Thursday, March 9, 2017

A very peculiar position to take

An exceptionally odd article in The Rolling Stone, Why the Russia Story Is a Minefield for Democrats and the Media by Matt Taibbi. Written with no apparent self-awareness.

His thesis might be summarized as: Donald Trump is a bad president. The press and punditry are obsessed with finding a Russian connection. There is no available evidence of a Russian connection. The press needs to return to reporting more objectively or it will lose its remaining credibility.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared on Meet the Press this past weekend to discuss the Trump-Russia scandal. Chuck Todd asked: Were there improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials?

JAMES CLAPPER: We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, "our," that's N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that…

CHUCK TODD: I understand that. But does it exist?

JAMES CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.

Todd pressed him to elaborate.

CHUCK TODD: If [evidence of collusion] existed, it would have been in this report?

JAMES CLAPPER: This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government.

This is the former Director of National Intelligence telling all of us that as of 12:01 a.m. on January 20th, when he left government, the intelligence agencies had no evidence of collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and the government of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Virtually all of the explosive breaking news stories on the Trump-Russia front dating back months contain some version of this same disclaimer.
Fair enough. I can go along with that whole thesis, except for the first. Whether Donald Trump will end up being a good or bad president remains to be seen. We know the press believe him to be bad and we know they expect his presidency to be bad, but those are simply their opinions. We do not know yet.

What is striking to me about the article is that while Taibbi calls on his journalistic brethren to be more responsible in their reporting, he undermines the very roots of his own argument. It is as if he has written a confidential article for a cabal of his fellow left-leaning journalists and then published it in a magazine never expecting it to be read by others.

The three glaring examples of Taibbi undermining his own call for reportorial responsibility are hard to miss.

Taibbi makes the argument:
We can't afford to bolster these accusations of establishment bias and overreach by using the techniques of conspiracy theorists to push this Russia story. Unfortunately, that is happening.
Yes, I agree. The press should be more credible in their reporting. But what does Taibbi say in the paragraph immediately preceding this noble call to order?
Trump calls us "enemies of the people" who purvey "fake news." Together with what vile ex-CNN turncoat Lou Dobbs calls the "global corporatists" who own the major media companies, we are said to comprise the "opposition party."
Vile turncoat? You are not going to earn respect and credibility by referring to a journalist with whom you disagree as a "vile ex-CNN turncoat." That is the language of ideologues. Some conservatives refer to journalists as Democratic operatives with by-lines and referring emotionally to a "vile ex-CNN turncoat" is a clear signal that indeed, Taibbi believes journalists to be Democratic operatives.

Later in the article, after Taibbi does a very thorough fisking of the badness of mainstream media reporting on Trump, showing time and again how biased and faulty it has been, he then shoots himself in the foot with "Trump is enough of a pig and a menace . . ." If you are going for greater credibility and balance, that doesn't seem to be the way to go about achieving it. It is possible that Taibbi is concerned about shoring up his left-leaning cred, given that his article is such a fact-based take-down of the the media herd irresponsibility, and that he feels compelled to do some virtue signaling with gratuitous name-calling. Still, the childish name-calling sits at odds with the call for more responsible reporting.

The biggest tell, though, is the penultimate paragraph.
If that's the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.
Again, I agree. I have been concerned about this very point. I take a systems view of things and one of our more important checks and balances is the press. When governmental wrong-doing occurs, and it always occurs regardless of party, we need a credible press to report. If, as is happening now, the press has squandered all their integrity and they are seen simply as Democratic operatives with by-lines, then their capacity to fulfill the role of a check on government and elected-official excess is severely eroded.

But Taibbi is essentially making a slightly different argument to his fellow journalists. He is saying - We need to take down Trump and if we squander our credibility on weak-tea stories, then we won't be able to destroy him when we have a real story.

So while I admire the comprehensiveness with which Taibbi documents the journalistic malpractice, I am also astonished at how blatant he is in his assumption that regaining journalistic credibility is only important to the extent that it serves the capacity of journalists to achieve political goals. That seems to me to be a very peculiar position to take, and only really possible for someone who is in the belly of the beast.

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