After two weeks of gripping testimony that established Donald Trump’s flagrant abuse of power beyond any reasonable doubt, after an effectively uncontested accusation that Republican conspiracy theories about Ukraine advance a Russian agenda, and after the ostensibly “moderate” members of Trump’s party actually hardened their support for the president, there is precisely one huge, overarching news story that demands to be written: That the GOP has fully descended into lawlessness and lunacy.
But our elite political reporters simply can’t bring themselves to say so. Over in the opinion sections, that message is so common it’s a cacophony, almost entirely across the political spectrum. But in the news columns, the latest political development is just another story with two sides and reporters aren’t taking either one.
The problem of course is that on one side, facts don’t matter. So equating both sides is not a neutral act. It means facts don’t matter to you, either. It’s a nihilistic way to cover politics.
Case in point: The top of Greg Miller’s Washington Post article about Fiona Hill’s testimony last week was an extraordinary – possibly legendary — example of bothesiderism, in which Miller tried to recast Hill’s blistering indictment of Republicans into a commentary on “the insidious forces — including the spread of conspiracy theories — infecting American politics.”
All of American politics.
Miller wrote that Hill put the “unfolding Ukraine scandal in a broader political context” with her warnings “that the country’s susceptibility to baseless allegations and partisan infighting are more than unfortunate byproducts of this political era.”
The country’s susceptibility.
And “above all, she spoke with palpable concern about the extent to which partisanship in the United States’ political system has weakened the country’s ability to agree on objective reality. ‘Our nation is being torn apart,’ she said. ‘Truth is questioned.’
Truth “is questioned.”
But as even Miller eventually acknowledged, Hill’s testimony was actually “a bristling rebuke of Republican lawmakers — and by extension Trump — who have sought to sow doubt about Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.”
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
There was no equivalent critique of Democrats. This is not everyone’s problem. It is the Republicans’.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen was appropriately outraged:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) November 22, 2019
For a model of good coverage, look instead at how Lisa Mascaro, Mary Clare Jalonick and Eric Tucker covered Hill’s testimony for the Associated Press without any such attempts to impose false balance.
Nothing to See Here
How jaded do you have to be to conclude that after an epic, historic two weeks of testimony, the needle hasn’t moved?
According to Peter Baker at the New York Times, “Trump was acting as if nothing had changed.” And “In a way, it had not”:
Every one is playing their assigned role in a drama where the ending seems known in advance as the House of Representatives heads toward a likely party-line vote to impeach the president, followed by a Senate trial that will not convict him.
Trump was pleased, Baker reported credulously:
When it was all over and the witnesses had testified and the speeches were done, President Trump pronounced himself satisfied with the show. “We had a tremendous week with the hoax,” he declared on Friday as he addressed a room of collegiate athletes. “That’s really worked out incredibly well.”
Sure, that’s what Trump said. But Gabby Orr wrote for Politico, more credibly, that Trump is obsessed and terrified:
Six current administration officials and people close to the president described Trump as increasingly interested in how the investigation is affecting his political standing, and more paranoid than ever about Republican defections.
Will Stancil, a legal researcher and free-lance writer, tweeted:
Understanding this moment in time is hard enough without people like Baker, who have no purpose at all except to mindlessly, idiotically cram events into prefab narratives that serve the interests of a tiny number of people who want to appear smart, savvy, and balanced
— Will Stancil (@whstancil) November 24, 2019
Tough Break for Trump’s Defenders
Marc Fisher and Mike DeBonis wrote a long article in the Washington Post that was sympathetic to House Republicans on account of how Trump’s statements keep making it tougher for them to defend him – as if they had a good argument to make if Trump just didn’t tweet so much.
The president’s unsupported attacks on some of the key witnesses appearing over the past two weeks before the House Intelligence Committee not only surprised many of his Republican allies but also contradicted the narrative that they had settled on to describe why Trump’s actions in the Ukraine controversy do not justify his removal from office.
At least there were a few illuminating quotes in the story about this tough spot the Republicans are in. Here’s one acknowledging that he has no idea what Trump means, but is nevertheless a slave to the president’s base:
“His comments complicate things,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), “and in some cases, it’s excessive, but you’ll hear members saying it’s just Trump being Trump. He is just different, such a unique figure, and that’s one reason he won. Traditional politicians, including me, have a difficult time figuring out what he means. But the president is probably as popular as any Republican president has been within the party. When we go home, the criticism you get is for not being forceful enough in defending the president. Every Republican here knows the reality.”
Reporters understand what’s going on. They’re not stupid. So, for instance, Maggie Haberman accurately summed up Trump’s defensive tactics for the New York Times on Friday:
Facts that cut against his position have been declared false. Witnesses who have questioned his motives have been declared dishonest. Critics of his behavior are part of a corrupt, shadowy effort aiming to damage him.
But her article wasn’t a condemnation. No, it was just a lookahead to the Senate phase, when we can expect more of the same.
No Lessons Learned
And host Margaret Brennan really needs to change her default response from “right” to something else. Maybe: “seriously?”
CONWAY: They didn’t hear anybody say when they were asked bribery? No. Extortion? No. Quid pro quo for the aid? No. Preconditions for a meeting? Did the president commit a crime? No, no, no every time. The closest they got to it was Sondland in his prepared remarks saying he thought there was a quid pro quo for a meeting.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: They had the meeting on September 22nd in- in- in New York. And also the aide went to Ukraine earlier than that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
This tweet from a librarian with 362 followers had over 15,000 likes when I published:
Turned on Face the Nation.
Saw Kellyanne Conway.
Turned off Face the Nation.
I truly do not understand why reputable news organizations invite people who they know will lie to them.
— Kate Sweeney (@sweeney_kate) November 24, 2019