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Actually, the Press Was Not All Bad on Collusion

A 134-year-old news organization upheld the righteous standards of a free and honorable media.

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

As this column has noted more than once, Hillary Clinton made good use of Donald Trump’s business history in Russia, his foolish camaraderie with Vladimir Putin, suspicions that he was the Kremlin’s favorite.

Likewise, hardly unrealistic were FBI fears of Russian influence given a Trump campaign “full of naive, inexperienced and unvetted individuals,” as I put it in 2017. If an investigation was opened on a thin basis, as we later learned, so what? Such investigations are meant to proceed confidentially. They are presumably dropped without harm to innocents if nothing materializes.

And the fact remains: Mr. Trump won. Mrs. Clinton was the candidate complaining that improper FBI actions cost her the race. But also flawed is the claim that Russian actions may have affected what was, after all, a tiny 77,000-vote outcome in three states. The flaw is the difference between net and gross. A deluge of innuendo on cable TV about his Russian ties certainly cost Mr. Trump more votes than any Russian dabblings on social media might have gained him. The disconcerting corollary: If Russia had not been a topic in the campaign, Mr. Trump would likely have won with a bigger margin. [would have preferred some back up for these two statements.]

Now comes a five-part series by the former New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gerth in the Columbia Journalism Review, demolishing the media’s performance [mostly the NYT]on the collusion story.

His indictment has called forth a torrent of evasions. Mr. Trump was bad on Russia, goes a rejoinder, so the merit of particular allegations doesn’t matter. This is lame journalistically and also falsifies certain complexities: Mr. Trump may have indulged dotty notions about Russia but he increased arms for Ukraine, opposed the Nord Stream pipeline and obliterated a Wagner force operating in Syria.

Mr. Trump was the most known person ever to run for president. He spent 35 years advertising his demerits to the American people. Turning him into a secret Russian agent was a revelation, all right—of how weak-minded certain media personalities are, how easily managed by their “sources.”

Mr. Gerth reproduces points from this column over the years, from the misconstrual of “126 million” alleged recipients of Russia Facebook ads, to the work of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, which concluded the Kremlin’s real success was convincing the media to exaggerate the Kremlin’s success.

Then there’s the Steele dossier. Anybody can say anything; to a reporter, a single substantiated claim is usually worth an infinity of unsupported claims. One fully substantiated story was staring reporters in the face: a paid foreign agent circulating evidence-free allegations on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Lacking only was the imagination to see that the real story wasn’t the one the “source” Christopher Steelewas peddling. This deficiency tells you everything about the psychological milieu of today’s press corps.

But it’s also true collusion only took off when the FBI legitimized the dossier as “news” in a way that allowed the press to revel in its allegations without caring whether they were true. To this day, Rachel Maddow’s best defense is, Hey, I’m not a reporter, I’m a performer. What followed wasn’t hysteria or psychological contagion, the so-called Trump derangement syndrome. It was a business decision. CNN and MSNBC didn’t become intoxicated with a story and go overboard. They were straining after clicks and ratings.

Let me end with a gentle pitch. While it’s great to have Mr. Gerth’s detailed retrospective, retrospect is too late to influence events. The real-time skepticism of writers on these widely read and skillfully edited pages at least balanced the scales while events were happening. Mr. Gerth has his reasons for preferring to notice leftwing collusion skeptics Matt Taibbi, Aaron Maté and Glenn Greenwald, whose names he might have first learned in this column, but there was a 134-year-old, large circulation, highly creditable news organization that upheld the righteous standards of a free and honorable press.

Lately I’ve tried reader patience with the Leonard Benardo emails. Mr. Benardo is guilty of nothing but his emails were foundational to the FBI meddling in 2016 that likely actually tilted the race. Special Counsel John Durham reportedly has finally opened this can of worms, illustrating one more upside-down reality of the Trump era, replete also in Mr. Gerth’s pages. Mr. Gerth’s account is almost entirely built on the work of public servants like Mr. Durham, the Justice Department’s Michael Horowitz and even the flawed Robert Mueller, whom Americans have relied on for truths they won’t get from a disingenuous and incurious news media.

One final point: The role of the FBI notwithstanding, Mr. Trump did win in 2016 and his voters had a right to expect elites to respond in a mature and constructive way to the election outcome. The sin our media will never be able to expiate is destroying the legitimate hopes of 63 million voters.


“Mr. Trump did win in 2016 and his voters had a right to expect elites to respond in a mature and constructive way to the election outcome.”Agreed. I assume you would agree that Mr. Biden won in 2020 and his voters had a right to expect Trump supporters to respond in a mature and constructive way to the election outcome?

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