Robert Mueller’s office possesses evidence showing that Donald Trump instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress! My goodness, what a bombshell. When the BuzzFeed story alleging this was first published Thursday night, the reaction was as painful as it was predictable. Journalists and fellow-traveler Twitter personalities lit up social media with grand, gleeful pronunciations about the imminent downfall of the Trump presidency. You could almost hear the champagne corks being popped. Within what seemed like mere seconds, the report was blared across all the major TV networks, and the reporters who broke the news were touted as once-in-a-generation heroes. Plaques and monuments in their honor entered the early stages of construction.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happened countless times before. Most amusing Thursday night were the pundits confidently announcing some variation of ‘this time feels different’ – which is to say, there have been so many Trump/Russia false starts and disappointments in the past, usually as a result of catastrophic media malfeasance, that were maybe cause for minor concern: but something about this time roused their confidence like no other. Like small children or perhaps cult members, they all joined together to chant ‘BOOM!’ in unison – the exuberant battle-cry for the online anti-Trump faithful who have latched onto ‘Russiagate’ with such intensity that their devotion often resembles religious fervor.
A plain reading of the BuzzFeed story did seem potentially damning for Trump, considering its central claim was that Trump had committed a felony, Mueller had evidence of this felony, and it was only a matter of time before the chickens came home to roost. But for the more practiced observers of how ‘Russiagate’ tends to operate, something seemed amiss. For one thing, there ought to be a presumption of skepticism for all these BOOM BOMBSHELL stories, considering the dozens and dozens of them which major media outlets have had to correct, retract, or withdraw in humiliating fashion. So common are these catastrophic journalistic botches, it can be difficult to remember them all. On aggregate, they demonstrate how over-eager much of the press has been to prematurely indict Trump as a proven Russia colluder, and also to over-inflate the threat posed by his supposed ally Putin, whose menace is often depicted as omniscient and all-powerful. Journalists’ facts and assertions have collapsed so many times that any responsible consumer of news should treat any purported TRUMP IS DOOMED story with extreme, heightened levels of caution.
That’s not what happened, of course. No amount of documented, demonstrable failure will ever convince the media to change their ways in this regard. Instead of promoting skepticism, the networks and the social media personalities promoted credulity and glee. The BuzzFeed story was chattered about round-the-clock on CNN and MSNBC, all day. On Twitter, they were already drafting the articles of impeachment.
From my own vantage point, it was the perfect opportunity to advocate a trusty analytical tool that I long ago adopted to evaluate Russia developments when they burst into the media bloodstream: wait. Twenty-four hours at least, because in the initial explosion that inevitably accompanies these breaking news events, people lose all sense of proportion and reality. So desperate are they for Trump’s swift demise that they become almost zombies, repeating the same anticipatory catch-phrases over and over, while also ditching the critical faculties which are necessary to remain sane in the midst of so much tedious, all-consuming frenzy.
Reminder: best practices for assessing Russiagate stories that have the entire media shrieking BOOM! in unison — wait 24 hours and see if the frenzy was warranted. Helpful guideline to follow ever since this tiresome saga began
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) January 18, 2019
Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, word came down from on high that Mueller had categorically rejected the core premises of the BuzzFeed article. It was an incredible moment, considering the elevation of Mueller as a quasi-deity figure, and almost felt like a supernatural force descending from the heavens to chastise the foolish mortals for hoping and praying that he fulfill their worldly desires. Add another profound journalistic flop to the great, mountainous trash heap of the broader Trump/Russia saga. And score another point for the utility of the 24 hour rule.
The same people who complain daily about how awful it is that the public tends to distrust the media also feel no compunction about spastically celebrating every purported BOOM BOMBSHELL revelation, despite the embarrassing history of such revelations turning out to be complete duds, and throwing their reasoning skills out the window at the first hint that some smoking gun might emerge to take down Trump. The only sensible response to this is cynicism and extreme skepticism. Trump himself, of course, promotes a level of cynicism that can devolve into nihilism, with his supporters presuming everything ‘fake’ which doesn’t make him out to be the greatest president ever. At the same time though, given the media’s track record over the past two years, being anything but cynical would be totally irrational. Something is seriously sick in the wider media culture, and the people suffering from this sickness obviously have no desire to find a cure: because the panic they generated for so long is immensely profitable. Seldom are punishments ever doled out to those responsible for perpetrating botched stories. A culture of journalistic impunity reigns.
In general, the sorry BuzzFeed episode is yet another reminder of just how deleterious ‘Russiagate’ writ large has been on the body politic. There are so many legitimate grounds on which to criticize Trump, it would be impossible to name them all. But for starters:
1. His deplorable policy in Yemen, which has prolonged and exacerbated a horrific humanitarian crisis, and justified on the grounds that it’s economically great for the Saudis to purchase a ton of lethal weaponry
2. The outsourcing of his first two years’ legislative agenda to Paul Ryan and the Congressional GOP, resulting in the only major achievement thus far being a boondoggle tax giveaway for the rich
3. His administration’s lack of regard for civilian deaths in war-zones, which have risen considerably since Trump took office
4. The very legitimate questions around whether his business and real estate empire – including Trump-owned properties which routinely bill the taxpayer at extravagant rates – are being used to convert the presidency into a personal-enrichment enterprise
5. His non-stop, ridiculous, petty feuding and insult-hurling, which dominate the national psyche to an extraordinarily unhealthy degree
The list goes on. And yet, somehow, amid all this chaos and graft, the defining criticism of the Trump presidency one hears most often (by far) when tuning into mainstream media is the ‘Russia story.’ Few even have the ability to describe what the ‘Russia story’ fundamentally is, because it has so many disparate strands and confusing parts. Professional journalists often struggle to encapsulate it. But in the public mind, ‘Something’s Going On With Russia’ is the dominant narrative of the Trump era. Consequently, the real impact of his tenure – good and bad – is being drowned out by the never-ending cacophony of media-led craziness. And the propagators of this destructive, discrediting ordeal are laughing all the way to the bank.