Trump Jr., Russian collusion, and the pro-Trump media’s bad-faith attack on the press
Pro-Trump media outlets are attacking the mainstream press in response to the devastating news that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., met during the 2016 presidential campaign with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer after he was promised she would provide information that would damage Hillary Clinton as part of a pro-Trump effort by the Russian government. More than any other incident in recent memory, this eagerness to hide from reality within the comfort of anti-media rhetoric shows that the right-wing’s media critique is not offered in good faith, but instead is an effort to undermine journalists in the public eye in order to maintain political power.
Over a four-day period, The New York Times’ journalists painstakingly reported out the story. While their initial stories piecing together the meeting and how it came about were based on anonymous sources, yesterday the reporters produced the actual email chain between Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-linked associate. The messages confirmed the accuracy of their previous reports, as well as Trump Jr.’s eagerness to collude with the Russian government in order to influence the election.
Meanwhile, Trump Jr. repeatedly changed his story, coming up with new rationales and explanations for the meeting every time the Times reporters came back to him with more evidence that his previous stories were false. Yesterday, he even released the email chain on Twitter, which he claimed was an effort to be “totally transparent.” That, too, was a lie — he released the emails after being informed that the Times had obtained them and was about to publish a story about them. At this point, it should be impossible for an impartial observer to believe anything Trump Jr. says.
But President Donald Trump’s media allies love his son and hate journalists, so it didn’t take them long to find a way to turn Trump Jr. literally confessing to an attempt to collude with the Russian government into an attack on the press. Trump’s “alt-right” supporters immediately claimed that Trump Jr.’s email release was a brilliant tactic showing that the “lying NY Times fabricated another fake story!” This argument requires either a startling level of stupidity or a willingness to say literally anything in order to achieve a political end. I’d say no one could be that stupid, but Jim Hoft is involved.
When they aren’t attacking media outlets for the content of their reporting, the president’s friends are lashing out at them for spending too much time on the Russian collusion story. On Fox News last night, before his predictably sycophantic interview with Trump Jr., chief Fox News propagandist Sean Hannity was declaring that the “mainstream media are right now hysterical over the story” and attacking journalists as “overpaid, lazy, rigid left-wing ideologues.” “Russia, Russia, Russia,” Steve Doocy said this morning on Fox & Friends. “The mainstream media’s obsession continues.”
Breitbart.com’s face plant was perhaps the most embarrasing. On Monday, after the Times reported that three sources had told its reporters that Trump Jr. “was informed in an email that the [anti-Clinton] material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy,” Senior Editor-at-Large Joel Pollak criticized the paper for reporting on emails it had not seen, calling it “the latest effort by the Times to bring down President Donald Trump that relies on documents it has not seen and verified.” That was a bad hill to decide to die on, as the emails ended up backing up the story to the hilt. After the emails were released, Pollak reported that they did not “refer to any cooperation, coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” which is an egregious and obvious misreading of the plain language of the emails.
This morning, after being noticeably silent on the story over the past several days, President Trump praised his son on Twitter for being “transparent” in the face of “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history.” He added, “Remember, when you hear the words ‘sources say’ from the Fake Media, often times those sources are made up and do not exist.” (Trump frequently makes this claim, but, as with many of his lies, he has never provided any examples of such an event occurring. Journalists who are found to have fabricated stories lose their jobs and become cautionary tales for future generations of reporters.)
The willingness of Trump’s media allies to attack journalists even when those journalists are obviously right demonstrates that there is no piece of information that will shake the pro-Trump media from their mainstream media attacks. The criticisms are not made in good faith — they are part of a deliberate effort to delegitimize the press in order to undermine its credibility with the public. The pro-Trump critics cannot be satisfied by any action journalists take short of becoming Hannity-style propagandists, and they should thus be ignored.
The next phase of this assault on the free press, according to The Washington Post, is “an extensive campaign” by pro-Trump Republican operatives to “try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on” the Trump Jr. story. They are combing through reporters’ past work for “mistakes or perceived biases” and routing that information to pro-Trump outlets like Fox News, which will be eager to use the information to bolster its anti-media attacks.
Reporters make mistakes, and they should be called out when they fail. But it seems significant that the campaign is being rolled out to attack reporters who covered Trump Jr.’s attempt at Russian collusion, given that White House aides, in anonymous comments to reporters, have been frantic about the public relations disaster and unanswered questions surrounding that story (“This is sum of all fears stuff. It’s what we’ve all been dreading,” one White House official told The Daily Beast). They know this is a real problem involving the actions of the president’s son, his former campaign manager, a top White House aide, and God knows who else. But they’re going to blame the media anyway because they want to retain power.
It’s an incredibly cynical strategy. Which doesn’t mean it won’t work.