Reporting v. “Media Criticism”

Media outlets have invented a deceitful term to discredit and trivialize any reporting on their own wrongful conduct. Such reporting, they say, is nothing more than “media criticism,” in contrast to the “real reporting” they do. A New Yorker profile published yesterday that was designed to malign my own work on this story over the last two years – which has involved ample reporting on the conduct of media outlets in circulating false information – invoked this term of insult to dismiss such reporting as worthless.

This term is self-serving nonsense from media outlets, seeking to render their own behavior off-limits from journalistic scrutiny. Media outlets such as CNN and MSNBC are highly powerful corporate actors. Their behavior can generate immense consequences for society. When they engage in journalistically deceitful or unethical practices, or when they report consequential claims that end up being false as a result of their recklessness or bias, that produces highly harmful outcomes.

Examples of what does actually merit the diminishing term “media criticism” are columns expressing one’s opinions about the on-camera charisma of various TV hosts, or whether new website designs are aesthetic improvements. But documenting false claims from powerful corporate media outlets or describing their wrongful behavior helps the public understand what is and isn’t true regarding key political controversies: the very definition of “real reporting.” Such reporting is vital for dispelling propaganda and deceit. It is clarifying on the most vital issues.

Doing so is “real reporting” in every sense of the word. Media outlets aren’t special or immune. Reporting on their bad and deceitful acts is indistinguishable from reporting on the bad and deceitful acts of any other powerful actor in society.

The term “media criticism” – when juxtaposed with the term “real reporting” (by which mainstream journalists usually mean: “giving official sources anonymity, writing down what they say, and then uncritically repeating it to the public”) – is intended to discredit those who expose the bad and deceitful acts of media outlets and to imply that doing so is trivial or worthless. Nobody who reports on powerful corporate media outlets should be deterred by this transparently manipulative term.

The Media’s Chronic Misreporting on the Trump/Russia Story

The other self-serving tactic media outlets use in situations like this is to claim that their errors are just good faith and rare mistakes, and that those who report on their mistakes are exaggerating their significance. This claim was also prominently featured in the New Yorker’s critique of my work, and is reflexively applied to anyone who has critiqued the dominant media narrative on this story.

This tactic is also itself highly deceitful. The reality is that from the start of the Trump/Russia story, the U.S. media has repeatedly and frequently – not rarely and periodically – gotten major stories completely wrong, always in the same direction: exaggerating the threat posed by Russia to the U.S., and concocting evidence of Trump/Russia collusion even when such evidence did not exist.

Last December, I reported on what I call (and still believe) was the U.S. media’s “most humiliating debacle in ages”: a blatantly false and equally hyped CNN story claiming that an unknown person had emailed Donald Trump Jr. access to the WikiLeaks email archive before it was published: a story that MSNBC’s Ken Dilanian purported to “confirm.”

That story – predictably and by design – generated huge headlines around the world, and was given breathless coverage on cable news given its obvious significance. In fact, the email in question was sent after WikiLeaks had published that archive to the entire world, rendering the magic-bullet email utterly worthless, not a massive scoop proving collusion.

In that case, it seems that CNN and MSNBC’s sources somehow all got the date of the email wrong in exactly the same way by accident, though nobody knows how this could possibly have happened because then – as now – these media outlets refuse to come clean with the public about what they did. Then, as now, the same outlets that demand transparency from everyone else refuse to provide any themselves.

When reporting on that story, I detailed just some of the similarly significant and false stories major outlets have published on this story over the last eighteen months, notably always in the same direction, pushing the same narrative interests:

  • Russia hacked into the U.S. electric grid to deprive Americans of heat during winter (Wash Post)
  • An anonymous group (PropOrNot) documented how major U.S. political sites are Kremlin agents (Wash Post)
  • WikiLeaks has a long, documented relationship with Putin (Guardian)
  • A secret server between Trump and a Russian bank has been discovered (Slate)
  • RT hacked C-SPAN and caused disruption in its broadcast (Fortune)
  • Russians hacked into a Ukrainian artillery app (Crowdstrike)
  • Russians attempted to hack elections systems in 21 states (multiple news outlets, echoing Homeland Security)
  • Links have been found between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund under investigation (CNN)

Whatever words one wishes to use to defend the U.S. media’s conduct here, “rare” and “isolated” are not among those that can be credibly invoked. Far more accurate are “chronic,” “systematic” and “reckless.”

And when it comes to discrediting journalism in the U.S., thousands of mean Donald Trump tweets about Chuck Todd and Wolf Blitzer can’t accomplish even a fraction of what this media behavior has done to themselves, particularly when their behavior is followed by secrecy and refusals to comment so brazen and unjustified that it would make even security state spokespeople blush with shame.