President Trump had an idea.
One story was dominating this past weekend's news — Trump's increasingly embattled pick of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court — and the story kept getting worse from a GOP perspective. Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer from the New Yorker were on the line, seeking White House comment about a second woman with a sordid story to tell about the judge, and there were fears that other women might surface.
"Over the weekend," reported Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, and Josh Dawsey in the Washington Post, "at two of his favorite haunts — his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and Trump Tower in Manhattan — the president mused about wanting to inject some new chum into the news cycle to help deflect the spotlight from Kavanaugh, according to a former official in frequent touch with the White House."
Well, ol' chum, you won't believe what happened next.
Just before lunchtime Monday, with Kavanaugh and his precarious situation looking like an oceanside TV weatherman leaning into an Atlantic hurricane, everything changed. America's high-def flat screens abruptly shifted away from Kavanaugh's mug and onto the tires of a parked SUV outside the White House, the best approximation we could get of O.J.'s white Bronco.
The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had been in that car. And, according to Axios — a news start-up that depends for its survival on almost slavish access to high-ranking government officials — Rosenstein had roiled the criminal probe into Russia's 2016 election interference and possible Team Trump collusion, which he oversees, by resigning.
Over the course of an insane hour, as TV continued to show that damn hubcap, other top news outlets matched the Axios story. Or said that Trump had actually fired the embattled prosecutor (because everyone in Trump's D.C. is "embattled"). Or maybe, some reported, Rosenstein merely offered to resign. America's lunch was still in the microwave when some journalists began to note that Rosenstein had actually ducked into a high-level White House meeting, which was odd for a man who'd just resigned. Or been fired. Or something.
The increasingly obvious fact that Rosenstein hadn't been fired didn't stop TV's talking heads from bloviating for several more hours about whether the DAG would resign, or get fired, or something, and what that might mean for the future of the Trump-Russia probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, who works under Rosenstein, or how any of it might impact November's midterm elections. The embattled Brett Kavanaugh was nowhere to be found.
By late afternoon, the narratives continued to evolve. Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Rosenstein and Trump will meet face-to-face Thursday, quelling the immediate feeding frenzy created by the "chum" of fake news surrounding the Justice Department — but also guaranteeing the Rosenstein mess would continue to compete with Kavanaugh's problems for airtime.
Meanwhile, now that the media had resumed covering Kavanaugh, the focus had abruptly shifted. Now it was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor with a full-throttle (albeit infuriating to millions of women) defense of the judge, with Kavanaugh and his wife appearing on Trump-friendly Fox News for an unprecedented interview, intended to roust sympathy and also reclaim the plotline. The bait-and-switch operation bore the fingerprints of recently arrived White House communications director Bill Shine, who learned a thing or two about defending men accused of sexual misconduct from his last stint running PR for Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly at Fox News.
The media seemed reluctant to admit that the biggest story on Monday wasn't either the developments in the Rosenstein matter (since there weren't any, really) or in Kavanaugh's defense, but the way the naive Charlie Brown of highly paid inside-the-Beltway access journalism fell thump on its head yet again, duped by the football-yanking Lucy of an administration that yells "fake news" at its enemies yet specializes in inventing alternate version of reality.
The irony is that the real Rosenstein backstory is the worry that by reaching deep into a supposedly independent Justice Department and quashing a probe of wrongdoing by his own 2016 campaign and subsequent administration, Trump would be creating a constitutional crisis, acting like a dictator. And that's all true. But by manipulating the conventions of a free press to report fiction as reality — and distracting the public's gaze away from an actual crisis in his government — the Trump administration is already crushing American democracy.
The power to control the perception of reality — to deny the fundamental truth even when you are staring it in the face — has been the calling card of despots for more than a century. "Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are hearing is not what's happening," Trump told a VFW convention back in July. Some were amused; many were terrified. But the terrifying truth is that if you flipped on your TV on Monday, Trump's words were prophetic. What you were seeing and hearing was not what was happening, but the "fake news" was coming from inside the (White) House — the foul, fishy-smelling chum that Trump tossed to journalists way too eager to take the bait.
That crisis of democracy is already upon us. And it's going to get a lot worse — unless we in the media start doing a better job.
Trump didn't start this. Remember, it was George W. Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, who told journalist Ron Suskind in 2004 that journalists were from an outdated "reality-based world" and that "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities…" Hundreds of thousands died as a result of the fake reality that Bush, Rove, and their comrades created in Iraq — weapons of mass destruction and "ticking time bombs" and ties to al-Qaeda that never were.
The New York Times is in many ways a great organization — its journalists consistently break stories that widen our understanding of the U.S. government and the world beyond — and yet it has also developed a culture of addiction to access journalism, and treating the off-the-record manipulations of senior government officials as precious "scoops," that results in a so-called Paper of Record publishing lies that have changed the course of American history.
In 2002, then-Vice President Dick Cheney had aides leak a bogus story about Iraq's weapons programs to the Times, and then Cheney went on national TV to claim that the journalism of America's most-revered newspaper had proved the case for war. You'd think the Times would have learned from its mistakes of the Iraq era, but this kind of thing happened again and again — overhyping Hillary Clinton's emails and printing a since-proven-false story right before the election that the FBI wasn't investigating Trump's Russia ties. (Spoiler alert: It was.)
The Times' journalistic practices arguably triggered the current crisis with Rosenstein. On Friday, the Times published a story based on leaked internal memos that claimed the deputy AG had suggested secretly taping Trump and also invoking the 25th Amendment to replace the president as not mentally fit for the job. The charges were explosive and the FBI memos are real documents, but the Times' deeper journalistic skepticism went AWOL. Other outlets like the Washington Post and Bloomberg reported Rosenstein was joking about taping, and he has vigorously denied both key points of the story.
The real story wasn't so much what Rosenstein did or didn't say in 2017 but what's happening now: an unseen hand trying to get Trump angry and thus get the prosecutor fired. But news organizations that so often seem bound by outdated conventions from the 20th century (or earlier) seem to be fighting the current assault on press freedom from Team Trump with one hand tied behind their backs. "We're not at war with the administration, we're at work," Washington Post editor Marty Baron said famously, but if journalists don't start working smarter, we may learn that not only were we indeed in a war with an autocrat over objective reality — but that we lost.
The high-ranking government officials who deliberately plant false news stories — like the fish bait that was tossed out to reporters on Monday about Rosenstein — need to be outed by name by news organization that should worry less about access and more about a diminished reputation. There can be no "off the record" protection for sources who lie. Period.
Large news organizations like the New York Times that used to have public editors, or so-called ombudsmen, who answered the public's many questions about ethics and other newsroom quandaries — and who've been eliminated for a variety of reasons — need to bring them back.
New York University journalism Jay Rosen, a longtime voice for media reform, told me: "One of the jobs that person had was to listen to readers' complaints and make sense of them, and then get decision-makers at the Times to respond to the good points that readers raised, while at the same time explaining to readers how the practices of journalism are supposed to work." The Times' handling of the Rosenstein story, he said, is exactly why such a public editor is badly needed.
Rosen has also long argued that news orgs should "send the interns" — young, less-experienced staffers — to White House press briefings instead of top, Pulitzer Prize-worthy journalists who could be digging up real stories instead of eliciting six different forms of "no comment" from Sarah Sanders. I agree, and join other media critics in urging that the top newsrooms give a lot less weight to access to insiders — especially insiders whose main job is to manipulate reality.
I'm not arguing there's zero use to these 22-source, inside-the-Trump-White-House stories — Trump's "chum" remark emerged from such an article — but I would like less of these stories and a lot more coverage of the real insidious, grinding work of this administration, such as taking money from health research to build prison camps for migrant children, or stripping green cards from immigrants who've received government benefits. I could probably do without the 97th "Trump is feeling isolated and increasingly cornered in the Oval Office" story.