Journalism is dead. It wasn’t murder, or old age, it was suicide. Journalism died after drinking a cocktail of contempt, arrogance, ignorance, and enough narrative to kill a whale. Its corpse rolls on, meeting deadlines, publishing stories, and forming cable news panels continuing to extol the virtues of the poisons that killed it. They deserve your skepticism and your contempt.
The latest nail in the media’s credibility coffin landed Friday night. It was a bombshell story that declared, “President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
Subornation of perjury is a serious allegation for a “news” organization to make. At least it has become one in the years since Bill Clinton actually did it with Monica Lewinsky and Democrats didn’t care (it’s amazing what a difference party membership makes). If true, talking heads exclaimed, this would be grounds for impeachment of the President.
A second after Buzzfeed, the glorified blog known mostly for clickbait listicles and cat videos, published the allegations all presses were stopped. Newspapers and networks sent their reporters on a quest to verify the story, based on anonymous sources, for themselves. They couldn’t.
Normally, if journalism were still a profession with standards, this “bombshell” wouldn’t warrant more than a mention unless and until it was able to be corroborated by someone, even an anonymous someone, by the other organizations. You can’t report on someone else’s anonymous reporting if you can’t get anyone to back it up. But these aren’t normal times.
Every outlet ran the story, adding a casual mention of not having (yet) been able to “independently verify” it for themselves. A mere formality; it had to be true, after all, it was a story about Donald Trump, painting him as a criminal – the top item on Christmas lists in newsrooms from coast to coast.
All of Friday was consumed by this story and its implications.
Meanwhile, no one was able to verify any of it.
The two reporters who “broke” the story were immediately booked on cable news to be celebrated as conquering heroes. And they immediately contradicted each other on the crucial question of whether or not they’d actually seen documents proving their story with their own eyes.
When CNN asked if he’d seen the proof himself, one reporter named Anthony Cormier said, “No, I have not seen it personally. But the folks we have talked to -- two officials we have spoken to, are fully 100% read it, to that aspect of the special counsel’s investigation.”
The other reporters, named Jason Leopold, was asked on MSNBC about his partner’s admission and responded, “Over the course of a year we've reported pretty extensively on the Trump Moscow project, and we have been -- I'll just say that we've seen documents, we’ve been briefed on documents. We're very confident in our reporting.”
One said they hadn’t seen any proof themselves, the other said they did. It can’t be both.
No one took a knee when those flags were raised, they all saluted and continued an endless series of hypothetical discussions predicated on a story no one at any news organization could back up. I’d be shocked if several of the participants didn’t win Pulitzer Prizes.
Journalism went to Hell courtesy of what its practitioners view as its shining moment – Watergate – and it hasn’t looked back since.
As I wrote in my book, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made an untold fortune, were played in a movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, were showered with awards, and sent many journalists running down the path of fame rather than truth. And fame is the only thing heroin gets addicted to. The thing was, Woodward and Bernstein were real journalists. They reported a real story of corruption, worked sources, uncovered information, checked their facts, and got the story right. In other words, they earned their accolades. Today, too many journalists aren’t interested in doing the work, they just want the rewards.”
And there is a lifetime of rewards awaiting whoever claims the scalp under the golden coiffed locks resting atop Donald Trump’s head. Its pursuit has perverted the profession more than anything before it, and this time they thought they had it.
Late in the evening on Friday, in an extremely rare move, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office broke their long-standing silence to issue a statement on the story, a strong statement of denial. “BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the Special Counsel's Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's Congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement read.
Mueller could have remained silent, could have let the story peter out the way so many others have, but he didn’t. He drove a stake through its heart, rendering the entire day’s news cycle yet another fake news fever dream.
How this whole Mueller investigation ultimately plays out is anyone’s guess, anyone telling you otherwise is selling something. But how it’s played out for the media is laid bare for the whole world to see. CNN’s Chris Cuomo put it perfectly when he said, “Mueller didn’t do the media any favors tonight, and he did do the president one, because…this allows them to say, ‘You can’t believe it. You can’t believe what you read, you can’t believe what you hear.”
No, Mueller didn’t do the media any favors; it’s not his job to take the media’s side. It’s not the job of the media to have a side, or course. If journalists worry so much about their reputation, maybe they should try to remember that because the rest of us sure will.
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