Part 3—What Josh Marshall read: Can you believe the things you read on the New York Times' front page? Putting your question more precisely:
Can you believe what you think you've read on that famous front page?
You're asking a major question! In the modern political context, the question dates at least to 1996, when Gene Lyons published Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.
Lyons' book first saw life in 1994 as this article in Harper's. He described the way the Whitewater pseudoscandal got its start in some suspiciously slippery front-page reports in that same New York Times.
The pseudoscandal the Times touched off ended up giving its name to a deeply destructive political era—an era which extended through Hillary Clinton's spin-drenched defeat by Donald J. Trump.
Can you believe what you read in the Times—what you think you've read in the Times? Let's continue our visit to the latest episode in this long-running, deeply consequential tale.
Our story starts last Thursday night, at roughly 8:20 PM Eastern. At that time, cable observers spotted the latest bombshell report on the Times' web site. On Friday morning's hard-copy front page, the alleged bombshell report ran beneath these headlines:
TRUMP ORDERED MUELLER'S FIRING BUT WAS REFUSEDOn its face, the report was highly dramatic. One of its authors, Maggie Haberman, was rushed onto the air at CNN, where she's an (apparently paid) "CNN political analyst."
President Relented After the White House Counsel Threatened to Resign
"This is really huge," Anderson Cooper instantly said. (Presumably, he hadn't had time to read the newly posted report.) Excitedly, he assembled the troops, who began praising their colleague:
COOPER (1/27/18): Maggie, if you can't just stay with us. I want to bring back Carl Bernstein, Gloria Borger and Kaitlan Collins.Haberman's report was stunning, Bernstein quickly said. He was "going to assume that Maggie is as good a reporter as she always is."
Carl, I mean—pretty stunning.
BERNSTEIN: It's stunning. It's a huge story, and I'm going to assume that Maggie is as good a reporter as she always is, and that the fact that the White House counsel threatened to resign over this.
Gloria Borger soon added her own words of praise. "Maggie, this is your great story," she said. Jeffrey Toobin joined in too. "It's yet another remarkable scoop by Maggie and Mike Schmidt," he soon said.
(In fact, the endlessly fuzzy Michael Schmidt was the lead reporter for the bombshell report. Schmidt was being praised this night over at MSNBC, where he's a presumably paid "MSNBC contributor.")
Had these CNN observers actually read the "story?" Based on the apparent timing of the bombshell report's appearance, we would guess that, at best, they had been able to skim it.
(Note: "Story" is the childish term our journalists use in place of the more grown-up term, "news report.")
That said, the cable stars were leaping ahead with praise for Haberman's latest great story. A bit more cautiously and somewhat humorously, Bernstein was merely assuming her work was good.
Some of these people may have actually read the report. If so, should they have believed what they read, or what they thought they'd read?
We're going to say maybe not! Consider what happened to Josh Marshall roughly two days later.
Roughly two days later, Marshall read a news report in the Washington Post. The lengthy report, by Ashley Parker, appeared on the front page of Sunday's hard-copy editions. Marshall quoted and assessed what he read in this subsequent TPM post.
What did Marshall read in Sunday's Washington Post? Uh-oh! In paragraphs 31-33 of Parker's lengthy report, he encountered this buzzkill:
PARKER ET AL (1/28/18): By June [of 2017], Trump had so openly begun discussing firing Mueller that Bannon and Reince Priebus, who was then chief of staff, grew “incredibly concerned,” huddling to strategize about how to dissuade the president and enlisting others to intervene with him.Say what? McGahn didn't tell Donald J. Trump that he would quit?
In mid-June, Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime Trump confidant, voiced those concerns publicly, telling PBS “NewsHour,” “I think he’s perhaps terminating the special counsel.”
And that same month, Trump did, in fact, order McGahn to fire Mueller, a directive first reported Thursday by the New York Times. But McGahn told West Wing staff—though not the president—that he would quit before carrying out Trump’s directive, and the president ultimately backed down, people familiar with the events said.
That's what Parker explicitly wrote. He simply told "West Wing staff!"
Why do we call that report a buzzkill? Because that's what Marshall said. That isn't what he thought he had read in the original "bombshell report"—and he thought it mattered.
Marshall wrote a whole blog post concerning this apparent contradiction. It appeared under a striking headline: "This Is A Very Big Difference."
"This seems like a minor detail," Marshall wrote. "But at least based on my understanding it is a quite different version of the story than the one reported by the Times last week."
Marshall said that Parker's account of what had occurred was much less dramatic that the story he thought he'd read in the Times. He went on to offer this significant point of concern:
MARSHALL (1/28/18): If [McGahn] didn’t tell Trump [that he would quit], what happened exactly? It’s not clear. Perhaps McGahn separately gave Trump the ultimatum. But the story appears to say clearly that that did not happen. If I’m reading this passage correctly, they’re not simply saying they don’t have confirmation McGahn told the President but that they know McGahn did not. Big difference.Uh-oh! In that highlighted statement, Marshall floated a naughty speculation. Schmidt and Haberman may have been played by self-dealing people inside the Trump White House! The star scribes may have been conned!
This makes it sound much more like McGahn just pocket vetoed Trump’s directive. It also raises the possibility that McGahn or his allies floated the Times version of the story and included a deceptively aggressive (and exculpating) version of events.
We'll give Marshall high marks for offering that speculation. That said, we're forced to give him a failing grade for his overall work over the course of this latest episode.
We're sorry, but Schmidt and Haberman's original report never did explicitly say that McGahn directly challenged Trump. Their front-page writing is quite often tactically fuzzy, and it was so again this time.
Marshall had misread their report if he thought they'd made some such declaration. More than twenty years after Fools For Scandal, one of our stars was getting fooled again!
In fact, last Thursday evening's "bombshell report" was strikingly fuzzy. And please understand this point:
Schmidt and Haberman are professional journalists, as is the editor who waved their report into print. They all know how to produce clear declarations of fact.
If sources had told them that McGahn directly confronted Donald J. Trump, they would have explicitly said so. Why didn't they make a clear declaration? Almost surely, it's because they don't know what actually happened, or because they wanted to make these events seem more dramatic than they actually were.
The pattern which played out last week is getting extremely old. Here's the shape of watery journalism:
First, suspiciously slippery writing appears on page one of the Times. The "story" seems to make dramatic claims, but explicit statements can't quite be found.
Despite the familiar shape of the fuzzyy work, everybody stampedes off to declare the report a bombshell. Cable stars praise the brilliant work before they've even read it.
The apparent claims, which don't really exist, drive some preapproved narrative. At home, a thrill is sent up our legs. We decide to tune in the very next night for more of this tribal excitement!
Back in 1992, the slippery claims involved the Whitewater investment. Last Thursday night, the slippery claims involved a dramatic West Wing "confrontation."
That said, what actually happened last June in the White House? In our view, there's little sign that Schmidt and Haberman know. Beyond that, we'd say that Marshall's speculation about the reporters getting played is quite possibly sound.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what another observer said. This observer didn't claim to know what had occurred, but on Friday night, speaking with Lawrence, he almost seemed to roll his eyes at the New York Times' bombshell report.
Lawrence's guest was Michael Wolff. Trump "fires Mueller" every day, the best-selling author now said!
Tomorrow: The skeptic's tale. Did Donald J. Trump "back down?"