There is one principle that should guide every serious news organization’s coverage of the impeachment trial: That the full truth should come out.
But because that guiding principle might tend to be interpreted as biased in favor of the political party that currently subscribes to that same notion, it has been wholly abandoned by the leaders of our most elite newsrooms, and by the reporters who have risen to stardom by doing their bidding.
Instead, as they do with so many other political stories, these journalists approach the impeachment trial as a game, covering each side with as little show of favoritism as they can possibly muster. This often leads to false equivalence, one example of which is when “both sides” are equally blamed for something that only one side has actually done.
Sometimes, the conflict between that approach and the one in which getting at the truth matters is just too much to deal with, if you care at all about the latter.
Case in point: New York Times all-star Peter Baker’s infuriating article Wednesday about how Democrats and Republicans have turned themselves “upside-down” when it comes to their views of John Bolton.
Yes, there’s a legitimate story in how Republicans who once spoke adoringly about Bolton are now calling him a traitor.
But to my knowledge, no Democratic senators have changed their minds about Bolton. They still think he is, as Baker gently mocks them for saying so in his lede, “too extreme,” “aggressively and dangerously wrong”, “downright dangerous,” “nutty,” “reckless” and “far outside the mainstream.”
What these Democrats do believe is that Bolton’s testimony could help arrive at the truth. And they want Republican senators to hear him out.
As MSNBC anchor Ari Melber put it:
This NYT storyline of “both sides switch sides” on Bolton misses the *whole purpose* of fact witnesses – it’s about what they saw, not whether you “like” or agree with them. https://t.co/BZgkUMgG8V
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) January 29, 2020
Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University, was similarly critical:
I don’t get the premise of this @peterbakernyt piece. I’m sure Dems still regard Bolton as “too extreme” and “reckless.” Just because they want him to testify doesn’t mean they’ve changed their minds about him. https://t.co/cA9z9Lnjiu
— Dan Kennedy (@dankennedy_nu) January 29, 2020
And Dean Baker, whose “Beat the Press” column brilliantly critiques economic reporting, pointed out the absurdity:
Yeah, this is pretty inane. It's sort of like if we had some awful fascist witness an assault and then we wanted to have this person testify in court. Peter Baker and the NYT would then write something about how we now like this awful fascist.
— Dean Baker (@DeanBaker13) January 29, 2020
Peter Baker clearly felt like he’d found some a double-gotcha moment:
Suddenly, John R. Bolton, the conservative war hawk and favorite villain of the left, is the toast of Senate Democrats, the last, best hope to prove their abuse-of-power case against President Trump. Democrats who once excoriated him are trumpeting his credibility as they seek his testimony in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.
On the other side of the aisle, some of Mr. Bolton’s longtime Republican friends are just as abruptly tossing him to the curb, painting him as a disgruntled former adviser who just wants to sell books. Some of the same senators who allied with him, promoted his career, consulted with him on foreign affairs and took his political action committee money are going along as he is painted as “a tool for the radical Dems and the deep state,” as he was termed on one of the Fox News channels, part of the network where he worked for 11 years.
And the story’s triumphant first direct quote went to Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, who gave Baker the soundbite he wanted (and probably prompted):
“It’s a totally upside-down world,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland who two years ago denounced Mr. Bolton’s “history of warmongering” when he was appointed Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. “But what we should all agree on is we want to get to the truth of the matter about the impeachment charges and we should accept his testimony under penalty of perjury.”
Make sure you read the whole paragraph. Because what Van Hollen ended up saying in that second quote was both true and a complete destruction of Baker’s premise. But whatever.
Baker also offered up one of his trademark, florid, pox-on-both-your-houses utterances of the elite conventional wisdom about the sad state of affairs in Washington today:
This is one of those moments that capture Mr. Trump’s Washington, where ideology, philosophy, party and policy mean less than where you stand on Mr. Trump — for or against him. Mr. Bolton is actually more conservative and more consistent than Mr. Trump, but since his story appears to threaten the president, he has been promptly embraced by one camp and exorcised by the other.
One could certainly argue that ideology means nothing anymore to the leaders of the modern Republican Party. They have all cut themselves into the mold created by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, where only winning matters.
But the leaders of the Democratic Party are no more craven or hypocritical than they’ve always been. And they are hardly embracing Bolton’s ideological views.
Baker essentially portrayed Bolton as the hero of the story, writing that “Loyalty to party or president takes a back seat to principle as he defines it.” Baker also addressed what he seems to think is an unfair misconception about the man:
Mr. Bolton has often been misunderstood or mischaracterized. His critics call him a neoconservative, but in fact he cares little for the democracy promotion that drives actual neoconservatives. Instead, he is a hard-core “Americanist,” as he puts it, favoring tough policies up to and including the use of force to defend American interests. He supported the invasion of Iraq, he has said, not to create a Jeffersonian republic in Baghdad but to eliminate what he saw as a security threat to the United States.
He has consistently advocated regime change or military action to resolve conflicts with states like Iran and North Korea and spent much of his tenure as national security adviser trying to keep Mr. Trump from entering what Mr. Bolton considered unwise agreements with enemies.
Baker seemed to be indicating that Bolton is purer than everyone else. But my sense is that democracy promotion is just a fig leaf some neocons use to cover up what really defines them: their absolute devotion to the exercise of raw power by the United States as an end to itself. Bolton isn’t more pure, he’s just more openly bloodthirsty.
And Baker gives the kicker of his story to Bolton friend and former staffer Fred Fleitz.
“I think the Democrats should be careful in what they wish for if they do get him as a witness,” Mr. Fleitz said. “I don’t know that he would say what they hope he would say.”
The implication there is that the Democrats are expecting Bolton to be on their side, and won’t be happy if he tells the truth.
I’ve written before about what a disservice Baker does to journalism. This is hardly the first time that he has written a story that is ultimately about the difference between truth and lies, and in which his response is to basically throw up his hands – and maybe wink.
For instance, he wrote in December about how it feels lately like the truth itself is on trial. His conclusion was essentially: Views differ.
And I’ve written before about how the fault, at the end of the day, clearly lies with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who has frequently defended the Times’s political coverage as appropriately non-confrontational and measured.
As humor writer Paul Slansky tweeted: The Times “is synonymous with ‘both sides,’ the worst — given its power — practitioner of false equivalency. Baquet is the worst Times editor I’ve ever seen.”
I am sure there are many voices in the Times newsroom who agree with that view, but they are effectively stifled.
Salon political writer Amanda Marcotte tweeted: “It’s a shame to see the NY Times covering this story like they’re TMZ and rating how popular celebrities are, instead of looking at the serious issues of corruption and the possible collapse of our democracy.”
New media thinker Dan Gillmor tweeted: “Journalistic business as usual on this time of national emergency is malpractice.”
And NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who coined the phrase “view from nowhere” to describe how some political journalists try to avoid claims of bias by being equally dismissive of both sides, wrote in a tweet about the extraordinary condescension baked into Baker’s piece.
…are the cool headed journalists who take note of such ironies — on both sides, of course! — and try to generate traction via the contrast between their equal opportunity hypocrisy meter and the desperation of grubby partisans seizing on any temporary advantage they find. 2/2
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 29, 2020
And I guess that’s what infuriates me the most about Baker’s writing. It’s not just that he takes such a cynical approach to the idea that there may be a right and wrong in here somewhere, it’s his utter confidence that his view is superior to those of us who hold that idea dear.