Flawed: yes. Fake: no. And, sometimes, extremely useful.
That was the portrait of the mainstream news media that emerged from former FBI director James B. Comey’s appearance Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At various times, Comey portrayed journalists as getting the story wrong. He denounced a Feb. 14 New York Times article as almost entirely inaccurate, and spoke of “many, many stories” that are “just dead wrong.” (The Times said in a tweeted statement Thursday afternoon that editors are looking into the article in question, which said that Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence.)
“The challenge, and I’m not picking on reporters, writing stories about classified information is the people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on, and those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it,” he said.
(Or, shorter, from Laotzu: “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”)
Yet much of Comey’s testimony reinforced or confirmed the bulk of the reporting — including from the Times and certainly from The Washington Post and others — that has dominated the news. One example among many is the reporting that led to the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn over issues surrounding his conversations with Russians.
That Comey agreed with some of the reporting was certainly no surprise. After all, he revealed, he had planted it himself.
In a startling moment, Comey described how he asked a close friend, a professor at Columbia Law School (later identified as Daniel Richman) to leak his detailed notes about a meeting between himself and President Trump to the New York Times.
“I felt it very important to get it out,” he said, with the end in mind of prompting the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Russian interference into the 2016 election, and any ties between Trump associates and the Russian government. And that’s just what happened.
Why not deal with a reporter himself, Comey was asked.
Simple. Comey said he didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the media: “It would be like feeding seagulls at the beach.”
And though he readily admitted that he himself was an indirect source of that explosive information, he reiterated that he agrees with President Trump about stamping out another kind of leak: that of classified information.
But all of these seemingly conflicting views make perfect sense to David Pozen, a Columbia University law professor who authored “The Leaky Leviathan,” a landmark 2013 Harvard Law Review article.
Pozen wrote about how government officials both “condone and condemn” leaks — including classified leaks — and how they find the press a necessary part of officialdom.
There was, however, no suggestion in anything Comey said that he believes reporters are simply making things up, as President Trump has insisted. (“Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names,” went one recent tweet, “it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers.” That, by the way, simply isn’t true.
Meanwhile, in a blatant inconsistency, the Trump side of things was itself emerging during the testimony from, yes, an unnamed source. The Associated Press cited “a person close to the president’s legal team” who disputed Comey’s claims that Trump requested Comey’s loyalty. That source unsurprisingly turned out to be Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s private lawyer, who later said the same thing publicly.
The Comey testimony made for riveting viewing — and produced some serious news — but if you were looking for consistency about sourcing, leaks or accuracy, this was not the place to find it. Only one thing seems unassailable from any direction: how deeply intertwined the relationship between government and press is, and always will be.
Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who came off during the questioning like Trump’s favorite defense attorney and who is no particular friend of the news media, admitted: “We learn more from the newspaper sometimes than from our open hearings, for sure.”
Trump didn’t fare well in Comey’s testimony, in which the president was described as a defaming liar who may have been engaged in obstruction of justice.
But the mainstream news media, whom Trump frequently describes as “the enemy,” certainly didn’t come off unscathed either.
Those looking to disparage the press will find the pickings easy — as unfair as that may be.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan