A few weeks ago a prominent attorney asked on his Twitter feed how the press will react if Robert Mueller finds no evidence of collusion between President Trump’s campaign and the Russians? I believe his point was that the urgent need of the news media to chase the latest bit of information leaking from the probe, is leading some news organizations to let speculation get ahead of the facts. Allow me to address the question in two ways.
The press as an institution, and reporters covering the investigation as individuals, will not lose a minute of sleep if Mueller falls short of finding collusion, because they can always claim they were simply reporting what they knew to be true at the time. They will also suffer no second thoughts, because so far the investigation has led to several indictments, guilty pleas and resignations. In this matter, from a news media perspective, the finding of criminal wrong-doing of any kind is equal to a finding of collusion. Finally on this point, since there is no federal crime known as “collusion,” the news media is chasing an idea more than an exact outcome.
On the other hand — and this is the second way of addressing the question — there is a problem with the tone of the coverage in terms of how the general public perceives the news media and it should be a concern to reporters and their employers. When the news media begins cheering for specific results its credibility is at risk. The tendency to push the edges is very evident in the current coverage of the political life and death of White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Kushner is not a sympathetic figure. He is a spoiled rich white guy from New York City who because of his youth appears to have no need to shave and wears suits that look like they were selected for him by his mother who must be a fan of the Beatles. He rarely speaks and when he does he sounds like the guy described in the previous sentence. He is comically in over his head. His only qualification for his current position in the U.S. government being that he married the president’s daughter.* None of the many other candidates for president in 2016 were considering Kushner for a role in their administration if they had won. The idea is laughable.
At the start of the administration, Kushner was given a list of issues to manage that covered half the federal government and most of the world’s hot spots. Recently, his portfolio seems to have shrunk to include only responsibility for peace in the Middle East and making sure the United States gets along with Mexico.** He should be given a pass on the Middle East, because he is not the first to fail there, but there is no doubt he has failed to maintain good relations with Mexico, a country that was just minding its own business on our southern border until President Trump took office. Now things are so bad the president of Mexico won’t even come to Washington, D.C. for a visit.
This week the president’s son-in-law lost something he never really had: proper clearance to work on the issues he has been assigned. Kushner’s failure to win security clearance shows he lacks basic qualifications to work in the White House and exists as an advisor there only because he is receiving special treatment as a presidential relative. Having said all that — the news media has shown itself in recent days to be a little too gleeful at the prospect of Kushner being pushed out.
Within hours of the decision to strip Kushner of his access to the Presidential Daily Briefing, and other top secret material, the Daily Beast celebrated with irony: “Deep State Takes Out White House’s Dark Clown Prince.” Within twenty-four hours, major outlets like the Washington Post, Politico and the New York Times were writing Kushner’s political obituary. In the case of the Post, its analysis ran under the headlined quote, “Jared Has Faded,” with reporting based on “interviews with 20 senior administration officials, congressional aides and other advisers to the president, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.”***
The citing of the actual number of anonymous sources reporters speak to when drafting a forward-looking piece of speculative journalism is an innovation popularized in recent years by Politico. It is meant to showcase the shoe leather reporting that goes into an analysis and make it more difficult for the target of the story to refute its premise. It should be noted however that in Washington (as in many political settings) it is very easy to get a large number of people to repeat the same rumor, because rumors are often the only material running through the system’s feed back loop.
One of the journalists who helped turn Politico into a D.C. must-read is Jim VandeHei, who left last year to co-found a new, even faster-paced, quick analysis news operation known as Axios. As Kushner’s brutal February came to an end, VandeHei put together an insider’s synopsis of a coordinated plot to take him out. While the analysis included many indisputable facts, it lacked any real proof that Kushner is the victim of a gang of conspirators. It is much more likely that Kushner’s lack of credentials and experience finally caught up with him and his enemies took advantage of the situation. Little actual effort was necessary to tumble this egg off the wall.
There is an axiom in politics that you do not waste energy taking out your enemy when your enemy is destroying himself. In answer to the lead off question of this article, it would be best for journalism if journalists stuck to collecting the ammunition in the form of facts rather than firing the gun. When the public perceives that the press is pushing for particular outcomes like; collusion, impeachment, or resignation, claims of media bias begin to ring true. Dig for the truth, share the information, show the pictures. Celebration, if appropriate, should be left to others.
*Editor’s note: You might say describing Jared Kushner in unflattering terms is an example of the very thing I appear to be criticizing. I would only offer in my own defense that I am not practicing straight journalism, but political observation, and I offer this description only as a means to explain why some journalists might take satisfaction in Kushner’s troubles.
**Historical footnote: It is believed this is the first time in U.S. presidential history that Middle East peace has been linked so closely to U.S./Mexico relations. But President Trump did promise an entrepreneurial approach.
***Editor’s note: As of publication, Jared Kushner is still a senior adviser in the Trump White House. His political obituaries are pre-mature. One of the most embarassing mistakes a journalist can make is reporting someone is dead when he is alive.