February 7, 2023

Of Fake News and Sham Pulitzers

An honest journalist writes 24,000 words about the media’s Trump-hating Russia-collusion failure.

We all know the mainstream media blew it on Russiagate. And we know that this legion of Trump-haters was predisposed to blowing it. That’s not news.

What’s news is that after all this time — after seven and a half years — one honest Pulitzer Prize-winning journo, Jeff Gerth, has come clean in the Columbia Journalism Review, the in-house publication of the nation’s most prestigious J school. His work product, which appears in four parts, is a massive and much-deserved 24,000-word dressing-down of his profession. As independent journalist Glenn Greenwald stated, “The 4-part series … is absolutely devastating on how casually, frequently, recklessly and eagerly the press lied on Russiagate.”

CJR’s editor, Kyle Pope, sets the stage:

No narrative did more to shape Trump’s relations with the press than Russiagate. The story, which included the Steele dossier and the Mueller report among other totemic moments, resulted in Pulitzer Prizes as well as embarrassing retractions and damaged careers. For Trump, the press’s pursuit of the Russia story convinced him that any sort of normal relationship with the press was impossible.

For the past year and a half, CJR has been examining the American media’s coverage of Trump and Russia in granular detail, and what it means as the country enters a new political cycle. Investigative reporter Jeff Gerth interviewed dozens of people at the center of the story — editors and reporters, Trump himself, and others in his orbit.

As Gerth, a freelance journalist who spent three decades as an investigative reporter at The New York Times, notes: “The two most inflammatory, and enduring, slogans commandeered by Trump in this conflict were ‘fake news’ and the news media as ‘the enemy of the American people.’ They both grew out of stories in the first weeks of 2017 about Trump and Russia that wound up being significantly flawed or based on uncorroborated or debunked information, according to FBI documents that later became public. Both relied on anonymous sources.”

If there’s any consolation for Trump, it’s that he single-handedly destroyed the credibility of the mainstream media in this country. No one else could’ve done it. No one else had the combination of stature and stamina that Trump had, and no one else had a willingness to take on such a long-odds battle.

“Today,” as Gerth reports, “the US media has the lowest credibility — 26 percent — among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In 2021, 83 percent of Americans saw ‘fake news’ as a ‘problem,’ and 56 percent — mostly Republicans and independents — agreed that the media were ‘truly the enemy of the American people,’ according to Rasmussen Reports.” Ouch.

In fairness, Trump made clear to distinguish between the “Fake News Media” — the CNNs and the MSNBCs and the New York Timeses and the Washington Posts, which he did indeed call the enemy of the people — and the mainstream media more broadly, with which he generally found a way to coexist.

In any case, what many in the media might now regret is the knowledge that it didn’t have to be this way. Trump, having made his mark in New York City real estate and then in entertainment, was well aware of the bare-knuckled nature of an adversarial press, but he made it clear that he’d hoped to get along with the media in the early weeks of his administration.

Then, Gerth writes, “he found himself inundated by a wave of Russia-related stories. He then realized that surviving, if not combating, the media was an integral part of his job. ‘I realized early on I had two jobs,’ said Trump. ‘The first was to run the country, and the second was survival. I had to survive: the stories were unbelievably fake.’”

Typical of the media’s hysterical attitude toward Trump was its pathetic overreaction to a comment Trump made at his Doral golf resort during the 2016 campaign, when word got out that the Clinton campaign’s computers had been hacked by the Russians, resulting in an embarrassing leak of Democrat dirty laundry.

“Russia,” Trump said, “if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” a reference to the massive batch of subpoenaed emails that Hillary Clinton and her henchmen had BleachBitted out of existence. “The quip,” Gerth writes, “was picked up everywhere. Clinton national-security aide Jake Sullivan quickly seized on the remarks, calling them ‘a national-security issue,’ which is an ironic thing to say for a guy who himself was something of a national security issue due to his secretive Russiagate involvement.”

Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, Gerth writes, “told me that news coverage of the Russia inquiry ‘wasn’t handled well’ and that he thought viewers and readers had been ‘cheated.’ He urged newsrooms to ‘walk down the painful road of introspection.’”

Matt Taibbi, now of Twitter Files fame, likened the media’s Trump coverage to its failures leading up to the Iraq War. Who can forget the New York Times’s catastrophically inaccurate cheerleading about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? “It was a career-changing moment for me,” he told Gerth. The “more neutral approach” to reporting, said Taibbi, “went completely out the window once Trump got elected. Saying anything publicly about the story that did not align with the narrative — the repercussions were huge for any of us that did not go there. That is crazy.”

Journalist Mark Hemingway, who himself spent years sorting through and helping to debunk one Russiagate lie after another, can’t help but be angered by it all: “It’s an emotion not directed at Gerth,” he writes, “who has done courageous work. But the fact that this piece is appearing two years after Trump left office and nearly five years after special prosecutor Robert Mueller failed to substantiate years of anonymously sourced speculation about Russia collusion is a searing indictment in itself.”

Gerth doesn’t spare the big names or the big publications. They’re all in there. But while Gerth notes the media’s self-inflicted erosion of trust, he doesn’t sufficiently dwell on its collective motive, which is unbridled, pack-mentality Trump hatred. As Hemingway writes:

The missing motive suggests something far more sinister. The media’s Russiagate coverage hinged on being extremely trusting of officials in national security and law enforcement agencies that have historically undermined the press and been hostile to civil rights. … When “deep state” actors with an obvious animus for Donald Trump pushed the narrative that a sitting U.S. president was compromised by a foreign power, a story so explosive it demanded to be thoroughly vetted every step of the way, the mainstream media instead decided to become stenographers.

Hemingway, like the rest of us, appreciates Gerth’s effort, but he’s realistic about his article’s ultimate effect. “The members of the press still seeking to dodge accountability,” he writes, “will simply be able to point to his article and say, ‘It’s old news.’”

But whose fault is that? And just because it’s seven and a half years old doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Nor that some statute of limitations now obviates the need to snatch back those Pulitzer Prizes from their unworthy recipients at the Times and the Post.

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