Donald Trump’s apparent flirtation with all things Russian has put him squarely in the sights of the mainstream media, which is pursuing government leaks with almost righteous vengeance.
Right now, the Trump team is under siege by a press corps that is acting like a slumbering attack dog that was suddenly kicked into action. Its focus on possible Russian influence on the President, and whether the Trump campaign actively encouraged Russian interference in the November election, is dominating national news coverage.
Both matters are intensely tantalizing to reporters and editors. For Trump supporters and the President himself, this is an unwarranted witch hunt. For Trump opponents, the President is getting his just desserts for dissing the news media as “enemies of the American people.”
No matter how things turn out, there are many lessons to be be learned by looking at this Administration’s relationship with the press, and how that interaction can build a President’s standing, or doom it to failure.
Whatever the final judgements on the relationships — if any — between Trump and Russia, the Administration’s stubborn refusal to lay out the facts of the many reported contacts between Trump associates and their Russian counterparts simply adds fuel to the fire. Those contacts may be perfectly innocent and normal, but prevaricating before Congress isn’t going to win the Administration many friends. The White House needs to get out front of the message; until or unless it does, the media will pursue the story relentlessly.
Lesson Two: leaks are the oxygen the media needs to survive.
So far, no one has found irrefutable evidence of a nefarious link between the Administration and Russian state intelligence. In part that’s because such intelligence is almost impossible to ferret out without inside help, which is precisely what is happening now. The majority of articles and broadcast segments on this smoldering issue are the result of leaked documents or interviews with sources within the intelligence establishment who have seen secret reports.
Moreover, and worth stressing, pursuing alleged ties between the Trump Administration and Russia is, from the press’s standpoint, an exercise of its First Amendment rights, articulated often by courts as the media’s “preferred position” in the Constitution to fulfill the public’s right to know. If knowledge is dependent upon leaks, the press argues, so be it. (It is worth noting that although most states have shield laws protecting reporters from revealing their sources, there is no federal shield protection).
Lesson Three: anonymous sources can be the media’s savior, but also its downfall.
Journalists and their editors have long struggled over using information from anonymous sources. However, reliance on unidentified sources is often a consequence of has increasing government secrecy — a residue of security from the 9/11 attacks. Oftentimes, an anonymous source is the only way crimes, treachery or malfeasance can be uncovered, as was the case in the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup. It’s worth remembering that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were stymied in their pursuit of a possible plot behind the break-in until a highly placed source began connecting the dots.
Today, successive Administrations have tried to clamp down on unauthorized leaks, even as they have classified more and more documents and reports as top secret or “eyes only.” The press sees its role as piercing through such barriers.
Still, many citizens have a difficult time accepting information that comes from anonymous quotes or leaked documents. Many feel that using unnamed sources or purloined files is unethical. News organizations typically pay lip service to the notion that they won’t accept anonymous information, but it is a stricture that is ignored in practice. Whatever the rationale, the use of unnamed sources erodes the news media’s credibility, according to public opinion polls over the years.
One nagging problem in the use of sources is the anonymous “plant,” defined loosely as sharing information as a trial balloon or a weaponized tactic. The planting of stories goes on all the time, especially in Washington. Sometimes, reporters realize they are being used as a conduit, but in their minds it represents a justifiable trade-off when the information would be impossible to obtain otherwise. The leaks revealing secret meetings between Trump associates and Russian operatives fit this description perfectly; there is little doubt that a significant number of career officers in our intelligence agencies loathe Trump and his regime, and are motivated to insure compromising information reaches the general public.
Lesson Four: sooner or later the truth will out.
Experienced, professional news organizations go to great lengths to make sure that their content is as factual and accurate as they can make it. Sometimes, however, to err is human, and the mainstream news media commits more than its share of screwups. News accounts that contain mistakes, or are based on faulty information, are most often the result of errors in news gathering or editing. (The mainstream media’s unblinking coverage of the runup to the Iraqi invasion in 2003 ruined many reporters’ careers, while also leaving the general public confused and, eventually, bitterly angry).
Yet for all its faults, the professional news media sees itself as a bulwark against government excess. It isn’t a matter of reporters seeing themselves as truth seekers. Rather, they see their role as digging beneath “official” news and canned statements, looking for information that contradicts what public officials are saying or doing.
This attitude reflects a mindset of healthy skepticism of nearly every journalist I’ve ever dealt with or worked alongside. They come to their work believing that they shouldn’t trust anyone in public life. The downside is that such a questioning attitude can lead to cynicism and mutual animosity between reporters and those they cover.
Public officials and elected representatives see things much differently. Their default position is that the work of government requires working without constant criticism and second-guessing by outside observers, like reporters who don’t understand the nuances of policy-making. The growing rift with the press also arises from a belief by elected officials that their public utterances and official acts should not have to go through the filter of the skeptical, unforgiving media. (It explains why Donald Trump uses Twitter so effectively; in doing so, he bypasses the mainstream media, while also forcing editors to report on whatever he tweets).
These conflicting view of the role of the media and government is at the heart of the news headlines we are reading today. The Trump Administration seems motivated by a desire to erode the credibility of the Washington press corps. More naively, both the President and his surrrogates seem to think that what they say is the only information worthy of being reported. Reporters despise such attitudes as hypocritical and dangerous. When someone in high office (and in high dudgeon) wants to put them in their place, journalists react with wounded pride and a renewed desire to get the goods, no matter how long it takes.
Thus, the battle is joined. A free press versus government. It has been and remains today a sticky, messy arrangement, but one that is best suited to the functioning of an open, democratic society. That’s the best argument we have for the news media doing its thing, no matter how many egos are bruised.