to treat this as the Gospel truth either. But it’s obviously credible. So what explains the disconnect between this watchdog investigation and the initial reports? It shouldn’t take months-long IG probes for the public to get basic facts.

Interestingly, in a fact check published last June, Philip Bump of the Washington Post glossed right over the Trump administration’s contention that “somehow Barr’s instructions [to clear protesters] were unrelated to Trump’s walk,” calling it “an argument which even Barr didn’t directly reject when asked Thursday. (He claimed that there was an existing plan to extend the secure area around the White House but didn’t deny that the immediate need for doing so was Trump’s visit to the church.)”

One administration official not denying something is the thread that Bump staked his narrative on in one of the most prestigious publications in the entire world. Why? Because that thread comported with the hive mind’s expectations of Trump so they all found ways to confirm it.

Their ideology is the source of their arrogance and their arrogance is the source of their incompetence. The media is utterly broken.

Now, the IG report contains some important, newsworthy findings about what actually went wrong with law enforcement that day. But to my point at the beginning of this segment, its stark contrast with the entire volume of legacy media coverage is equally newsworthy because it’s strong evidence the bulk of the public was fed egregiously incorrect information on a major story. And the broader implications of that are even worse, exposing the massive cracks in our most important window into pubic affairs.

Campaign platforms typically consist of policy goals. What the press never understood about Donald Trump is that he basically ran on media criticism and, sadly, a whole lot of it was entirely fair. That’s why it resonated. But even after the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” defeated the former Secretary of State in a presidential match-up, the media’s necessary course correction never materialized. Things have clearly gotten much, much worse.

They peddled the false, self-serving narratives of spies and flaks for years, miring the country in a silly melodrama over a pee tape. Then there’s the lab leak flip flop. How about the press’s treatment of Andrew Cuomo last spring? It doesn’t just happen on the major stories either.

We could talk about the hypocrisy of the press. We could talk about their intolerance for ideological diversity. We could talk about their elitism or their obsessions with Twitter. These are all variables in the equation of their failure. But the most important takeaway is that the media peddles glaring disinformation on a daily basis, on major stories. That’s a big deal because it’s misinforming voters, and much more effectively than those scary Boomer memes Putin put on Facebook.

Democracy dies in darkness, sure, but bumbling Harvard grads with press credentials can turn the light switch off with their incompetence just as much as corrupt rules can do it with their power and money. We desperately need the free press. It’s our only way to keep the government accountable and it’s a disaster right now. There’s your front page.