Before I get started, let me clarify something. Groupthink, mob behavior, panic, etc. have a powerful capacity to make smart people dumb. This is the moral of every witch-hunt story and is about as well documented as any phenomena in human history. As Tommy Lee Jones says in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals, and you know it.”
I mention this up front to acknowledge that many of the people I am appalled by are, individually, smart and decent professionals. But, as a group, they are making fools of themselves and their profession, and making the country’s problems worse.
I’ve spent much of the last couple of years decrying the increasing partisan tribalism of our politics. I’ve earned some strange new respect from liberals (and at times regrettable new enmity from some conservatives) because I’ve been willing to call out my team. A case in point: I don’t like President Trump’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric about the “fake news.” I don’t think it’s true or helpful or presidential. “Enemy of the people” is a totalitarian and authoritarian term of art unfit for our country or our president, and employing it gives license to the press to indulge its worst instincts.
Which brings us to the current moment. Democratic senators who announced they would never vote for Kavanaugh under any circumstance keep getting asked if the FBI investigation they demanded will be “enough for them.” Enough for what? To still vote no? I’m not criticizing the Democrats themselves — though I obviously could — I’m criticizing the people who interview these senators. Time and again, these journalists interview the Democrats as if they were open-minded about this investigation when in every breath they insist that the investigation will be illegitimate if it doesn’t prove what they want it to prove.
I listened to an MSNBC host this morning sound almost panicked about how the FBI might not be able to confirm Julie Swetnick’s — absolutely ludicrous — charges against Kavanaugh even as she reported that NBC couldn’t confirm any of it. The urgency wasn’t that the media let Michael Avenatti play them all for suckers, but that it might be just too difficult to prove allegations Swetnick herself walked back almost entirely. In other words the fear, palpable in many quarters, is that the charges might unravel prematurely, and so the press must start raveling them.
Or, in other cases they must spin new ones. Hence the New York Times’ decision — for which they’ve now apologized — of assigning deeply (and openly) partisan reporter Emily Bazelon to go spelunking for the latest bombshell: that Brett Kavanaugh threw some ice at a bar scuffle while in college.
Meanwhile, whole panels of pundits and experts on MSNBC are made up of people who cannot imagine why Kavanaugh might be upset at the unverified, uncorroborated, and literally unbelievable claim that he ran a rape gang when he was 15. Instead, we get hours of hand-wringing every day about his supposedly unjudicial temperament, as if any judge or justice on the bench, now or ever, would be expected to remain calm under such circumstances.
Jeff Flake is celebrated as a hero for wanting the FBI to investigate the more credible charge from Ford and the sketchy tale co-reported by the famously partisan New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. But when the FBI was reportedly limited to what Flake wanted investigated, one senator after another said the investigation was a sham. And nearly all the interviewers simply nod.
Print publications are flooding the zone to get to the bottom of Boofgate and Ice-Throw-Gotterdammerung. As if proving that a yearbook quote meant some other juvenile thing, or that if he threw some ice cubes in a bar tussle, that would prove . . . something. Kavanaugh, fully aware that he will get no benefit of any doubt, offers lawyerly and arguable evasive answers — mostly about trivialities — and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, these ambiguous answers are taken as proof of perjury and drunken perfidy that the press must get to the bottom of.
Interviewers respond to Republicans who decry the defamation and innuendo being brought to bear on Kavanaugh by asking, essentially, “Didn’t Republicans start this by blocking Merrick Garland?” As a stand-alone question, this is defensible — barely. But while I have heard this question asked over and over again, I’ve yet to hear anyone ask a Democrat, “Isn’t what Mitch McConnell did to Merrick Garland very different from what you have done to Kavanaugh?” Republicans didn’t try to destroy Garland personally and professionally. Denying a nominee a hearing isn’t akin to fomenting a witch-hunt or having Chuck Schumer say that the presumption of innocence was an irrelevant standard (it’s actually entirely within the Senate’s constitutional authority). It might be irrelevant for partisan Democrats, but since when is the burden of proof irrelevant to journalists?
I could go on for pages about all of this, but here’s the point: On nearly every question and issue, the tenor of the press — shockingly — mirrors the tenor of the Democrats who insist that it falls to Kavanaugh to disprove these allegations. That is an understandable (albeit morally grotesque) position for partisan Democrats who’ve made it clear they will do whatever it takes, again, as Chuck Schumer admitted, to block Kavanaugh.
But that’s not your job, you supposedly objective journalists. You should care every bit as much about disproving the allegations of Swetnick, Ramirez, and — yes — Ford as proving them. Your job — as you’ve said countless times, preening in your heroic martyr status in the age of Trump — is to report the facts. If Swetnick is lying, you should want to report that every bit as much as you would if you could prove that Kavanaugh is. Because you’re not supposed to have a team. It’s fine if you support the #MeToo movement in your private time, but you’re not supposed to lend any movement aid and comfort, never mind air cover, in your reporting.
Now, I get that most journalists are liberal, even if they deny it. I understand that most think they’re just seeking the truth. But, dear champions of the Fourth Estate, you might take just a moment to understand that you need to be fair to the other side of the argument even if you disagree with it.
You might also consider why millions of people love it when Trump says you are the enemy of the people: It’s because of how you are behaving right now. You’re letting the mask slip in Nielsen-monitored 15-minute blocks of virtue-signaling partisanship. You’re burning credibility at such a rate, you won’t have enough to get back to base when this is all over.
Yes, Donald Trump has done the country a disservice by how he talks about the press. But so have you, because you have made it so easy for him — and you’re making it worse right now.