In the wake of the Buzzfeed Fiasco, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald—one of the first people to question the veracity of the report, to the usual chorus of rage from the braying class—compiled a list of all the false stories, butchered reports, and half-blind leaps of faith taken by various U.S. media outlets rushing to break the latest Russiagate scoop. The rundown would be staggering if it were limited to just the ten items promised by the title, but Greenwald goes on to list an additional ten “dishonorable mentions” which are almost as bad as the main entries. It really needs to be seen to be believed—we’ve experienced these flubs in real time over the past two years, but you can’t quite appreciate the full scope of journalistic incompetence until you see it all in one place—and I encourage you to spend a few minutes delving into the specifics. Broadly, though, they all follow a similar formula:
1. Media outlet releases a bombshell Russiagate claim.
2. The Internet explodes.
3. Other outlets carry the story, if not with total credulity, then at least with the trust they believe is afforded to the original outlet.
4. It turns out that the story came entirely from anonymous sources, and if there was any documentation involved, it wasn’t seen firsthand by the reporters.
5. Anyone who displays the faintest skepticism is shouted down and accused of being a Russian agent.
6. The story turns out to be false.
The parable that immediately came to my mind while reading Greenwald’s column was obvious—the boy who cried wolf. Then I thought, no, that boy was actively and purposefully lying when he screamed “wolf!”, whereas the various journalists who have bungled their Russiagate stories simply made errors while acting in good faith.
But then again…did they?
I don’t mean to suggest that anybody is intentionally releasing false information into the ether for some nefarious purpose. What I am suggesting is that there is an absolute irresponsible rush to get ahead of Robert Mueller and stoke the public appetite for anti-Trump conspiracy, and this impulse has completely overruled any sort of journalistic caution and perhaps trampled upon some very important standards…or at least highlighted the need for a revamping of those standards.
There is, and has been for two years, an infantile desire among many on the liberal left to see Trump removed from office by a godlike father figure, as if that simple act would undo the psychic national pain that brought him to power in the first place and hit a magical reset button to erase the attendant stress from our lives. It’s the mindset of people who see life as a Manichean contest of individuals who are either good or evil, and who, in lieu of fighting for systemic reform or even making an honest appraisal of America’s failures, believe that removing the bad actors will restore some nostalgic version of paradise. Trump has assumed foremost villain status in their minds, and anybody—anybody—who opposes him becomes, in their minds, part of an Avengers-like super hero clique. The old joke where each vile, bought-and-sold conservative who gets booted by Trump immediately becomes an ally (“Reince Preibus, welcome to the resistance!”) stems from this absurdity. It’s the closest the left comes to the unapologetic tribalism of the right.
The temptation inherent to this mindset is understandable—removing individuals is easy, fixing systems is hard—but that doesn’t make it any less damaging. And as a collective yearning, it absolutely drives the media narrative. Anyone who has tuned into cable news regularly for the past two years knows that Russia has assumed the foremost spot in the political consciousness, and while the media-consumer relationship is certainly symbiotic in some way, it’s also reasonable to assume that we get such a glut of Russiagate coverage because we want such a glut of Russiagate coverage. Our appetite for actual policy, on which Trump can be legitimately condemned as a monster, is less, and that’s partly because a condemnation of this sort requires looking at the roots of the policy and realizing that Trump is just one monster of many—some of whom have been near and dear to our hearts.
All of which is to say that the headlong Russiagate frenzy comes with implicit rewards for U.S. media outlets, which drives them to chase each new story with a fervency that clearly overrides the kind of caution necessary to prevent them from embarrassing themselves. And when they screw up, the punishment clearly isn’t harsh enough to stop other outlets from exercising restraint the next time a rickety bombshell lands in their backyards. The reward of the hunt is enough to overwhelm such concerns, and being wrong is not much of a penalty at all.
In that sense, these outlets really are the boy who cried wolf—if we extend the definition of a purposeful lie to encompass a kind of “reckless disregard for the truth,” then we can compare these errors without much hyperbole to an outright lie. I’m stealing that comparison from U.S. libel law, where a public figure can win a defamation suit if the entity defaming him either knowingly lies or acts with that same “reckless disregard for the truth” that we see from the media. These are two different standards, on the surface, but the final result is the same.
And so it stands with the journalists who have rushed to break the Russiagate scoops and committed grave errors. The incentives are so high, and the penalties so low, that they’ve pushed ahead with false stories in a way that mimics not an outright lie, but the reckless disregard that, in the end, amounts to the same damn thing.
There are consequences to this kind of behavior. When the boy who cried wolf finally saw a real wolf, nobody believed him, nobody rushed to his side, and he was eaten alive. The outlets in question will continue to survive, but their credibility, and the credibility of the journalistic structure in America as a whole, will suffer. The next time a Trump supporter echoes his leader’s “fake news” line, it will be very hard to contradict, because there are 20 concrete examples of literal fake news from Russiagate alone.
And if Robert Mueller finds a real wolf, will the ordinary American read the ensuing media explosion and concede that yes, the 21st story is surely the correct one? Or will there be some lingering doubt, or perhaps even outright disdain, based on the slag heap of misinformation that preceded it? Will we be saved by a deus-ex-machina, or will our collective, child-like desire for salvation-minus-hard-work be the very thing that lets the wolf in the door?