The Columbia Journalism Review’s Russiagate post-mortem is a good start

By Mark Hemingway for RealClearWire

Without much fanfare, earlier this week, Pulitzer-Prize-winning former New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Garth dropped a thorough and scathing four-part article dissecting the media’s obsessive reporting on Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. More surprisingly, Garth’s report, “Press vs. President,” appeared in the internal organ of America’s most prestigious journalism school, the Columbia Journalism Review, which has long been considered an unofficial ombudsman for the media industry.

If CJR is finally comfortable admitting that the media’s Russiagate reporting was so bad that it damned the entire industry, that seems like a remarkable admission.

On Twitter, Glenn Greenwald, a left-leaning reporter who has given up some important careers to call out the media’s fake reporting on the issue, Gerth’s reporting announcement “It’s absolutely devastating how the press has so casually, so frequently, so recklessly and so eagerly lied about Russiagate.” Garth lays out what happened so clearly that it’s hard to imagine fair-minded readers going through all 24,000 words of Garth’s report to conclude otherwise. Personally, I’m proud to say that the work of RealClearInvestigations – and my colleagues there, Tom Koontz, Aaron Mate and Paul Sperry – have all been favorably cited by Garth as one of the few media outlets that consistently got the story right.

However, as a man who spent much of his time during the Trump years engaged in critical reporting questioning and disproving the narrative of Russian collusion, my response was, well, anger. It’s an emotion not dictated by Garth, who has done the brave thing. But the piece’s appearance two years after Trump left office and nearly five years after special prosecutor Robert Mueller failed to substantiate years of anonymously raised speculation about Russian collusion is itself a damning indictment.

For starters, Garth shows the media still won’t fight the truth. His pieces are peppered with big-name reporters and major publications refusing to comment on fundamental errors or questionable or unethical judgments. Garth arranged for Journalism Dashboard St. Bob Woodward to go on record decrying the failure of the media here. While this is a significant concession, if dignitaries like Woodward had doubts about the behavior of the media, they should have been much more vocal – and much earlier.

It’s also understandable why Garth would want to keep his report focused on what briefly happened. But without a substantive discussion of the media’s purpose, it is difficult to draw any important lessons from this sad story. Garth noted that Russiagate has eroded trust in the media and offered a bleak warning that the media’s “failures will almost certainly shape the coverage of what lies ahead.”

But it is insufficient. Without any broader context about America’s long history of manipulation of the national security state or the corporate media’s evolution into ham-fisted left-wing ideologues, one might read Garth’s dry reporting as a comedy of errors: a bunch of well-intentioned journalists, faced with the challenge of covering a troubled president — and warped Democrats and Biased law enforcement officers – who committed grave sins of getting key facts wrong and omitting them – pushed the reporting.

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However, the missing motive suggests something far more sinister. The media’s Russiagate coverage has depended on being too trusting of national security and law enforcement officials who have historically underestimated the press and are hostile to civil rights. There is a saying in traditional journalism – “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Yet, when “deep state” actors with an obvious animosity towards Donald Trump pushed the narrative that a sitting US president had been compromised by a foreign power, a story so explosive that it demanded scrutiny at every step, instead of being mainstream media stenographers. decided

The blizzard of details needed to unravel the story of Russian collusion can make it seem like it’s harder to grasp than the truth. If you’re willing to believe that Trump was compromised by Russia began as a political Rorschach test, it quickly turned into an IQ test.

Even before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, there were reports that the Logan Act was being used as a pretext to investigate Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The Logan Act is to the National Security Act what phrenology is to medical science—a never-enforced 1799 law that made it illegal for private citizens to negotiate with foreign governments. Ridiculed by constitutional scholars, it has been regularly violated and always ignored.

Flynn’s alleged Logan Act violations were credibly reported by several major media outlets as if they were a potentially serious transgression, when it should have been clear that invoking this ancient and discredited law was a desperate attempt to justify a politically motivated investigation. What happened to Flynn is one example among many where the press has inexcusably ignored the glaring truth.

Garth, to his credit, unravels the story of how Flynn was railroaded by the Justice Department, as well as the press’s unwarranted credibility regarding Trump’s so-called “dossier,” an apparently unreliable document produced by a partisan. A political enemy of the President. Still, many of Garth’s examples of questionable interactions between the press and government sources require reading between the lines to assess how willfully blind the press was to the potential for law enforcement officials to abuse their power.

And given that key players in the story were Democratic partisans, current and former spies, and shadowy opposition researchers, one must also ask how much the press was manipulated and deliberately misinformed. Although Garth’s reporting suggests a conscious conspiracy, he doesn’t really go there.

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Finally, no account of the media’s flawed Russia reporting would be complete without seriously assessing the consequences. Once again, much of this discussion is beyond Garth’s narrow focus on how the sausage was made in the newsroom. However, he comes close to detecting the gravity of the problem when he notes an unfortunate coincidence. The dubious White House briefing by the FBI to Trump and Obama on the dossier’s unsubstantiated allegations involving Trump and Moscow prostitutes – a fabricated incident that was promptly leaked to CNN, catalyzing the Russiagate hysteria – took place on January 6, 2017, four years before the infamous US Capitol. The day before the riots.

These two events are not related. Indoctrinating millions of Trump voters with a patently false narrative that the president is a traitor who pundits have openly campaigned to remove from office has not only badly eroded trust in the media. That made it impossible for the media to summon the institutional trust necessary to convince Trump supporters — and Trump himself — that Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 election victory was legitimate.

The result is that bad reporting during Trump’s presidency has contributed greatly to an atmosphere of frenzy and distrust that has undermined Americans’ faith in elections, shaken the foundations of the republic, and made us all worry about future political stability.

So while Garth’s careful reporting is noted and applauded, it is less likely to do the self-examination and reckoning necessary to restore trust in the media and the vital role they play in the democratic process. The media has learned all the wrong lessons by moving away from this. My fear is that when asked about the massive failure of the media during the Trump years, Garth’s article will be used as an excuse rather than an indictment. Members of the press still seeking to avoid accountability will be able to simply point to his article and say, “That’s old news.”

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

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