For the past two years, a large swath of the media engaged in a mass act of self-deception and partisan groupthink. Perhaps it was Watergate envy, or bitterness over Donald Trump’s victory, or antagonism towards Republicans in general—or, most likely, a little bit of all the above. But now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has delivered his report on Russian collusion, it’s clear that political journalists did the bidding of those who wanted to delegitimize and overturn Trump’s election.
While bad behavior from partisan sources should be expected, the lack of skepticism from self-appointed unbiased journalists has been unprecedented. Any critical observer could see early on that Trump-era partisan newsroom culture had made journalists susceptible to the deception of those peddling expedient stories. Our weekly bouts of Russia hysteria all sprung from one predetermined outcome: the president was in bed with Vlad Putin.
The natural disposition of journalists—even opinion journalists—should be skepticism. Like him or not, the notion that the president of the United States, a wealthy showman who’s been in the limelight for decades, and ran one of the most chaotic major political organizations in history, had been secretly conspiring with Russia to steal a 50-state election should immediately have been deemed too good to be true by any decent journalist.
Yet once-respectable, if biased, mainstream outlets churned out one deceptive and faulty stories on the matter after the next. Even when corrected, these many debunked pieces helped foster an environment that allowed the Big Myth to fester.
For all the alleged reporters who spread tales of conspiracy—Ken Dilanian, Natasha Betrand, Ryan Lizza, Manu Raju, and Jason Leopold come to mind, although they certainly weren’t alone— there were an endless number of pundits and liberal writers who regularly accused the president, not of being merely mendacious or incompetent, but of sedition.
A bunch of crackpots were transformed into social media stars. Cable news paraded out officials with axes to grind, like John Brennan and James Clapper, and a slew of supposedly credentialed talking heads as experts. They all claimed that the most remarkable conspiracy in American history had transpired.
No one, of course, will take responsibility for two years of panic-driven coverage. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at the Washington Post, in fact, argues that mainstream journalists—not the ones who were rightly dubious about the collusion narrative—should be “proud” of the exemplary job they did. Sullivan might not be aware that it was the Washington Post that helped ignite the Russia scare with two “scoops” that turned out to be completely false in early 2017: the first, a piece on Russia hacking a Vermont power grid and the other a breathless story about the reach of Vladimir Putin’s fake news operations.
“There’s been so much solid reporting about the Trump-Russia mystery,” wrote Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, “but the media ecosystem tends to reward speculation over straight news.” He would know. Not only was feverish speculation regularly batted around on CNN panels, but most of the network’s anchors allowed guests to perpetuate conjecture without any pushback.
Stelter often relied on Dan Rather, a man who propagated false information to try and take down another president. CNN’s reporters, in fact, were some of the worst offenders. It got to a point where the network had to stop firing people for acts of journalistic malpractice.
Take the legendary Carl Bernstein, now with CNN, who also claims that coverage of Russia collusion was “one of the great reporting jobs” in history. One of these great bombshells, authored by Bernstein, Marshall Cohen, and former Obama administration political appointee Jim Sciutto, had numerous “sources” on the record claiming that Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was going to tell Mueller that Trump knew in advance of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that his campaign was colluding with a Kremlin-linked lawyer who was allegedly selling dirt on Hillary Clinton. False alarm.
There were many false alarms. And every time a story was debunked, we were told that reporters, like all humans, make mistakes. It’s true. Unlike everyone else, though, the many supposedly innocent blunders of mainstream reporters were almost always skewed in the same direction.
“I’m comfortable with our coverage. It is never our job to determine illegality,” New York Times editor Dean Baquet explained, “but to expose the actions of people in power. And that’s what we and others have done and will continue to do.” In reality, The New York Times and other outlets have hurt their ability to expose the actions of the powerful, because, even when they’re right, many Americans will have a difficult time believing them. And the powerful will certainly have a lot easier time dismissing them as tools of the Democratic Party.