Getting Trump Was More Important to Some Journalists Than Getting the Story Right
The botched pursuit of the Russiagate story illustrates how the media shed credibility.
To retain journalistic credibility, getting a story right is more important than pursuing a crusade.
That's a fair takeaway from a report published this week by the Columbia Journalism Review dissecting the so-called Russiagate saga, during which former President Donald Trump was accused of colluding with Russian officials to win the 2016 election. While pursuing the story, many journalists went well beyond their traditional role of scrutinizing powerful officials and not only openly picked a side in America's escalating political warfare but committed to proving a literal conspiracy theory true, no matter the evidence. It didn't go well.
"The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to essentially say no," former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth writes at the beginning of his detailed analysis. His old employer was at the center of the frenzy and its editors still defend their efforts, he adds. "But outside of the Times' own bubble, the damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on, and is likely to take on new energy as the nation faces yet another election season animated by antagonism toward the press. At its root was an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth."
The whole piece is worth reading, but make yourself a pot of coffee or crack open a bottle of wine—it's long. Nobody comes off looking especially good. That's true of the former president, though the flaws it reveals in Trump are nothing new to anybody who has watched him and his ego on the national stage. It's true of the FBI agents who joined with too many journalists to fan each other into a hopeful frenzy over the Steele dossier and its assertions that Trump was Putin's puppet. And it's especially true of those members of the press who shed credibility by committing to a narrative that didn't pan out.
"Before the 2016 election, most Americans trusted the traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer," Gerth notes. "Today, the U.S. media has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism."
That Reuters study is echoed by other studies finding minimal trust in the media. But distrust is unevenly spread.
"Americans' trust in the media remains sharply polarized along partisan lines, with 70 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents saying they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence," according to Gallup polling in October 2022.
That divide is explained by the public perception that the media is not only biased, but out to push an agenda without regard for honesty. Americans "suspect that inaccuracies in reporting are purposeful, with 52 percent believing that reporters misrepresent the facts, and 28 percent believing reporters make them up entirely," a Gallup/Knight poll found in 2020.
Journalistic shenanigans like the Russiagate debacle can only feed such concerns.
Strictly speaking, there's nothing wrong with journalists having a point of view, so long as they're open about it and emphasize getting the story right. You're reading a libertarian publication right now; we do our best to confine our beliefs to interpreting facts that exist independent of our preferences. A partisan press is well-rooted in American history, from the newspapers that gleefully tormented the early presidents to the Republican and Socialist newspapers over which my grandparents screamed at each other. Efforts at "objectivity" in news coverage—however successful—didn't really become the norm until after World War II. And it's likely a passing norm as journalists re-embrace partisanship and find (or don't) supportive audiences.
"A little more than half of the journalists surveyed (55 percent) say that every side does not always deserve equal coverage in the news," Pew Research reported last summer. "By contrast, 22 percent of Americans overall say the same, whereas about three-quarters (76 percent) say journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage."
"Beyond Objectivity: Producing Trustworthy News in Today's Newsrooms," published last week by the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, found that "a growing number of journalists of color and younger white reporters, including LGBTQ+ people, believe that objectivity has become an increasingly outdated and divisive concept that prevents truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view." Authors Leonard Downie Jr., formerly of the Washington Post, and Arizona State University journalism professor Andrew Heyward wisely recommend that post-objectivity newsrooms should be open with their staff and the public about their core beliefs. But, troublingly, they also suggest that newsroom leaders should "move beyond accuracy to truth."
It's really hard to get to any sort of truth if you bypass accuracy.
"My main conclusion is that journalism's primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media's own lack of transparency about its work," Gerth writes in the afterword to his Russiagate post mortem. "One traditional journalistic standard that wasn't always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative."
If more of the journalists pursuing the Russiagate story had been scrupulous about getting the facts right, they might have noticed that a story that many wanted to be true was remarkably thin and, ultimately, inaccurate. Failing to perform due diligence did the media no favors when the facts finally emerged and further eroded public trust.
Gerth calls for his colleagues to recommit themselves to "a transparent, unbiased, and accountable media" in order to win back trust and audiences that are increasingly siloed along partisan lines. "Unbiased" is probably a big ask given the inclinations of journalists themselves. It's not even obvious that it ever existed; the media giants that dominated for a few decades were likely more monolithic in their newsroom ideologies than they were truly neutral. But transparency and accountability should be expected of journalists who should be open about their methods and pursue stories, not results.
In the end, no matter what ideologies or causes motivate journalists, nobody will put faith in us if we fail to get the story right.