Wednesday, May 31, 2023

No Longer the Unforgivable Sin

I was told early in my career that lying to reporters was the unforgivable sin. Spin was accepted and expected, but lying was a career ender. Lie to a reporter and not only would that reporter never trust you again but would ensure his fellow scribes knew of the transgression and would avoid you as a source.

Case in point: As director of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice in February 2004, I was routinely asked by reporters if the department had opened an investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. On Friday, Feb. 6, I informed them that no investigation was open, only to learn the criminal division had opened one late that night without notifying anyone. Even the attorney general’s office was caught unaware.

When the story about the investigation was leaked and broke Tuesday morning, I arrived at my office to a crowd of angry reporters led by USA Today’s Toni Loci, who berated me with a barrage of four-letter words which were enthusiastically endorsed by her colleagues. And then she branded me a bleeping liar.

When she finished and the grumbling subsided, I explained the timeline and that I hadn’t lied, and the career attorney who launched the investigation vouched for me. I was forgiven, but it’s not an experience anyone on either end of the government-media relationship wants to experience. At least that’s what I thought.

I have defended reporters my entire career because I believed an adversarial press was important to accountability and transparency – that an adversarial press was this republic’s last line of defense against government tyranny. I’d always considered myself a middleman, the conduit of information from the people’s government to the free press who deliver it to the American people – the rightful owners of that information. I’ve even filed amicus briefs in federal court defending the right of reporters to protect their sources.

A lot about journalism has changed in 20 years, and perhaps I was naïve, but what should not have changed is the fundamental principle that reporters should expect sources to tell the truth and should impose severe penalties when sources violate that principle. And yet here we are.

How else can the press explain their ongoing relationships and use of intelligence officials as named sources in their reporting who flat out lied about Hunter Biden’s laptop bearing the “classic hallmarks” of a Russian disinformation campaign? Former CIA Director Michael Morel lied. Former CIA Director James Brennan lied. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied.

These liars lied to the press to prop up the political campaign of Joe Biden. These former intelligence chiefs lied to the press fully expecting reporters would lie to the American people. Yet these liars still hold lucrative gigs on the cable networks as expert commentators, are regularly used as on-the-record, and no doubt off-the-record, sources to the entire cadre of Beltway journalists. These liars will frequent the White House Correspondents Dinner and all the exclusive cocktail parties this weekend hosted by news organizations.

They are liars, the reporters know that they were deceived by them and … nothing has changed.  

How has this happened that the national press corps is now slavishly willing to share misinformation and false information? It’s not the first time or perhaps even the worst example. After all, almost a century later, the New York Times still has not fully rejected its relationship with Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent whose stories in the Times covered up the great Russian famine and propped up Josef Stalin and his slaughter of millions of his citizens.

Yet, even today, as new revelations about the Biden laptop and efforts to mislead the media and the public continue to arise, the same news outlets burned in 2020 betray whatever “journalistic ethics” they still possess by failing their fellow citizens and not presenting unvarnished facts about their elected, appointed, and career government officials.

Perhaps just a decade ago, the Hunter Biden laptop story and the role of foreign money and foreign influence-peddling would have been a journalist’s or TV news operation’s ticket to stardom and public appreciation. But for some reason, the national media now looks the other way, fearful of being the dog that catches up to the car it is chasing.

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, the media’s credibility with the public is at an all-time low, with only 34% of Americans having even a fair amount of trust in journalists. This isn’t because of a Russian or Chinese disinformation campaign – though much of American media was happy to participate in those efforts as well. No, this low bar of trust is the fault of the reporters, editors, and bureau chiefs who continue to allow their sources to lie to them and amplify those lies in an all-out, ends-justify-the-means political battle.

“But Trump!” is not a legitimate excuse to be complicit in lies and disinformation to the public. If in your arrogance you believe we, the people, will make the wrong decision if we have the full set of accurate facts, then you are the problem and have rightly earned our scorn and with it, your eventual obsolescence.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.