Democracy Dies in Derangement Too
Because our country is so deeply split and so distrustful of its basic institutions, it needs solid, dispassionate reporting now more than ever. We are not getting it.
Americans know this, and we’re angry about it. Polls show we don’t trust the media any more than we trust Congress, the president, universities, or big business. And we don’t trust them at all. That’s deeply troubling since those institutions should be the secure foundations of our public life. Only one is still trusted by more than half the population -- the military. Our men and women in uniform certainly deserve our trust and respect, but it’s grim news for a democracy when only the armed forces merit it.
The media has added to this sulfurous climate of distrust and division. Take the country’s most important newspaper, the New York Times. After badly misjudging voter sentiment during the 2016 election, the Times publicly promised to reevaluate its biases, take occasional trips across the Hudson, and try harder. That lasted about a week.
The Times soon joined every other media organization in the race to discredit Donald Trump’s election, imply it was the product of Russian interference, and paint him as an illegitimate intruder in the White House. Although they were right to investigate Russian interference, they were wrong to pump up a thinly based conspiracy story that served their political aims.
Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation showed the Russians did interfere, primarily to create chaos and assist Trump. The special prosecutor documented multiple Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, a troubling revelation for any fair-minded American. But the report did not show any impact on the election outcome or charge any Americans with aiding the Russians. Asked point-blank if the president had not been charged because he was in office, Mueller mumbled a befuddled answer (like much of his testimony) and eventually said “no.”
Mueller’s report left gaping holes. It made no effort to find out why the CIA and FBI began investigating Trump and his campaign in the first place, whether that was warranted, why a counterintelligence investigation became a criminal one, or why candidate Trump was never warned about Russia’s malicious efforts. The report never addressed whether James Comey’s FBI was secretly targeting Trump for partisan or illicit purposes or how it justified this unprecedented action. Ultimately, Mueller’s report was a dud, and his testimony a disappointment for those alleging a vast, treasonous conspiracy.
Did the proprietors of the Fourth Estate learn their lesson? No, siree. Like all true believers who have been thwarted, they have redoubled their efforts, reinforcing the impeachment drive by House Democrats. Even as Trump wrongly smears all news as “fake,” damaging our country (as well as his targets), those newspapers, online outlets, and cable channels are doing their best to prove him right. They have embraced their new role as active partisans, while still denying it. Who trusts their denials?
This media sinkhole was exposed once again after U.S. forces launched a daring raid that killed ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Washington Post beclowned itself with a headline, since changed, that depicted the murderous terrorist and serial rapist as “an austere religious scholar.” The Twitter universe responded with parodies. Bonnie and Clyde were called “wealth re-distributors in the banking sector,” John Wilkes Booth “a noted thespian and member of a prominent theatrical family.” My favorite is Osama bin Laden, who was “killed in a home invasion.” Note that all of them are true, just as the Washington Post’s headline was. They are funny because, like the Post headline, they miss the point so egregiously.
How did CNN do? Not well, but thanks for asking. At 3 p.m. Eastern time, when I tuned in, the news channel’s editors had decided that al-Baghdadi’s death was not the top story. The day after the raid. Really? They led with two minor pieces, neither of them urgent, and then took a commercial break. Afterward, CNN turned to the al-Baghdadi story, but its main point was that it was far less important than killing Osama bin Laden. I agree, but what was troubling was how CNN essentially stage-whispered to its viewers, “Trust us, this story is not that important and certainly cannot compare with President Obama’s achievement.”
Burying important stories is as significant as misreporting them. Over the next few weeks, we will learn about a huge one the mainstream media has buried in a shallow grave for nearly three years. It deals with surveillance on members of the Trump campaign, based on warrants the FBI and Department of Justice gained from a secret court charged with counterintelligence investigations. DoJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz will report on his extensive probe of those FISA warrants and whether top FBI and DoJ officials committed fraud on the courts in obtaining them. We may learn who leaked classified materials, a crime we know happened repeatedly in 2016 and early 2017. We may learn about massive, illegal access to intelligence databases by outside contractors, who were spying on Americans without court permission. Expect criminal referrals. Expect indictments on related matters being investigated by U.S. Attorney John Durham, a highly respected, non-partisan professional. Did the CIA, which cannot spy on Americans, simply outsource the task to foreign counterparts? This is likely to be big and ugly.
Our country’s leading news organizations have done almost nothing to investigate these issues and far too little to report on them. When they do report, they editorialize to downplay them. If the worst allegations turn out to be true -- and we simply don’t know yet -- they will have missed the biggest story since Watergate. Worst of all, they will have missed it deliberately because they feared any investigation might aid a president they hated. That position should be reserved for the editorial pages. In the news sections, such distortion and willful blindness is an abdication of journalists’ responsibilities. Democracy dies in that kind of derangement.