If the mainstream media had any capacity whatsoever for shame, embarrassment, or even honor, it would be raining anchors outside MSNBC headquarters. Hara-kiri knives would be selling out at Saks Fifth Avenue. Children would have to be advised not to flip on any news broadcast except Fox News Channel lest they encounter a reenactment of the final moments of Slobodan Praljak at the U.N. war-crimes trial.
Failing that, the media would check themselves into monasteries with solemn vows never to attempt to communicate any information to the public again. Failing that, maybe a “WE’RE SORRY” chyron should run nonstop on CNN for the next two years.
The media would be wise to express humility, sorrow, and remorse, because that might go some way toward defibrillating their own flatlining reputation. The vast majority of conservatives and a big majority of moderates simply think the media are no more to be trusted than a toddler with Oreo crumbs on his face who vows he has not strayed near the cookie jar.
In the last two years, half of Americans say their trust in the media has decreased, while only 8 percent report increasing trust. By a margin of 69 to 29, Americans agree that the media are more interested in advancing their point of view than reporting all the facts. Three-fifths agree that the media covers matters in order “to delegitimize the views held by President Trump and his supporters.” Sixty percent of independents and 93 percent of Republicans agreed with that last item. The media have become an amen chorus of liberals chanting liberal refrains to liberals. The signature phrase of our moment is Fake News. And the Hindenburg of Fake News just went up in flames.
Every major news outfit from CNN to the New York Times loves to use the phrase “conspiracy theory” to label some notion crazy, regardless of whether it is actually a conspiracy theory. These and most other news outlets just spent two years peddling a cockamamie conspiracy theory that the blunderers inside the Donald Trump presidential campaign somehow pulled off an illegal collusion scheme with the Russians to sway the outcome of the 2016 election. This theory was never anything but far-fetched, given what we know. It was mainly driven by disbelief that Trump could have been elected without cheating. Starting with the conclusion they fervently wished for, the media reasoned backward. An orgy of speculation, wishcasting, and wingnuttery reached its apotheosis with the absurd Jonathan Chait story last summer, “What If Trump Has Been a Russian Asset Since 1987?” Yes, well, what if he is a time traveler from the 23rd century or a hologram or three little kids standing on one another’s shoulders? It used to be easier to distinguish political journalists from science-fiction novelists.
All Americans should understand that the Democratic party and its public-relations arms in the mainstream media never had any intention of granting the legitimacy of a Trump victory, should it occur. Paul Krugman gave away the game on the eve of the 2016 election when he wrote, “this was, in fact, a rigged election,” citing the “Jim Crow” policies that were supposedly suppressing minority voters, along with Russian intelligence, James Comey, and Fox News. This came less than a month after the media collectively took to the fainting couch when Trump said he could not promise to accept a losing result on Election Night.
Two months before that, a front-page New York Times column urged reporters to “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional” to Trump. Different outlets took this advice in different ways. Some simply reported false information — the Guardian claimed that Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange before the WikiLeaks dump, BuzzFeed that Donald Trump ordered Michael Cohen to commit perjury. Others relied on innuendo and crazy-diagram whiteboard antics to create the impression of a nefarious Russia cabal.
Rachel Maddow relentlessly promoted the conspiracy theory on her MSNBC show as viewership zoomed up, noting, for instance, in March of 2017 that the collusion was ongoing: “Not just during the campaign but during the administration. Basically, signs of what could be a continuing operation.” She called Russia’s pathetic election-swaying tactics (those history-altering Facebook memes of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan) “international warfare against our country,” adding, “It did not end on Election Day. We are still in it.” She once spent 22 minutes on the sleazy and uncorroborated Steele Dossier, saying “bits and pieces of what’s reported in this dossier are turning out to be true and reported and checkable.” In April 2017, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell suggested to a nodding, smiling Maddow that Vladimir Putin might have ordered up a chemical attack in Syria to provoke a U.S. missile strike that in turn would distract Americans from Trump’s supposed collusion with Putin. The Nation writer Adam H. Johnson called O’Donnell’s tack “a great weasel way to float bat s*** conspiracy theories.”
In May 2017, CNN’s Chris Cuomo badgered Republican congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin for saying there was no evidence of collusion to suggest, “You can’t know whether there was or not,” he said. “That’s my point. How do you know there was none? How do you know that there was? You can’t know. You don’t know the proof.” Last May, Cuomo told another Republican congressman, Ohio’s Jim Jordan, “There is [sic] tons of proof of potential collusion.” CNN’s Brian Stelter said last February, “There was certainly evidence of a willingness to collude. I think there’s a lot of analysts like Jeffrey Toobin who would say, ‘Yes, there was clearly some collusion, it’s a matter of how much,’ there’s a lot we don’t know about the social-media efforts . . .”
All of this mad mudslinging had its desired effect, which was to poison the American voter against Trump. In May of 2017 a YouGov poll found that 55 percent of Democrats believed Russia actually tampered with voting tallies in order to push Trump to victory, a fantastical claim even Rachel Maddow wasn’t making, as far as I know.
Unable to concede that the Mueller chapter has wrapped up minus the preferred (expected, prayed-for) conclusion, the most respected pundits and journalists continue to openly fantasize about some less-favorable outcome for the president (“Mueller was always a side show the real action is in NY” — Ryan Lizza of CNN), disparage Attorney General William Barr (“the seeds of a cover-up” — MSNBC’s Joy Reid), and insist that the media are the true heroes here (“With some regrettable and damaging exceptions — individual stories that seemingly went too far — reality-based news outlets have done quite well on this story” — Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post). The blob of professional Democrats and their media backers were hoping Trump would get whacked. Instead they got a Sopranos ending. Even the theme song was the same. And that’s fine. Hey, guys, don’t stop believin’. The less credibility you have, the easier it becomes to ignore you.