These Media Screw-Ups Would Make Dan Rather Proud

by Jonah Goldberg
They think they already know how the Trump–Russia story will end, so they’re rushing past the truth to nail down their version of it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Readers (even including John Podhoretz and the 16 percent of Twitter that literally hates dogs),

In 2004, when Dan Rather stepped on his own johnson like a freshly gelded eunuch told to dance on his own junk like Michael Flatly, Lord of the Dance, I wrote:

Across the media universe the questions pour out: Why is Dan Rather doing this to himself? Why does he drag this out? Why won’t he just come clean? Why would he let this happen in the first place? Why is CBS standing by him? Why. . . why. . . why?

There is only one plausible answer: Ours is a just and decent God.

I was a younger and more immature man then, so I will confess my schadenfreude was so intense I loved that story more than some dead relatives of mine. Any time I could return to it, I would. For instance, three years later, when Rather announced he was going to sue CBS for his “wrongful” termination, I picked up the theme of God’s generosity:

Well, God has not forsaken us. Dan Rather seems divinely inspired to crash more times than a Kennedy driving home from an office party. The multimillionaire semi-retired newsman is suing for $70 million, $1 million for every year he’s been alive since he was five years old. Which is fitting, because that’s what he sounds like.

Now, for you kids too young to know why Dan Rather lost his job, GET OFF MY LAWN YOU HOOLIGANS! And stop with the memes already!

But if you forgot, the basic story goes like this: Just two months before the 2004 election, Dan Rather and his crack news team at 60 Minutes II reported that George W. Bush had been AWOL during his time in the National Guard. He based this on some documents provided by a guy named Bill Burkett. It turned out that the documents were almost certainly forgeries. I put that “almost” in there as a nod to journalistic decorum. I think they were forgeries. What I am certain about, however, is that Rather and his team didn’t bother to authenticate them properly.

Indeed, one of the reasons I was so giddy about the Rather story — aside from the fact that I couldn’t stand Dan Rather — is that the Memogate story was one of the epochal moments in Internet history. Instapundit, the folks at Power Line, Charles Johnson, and our own Jim Geraghty, along with other members of the so-called Pajamahedeen, made their internet bones by meticulously — and often hilariously — dismantling the CBS story in real time. They showed how the documents had to have been made on a word processor.

What made the story so enjoyable is that Rather just refused to admit he did anything wrong. According to Rather, the story was “Fake But Accurate,” as a memorable New York Times headline put it. My favorite bit was a particularly piquant pas de deux of jackassery, when Rather said with a straight face that if the documents turned out to be fake, he’d “love to break that story” too. It was almost like he thought he deserved a Pulitzer for reporting a false story and another for proving his own story was fake. Rather’s dismantling of his own credibility, I wrote at the time, was like watching a robot ordered to take himself apart and put himself back in the box.

The whole thing is such a fond memory that I’m in danger of rambling on like an old-timer around the campfire regaling you with stories of the good old days. “Why sonny, let me tell you about fax machines and why we say ‘dial a phone number.’”

So let me cut to the chase. At no point did I think that Dan Rather and his 60 Minutes II team deliberately lied, at least not about the initial story. Instead, what I thought was obvious then — and now — is that they just wanted the story to be true so badly that they couldn’t see the problems with it. Their mistakes were driven by partisan bias — Dan Rather loathed the Bushes going back to the Pleistocene, and his producers were all chronic sufferers of Bush Derangement Syndrome — and groupthink. As I wrote at the time:

My guess is that Dan Rather truly believes he fell for those forged documents because he was just trying to get a scoop. But no one at CBS raised the necessary objections because they were all eager to nail Bush. No one — not even an idiot — said, “Hey maybe we should take an extra week to make sure these things are real.” Not even after their own consultants said the documents were iffier than a new “Rollecks” watch. If the target had been a Democrat, the usual safeguards would have kicked in. 

I bring this up because the media has been Dan Rathering itself lately. Mark Hemingway has a good rundown of all the screw-ups, which we don’t need to repeat here. It seems obvious to me that the mainstream media are consumed by a similar groupthink. The press, for good reasons and bad, starts from the premise that Trump is guilty of “collusion.” It’s like they think they already know how the story will end, so they rush not to find out the truth but to be the first to nail down a foreordained outcome.

A CONSPIRACY OF DOTS

This is all very bad. But it’s not lying and it’s not a conspiracy. It’s groupthink. I keep seeing people saying things like, “How come these mistakes never go the other way?”

Donald Trump has fueled the idea that the news media deliberately makes stuff up about him. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some actual examples of this, but I think they’re very rare. Opinions vary on why Trump does this. Some think it’s part of a brilliant master strategy, while others think he narcissistically and dishonestly claims that any inconvenient news is a lie and relies on the fact that his supporters will always take his word for it. I’m in the second camp.

Consider Dave Weigel’s inaccurate tweet about the crowd size at Trump’s recent rally (where Trump campaigned for Roy Moore). The moment it was pointed out to Weigel that the image was from earlier in the evening, he took it down. Hours later, Trump tweeted:

I don’t think Weigel lied. He made a mistake, acknowledged it, and apologized for it. But for many that wasn’t good enough. It had to be proof of a lie.

Again, why do these mistakes always go one way!?

The question begs the question. It assumes that if these were just errors, many would be in Trump’s favor, and that never happens. So it must be deliberate deceit. It’s a version of conspiratorial thinking that thinks there must be coordinated will behind undesirable events. But that’s not how things usually work. And drawing “subjective intention from objective consequences,” as William F. Buckley once put it, is a form of paranoid thinking.

The reason the mistakes all go one way is that the mainstream media are biased to the left in general and against Trump in particular. Neither of these things is a newsflash.

As for liberal media bias, you can go back to Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer for denying Stalin’s man-made famine. I can rant for hours about Daniel Schorr — then CBS’s chief foreign correspondent — “reporting” that Goldwater’s vacation in Germany was really an effort to link up with neo-Nazis in “Hitler’s stomping ground.” The press’ reporting of Hurricane Katrina — billed by press Brahmins as their finest hour — was a riot of hysteria and groupthink. And don’t even get me started on George H. W. Bush and the supermarket scanner story.

As for the feeding frenzy with Trump, despite claims that I reflexively take an anti-Trump position on everything (I’m not Jen Rubin, folks), I am perfectly happy to concede that the media mob against Trump has been ridiculous at times — because all mobs are ridiculous by their nature. I have been generally skeptical of the Russia collusion story, hewing as much as possible to the rule of “Trust Nothing, Defend Nothing.” The coverage of his praiseworthy decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was pathetic. And the hysteria about net neutrality is as close to a modern-day example of St. Vitus’s Dance as I can recall.

But what I won’t do is substitute one groupthink for another. To listen to Trump’s amen corner, every inconvenient fact is a lie, every Trump blunder proof of his genius, every media error evidence of some vast conspiracy. I think the revelations about the DOJ and FBI are troubling for all the reasons that we laid out in our editorial and have been explained by Andy McCarthy. But the idea that, say, the FBI is akin to the KGB is grotesque. And the widespread insinuation that anything Mueller finds will be fraudulent is slanderous nonsense, unless you honestly believe Mueller and his entire team will literally manufacture evidence, which is, you know, a crime.

The media are making these claims easier to hurl and more plausible to those who want to believe them. I’m not making a moral equivalence argument between, say, Breitbart and CNN, I’m just saying I want no part of any of it.

TRANS WHAT NOW?

One last broader point.

Last week I attended a conference put on by the Poynter Institute. A major theme of the day was how to restore trust in the media. It was an interesting event. But one of the more remarkable things about it was how a lot of people were working on the assumption that distrust of the media is a new phenomenon. As someone whose dad — a lifelong editor working “behind enemy lines” in the mainstream media, as he liked to joke — spent much of his free time taking a red pen to the New York Times, I found it rather remarkable — which is why I am remarking upon it.

This didn’t start with Donald Trump, something I think a lot of smart mainstream journalists will concede. What many of them have trouble processing is that they earned that distrust. Over at Vox, a publication that has always fancied itself a purely data- and fact-driven haven of “explanatory journalism,” David Roberts writes of an “epistemic breach.”

The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.

In their place, the right has created its own parallel set of institutions, most notably its own media ecosystem.

But the right’s institutions are not of the same kind as the ones they seek to displace. Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction. They try to separate truth from tribal interests and have developed various guild rules and procedures to help do that. They see themselves as neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice.

I actually agree with quite a few of his points (as they somewhat track an argument I make at length in my forthcoming book), but I think it’s worth dwelling on his biggest mistake. It’s true that conservatives set up parallel institutions. I work at three of them. That story has more layers than your typical Steve Bannon ensemble, but I’ll cut to the chase. There is a reason conservatives set up these institutions: because progressives made the existing institutions increasingly inhospitable to people who didnt subscribe to their groupthink. In other words, he gets much of the causation backward.

Science, for obvious reasons, has been the most immune to these trends (when I visit college campuses, most of the conservative professors I meet come from the science departments). As I discussed at length with Steve Hayward last week, conservatives fled the universities — in at least one case, literally at gunpoint — and went to think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute because their heterodoxy was unacceptable to the new orthodoxy.

The corruption of what Ezra Klein calls “transpartisan institutions” isn’t downstream of what’s happened to conservatism and the country; it’s way, way upstream. Try being a sincere evangelical Christian at the New York Times or NPR. Heck, try being a military historian at a major university. Roberts writes about “tribal epistemology” — a subject I’ve written and read a great deal about — but he defines it almost solely as a pejorative label of the right. Tribal epistemology is not a right-wing phenomenon, it’s a human phenomenon, and self-declared pragmatists and empiricists are just as susceptible to it as anyone else.

The academy’s emphasis on diversity — good and defensible in modest terms — has metastasized into a tribal form of identity politics. Universities push to admit a broad spectrum of genders, races, and ethnicities but enforce only a narrow slice of the spectrum for diversity of thought. The University of California instructs its staff that terms such as “melting pot” and “assimilation” are now bigoted trigger words, and yet we’re supposed to believe that the guilds of academia aren’t hostile to the perfectly defensible views of millions of Americans? And we’re not supposed to laugh when they simultaneously hold fast to the claim that they are neutral arbiters of the facts?

This is not some crackpot view from an epistemically castrated right-wing pundit. It’s Jonathan Haidt’s mission these days. Even the president of Wesleyan University thinks this is obvious. John McWhorter offered some moving testimony of the subtle racism among white campus intellectuals who simply assume that all black people must share Ta-Nehisi Coates’s angry and nihilistic view of race in America.

Progressives have become so drunk on their own Kool-Aid that they think they’re sober. Paul Krugman literally thinks “facts have a liberal bias.” I don’t think we would have Donald Trump if Barack Obama hadn’t lied Obamacare into passage — “You can keep you doctor,” etc. But where were all of the self-anointed champions of transpartisan objectivity? They spent their days not just disagreeing with the fact-based arguments of conservatives and libertarians; they were openly mocking them for denying reality.

Again, I agree we’ve got deep problems with tribalism on the right. But that’s just one facet of the deeper problems that America, right and left, has with the corruption of tribalism.

VARIOUS & SUNDRY

The latest episode of the The Remnant is up. In it I address a wide range of listener questions, rant a bit about Roy Moore and Steve Bannon, discuss conservative books and veganism, and yes, do a brief reading of some Donald Trump erotica. Thanks for all the reviews at iTunes, and if you haven’t subscribed, please do. The metrics for podcasts aren’t exactly as scientific as Nielsen ratings, but one thing that definitely counts is subscribing. I really want to keep getting more adventurous with this thing — and I don’t just mean more readings of disturbing erotica. Your support helps in all sorts of ways.

Canine Update: Everything is basically okay with the beasts. Zoë is getting really frustrated with the lack of morning sorties into the woods, but hopefully we’ll get the new dog car soon. Otherwise, she’s the same old dingo, needy and jealous for attention. Meanwhile, one worrisome development is that Pippa has gotten a bit growly when we try to move her. When it’s bedtime, she immediately wants to sleep on my wife’s pillow. If she’s there more than a minute, she believes she has officially laid claim to the spot. But normally she just goes limp like a civil-rights protestor — we call it Rosa Barks mode. The last few nights, she’s tried to pull off being intimidating. She’s not, but I don’t like these kinds of changes in personality. My theory is that she might have a sore leg or something and is protective. On the other hand, she’s been standing up to Zoë a bit more, which Zoë finds immensely entertaining. She’s also becoming more brazen with her demands for in-house tennis-ball work, which could also turn into a problem. She’s stashed them everywhere. We’re monitoring the situation. They’re good dogs.

Charleston Report: The Fair Jessica and I had a wonderful time in Charleston, despite the weather. A quick review of restaurants: I have to report that I thought Husk was a bit of disappointment. We were seated next to a very loud group of women in town for a wedding. The waiter was very slow to take our drink order and a bit too much of a hipster. The martinis were small. Some of the food was really great, but all of it was terribly clever and small-portioned. It was a very good meal, but it didn’t live up to the hype. We had a fantastic lunch at Xiao Bao Biscuit. The hipster quotient was very high, but the food and friendliness were great. We had to wait a while for lunch at 167 Raw, but the clam chowder alone was worth it. The fish tacos were very good, but the shrimp taco was fantastic. Our finest meal was at Magnolia’s. The food was amazing and I have to say our waiter — nicknamed Pierre, but not a Frenchie — might have been the best waiter I’ve had in years. He gave us all sorts of tips about where to eat, walked us through the menu and wine expertly, and had that perfect balance of conversation and leaving us alone. At the end of the night he gave us a written-out list of places to go on this trip or the next. All in all, it’s a great eating town. We would have done more sight-seeing, but the weather was not cooperative.

ICYMI . . . 

Last week’s G-File.

What Trump meant — and didn’t mean — with his “do anything” tweet.

My appearance on the Andrew Klavan podcast.

Will tax reform be the GOP’s Obamacare?

Roy Moore: the aftermath.

The Walking Dead is a hot mess.

My appearance on Glenn Beck to discuss Roy Moore.

Transcript here, if you don’t like listening to me talk.

My latest appearance on Special Report.

A Christmas GLoP.

President Trump is losing Fox News viewers.

And now, the weird stuff:

The secret life of “um”

Woman prefers ghostly lovers

The best heists of 2017

How The Phantom Menace’s climactic lightsaber battle came to be

Most citizens of the Star Wars galaxy are probably illiterate

The un-death of cinema

Switzerland is ready for civilization’s collapse

Drone photos of New York

The Atlantic’s photos of the week

Naked man jumps onto moving truck near Dulles Airport

What can you do without a brain?

Training snow rescue dogs

Basset hound performs mysterious ritual

Basset hound is not a morning person

Corgi snow plow

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg