Published May 1, 2019
The New Criterion - April 2019 issue
Talk about burying your lead — or “lede” as our journalist friends waggishly prefer to spell it. Here’s the Washington Post headline to a story (by Toluse Olorunnipa and Matt Zapotosky) about Andrew McCabe’s revelation on national television (on the eve of Presidents’ Day!) of what amounted to a projected coup d’état in 2017 by himself and an anti-Trump faction of the FBI and the Justice department against the newly elected president by invoking the 25th Amendment’s provisions for presidential incapacity: “Trump trains his sights on McCabe as the Mueller report on Russian interference looms.”
Of course, it wasn’t surprising that, to the Post, there was nothing to see here in what, in other times and under other presidents, might have looked to a real newspaper like the scoop of the decade, if not the century. Even an embryo conspiracy by high ranking officials of the federal police force to remove a duly elected president from office, supposedly on the grounds that he hypothetically could have been a Russian operative, might have been taken to confirm the impression so often conveyed by our legal and political wranglings these days that we have become, politically at least, a third world country. For what was frightening wasn’t so much that Mr McCabe and his co-conspirators thought about contriving to rid themselves of this turbulent billionaire as that he obviously expected his confession to redound to his credit — and that it probably did, too, where it was not simply greeted with indifference.
Even the Trumpian base, while no doubt deploring the fact that swamp-denizens had discussed ways of removing the promised threat to themselves, appeared not to find anything very surprising about it. We have now come to expect that everybody in government will do as liberal judges have been doing for decades, which is to treat the law with contempt, as something to be massaged and shaped by creative legal thinking so that they can get what they want from it without going to the trouble of having to change it. Now we know where that too-familiar process ends. Yet the coup conspiracy was never reported on as a discrete event but always as something tangential to what the Post, in common with the rest of Big Media, have always regarded as the only really important story of the past three years, which is the putative wrong-doings of Donald Trump and, thus, his unfitness for the office he holds.
Moreover, so far as the Post was concerned, the story must have been construed as a kind of self-vindication for sharing the same assumptions as the conspiracists, who were now being attacked by the president just as the Post has often been attacked by him — with what provocation in both cases it scarcely required a mention. To the blinkered Post reporters the substance of his criticism was of no interest in any case. For them it was simply “the latest example of efforts by the president and his supporters to undercut the credibility of an impending report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Such wilful obtuseness was typical of the paper’s reporting on Mr McCabe’s revelation. No mention was ever made of it, at least not that I saw, that was not hedged about with details meant to minimize its importance — for example, that we had heard before of the proposal that Rod Rosenstein should “wear a wire” when speaking to Mr Trump to gather some hopeful pretext for invoking the 25th Amendment, and that Mr Rosenstein had dismissed it as a joke.
Similarly, the Post gave much more coverage to Mr McCabe’s own backpedaling when it briefly began to look as if the coup attempt was going to be a bigger story than he would be able to control than it did to the original revelation — which was leaked by CBS in dribs and drabs before the 60 Minutes broadcast of the interview, no doubt for the same reason. And, as with so many other stories about misbehavior by the FBI, or the media themselves, the fallback position was always to put it into the context of Mr Trump’s angry but understandable reaction to it in order to imply that he was only seeking to distract people from the real political jeopardy in which he was supposed to stand.
That, of course, was the point of mentioning the much-anticipated Mueller report, which the Post and other news outlets did with increasing frequency as the day of its expected release — or possibly non-release — drew near, although no one yet knew at that point what was in it. For so long as the report’s contents remained unknown, however, the media could make the most of pretending that it could and even possibly would still provide evidence of candidate Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, which had been the ostensible reason both for Mr Mueller’s appointment and, jacked up to suspicion that Mr Trump was actually a Russian agent, the projected coup attempt. And yet no one but the most die-hard anti-Trumpers any longer expected there to be any evidence in the special counsel’s files for “collusion.” No one even pretended to know what criminal act had been colluded in, though such a criminal act would be, if it existed, the only thing that could make it collusion rather than conversation.
Yet keeping the waning hope of such evidence alive as retrospective justification for Mr McCabe and his fellow plotters was not only a useful media strategy to turn the projected coup into old and therefore unimportant news. The expectation, or pretended expectation, of such a “bombshell” revelation to come could be held out as justification for splashing any and every hopeful anti-Trump story, no matter how trivial or how unrelated to Russia or Russian “meddling.” Almost every day at the end of February and into March the Post and The New York Times ran front-page stories that contained no news and with no other purpose than to keep expectations of the report’s potential damage to the Trump presidency at a fever pitch. A cynic might say that this was because the report was expected to be inconclusive, at best, and so could safely be assumed to be damning until it wasn’t — in the hope, no doubt, that people would remember the hype and not the anti-climactic reality.
On the morning these words are written, for example, the Post’s big story is about the D.C. courthouse where the investigative team is supposed to be forgathering and which is said by the headline to be “the closest you can get to Mueller’s probe, one wall away from its secrets.” Can’t you just feel the excitement? Meanwhile the Times has an admiring front-page profile, running to over 2000 words, of one of the special counsel’s bloodhounds headed: “It’s Mueller’s Investigation. But Right Behind Him Is Andrew Goldstein.” And who wouldn’t be pumped to know that? In other words, the media appeared to cling to their blind faith in the same assumption that motivated Mr McCabe and his fellow would-be conspirators — namely, that there must be something in Mr Trump’s past relations with Russia or Russians that can be characterized as disloyal, if not treasonable — and, therefore, that the McCabe cabal was understandable if not entirely justified.
They might not even really believe this, any more than Mr McCabe really believed that the duly elected president of the United States was a Russian agent, but both had to keep up the pretense of belief all the more if they were to be justified in their disinclination to think a plot to depose an elected president was any big deal, let alone as what the former newspaper publisher Conrad Black (himself the victim of prosecutorial overreach) called “the most immense and dangerous public scandal in American history.” Alas, the fact that Mr Black’s words appeared only on right-wing web-sites was itself an indication that he was wrong.
Which is to say that “the real scandal” was, as it so often is these days, that there was no scandal, or none that the Big Media were prepared to recognize. And, as I may have had occasion to point out before, if it’s not a scandal to both sides, then it’s not a scandal — only trash-talk by one side against the other. The media, of course, always nostalgic for the great days when they were able to make a real scandal out of the Watergate break-in, constantly pretend that it is all happening again. Occasionally, too, there is a crack in the Republican dike as some Jeff Flake or Mitt Romney type, seeking to curry favor with the media, hints that he is prepared to play the role that Barry Goldwater is said to have played in the Watergate scandal by turning against Richard Nixon and so make it a scandal indeed, instead of just opposition research of the kind that prompted Mr McCabe’s suspicions.
But if there are any conscience-stricken anti-Trumpers prepared to denounce Mr McCabe and company for betraying the anti-Trump cause as well as their professional oath to uphold the law, the media have not yet brought us news of them. We know why, too. It wouldn’t fit the “narrative” for which they have sacrificed any remaining reputation they may have had for fairness or integrity or even real news reporting. Instead, they keep bringing us news of things that do fit the narrative but aren’t real news, like the story of the MAGA-hatted schoolboys from the Covington Catholic High School that I wrote of in this space last month (see “Not the Same as Shame” in The New Criterion of March, 2019).
One of these boys, Nick Sandmann, is now said to be suing The Washington Post for $250 million. I’m not generally a fan of libel actions, but if we’re going to have libel laws at all, it’s hard to think of a more justified recourse to them than that of a minor child held up to national obloquy by a still influential national newspaper on grounds that have proven to be entirely fabricated. I only regret that $250 million is not much more than pocket change to the paper’s billionaire-hobbyist owner, Jeff Bezos, who (perhaps not coincidentally) paid exactly that sum to acquire it in 2013.
The Fake News story that dominated the headlines in February was even more distantly related to President Trump’s fitness for office, or lack of it, though it had its own interest for a media critic (if not, of course, for the media themselves) in revealing the pitiably low reporting standards to which America’s big-league journalists have been reduced by their obsession with narrative in general and their Trump-narrative in particular. An obscure television actor by the name of Jussie Smollett, who was said by Chicago police to have felt underpaid for his labors on the show he currently appears in at the rate (according to some sources) of $125,000 an episode, saw a chance to exploit the media’s eagerness to report anything to the detriment of Mr Trump or his supporters to turn himself into a national celebrity by pretending to be the victim of threats and abuse by two thugs with a noose and a bottle of bleach shouting, “This is MAGA country” — which, since they were in Chicago at the time, it pretty obviously wasn’t.
Remarkably enough, he appears to have succeeded in making his into a household name, even though the amateurishness of the imposture — it quickly emerged that he had hired the two men himself — meant an indictment for lying to the police. Something tells me that he is unlikely to do hard time — or even that he will suffer any lasting professional consequences. As he is both a Person of Color and gay, the media at least seem inclined to take it easy on him, in spite of the fact, or perhaps because of it, that they were his dupes. At any rate, it beats being ashamed of themselves or reconsidering their own eagerness to pounce on anything that might redound to the discredit of the president or his supporters.
The “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who at some personal and professional cost has done more than anyone else in an ultimately futile effort to explain Mr Trump to the McCabe-minded elites who loathe him, took the occasion of a TV skit making fun of Mr Smollett to write that the actor “has united the country in laughter — at Fake News.” But the New York Times wasn’t laughing when it ran another 2000-plus word photo-essay on its front page headed: “From Screen to Scorn: For Jussie Smollett, a Life of Arts and Activism Is Upended.” The Times’s solicitude for poor Jussie was explained in a subhead: “Given the actor’s long history in show business and political causes, it is all the more baffling to friends that he would risk so much.” But the paper’s own treatment of the story makes it doubtful that he has actually risked very much, and he has gained nationwide name-recognition.
The article’s photos, by Alyssa Schukar, are moodily dark, Hopper-esque street scenes, taken on location at or near the alleged crime scene but presumably on a different night, headed: “Jussie Smollett lives above and just to the north of where he claimed he was attacked at North New Street and East North Water Street.” Or: “Near the Subway restaurant in Chicago that Jussie Smollett said he had visited before being attacked.” Or: “Along North New Street close to where Mr. Smollett said he was attacked.” Or: “Winter’s Jazz Club in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, where Mr. Smollett said he was attacked.” Or: “A surveillance camera overlooking North New Street and East North Water Street in Chicago. Mr. Smollett said he was attacked at the southwest corner of the intersection.” Or: “The corner where the attack was said to have taken place.” Or: “Mr. Smollett’s apartment is just above the corner where he said he was attacked.”
Such lavish illustration of an incident that never happened gives a whole new meaning to the term “Fake News.” It’s Fake News unbound by shame, Fake News that doesn’t care that it is Fake — because its consumers don’t care either. The article itself begins like this: “Ever since he was a child actor growing up in a show-business family, Jussie Smollett’s life blended activism with the make-believe worlds of television and movies.” It’s the same blended world, in other words, where the New York Times is now offering to take its readers — and where its readers appear to want to go. They have grown used to living in an imaginary world of Russian “collusion” and ubiquitous MAGA-garbed “fascists,” a world where, in the article’s words, “Conservatives who had publicly doubted the story from the start seized on the criminal charges against Mr. Smollett as evidence that the news media and liberals would credulously run with any narrative that tarnished Mr. Trump and his supporters.”
Just fancy! Can you imagine sinking so low as to make such a preposterous allegation against the heroically self-righteous editors and readers of The New York Times who have learned to feel so much at home in the paper’s make-believe world that they don’t want to leave it. And why would they? It is a world which is not only gratifying to their prejudices but one where everybody as far as the eye can see thinks more or less exactly as they do on the important issues of the day, and especially on the all-important question of the no good, very bad, atrocious character of the president of the United States, of whom investigations like Mr Mueller’s or those now getting underway in the new Congress are redundant. They are proud of belonging, along with the Times-men and the Post-men — who have now scooted down on their bench of hanging judges to make room for the likes of Andrew McCabe and Michael Cohen — among the elite who already know, and always have known, that the president is guilty.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.