Creating a front-page report: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." A well-known writer said that.
In modern upper-end journalism, front-page reporting often consists in having been told one thing. The journalists must then add filler to that one thing until they've burned 1500 words.
So it goes, above the fold, on the front page of today's New York Times.
Last night, the Times report was discussed all over "cable news." Hard-copy headline included, the report starts off like this:
SCHMIDT, LAFRANIERE AND HABERMAN (11/2/8/18): Manafort Lawyer Briefs Trump Team on InquiryPurity of journalistic transmission is to have been told one thing! In that opening paragraph, the Times reporters report the one lone thing they've been told:
A lawyer for Paul Manafort, the president’s onetime campaign chairman, repeatedly briefed President Trump’s lawyers on his client’s discussions with federal investigators after Mr. Manafort agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, according to one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers and two other people familiar with the conversations.
The arrangement was highly unusual and inflamed tensions with the special counsel’s office when prosecutors discovered it after Mr. Manafort began cooperating two months ago, the people said. Some legal experts speculated that it was a bid by Mr. Manafort for a presidential pardon even as he worked with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in hopes of a lighter sentence.
Manafort's lawyer briefed Trump's lawyers about Manafort's discussions with Mueller even after Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller.That seems to be the one lone thing the three reporters were told. They were told this by "one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers and two other people familiar with the conversations."
(The Trump lawyer to whom they refer turns out to be Rudy Giuliani. The other two people are never identified further. This leads to several attributions which are comically vague, including "the people said" and "according to the people.")
At any rate, how strange! Manafort's lawyer kept briefing Trump's lawyers about his conversations with Mueller! That does seem like a significant fact—but the Times reporters seem to know nothing else.
Example: When did Mueller's team learn about this peculiar practice? Apparently, the three reporters don't know.
Throughout their 1500 words, the Times reporters never say when the Mueller team found out. For that reason, they're already repeating themselves in the second paragraph of their report, saying, for the second time, that Manafort's cooperation deal began "two months ago."
Prosecutors discovered that Manafort was doing this "after he began cooperating two months ago?" When else could they have learned it?
This repetition is utterly pointless—but it may give readers the false impression that they've been told when the Mueller team found out. In fact, the reporters never say when, or how, Mueller's team learned that Manafort was blabbing to Trump. There's no sign that they know.
Purity of heart is to repeat the one thing you've been told! In this morning's report, the reporters transmit the one thing they know in their first paragraph. It's largely filler from there.
How empty can the calories get as the reporters dispense the filler? As they continue, they offer this absurd "example" of a "valuable insight" Giuliani supposedly gained from this surprising arrangement:
SCHMIDT, LAFRANIERE AND HABERMAN (continuing directly): Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of the president’s personal lawyers, acknowledged the arrangement on Tuesday and defended it as a source of valuable insights into the special counsel’s inquiry and where it was headed. Such information could help shape a legal defense strategy, and it also appeared to give Mr. Trump and his legal advisers ammunition in their public relations campaign against Mr. Mueller’s office.That marshmallow fluff appears today, above the fold, on the front page of the Times! In that utterly ludicrous passage, the reporters quote Giuliani describing one of the "valuable insights" he supposedly gained from Manafort's blabbing.
For example, Mr. Giuliani said, Mr. Manafort’s lawyer Kevin M. Downing told him that prosecutors hammered away at whether the president knew about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russians promised to deliver damaging information on Hillary Clinton to his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. The president has long denied knowing about the meeting in advance. “He wants Manafort to incriminate Trump,” Mr. Giuliani declared of Mr. Mueller.
That said, what valuable insight did Trump's lawyers gain? They gained this valuable insight:
Mueller wants to know if Trump knew about that famous Trump Tower meeting!According to the Times reporters, that's one of the "valuable insights" Trump's lawyers were able to gain! That said, could anything be less significant than that silly "example?"
Wouldn't every American, from preschool up, already have assumed that Mueller was trying to learn if Trump knew about that meeting? After all, pundits have discussed little else over the past year.
Everybody would have assumed that Mueller was chasing that point. But in today's Times, we're asked to believe that Giuliani regarded it as a "valuable insight" when Manafort's lawyer told them, at some in the last two months, that Manafort had asked about this!
We'd rank that with the "valuable insight" that Mueller is working indoors.
This ludicrous filler is being employed by paragraph 4 of this "story." And as they continue, the scribes keep fudging the existence of the basic facts they don't seem to know:
SCHMIDT, LAFRANIERE AND HABERMAN (continuing directly): While Mr. Downing’s discussions with the president’s team violated no laws, they helped contribute to a deteriorating relationship between lawyers for Mr. Manafort and Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors, who accused Mr. Manafort of holding out on them despite his pledge to assist them in any matter they deemed relevant, according to the people. That conflict spilled into public view on Monday when the prosecutors took the rare step of declaring that Mr. Manafort had breached his plea agreement by lying to them about a variety of subjects."According to the people," Manafort's blabbing to Trump "helped contribute to a deteriorating relationship between" Manafort and Mueller.
That said, we aren't told when this deterioration started, or how Mueller's team learned about the Trump-Manafort discussions. Did Manafort convey any important facts to Trump? The scribes don't seem to know that either.
Soon, we're handed another prime example of pseudo-reporting. In paragraphs 7-9, the three reporters say this:
SCHMIDT, LAFRANIERE AND HABERMAN: Mr. Giuliani, who has taken an aggressive posture against the Russia investigation since Mr. Trump hired him in April, seized on Mr. Downing’s information to unleash lines of attack onto the special counsel.We're told that Giuliani used Manafort's information to launch lines of attack against Mueller. But does that passage make any real sense? we'd have to say it doesn't.
In asserting that investigators were unnecessarily targeting Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani accused the prosecutor overseeing the Manafort investigation, Andrew Weissmann, of keeping Mr. Manafort in solitary confinement simply in the hopes of forcing him to give false testimony about the president.
But detention officials decide whether inmates serve in solitary confinement, according to law enforcement officials, and allies of Mr. Manafort have said he is there for his own safety.
Did Giuliani need Manafort's lawyer to tell him that Manafort was being held in solitary confinement? Of course he didn't!
Presumably, Giuliani would have attacked the Mueller team in the manner described if he'd never heard a word from Manafort. At any rate, the reporters never say that this negative interpretation of Weissmann's motives was somehow conveyed by Manafort's lawyer. This passage seems to describe another "valuable insight" which was really no "insight" at all.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with knowing just one thing. That said, the Times has created a virtual art form in the past year, an art form in which they take some single thing they've been told and turn it into a lengthy front-page report.
In today's example, the three reporters have been told exactly one thing; everything else is filler. They never acknowledge the things they don't know. The things they don't know include these:
1) When did Mueller's team find out?Someone got on the phone and told the reporters one thing. The reporters went to work, adding plenty of filler.
2) How did Mueller's team find out?
3) Was anything important conveyed to Trump?
4) Did Mueller's agreement with Manafort prohibit this sort of thing?
5) If it didn't, why not? Did Mueller's team make a mistake?
Subscribers to the New York Times are asked to swallow this sort of thing whole. Cable stars scan the report, then start to "speculate." That's a journalistically shaky term—a term which dominates the second paragraph of today's report.
Today's report conveys one fact. It's followed by mountains of filler.
Some of the filler is utterly daft. Borrowing from Professor Harari, this may be the way we "apes" roll.
Still coming: Maddow misstates about Don McGahn; Don Lemon launches a probe