Activating a “Democracy Team,” as the New York Times and other leading news organizations have done in the past several months in response to a Republican Party that believes in stealing elections, doesn’t actually do much good if the rest of the newsroom is on Team Impunity.
So, for instance, the article by “Democracy Team” reporters Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti headlined “Far-Right Republicans Press Closer to Power Over Future Elections” in Thursday’s Times, which ran on page A18, was pretty chilling stuff. Followers of Donald Trump’s lies “threaten to upset the country’s democratic order,” they wrote.
But on Sunday’s front page – much better real estate – the Times ran a morally, legally, intellectually, and politically bankrupt article headlined “Despite Growing Evidence, a Prosecution of Trump Would Face Challenges,” making the absurd argument that because Trump lies so much, it would be hard to convict him of pretty much anything.
It was by Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman. They’re on Team Impunity. And they’re winning.
Wrong in Every Way
Their article was an uninformed mash-up of unfounded, legally groundless and transparently bogus excuses to let Trump off – again. They actually wrote that Trump’s “continued stream of falsehoods highlights some of the complexities of pursuing any criminal case against him.” As I tweeted when the article came out, it’s the kind of argument that would have exonerated Hitler.
That Trump may or may not have felt he was justified is irrelevant to his many acts of obstruction, sedition, and conspiracy (see attorney Luppe B. Luppen’s take on the article.)
Nonprofit consultant Tom Watson tweeted: “The Haberman-Schmidt article is an obvious Trump team placement aimed at heading off Garland. As such, it’s blatantly partisan – the ‘high crime’ that @nycscribe” – newly installed editor Joe Kahn – “places above all others in the NYT newsroom.”
How did such a terrible take end up on the front page of the New York Times? I think the answer is a combination of denial and projection. The Times failed so tragically to hold Trump to account over the years that its marquee reporters and editors recoil in horror at the thought of somebody else doing it. And if you think about it, the article actually describes the newsroom’s own rationale for its failure: He lied so much, what were we supposed to do?
It’s All About Garland
Of all the functions the January 6 committee is serving, the most crucial is to conclusively establish to as many members of the public as possible that prosecuting Trump is not partisan, is not capricious, is not discretionary, but is an absolute moral imperative.
Public opinion, in this case, is a means to an end. The end is getting Attorney General Merrick Garland to approve the criminal indictment of Trump and his top aides.
The committee doesn’t actually need to produce new evidence to accomplish that, although it doesn’t hurt. The prosecutors and investigators in the Justice Department have no doubt already established an overwhelming legal case against Trump and some of his top allies.
My sense is that what’s holding things up is Garland’s personality. He is sanctimonious and over-cautious, and wants desperately to be seen as a lofty arbiter of justice, far above the partisan fray. So he needs to be assured that that indicting Trump won’t be seen – by most people — as the work of a partisan hack, but as a sadly necessary thing to do for the nation.
And that’s exactly what the hearings are achieving. Consider, for instance, a new ABC News/Ipsos poll showing that 58 percent of Americans think Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the riot, up from 52 percent in April.
Then you get garbage like the Schmidt-Haberman piece, offering Garland an out.
And the capper was the follow-up from the Times editorial pages: an op-ed headlined “Prosecute Trump? Put Yourself in Merrick Garland’s Shoes” in which Republican lawyer Jack Goldsmith suggested that three easy, obvious decisions are somehow fraught.
Haberman telegraphed the Timesian view -– that the hearings should and will change nothing — in a recent interview with former Politico denizen Black Hounshell, for the “On Politics” newsletter Hounshell now edits. “Blake,” she said, “I think people’s lives are economically so bleak right now, save for the superrich, that anyone who is being influenced by these hearings may have already had their minds made up.”
Hounshell joins Haberman and Schmidt on Team Impunity. So do Peter Baker, Jonathan Martin, Jonathan Weisman, Jeremy Peters, their editors, and many others I am inevitably leaving out.
It Should Be a Celebration of Accountability
This should be a thrilling time for political journalists, because holding the powerful accountable is their highest calling, and accountability is in the offing.
But, as I wrote a few months back, journalism’s devotion to accountability pretty much died last year. A party that violently attacked the government, attempted to steal a presidential election, and is vowing to reject defeat going forward, continued to be treated by political journalists as legitimate and viable — and is now considered to be understandly headed for victory in 2022 and maybe 2024.
In the days, weeks, and months after January 6, many reporters did excellent investigative work. But it came out bit by bit; there was no single moment of reckoning.
Now, at long last, people are paying attention to the biggest story of the decade. Journalists should be amplifying that, not undermining it.
In a profile last week of Joe Kahn, the new chief at the Times, Washington Post reporter Jeremy Barr called attention to an earlier statement by Kahn that “If we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” Barr even quoted my response, calling it the “smarmiest, most deceitful and clueless straw-man depiction of what critics are asking for I’ve ever seen.”
We’re not asking for your politics team to focus “exclusively” on threats to democracy, Joe. We never were. We’re just asking you to give your own Democracy Team a fighting chance.