Posted by Curt on 19 May, 2020 at 10:36 am. 1 comment.


THE NEW YORK TIMES’ RECENTLY HIRED media columnist Ben Smith, who spent the previous nine years as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed as it grew into a media behemoth, did something Sunday night that very few other U.S. journalists would be willing to do: He published an unflinching and sometimes scathing critique of former-MSNBC-daytime-host-turned-widely-beloved-New-Yorker-star-investigative-reporter Ronan Farrow.

Farrow’s work in exposing Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator earned him celebrity, wealth, adoration in liberal circles, and — along with two New York Times reporters whose work on Weinstein was crucial — a Pulitzer Prize. His multiple appearances on late-night entertainment talk shows, his family lineage (he is the son of actors Mia Farrow and Woody Allen or, according to his mother, perhaps Frank Sinatra), his bestselling book, his New Yorker perch as star reporter, his marital engagement to former Obama speechwriter and current Pod Save America co-host Jon Lovett, and his telegenic appearance have all cemented Farrow’s status as one of the country’s most untouchable and lucrative media commodities. Few journalists have the stature or courage to criticize his work, especially in the pages of the New York Times, but Smith did exactly that in paragraph after paragraph of a long critique that seriously called into question the reliability and even integrity of Farrow’s reportorial methods.

Smith’s critique of Farrow’s journalism raises complex questions that are not easy to assess, and that critique is already receiving its own criticisms. Much of that particular debate depends on how one views the unique journalistic challenges of #MeToo reporting (though one of the most embarrassing mistakes Smith flags was unrelated to sexual assault claims: Farrow’s breathless and ultimately misguided allegation that the Trump administration destroyed records involving former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, a “blockbuster” revelation mindlessly and predictably hyped by MSNBC’s prime-time on-air personalities). I admire much of what Farrow has done over the last several years in battling corporate media outlets, particularly NBC and MSNBC, to get stories about powerful factions published, but I’ll leave the assessments of Smith’s specific critique of Farrow’s reporting to others more steeped in the specifics of those debates.

What is particularly valuable about Smith’s article is its perfect description of a media sickness borne of the Trump era that is rapidly corroding journalistic integrity and justifiably destroying trust in news outlets. Smith aptly dubs this pathology “resistance journalism,” by which he means that journalists are now not only free, but encouraged and incentivized, to say or publish anything they want, no matter how reckless and fact-free, provided their target is someone sufficiently disliked in mainstream liberal media venues and/or on social media:

That can be a dangerous approach, particularly in a moment when the idea of truth and a shared set of facts is under assault.

In assailing Farrow for peddling unproven conspiracy theories, Smith argues that such journalistic practices are particularly dangerous in an era where conspiracy theories are increasingly commonplace. Yet unlike most journalists with a mainstream platform, Smith emphasizes that conspiracy theories are commonly used not only by Trump and his movement (conspiracy theories which are quickly debunked by most of the mainstream media), but are also commonly deployed by Trump’s enemies, whose reliance on conspiracy theories is virtually never denounced by journalists because mainstream news outlets themselves play a key role in peddling them:

We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by President Trump, but others hyped by his enemies — that have lured ordinary Americans into passionately believing wild and unfounded theories and fiercely rejecting evidence to the contrary. The best reporting tries to capture the most attainable version of the truth, with clarity and humility about what we don’t know. Instead, Mr. Farrow told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works, and now, it seems, he and his publicity team are not even pretending to know if it’s true.

EVER SINCE DONALD TRUMP WAS ELECTED, and one could argue even in the months leading up to his election, journalistic standards have been consciously jettisoned when it comes to reporting on public figures who, in Smith’s words, are “most disliked by the loudest voices,” particularly when such reporting “swim[s] ably along with the tides of social media.” Put another way: As long the targets of one’s conspiracy theories and attacks are regarded as villains by the guardians of mainstream liberal social media circles, journalists reap endless career rewards for publishing unvetted and unproven — even false — attacks on such people, while never suffering any negative consequences when their stories are exposed as shabby frauds.

It is this “resistance journalism” sickness that caused U.S. politics to be drowned for three years in little other than salacious and fact-free conspiracy theories about Trump and his family members and closest associates: Putin had infiltrated and taken over the U.S. government through sexual and financial blackmail leverage over Trump and used it to dictate U.S. policy; Trump officials conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election; Russia was attacking the U.S. by hacking its electricity grid, recruiting journalists to serve as clandestine Kremlin messengers, and plotting to cut off heat to Americans in winter. Mainstream media debacles — all in service of promoting the same set of conspiracy theories against Trump — are literally too numerous to count, requiring one to select the worst offenses as illustrative.

In March of last year, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi — writing under the headline “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” — compared the prevailing media climate since 2016 to that which prevailed in 2002 and 2003 regarding the invasion of Iraq and the so-called war on terror: little to no dissent permitted, skeptics of media-endorsed orthodoxies shunned and excluded, and worst of all, the very journalists who were most wrong in peddling false conspiracy theories were exactly those who ended up most rewarded on the ground that even though they spread falsehoods, they did so for the right cause.

Under that warped rubric — in which spreading falsehoods is commendable as long as it was done to harm the evildoers — the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most damaging endorsers of false conspiracy theories about Iraqrose to become editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, while two of the most deceitful Bush-era neocons, Bush/Cheney speechwriter David Frum and supreme propagandist Bill Kristol, have reprised their role as leading propagandists and conspiracy theorists — only this time aimed against the GOP president instead of on his behalf — and thus have become beloved liberal media icons. The communications director for both the Bush/Cheney campaign and its White House, Nicole Wallace, is one of the most popular liberal cable hosts from her MSNBC perch.

Exactly the same journalism-destroying dynamic is driving the post-Russiagate media landscape. There is literally no accountability for the journalists and news outlets that spread falsehoods in their pages, on their airwaves, and through their viral social media postings. The Washington Post’s media columnist Erik Wemple has been one of the very few journalists devoted to holding these myth-peddlers accountable — recounting how one of the most reckless Russigate conspiracy maximialists, Natasha Bertrand, became an overnight social media and journalism star by peddling discredited conspiratorial trash (she was notably hired by Jeffrey Goldberg to cover Russigate for The Atlantic); MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spent three years hyping conspiratorial junk with no need even to retract any of it; and Mother Jones’ David Corn played a crucial, decisively un-journalistic role in mainstreaming the lies of the Steele dossier all with zero effect on his journalistic status, other than to enrich him through a predictably bestselling book that peddled those unhinged conspiracies further.

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