There’s a common thread between Bill Clinton blaming FBI Director Jim Comey for his wife’s loss and the hyperventilating headlines about CIA sources concluding that Russia intervened in the election to help elect Donald Trump. That common thread is the obsession of the Beltway media and liberals with establishing public “facts” by reference to conclusions reached by some gatekeeping authority figure. It’s a trend that long predates these two pieces of the Election 2016 controversies, and it’s hardly exclusive to the left side of the political spectrum, but it tends to be particularly pronounced among a certain species of liberal reporters and commentators.
Consider Comey’s investigation. What was truly damaging to Hillary – the various announcements that an investigation existed and was being re-examined…or the underlying facts of what she did to attract that investigation? Sure, Republicans dined out during the campaign on the existence and re-opening of the investigation – but fundamentally, the issue was that the facts showed that Hillary had acted in disregard of national security (facts that were clear enough even from Comey’s statement nominally exonerating her in July). Democratic partisans leaned heavily on Comey’s conclusion at the time, as if the decision not to prosecute proved that there was never anything to worry about. But the voters were entitled to review the publicly available facts and draw their own conclusions.
Or look at the reports about CIA assessments of the purpose and effect of Russian involvement in the election. We know what Russia appeared to be doing – in the sense that there is good reason to strongly suspect Russian involvement in Wikileaks and the hacking of DNC emails. The CIA likely knows more than that, although media reports on the subject don’t really suggest that the agency’s conclusions are based on much more than what an informed observer could already tell. Ditto the issue of the Russian government’s motives; any conclusions on that score may be informed, but are nonetheless speculative.
The desire to prioritize official reports with a “bottom line” is understandable, especially in political communications, but too often it obscures rather than clarifies, as it places the conclusions of “experts” – often, themselves, political actors – over facts and evidence. This becomes even more problematic in the case of scientific controversies or legal disputes. If you want an informed take on these kinds of events, you will often need to look beyond the headline.