The federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and of contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Kremlin agents is now in a new phase, with the president’s defenders attacking special counsel Robert Mueller.
Fox News and other pro-Trump conservative media are leading the charge. Trump critics say we are witnessing a ruling regime’s propaganda machine going all out to discredit its enemies. Meanwhile, to Trump supporters, the mainstream media are guilty of their own agitprop in ratcheting up Trump-Russia hysteria.
Do both sides have a point? Yes, to the extent that bias and intellectual dishonesty exist on both sides. No, insofar as the errors and sloppy reporting in the mainstream media do not rise close to the level of disinformation churned out by the Trump camp. But the failings of mainstream journalists, documented by media critics as ideologically divergent as Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept and Mark Hemingway in The Weekly Standard, are real enough.
Just recently, ABC reported that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, would testify that Trump had instructed him to contact the Russians during the campaign (in fact, it was after the election). CNN reported — and CBS and MSNBC claimed to have confirmed — that Donald Trump Jr. had been sent an email with a decryption key to a WikiLeaks collection of hacked emails from Democratic operatives before WikiLeaks released the emails. In fact, it was after those emails were made public.
To Trump partisans, this is proof of fake news — and of the Russia story being a hoax, as Trump has claimed. In recent days, pro-White House pundits have pointed to text messages and emails by Mueller staffers and FBI officials revealing their distaste for Trump as evidence that the investigation is driven by partisan bias.
The fake news trope is wildly blown out of proportion. Mainstream media have quickly corrected their errors — which were caught by other mainstream journalists. (A Slate report from October 2016 claiming there was a computer server in Trump Tower communicating with a Kremlin-connected Russian bank was quickly debunked by a wide range of liberal publications.) Nonetheless, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg is right when he argues these errors result from bias, not just the rush to get a scoop: many journalists, he says, want the story of Trump-Russia collusion to be true and are quick to embrace stories that seem to confirm it.
But this is not the same degree of bias as Fox pundits — including Jeanine Pirro and Jesse Watters — claiming that the Russia probe is an attempted coup by Democrats and abetted by the FBI to undo the 2016 election. Never mind that Mueller is a Republican whose probity was praised by the fervently pro-Trump Newt Gingrich when he was appointed special counsel. Never mind that the FBI warned Trump in July 2016 that the Russians could try to infiltrate his campaign, and that his staff should report all attempts at contact by the Russians.
Nearly a month before that warning, Donald Trump Jr. exchanged emails about meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer wanting to supply “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” While the meeting turned out to be a dud, the contact was never reported to the FBI.
This is not fake news or a botched report, and it suggests (as do many other facts) that the Russia probe has some substance. But the media need to triple-check their scoops. Bias-tinted errors only help discredit both the investigation and the Fourth Estate.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.