Thursday was a miserable day for those of us who believe that the biggest advantage mainstream news outlets have in the long run over the far-right disinformation machine is their credibility.
My argument is typically that our top journalists can (more or less) be trusted to adhere to core journalistic tenets such as accuracy, transparency, and letting the chips fall where they may. By contrast, Fox and the other right-wing propaganda outlets spread disinformation and stoke grievances that, at the end of the day, cannot be supported with facts.
But three marquee members of the mainstream media betrayed the public’s trust on Thursday.
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, hawking her upcoming book, dropped a bombshell: That Trump was known to flush documents down his toilet. But in doing so, she revealed that she had kept that information secret when it might have made a difference, adding fuel to previous accusations that was too deferential to Trump and put her own interests ahead of the public’s.
“It’s hard to trust the press when you don’t know what they’re hiding, why they’re hiding it, or who they’re protecting by doing so,” explained newsletter writer Parker Molloy.
A few hours later, asked by Andrea Mitchell about the fallout from the outrageous news about Trump’s theft and destruction of official documents, Washington Post White House bureau chief and MSNBC analyst Ashley Parker engaged in arguably the most excruciating example of both-sides journalism you could imagine.
Rather than simply acknowledge that this looks terrible for Trump, she ludicrously claimed that “you kind of have outrage and political arguments from both sides.” She equated “the left” pointing out that Hillary Clinton was unfairly pilloried for doing something less serious to Trump saying Clinton did it, too. “So, this is one of the blanket issues where everyone is furious at the other side.”
How are you supposed to trust someone who avoids the truth this pitifully?
I also found it infuriating when Parker and other reporters proactively came up with excuses for why Trump couldn’t be criminally prosecuted. In another appearance on MSNBC later that night, for instance, Parker said that “when you have someone like Donald Trump, who, for whatever reason, was, as we have been reporting, ripping everything — information, memos, articles from the Washington Post he didn’t like — it’s hard to reach that bar of it being nefarious.”
By contrast, as CNN’s Katelyn Polantz tweeted, 18 USC 2071 prohibits removing federal documents, and if convicted Trump would be legally “disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”
But the worst breach of trust came on Thursday night, when NBC anchor Lester Holt – in a rare sit-down interview — asked President Biden a question based on a false, basically made-up reading of an Army investigative report.
The report was an exhaustive look at the suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops and an estimated 170 Afghans during the chaotic exodus from Kabul. In at least two interviews included as exhibits, senior officers were critical of either the White House or the State Department – especially the embassy staff — for being unprepared.
But in no way is it true that the Army “interviewed many military officials and officers who said the administration ignored the ‘handwriting on the wall’,” as Holt asserted.
The question, as best I can tell, was the result of something like a bad game of “telephone”.
It started with a Washington Post story on Tuesday by Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton headlined “Documents reveal U.S. military’s frustration with White House, diplomats over Afghanistan evacuation.” The authors focused on two interviews in the 2,000-page report, and readers could easily have come away with the impression that they were emblematic of the entire report, which they were not.
Andrea Mitchell then overhyped the findings in a segment on the NBC Nightly News on Wednesday, claiming that “a damning new report blames the Biden administration for being slow to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies, according to an Army investigation first obtained by the Washington Post.”
[CORRECTION: I previously wrote that the Post had not uniquely obtained the report. I based that on coverage of the report’s conclusions in other outlets several days earlier. But that coverage, I have since learned, was based on a briefing, not the report itself. The Post obtained the full report, including the interviews upon which its story was based, through a FOIA request.]
And Holt — or more likely a staffer — then misinterpreted Mitchell’s misinterpretation of the easily misread Post article.
When Biden was confronted with Holt’s inaccurate question and asked if “any of it rings true to you,” he responded “No. No. That’s not what I was told.”
Other journalists then proceeded to criticize Biden for not acknowledging the truth. Within hours, Axios ran a piece headlined “Biden rejects Army report on failure to prepare for Afghanistan’s fall.” The Post’s Lamothe, who should have known better, wrote a story headlined “Biden says he is ‘rejecting’ critical accounts from U.S. commanders about the Afghanistan evacuation“.
There’s no doubt that the evacuation of Kabul was chaotic and disastrous. And in retrospect, everyone, including the White House and the military, should have been prepared for the Afghan government to collapse as quickly as it did. They should have had much more extensive evacuation plans ready ahead of time.
But there’s no way ending a 20-year war was going to be neat and tidy. Despite the torrent of negative coverage that sent Biden’s approval rating downward, history will look kindly upon his decision to pull out from Afghanistan.
And while the administration does have plenty to answer for, there’s no excuse for journalists not getting their facts straight.
I found this all particularly frustrating given that Biden has done so few sit-down interviews. For all the drama of press conferences, it is the long, one-on-one interviews that offer a nimble and prepared reporter the chance to dig beyond the talking points and non-answers to give the public real insights into how a president makes decisions.
Instead, Holt gave mainstream journalism another black eye.