American journalism has lost its bearings, and we are all paying the price. For the past four years, egged on by President Trump, mainstream news swiftly descended past the first circle of hell — subtle partisanship — and reached a far darker, hotter one: blatant favoritism, stories killed for purely partisan reasons and occasional propaganda masquerading as solid news.
Journalism’s decline mirrors that of other American institutions, but it has compounded the social damage. A thriving democracy depends on free and open debate and informed debate depends on trustworthy news. For most Americans, that trust has evaporated.
The Washington Post is exactly right when it says, ‘Democracy dies in darkness.’ It is ironic, then, that the Post is part of the problem, not the solution. It is the reliable mouthpiece for Washington’s entrenched establishment when the country is angrily debating how well that establishment has served them. The Washington Post, like the New York Times and other major news organizations, is not a neutral observer in that debate. It is a protagonist on a mission.
Before turning to the latest story killed by the mainstream media, consider their abysmal performance on the two biggest stories from 2016 to 2019. (In 2020, the biggest story was different. It was COVID-19 and the many facets of the pandemic.) During the first three years of the Trump presidency, however, the biggest stories were Donald Trump’s alleged collaboration with Russia to win the White House and the efforts of Barack Obama’s administration, led by the FBI and CIA, to spy on Trump’s campaign and then impede his transition to office and presidency.
America’s mainstream media didn’t just make a few mistakes on those stories. It didn’t just give them some partisan spin. It missed both stories completely. It got them utterly wrong, and it did so for years.
Failure #1: The media bought the Russia collusion story and retailed
Except for Fox News, all the major TV networks and national newspapers adopted the Russia collusion narrative and drove it forward. They relied almost entirely on leaked stories from anonymous sources, deeply opposed to Trump, mostly at the FBI and CIA, plus some Democrats on Capitol Hill. The main drivers were James Comey and Andrew McCabe at the FBI, John Brennan and James Clapper at the intelligence agencies and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. They not only got a Special Counsel appointed but got him free rein. Robert Mueller’s prolonged investigation, managed by his deputy, Andrew Weissmann, hamstrung the presidency and helped the Democrats win the House in 2018.
All this time, Schiff was a media darling, repeating his claim that he had proof positive that Trump actively worked with the Kremlin. In fact, Schiff was sitting on secret testimony, given by all Obama’s top officials in national security and law enforcement. Under oath, all of them said they had no evidence of Trump working with Russia. Schiff knew that, of course, but he repeatedly told the press the opposite. Not surprisingly, he refused to release the testimony since it betrayed his lies. Schiff’s secrecy allowed the Obama-era officials to go on CNN and MSNBC and tell viewers Trump was a Russian asset who had worked with Putin to win the White House. When the deception was finally revealed, the media yawned.
When Special Counsel Mueller began work, his team had all this information, plus the FBI investigations that failed to find collaboration between Russia and the Trump campaign. Knowing that, he could have double-checked the work, done some additional interviews, and reassured the public with an interim report after a few months. The public deserved that, but Mueller and Weissmann chose to stay silent, hoping to trap Trump or his aides into making a false statement. This partisan team was determined to take down Trump and they kept at it for over two years. It all ended with a report that found no collusion and failed to indict any American for working with Russia on the presidential campaign. Nada. Bupkes.
There may not have been collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, but there surely was between the mainstream media, elected Democrats and anti-Trump activists within the FBI, Department of Justice and CIA. They worked together to delegitimize the President, bring down him and his administration and, failing that, to impede them from making policy. The press shared that goal, eagerly swallowed the ‘inside stories’, and readily granted anonymity to anyone who leaked damaging information. It was all for a good cause, they knew, but it hasn’t held up well.
This week, we learned, once again, how badly journalists misused the cover of anonymity to advance their agenda. It came when we finally learned who wrote the anonymous 2018 New York Times opinion piece saying key members of the administration were working actively against President Trump, whom they considered dangerous. Publishing an anonymous op-ed is extremely rare, but the Times explained the secrecy by saying it was essential to protect a high level official working inside the administration to undermine it. It was all very high-level, hush-hush stuff. Only after the author finally ‘outed’ himself did we learn he was actually a low- to mid-level official at the Department of Homeland Security. He wasn’t senior, like the New York Times said. He wasn’t someone who worked closely with the president or his White House team. They didn’t know him. He was a worker bee, not the Queen Bee. The Times knew the truth when it originally published the piece and it deliberately deceived its readers. It was all for a noble purpose, of course, to damage the President and beguile the readers who hate him.
The larger point here is that anti-Trump animus was so strong it overrode basic standards of journalistic integrity and judgment. That animus, coupled with disgruntled officials eager to destroy Trump, led to three years of dreadful reporting, spinning up flimsy tales of foreign contacts into an ominous-but-false suggestion of treason.
Failure #2: The media failed to investigate spying on Trump
While the press and cable channels were chasing the wrong story and reporting it incorrectly, they missed a far bigger one. There is now ample evidence that Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his transition to the presidency and his early months in office were spied upon. The surveillance appears to have been organized by James Comey’s FBI and the intelligence community led by John Brennan and James Clapper. They ran operations to entrap Trump campaign aides abroad, gained warrants on other aides in the US by lying to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, shared their surveillance information with the Obama White House, withheld exculpatory evidence from victims (notably, Gen. Michael Flynn), illegally leaked classified or investigatory materials to the media and much more.
We won’t know the full story until US Attorney John Durham issues indictments and perhaps publishes a report. But we already know the main elements and, once again, we know the mainstream media missed it completely. What is that story? It is that the Obama administration used the most powerful tools of intelligence and law enforcement to spy on an opposition political campaign and impede the transition of power. After the new administration took over, the spying and leaking continued, thanks to holdover officials and bureaucrats who opposed Trump.
The misuse of intelligence and law enforcement was an egregious abuse of power and almost certainly criminal. Intelligence tools are meant to be used solely to spy on foreign countries and individuals. Here, they were turned onto Americans. The tools of law enforcement are meant to be used within strict boundaries, set out in black-letter law, judicial precedent and procedural rules at the FBI and Department of Justice. We know, thanks to a report from DoJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, how badly the Bureau and Justice department abused those procedures. Before too long, we should learn how badly Mueller’s team acted. We will likely learn a lot more about what the CIA did to spy on the Trump campaign and who knew about all these operations. It is likely to be an ugly, sprawling, dark picture.
This is a huge story, one that goes to the heart of our constitutional government. But we have learned almost none of it from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. To put it bluntly, they missed the story.
That makes two. They missed the two biggest stories of the first three years of Trump’s presidency.
They missed them both for the same reason: they hated Trump so deeply and considered him such a danger to the country that they didn’t do their basic job as journalists. Since they travel in packs, they all went over the cliff together.
Their political purpose made it all too easy to hook up with like-minded insiders and believe what they said. Instead, what they should have been doing was viewing their contacts’ tales with a gimlet eye, investigating them skeptically, reporting ‘without fear or favor’, and letting readers draw their own conclusions. What they actually did was embrace ex-Obama officials, Democrats on the Hill, and anti-Trump bureaucrats as friendly fellow travelers. They gave them anonymity and ink, not sunlight and doubt. As journalists, they were right when they approached the incumbent administration with suspicion and disbelief. They were wrong when they abandoned those standards to advance their own agenda and that of Trump’s political opponents. That’s true even if you think the opposition agenda is better for the country. That perspective belongs on the editorial pages and in clearly-labeled analysis. It has corrupted what used to be ‘hard news’.
Looming Failure #3: Refusing to investigate Biden family corruption
We are seeing the same motives and the same mistakes play out, once again, as documents and witnesses emerge about the Biden family, describing what they say is a long-running ‘pay-to-play’ scheme.
There are now three separate sets of damning documents covering overlapping scandals. One is Hunter’s ‘laptop from hell’, abandoned at a Delaware repair shop. The second is a cache of some 27,000 emails to and from Bevan Cooney, one of Hunter Biden’s disgruntled ex-business partners. The third and most recent is another cache of documents plus an extensive, on-the-record TV interview with Tony Bobulinski, an international business executive and another of Hunter’s former partners.
Bobulinski has a striking story. What is equally striking — indeed, unprecedented in my experience — is that the mainstream media not only refuses to cover it; it refuses to even mention it. Social media sites have aided the suppression.
Bobulinski says he helped the Biden family arrange multimillion-dollar business deals with Chinese executives closely tied to the Communist party. The proposed deals are not in doubt. Bobulinski has provided plenty of documents to prove Hunter and Joe’s brother, James, were involved. What is in doubt is whether Joe Biden was involved in this or other schemes or knew about them. Of the documents Bobulinski has released so far, only one includes even an oblique reference to Joe Biden’s participation. That is a reference to ‘the Big Guy’ receiving a hidden, 10 percent stake in a lucrative deal. Bobulinski says Hunter frequently used ‘the big guy’ and ‘my chairman’ to refer to his father.
The lack of direct evidence linking Joe Biden to these schemes is crucial. Bobulinski says Hunter spoke directly of his father’s knowledge of and involvement in his various deals, which contradicts Joe Biden’s flat denial that he ever spoke to his son about business. Bobulinski adds that he met twice with Joe Biden, spoke with him about family business arrangements ‘at a high level’ (whatever that means) and has now spoken at length to FBI agents about these claims after they recently became public. Bobulinski’s volunteering to speak to the FBI is significant since giving them false statements is a felony. Bobulinski also gave the Bureau and a Senate Committee, headed by Sen. Ron Johnson, all his electronic devices and communications with the Bidens. Johnson’s staff is reviewing these documents and says that all they have seen are authentic.
Whether Tony Bobulinski’s story ultimately pans out or not, the allegations and supporting documents are big news, worthy of serious investigation and reporting. Or, rather, they should be. So should the Delaware laptop and the Cooney emails. In fact, there is almost complete media silence about all of them. The laptop story was reported only by the New York Post, which was then locked out of its Twitter account for daring to share a link to its own cover story. Except for Fox News, The Spectator, the Wall Street Journal and some conservative blogs, the laptop story has received almost no follow-up coverage.
What happened to the Bobulinski story is even more amazing. There is an almost-complete mainstream media blackout, except for Fox News, which aired the hour-long interview with Bobulinski. Sinclair News has begun to do some follow-up. Of course, conservative media are consumed with it. Meanwhile, NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN refuse to even mention it. A search for ‘Bobulinski’ on the CNN website (on October 30 at 4:15 a.m.) shows ‘Your search for Bobulinski did not match any documents.’
The latest victim of this blackout is Glenn Greenwald, a prominent reporter on intelligence issues who formerly worked for the Guardian before co-founding a prominent website, the Intercept. Greenwald drafted a major article on these and other Biden problems for the Intercept, but the editors refused to publish it unless he deleted all criticism of the Democratic presidential candidate. Rather than do that, Greenwald resigned (for reasons he explains here) and published the article on his newly-launched Substack (here).
The concerted media blackout has allowed the Biden campaign to wave away all charges of corruption without offering any real explanation. Since nobody bothers to ask hard questions, the Biden team hasn’t even been forced to deny the accusations. It certainly hasn’t volunteered any details. The Biden campaign has never said the Delaware computer and the documents on it are fake, for example. They haven’t said anything about the Cooney emails. And they have completely avoided comments on Bobulinski’s devastating accusations. All they do is offer a generic response. The accusations, they say, are all smears and Russian disinformation. No one in the campaign or media seems to have been bothered when the FBI and Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, denied the disinformation claim. They said the Delaware computer was not the work of any foreign government.
And yet…crickets from the mainstream media. These are the same folks who eagerly reported the most salacious, unverified accusations against Donald Trump from Christopher Steele’s dossier, based only on FBI leaks and a PR campaign from Hillary Clinton’s operatives. They seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, as Talleyrand once said of France’s Bourbon monarchy.
What went wrong?
In one sense, the mainstream media is like the rest of America, deeply divided along partisan lines, smug in its contempt for those with different views. As journalists, though, they have a professional responsibility to investigate and report, not to spike stories that favor the ‘wrong’ side or ease the path for sketchy stories that help the ‘right’ one. They have failed in that basic responsibility.
They should have listened to Chicago’s crusty, old, beloved City News Bureau, which famously told reporters, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ The City News Bureau is long gone and so, for many reporters and editors, is its ethos. If stories can help their friends, why bother checking too closely? If stories could help their enemies, better to spin them or spike them. These journalists would do far better to remember the cynical, even-handed advice: ‘check it out.’ If it checks out, report it. If not, don’t. Don’t get too friendly with the people you are covering, either. Don’t get too invested in their causes. Abandoning that advice to cuddle up to mother, without checking first, has been costly, both for journalism and the public it serves.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security.