“Fake news,” “enemy of the people," “dishonest," “disgusting”: President Trump’s headliner criticisms of the media have gobbled up a lot of attention since the launch of his presidential campaign in June 2015. In so doing, they have overshadowed another way in which he and his acolytes have managed to cheapen the work of journalists, especially investigative ones.
In a press availability on Tuesday afternoon, the president fielded a question stemming from a fresh New York Times report on his attempts to interfere with investigations in his midst. Most troubling is an allegation that Trump asked his acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, if he could essentially un-recuse a top prosecutor — Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — and place him in charge of a federal investigation into hush payments coordinated by Trumpite Michael Cohen.
“Did you ask acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to change the leadership of the investigation into your former personal attorney Michael Cohen?” came the question to Trump.
His answer: “No, not at all. I don’t know who gave you that. That’s more fake news. There’s a lot of fake news out there.”
Bolding added to highlight a growing presumption that the job of journalists is to transcribe the hot tips of well-informed sources. We saw this reflex response just weeks ago, when CNN captured footage of FBI personnel swarming the Fort Lauderdale home of Roger Stone. Conservatives refused to believe CNN’s explanation that it had pieced together the likelihood of Stone’s arrest. “All the barking aside, [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III] wanted the raid on Roger Stone’s home caught on tape, and publicly aired, as a warning to other disobedient witnesses about what can happen to you if you step out of line. CNN was happy to oblige,” said Tucker Carlson on his Fox News program.
A similar ritual follows many thunderous exclusives from mainstream outlets: Who leaked it?
In a recent chat with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt — one of the bylines on Tuesday’s Trump-interference piece — teed off on the trend.
One of the unfortunate things about stories based on anonymous sources is that how we got the story and who the sources are often takes on a life of its own. And I think that at times there’s this sort of notion that we receive ‘leaks.’ As if — I know it’s not this simplistic, the idea of it — but, like, as if we were just sitting at our desks and the phone rings and it’s ‘The Leaker’ who has the information for us.
Gross asked if it doesn’t play out that way on occasion. “The reason that a lot of stories are broken is because journalists are out there asking people questions. We are not lemmings sitting at our desks who receive calls from folks who are trying to secretly undercut the other side and use anonymity to launch an attack," said Schmidt, noting that reporters knit together information from this source and that source “into a larger thing.” And that’s how “we get the stories that we do.”