Investigative sins of omission

The media have sure hit a rough patch lately.

First there were the triple, presumably forced resignations of top investigative journalists at CNN over a deficient and ultimately retracted Trump-Russia story.

Then three other key CNN people were shown separately on clandestinely gathered videos admitting that their network's Trump scandal coverage was ratings-driven or bunk or both.

Then Sarah Palin filed a libel lawsuit against the New York Times for an astonishing editorial repeating a long-discredited calumny linking her directly to mass murder.

Some media critics took note before the news cycle moved on to the latest presidential Twitter outrage. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept argued the media's Trump-related embarrassments fit a long pattern of "claims about the Russia Threat that turned out to be completely false--always in the direction of exaggerating the threat and/or inventing incriminating links between Moscow and the Trump circle."

But Greenwald's focus was sins of commission. Even less attention has been paid to the mirror image of this problem--sins of omission. Both transgressions apparently stem from the media's uncritical embrace of a narrative regarding President Trump's incompetence and malfeasance.

Where sins of commission reflect the media's willingness to see things that aren't there, sins of omission result from myopic outlooks that prevent us from discerning and pursuing important stories. The result is significant gaps in reporting by top news outfits with the investigative muscle to ferret out corruption and hypocrisy at the highest levels of government.

Here are three examples:

A June 24 article in the New York Post by Paul Sperry is one of few in-depth pieces on Fusion GPS, the Democratic Party-friendly opposition research firm behind the scurrilous dossier that portrayed Donald Trump cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow.

Sperry reports that Fusion GPS, which was founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters, is now resisting disclosures to Senate investigators. But mainstream outlets aren't reacting with much alacrity to that news. They haven't even uncovered basics like who initially paid Fusion for its dirty (and shoddy) work. How to explain this apparent unwillingness to dig in? Is it because the congressional probers might discover an active Obama administration role in the dossier outrage? Or because some Beltway journalists are friends or former colleagues of the ex-journos at Fusion GPS?

Then there was the June 19 disclosure by Judicial Watch that materials regarding the "unmasking" of American citizens in surveillance reports (read: Michael Flynn) by former national security adviser Susan Rice or others have been moved to the Obama presidential library, where evidence of possible crimes could theoretically remain shielded from public view for years.

That stonewalling got little play. Yet there was a time in the pre-Trump era when major media would gladly take the fruits of the conservative watchdog group's costly freedom-of-information litigation and run with it. Just last year, in fact--when Hillary Clinton's email abuses provided drama in a Democratic race that otherwise had none.

Finally, there were revelations by Circa News of evidence of a possible personal motive behind FBI animus toward Flynn, the ousted Trump national security adviser. In 2014, Flynn supported a female agent accusing now-Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and others of sex discrimination. At a time when hard evidence that Flynn or other Trump associates actually colluded with Russians is thin at best, Sara A. Carter and John Solomon presented their stories with supporting documents.

To an editor who spends his days trying to put together a non-ideological front page highlighting the best investigative reporting regardless of which political party it hurts or helps, these coverage gaps are troubling. And the problem apparently won't be addressed anytime soon.

As Trump goads the media, a rising chorus of prominent voices is giving journalists cover to forsake neutral journalism (such as it was). "An abandonment of the pretense to 'objectivity'--in many ways a return to American journalism's roots--is long overdue," writes Mitchell Stephens, a New York University journalism professor, in Politico Magazine.

Watergate legend Carl Bernstein recently said the times demand a "different kind of reporting" in response to Trump's "malignant presidency." Here's hoping he didn't mean abandoning his old boss Ben Bradlee's insistence on at least two sources for big stories; disregarding that dictum cost those three CNN journalists their jobs the other day.

It would be naive to see these failings only through the lens of ideology. Money is also a large factor in a business that often publishes in black ink but too often operates in the red. Or engages in cutthroat cable battles for eyeballs: Two CNN producers ensnared in the undercover video operation of James O'Keefe's Project Veritas said the network's Trump-Russia coverage is ratings-driven.

Elsewhere, the Washington Post and New York Times are enjoying subscription surges since the election because of reader alarm over Trump, and they have been ramping up negative coverage.

At the Times, my alma mater, this approach dovetails with an explicit corporate strategy of doubling digital revenue by 2020 by wooing the Times's most engaged readers--young, digital, international, and considered most willing to part with money. In other words, liberals. I know from my long experience at the Times that its reader feedback loop is a palpable and powerful force in the newsroom. You can judge for yourself whether the readers the Times now assiduously courts in an age of Trump hatred are pushing it further leftward.

Paradoxically, the paper is cutting back copy editors at the same time it's expanding digitally. But solid investigative reporting requires unbiased and keen-eyed editing, from the executive editor's suite to the copy desk.

Done at its highest level, enterprise journalism also requires an open mind. In 1976, after Watergate had made Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward household names, author James H. Dygert took a stab at explaining the craft in a book, The Investigative Journalist: Folk Heroes of a New Era. In its pages, the author called its practitioners "dispassionate professionals" who probed the depths underneath the conventional wisdom in an effort "to uncover the whole truth."

The whole truth, and nothing but--words to live by.

Tom Kuntz is the editor of RealClearInvestigations.

Editorial on 07/16/2017


REV2018 says...

Tom Kuntz apparently has never watched Fox "News". Tom sounds like an advocate of neutral journalism but the "Latest Investigations" by his RealClearInvestigations website seem to have a distinct "red" shading. If your asserting that the NYT and WAPO have credibility problems, why does RealClearInvestigations continue to reprint so many of their stories on a daily basis? All the publications you highlight have rectified their problems in CLEAR and transparent ways. Sorry Tom, I'm with you on journalistic neutrality but I'm sticking with the Post, Times, and CNN.

Posted 16 July 2017, 11:34 a.m. Suggest removal

REV2018 says...

"To an editor who spends his days trying to put together a non-ideological front page highlighting the best investigative reporting regardless of which political party it hurts or helps, these coverage gaps are troubling. And the problem apparently won't be addressed anytime soon."

Yellow journalism...

Posted 17 July 2017, 3:18 p.m. Suggest removal

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