The chase after Flynn and Trump: Without any question, the chase is on.
Blood is in the water; the journalists are excited. Every six hours, something new pops. It has the feel of the Watergate days, where this level of excitement was sustained for several years.
That sort of excitement won't always produce good journalism. Let's note one current journalistic leap which is cutting against Donald J. Trump, and one current journalistic leap which almost cuts in his favor.
For starters, let's note the journalistic fail which cuts against Trump and Flynn:
Last night, the highly exciting new excitement emerged from this exciting report in the New York Times. The exciting report tops today's hard-copy front page. "Trump Aides Had Contact With Russian Intelligence," the hard-copy headline says.
Last night, on cable, the troops were excited by this report's emergence. Just so you'll know, this is the way the report begins. We're going to highlight a significant disclaimer in paragraphs 2 and 3:
SCHMIDT, MAZZETTA AND APUZZO (2/15/17): Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.The Times report proceeds from there. That said, the highlighted passage strikes us as rather significant.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.
So far, intelligence agencies "have seen no evidence of such cooperation?" They've seen no evidence that the Trump campaign "was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election?"
Depending on how many phone calls the agencies may have intercepted, that sounds like a fairly striking admission. But go ahead! Read last night's account from Slate of what that Times report says.
You'll see that Elliott Hannon completely skipped the passage we've highlighted. After reporting the overview—Trump aides were in contact with Russkie spies—he skipped right down to the passage about the way "the intercepts alarmed American intelligence agencies."
We'd call that bad journalism. We'd also call it rather typical work.
At times like these, people want instant answers, and they they often want the answers they like. This tends to produce hurried work, with elbows and thumbs on the scales.
We'd say that Slate's report betrayed an obvious anti-Trump slant. Meanwhile, a type of tilt which is almost pro-Trump has been quite widely adopted. It's found all over this morning's Washington Post.
This tilt has gifted Vice President Pence with an instant "not guilty" verdict. For one example out of many, this is the way Costa and Parker began the report which sits atop the front page of today's Post:
COSTA AND PARKER (2/15/17): For nearly two full weeks, nobody told Vice President Pence that he had been misled by national security adviser Michael Flynn.At the end of paragraph 3, the writers finally seem to acknowledge that they're simply providing stenography for Lotter, the Pence spokesman. Before that, they seem to be saying, in their own voice, that Vice President Pence had no idea that he was misstating the facts.
After privately being assured by Flynn that he had never had any discussions about Russian sanctions with that country’s ambassador, Pence went on TV in mid-January and publicly parroted Flynn’s denial. But on Jan. 26, President Trump and a small group of senior aides learned that the Justice Department had evidence that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions and misled the vice president.
Yet it would take almost a fortnight for Pence to learn the truth—and only then because of a report in The Washington Post, according to Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the vice president.
Across the media landscape, this story-line has been widely adopted. The claim may be perfectly true, of course. But it's hard to know what makes journalists feel they know it's true at this time.
Was Pence completely out of the loop? Was he misinformed by Flynn, or perhaps by Flynn and Trump? Was he misinformed, full stop?
That's certainly possible! It's possible Pence had no idea that he was spreading misinformation. But this possibility has been accepted as fact by reams of reporters and pundits.
Our journalists love to run ahead of what's been established. Especially at times like this, they tend to settle on hard-and-fast script at roughly the speed of light. (For the record, positioning Pence as an innocent victim tends to increase the indictment of Flynn and Trump.)
In our view, you should be skeptical of all claims at times like this, including the claims you like. You should be skeptical concerning the motives of unnamed sources, and perhaps concerning the ways their leaks get reported. You should be skeptical concerning the claims which are settled on by our best-known liberal-ish scribes. You should stop insisting on speed.
It's a famous phrase: "rush to judgment." We people tend to rush all about at times as exciting as these.