Without much fanfare, earlier this week Jeff Gerth, a Pulitzer-Prize winning former New York Times investigative reporter, dropped a thorough and damning four-part article dissecting the media’s obsessive reporting on Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. Even more surprising, Gerth’s report, “The press versus the president,” appeared at the in-house organ of America’s most prestigious journalism school, Columbia Journalism Review, which has long been regarded as something of an unofficial ombudsman for the media industry.
If CJR is finally comfortable admitting that the media’s Russiagate reporting was so scandalously bad that it damns the entire industry, that seems like a remarkable admission.
On Twitter, Glenn Greenwald, a left-leaning reporter who made some significant career sacrifices for calling out the media’s bogus reporting on this topic, declared Gerth’s reporting “absolutely devastating on how casually, frequently, recklessly and eagerly the press lied on Russiagate.” Gerth lays out what happened so clearly that it’s hard to imagine fair-minded readers who make it through all 24,000 words of Gerth’s report would conclude any differently. Personally, I’m proud to say that the work of RealClearInvestigations – and my colleagues there, Tom Kuntz, Aaron Mate, and Paul Sperry – are all cited favorably by Gerth as one of the few media outlets that consistently got the story right.
However, as someone who spent much of his time during the Trump years engaged in substantive reporting that questioned and debunked the Russia collusion narrative, my reaction was, well, anger. It’s an emotion not directed at Gerth, 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.
To start, Gerth demonstrates the media still won’t grapple with the truth. His piece is peppered with big-name reporters and major publications refusing to comment on basic errors or dubious or unethical judgments. Gerth did manage to get Bob Woodward, the dashboard saint of journalism, on the record condemning the media’s failures here. While that’s a notable concession, if respected figures such as Woodward harbored doubts about the media’s conduct, they should have been a lot more vocal – and much earlier.
It's also understandable why Gerth would want to keep his report narrowly focused on the facts of what transpired. But without any substantive discussion of the media’s motives it’s hard to draw any important lessons from this sorry saga. Gerth does point out that Russiagate has led to an erosion of trust in the media and offers a pallid warning that the media’s “failure will almost certainly shape the coverage of what lies ahead.”
But this is inadequate. Devoid of any broader context about the long history manipulations of America’s national security state or the corporate media’s evolution into ham-fisted left-wing ideologues, one can read Gerth’s dry reporting as a comedy of errors: A bunch of well-intentioned reporters, faced with the challenge of covering a problematic president – and disingenuous Democrats and partisan law enforcement officials – kept bungling the reporting, by getting key facts wrong and committing serious sins of omission.
However, 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. There’s a saying in traditional journalism – “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Yet, 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.
The blizzard of details necessary to explain the Russia collusion story might also make it seem like discerning the truth was more difficult than it was. If your willingness to believe that Trump was compromised by Russia started out as a political Rorschach test, it quickly became an IQ exam.
Starting before Trump was even inaugurated in January 2017, it was reported that the Logan Act was being used as a predicate to investigate Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The Logan Act is to national security laws what phrenology is to medical science – it’s a never-enforced 1799 statute that says it’s illegal for private citizens to negotiate with foreign governments. Laughed at by constitutional scholars, it’s routinely violated and invariably ignored.
Except that several major media outlets credulously reported on Flynn’s alleged Logan Act violations as if they were a potentially serious transgressions, when it should have been obvious that invoking this ancient and discredited statute was a desperate attempt to justify a politically motivated investigation. What happened to Flynn is just one example out of many where the press inexcusably disregarded glaring truths.
Gerth, to his credit, does a fine job unpacking the story of how Flynn was railroaded by the Justice Department, as well as the absurd credulity of the press regarding the so-called “dossier” on Trump, an obviously untrustworthy document produced by partisan political enemies of the president. Nonetheless, most of Gerth’s examples of questionable interactions between the press and government sources require reading between the lines to assess just how willfully blind the press was to the possibility of law enforcement officials abusing their power.
And given that the key players of the story were Democratic partisans, current and former spies, and shady opposition researchers, it’s also worth asking to what extent the press was being overtly manipulated and deliberately fed bad information. Although Gerth’s reporting suggests a conscious conspiracy, he doesn’t really go there.
Finally, no accounting of the media’s faulty Russia reporting would be complete without seriously evaluating the consequences. Once again, much of this discussion is outside Gerth’s narrower focus on how the sausage was being made in newsrooms. However, he gets close to identifying the gravity of the problem when he notes a fateful coincidence. The FBI’s dubious White House briefing to Trump and Obama on the dossier’s absurd allegations involving Trump and Moscow prostitutes – a made-up event that was promptly leaked to CNN, catalyzing the Russiagate hysteria – occurred on Jan. 6, 2017, four years to the day before the infamous riot at the U.S. Capitol.
These two events aren’t unrelated. Obsessively gaslighting tens of millions of Trump voters with a transparently false narrative that the president was a traitor who pundits openly agitated to remove from office didn’t just badly erode trust in the media. It also made it impossible for the media to summon the institutional trust necessary to persuade Trump supporters – and Trump himself – that Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 election victory was legitimate.
The result is that the shoddy reporting during Trump’s presidency contributed heavily to the frenzied and distrustful atmosphere that undermined Americans’ faith in elections, shook the very foundations of the Republic, and has left us all worried about political stability in the future.
So while Gerth’s careful reporting is noted and appreciated, it is unlikely to produce the kind of self-examination and reckoning necessary to restore trust in the media and the vital role they play in the democratic process. By getting away with it, the media learned all the wrong lessons. My fear is that when asked about the media’s colossal failures in the Trump years, Gerth’s article will be used an excuse instead of an indictment. The members of the press still seeking to dodge accountability will simply be able to point to his article and say, “It’s old news.”