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Taibbi: Take A Bow, Columbia Journalism Review


Taibbi: Take A Bow, Columbia Journalism Review

Authored by Matt Taibbi via Racket,

The Columbia Journalism Review stunned many last Monday by publishing “The Press Versus the President,” a 24,000-word autopsy of press coverage in the Trump years, focusing on the the Trump-Russia collusion scandal colloquially known as “Russiagate.”

The piece was written by Jeff Gerth, a long-serving New York Times writer who is as credentialed as they come in the legacy press, having among other things won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 (for reporting, incidentally, not commentary or public service). In retirement at the start of the Trump years, Gerth watched with growing alarm as venerable institutions like the Times and the Washington Post continually made high-stakes assertions in headlines that appeared based on thin or uncheckable sourcing.

The pile of such stories was already stacked to skyscraper height, and commemorated by awards like a joint Times-Post Pulitzer, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up an investigation of the matter without indicting Trump or anyone else for the supposed conspiracy. There was no way for Mueller’s probe to have ended the way it did and for years of “worse than Watergate” news reports about Trump-Russian collusion to be true, so Gerth went back to the beginning in search of the real story of what, if anything, went wrong on the coverage side.

The result is a long, almost book-length compendium of errors and editorial overreach. It could have been longer. Gerth focused on the would-be investigative reports at papers like the Times and the Post that drove Russiagate, mostly leaving alone the less serious players at cable news and at online journals whose main contribution was making the click-bomb bigger.

A brief note on some issues that were already popping up as problems in the media business heading into 2016-2017, and which are important subtext to Gerth’s piece:

All the President’s Men was a great movie, but it may have infected the media world with a delusion. Alan J. Pakula’s atmospheric thriller depicted journalists as modern-day noir detectives, with the bustling Washington Post newsroom replacing the stylish offices of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman giving America a portrait of reporters as sexy young rebels who could topple a president with a keystroke. The job is virtually never like that, but a generation of reporters and editors grew up with this ideal, on the alert for that one great scoop that would lead to lucrative book and movie deals and model-level actors playing them onscreen. I don’t think it’s an accident that just as journalism was beginning to lose its way, Hollywood began cranking out All the President’s Men homages one after another, from Spotlight to She Said to The Post.

Gerth doesn’t say that great papers like the Times and the Post were so busy self-mythologizing that they untethered themselves from accountability mechanisms that once kept papers out of trouble, but it’s implied in the facts he uncovers. Perhaps the most damning scene in the four-part series comes in Part Two, when in an astonishing display of hubris the Times invites a documentary crew to film them for a series called The Fourth Estate. The problem is, the scene they invite Showtime to record is perhaps the biggest screwup in the Russiagate years. This is the journalistic equivalent of Captain Edward Smith inviting cameras to record him snoring away as his Titanic drives into an iceberg.

The Fourth Estate cameras were in the newsroom as Times leaders were preparing a front page stunner for February 14th, 2017 called “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” The piece cited “phone records and intercepted calls” and “four current and former American officials” in asserting that “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign” had repeated contact with “senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.”

If true, this piece by the iconic daily might easily have been just the first in a series of exposés leading to the end of the Trump presidency. Or so the Times thought, seemingly. Gerth, who correctly identifies the “Repeated Contacts” story as one of the decisive moments in the Russiagate disaster, recounts how editors and reporters preened for the cameras as they accelerated toward their proverbial iceberg:

As the story is being edited, Mark Mazzetti, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau who was also helping edit some of the Trump-Russia coverage, is shown telling senior editors he is “fairly sure members of Russian intelligence” were “having conversations with members of Trump’s campaign…” He asks Baquet, “Are we feeding into a conspiracy” with the “recurring themes of contacts?”

Baquet responded that he wanted the story, up high, to “show the range” and level of “contacts” and “meetings, some of which may be completely innocent” and not “sinister,” followed by a “nut” or summary “graph,” explaining why “this is something that continues to hobble them.”

Baquet’s desire to flush out the details of supposed contacts is similar to his well-founded skepticism in October 2016 about the supposed computer links between a Russian bank and the Trump organization.

Mazzetti reports back that the story is “nailed down.”

Baquet asks, “Can you pull it off?”

“Oh yeah,” Mazzetti replies.

So Baquet signs off, adding that it’s the “biggest story in years.”

Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief, adds her seal of approval: “There’ll be hair on fire.”

That’s the executive editor of the New York Times asking a reporter to double-check with his (unnamed) sources on a huge front-page story, and the reporter coming back in a jiffy with news that the piece is “nailed down.” It’s not happening today, but the publishers of the Times will sooner or later wish they had that moment back.

The story turned out to be wrong, at least according to the FBI, whose director James Comey would later testify that “in the main, it was not true.” Even the man leading the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, Peter Strzok — the same ferocious Trump critic Peter Strzok, who reassured his lover Lisa Page that Trump would never become president, because “we’ll stop it” — even he couldn’t find a way to confirm the tale, as Gerth describes (emphasis mine):

The story said “the FBI declined to comment.” In fact, the FBI was quickly ripping the piece to shreds, in a series of annotated comments by Strzok, who managed the Russia case. His analysis, prepared for his bosses, found numerous inaccuracies, including a categorical refutation of the lead and headline; “we are unaware,” Strzok wrote, “of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.” Comey immediately checked with other intelligence agencies to see if they had any such evidence, came up empty, and relayed his findings to a closed Senate briefing, according to testimony at a Senate hearing months later.

This was a classic example of reporters being more eager for a headline than afraid of a mistake. This can only happen because mistakes of this sort are no longer career-threatening as they once were. The press is supposed to be one of society’s primary mechanisms for holding people in power accountable, but the system only works if reporters and editors aim that regulatory reflex at themselves first. A newspaper no one believes isn’t going to be worth much on the oversight front, yet the figures in the newsroom scene Showtime captured appeared to forget that, in their zeal to cast themselves in the next “All the President’s” remake.

In that same vein it’s notable that Gerth got Bob Woodward, journalism’s original movie star, to go on record castigating the business over its Trump-Russia reporting. Woodward told Gerth he believed the coverage “wasn’t handled well,” and “urged newsrooms to ‘walk down the painful road of introspection.’” He also described to Gerth how he tried to warn “people who covered this” in the Washington Post newsroom away from certain stories, only to be met with shrugs. “To be honest, there was a lack of curiosity on the part of the people at the Post about what I had said, why I said this,” he told Gerth. “I accepted that and I didn’t force it on anyone.”

Gerth’s story is a long, weedsy tale, and though some have described it as hard to read, I disagree. The piece is a thorough chronicle of a classic tale of human folly, describing how a business that depends on independence of thought, honesty, and a strong instinct for self-preservation to survive, fell victim instead to herd-think and walked en masse off a very high cliff. The story is scrupulously documented, as Gerth worked hard to get everyone from Woodward to former FBI spokesman Mike Korten to Donald Trump on the record, providing an immediate contrast to the anonymous “people familiar with the matter” (an attribution used a thousand times by the Times in the Trump years, Gerth notes) who propped up so much of the Russiagate reporting. It’s conspicuous that the people who mostly refuse comment in this article are the reporters themselves, who clearly still haven’t grasped what happened here and what they need to face to save their profession.

One last note about Jeff, who was good enough to answer a few questions for this article. The news business is not Hollywood. It’s not even politics, which as the old joke goes is Hollywood for ugly people. Real reporting work is mostly a drag, mostly time-consuming, and very often a high-effort, low-reward activity. If you’re doing it right, most of the time you’re making phone calls that don’t pan out, being a nuisance via repeated requests to use a quote or put a name to one, or sitting up at night and hyperventilating about article factoids your sleeping mind has woken you up to have panic attacks about.

Subscribers to Racket can read more here…

Tyler Durden
Wed, 02/08/2023 – 19:10

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