Masterful understatement: Don't despair! Next week, we'll take a look at the New York Times' latest report on middle school "desegregation."
(For some, this promise may also serve as a trigger warning.)
Thursday's report was the latest in a long line of heinous reports by the Times on this pseudo-subject. The piece was written by a (well-regarded) youngish reporter who has just joined the Times.
In this instance, "youngish" means six years out of college (Columbia, class of 2012). To such well-intentioned youngish reporters, we will only say this:
At the Times, you'll be asked to traffic in manifest nonsense concerning favored Times hobby horses. There's simply no way to be coherent in the face of such an assignment.
Thursday's report was a case in point. We'll review the report next week.
For today, we postpone that excursion into the ether in favor of an analysis piece by the Washington Post's Paul Farhi, with whom we chatted, long ago, at an undisclosed location.
Farhi is one of those upper-end mainstream scribes who has somehow managed to maintain his sanity down through the many long years. In today's report, he critiques CNN's conduct in its recent fandango involving Lanny Davis.
For the record, Farhi is critiquing CNN today. He isn't critiquing Davis. He isn't critiquing Michael Cohen, Davis' current client.
More specifically, he's critiquing CNN's peculiar conduct in late July in the course of filing a "bombshell report"—a bombshell report for which Davis both was, and wasn't, a source.
Davis was and wasn't a source? Farhi starts with an account of the basic facts of the case. Simply put, CNN used Davis as an anonymous source for its report, then said that he had "declined to comment" about the bombshell report:
FARHI (9/1/18): President Trump and his supporters have seized on a single line in a CNN article to question the credibility of the story and of the network. Why, they ask, was a key source for the article described as not commenting when he later admitted that he very much had?Are we following that? Davis was an (anonymous) source for the CNN report, which was treated as a bombshell by CNN and MSNBC. But in the course of its report, CNN said that Davis had "declined to comment" about the bombshell report!
The question and the criticism open up a broad—and arguably unflattering—vista on the way journalism sometimes works.
CNN has stood by the story, published on July 26 under the byline of three writers, including legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. The article reported that former presidential lawyer Michael Cohen was prepared to tell special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that he knew that Trump was aware in advance, and had approved, a fateful meeting with Russian operatives at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The story reported prominently that one of Cohen’s attorneys, Lanny Davis, had declined to comment on the matter.
In fact, CNN was well aware that Davis had commented plenty. The reason: He was one of CNN’s key sources, albeit a “background” source, one who divulges information with the promise of anonymity. Davis himself later acknowledged he was a source, outing himself in an interview . . . on CNN; Davis subsequently backed off the claims he made in the story, but CNN is standing by it, saying other sources have corroborated its reporting.
Making matters worse, Davis later admitted that he shouldn't have been a source at all, essentially because he hadn't had the slightest idea what he was talking about. By now, he has taken every possible position on the matter at hand, and a few more just for good measure.
That's a problem with Davis' conduct. Farhi examines CNN's behavior in today's piece in the Post.
In the first of several understatements, Farhi says (see above) that his report involves "a broad—and arguably unflattering—vista on the way journalism sometimes works."
Arguably unflattering? We'd have to say that Farhi's report takes us well past that point. As he continues, he suggests that this particular type of sleight of hand is fairly routine within modern journalism. He also authors a second understatement:
FARHI: [P]eople at CNN defend the Cohen-Davis piece by asserting that there’s no contradiction between a reporter speaking to a source on a background basis and then saying that same person declined to comment. Although readers and viewers often aren’t aware of it, “it’s done all the time in Washington,” said one person at CNN, who—yes—declined to be identified or to make an “on-the-record” comment.In that passage, Farhi quotes someone at CNN who says this sort of thing is "done all the time." Resorting again to understatement, Farhi says that critics say this practice may be "ethically dubious."
But critics say the practice is murky at best and ethically dubious at worst. Reporting that someone “declined to comment” when he or she actually had could mislead readers into believing an individual had no role in shaping a story.
"Ethically dubious?" That's what the practice is "at worst," according to Farhi's (unnamed) critics!
We're sorry, but this practice is grossly misleading at best, constitutes an obvious scam when judged by straightforward measures. As Farhi continues, he quotes a professor saying as much—though he had to go all the way to Wisconsin to find someone willing to state this fairly obvious point.
After that, Farhi seems to say, in his own voice, that this type of sleight of hand is hardly unknown in the contemporary press:
FARHI (continuing directly): “If CNN did tell its readers and viewers that Davis did not comment when he was indeed one of their confidential sources, that breaks a bond of trust with the public,” said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s deceptive and wrong. And if it is the case, CNN needs to be as transparent as possible immediately and develop practices to ensure this never happens again.”Way off in the heartland, Culver was somehow able to state the obvious about this deceptive practice. According to Farhi, meanwhile, this doesn't seem to have been unprecedented behavior by CNN:
It’s not clear how widespread this practice is among reporters or how long it has been used. Mainstream news organizations officially frown on saying someone didn’t comment when they actually spoke on background or off the record (meaning not for attribution or publication in any way). But this guideline isn’t always enforced.
News org "frown on" the practice, he says. But the frowning is sometimes ignored!
As he continues, Farhi describes the hoops through which our journalists sometimes jump in an effort to make this practice seem to be technically ethical. Eventually, he quotes Glenn Greenwald describing the obvious reasons why this sort of thing shouldn't be done.
Meanwhile, sad! Farhi's report begins with the always thoughtful Donald J. Trump saying, in effect, that this CNN report was the latest example of "fake news." We liberals hate to acknowledge the fact, but cons like this help explain why Trump supporters can be induced to believe in sweeping claims of this type.
As we read Farhi's report, we thought of a type of complaint we first made in the fall of 1999. Our complaint arose from a punishing New Yorker report in which two major journalists delivered the latest Official Standard Attack on the disfavored Candidate Gore.
The report was built on what seemed to be an array of anonymous sources. But just how many anonymous sources were the journalists actually quoting?
There was no way to know that! It seemed they were quoting a lot of people. Or were they simply quoting one or two disgruntled sources, adjusting the way these sources were described as their screed unfolded?
Star journalists would never do that, you may be inclined to say. And certainly not at The New Yorker!
Our major stars would never do that? Who's being naive now, Kay?
Back then, the guild got its way. By their lights, Gore hadn't savaged Clinton strongly enough for having engaged in sexual conduct without first getting press corps permission.
On that basis, they slimed Gore for twenty straight months, thus sending George Bush to the White House. As we all understand but refuse to discuss, people are dead all over the world because our star journalists did this.
Today, Farhi describes another reindeer game. Our question, if you should choose to discuss it:
If a lynch mob chases a guilty party, isn't it still a mob?
The fall of 1999: In the fall of 1999, then into the winter of 2000, the press corps was simultaneously 1) inventing wild statements by Candidate Gore, and 2) disappearing wild statements by Candidate McCain, with whom they were conducting a childish love affair on a bus.
Eventually, they were forced to admit that they had engaged in Reindeer Game #2, but their confession came and went quickly. Because (as we know) script never dies, the narratives they developed in these ways linger on to this very day.
Our journalism is largely script. Again and again, then again and again, the narrative must go on.