The latest developments in the Michael Flynn case should prompt us to revisit one of the most glaring failures in political journalism, one that lends credibility to baseless narratives pushed for purely instrumental purposes, perversely rewarding bad-faith actors in the process.

News accounts constantly claim with no basis that new information “boosts” or “lends ammunition” to a particular political attack, or “raises new questions” about its target. These journalistic conventions are so all-pervasive that we barely notice them.

But they’re extremely pernicious, and they need to stop. They both reflect and grotesquely amplify a tendency that badly misleads readers. That happened widely in 2016, to President Trump’s great benefit. It’s now happening again.

Republican senators have just released a declassified list of Obama administration officials — including Trump opponent Joe Biden — who requested information that ended up “unmasking” Flynn during the transition.

Trump and his campaign have seized on this to further their claim that the Russia investigation was corrupt, and that Biden was key to that. Trump rails that this “unmasking is a massive thing” that raises new questions about Biden’s role.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale insists this illustrates “the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax.”

This is steaming nonsense. But news accounts are reporting on this in purportedly objective ways that subtly place an editorial thumb on the scale in favor of those attacks.

For instance, the Associated Press ran this headline: “Flynn case boosts Trump’s bid to undo Russia probe narrative.” Axios told us:

Biden’s presence on the list could turn it into an election year issue, though the document itself does not show any evidence of wrongdoing.

CNN informed us that this is “the latest salvo to discredit the FBI’s Russia investigation and accuse the previous administration of wrongdoing.”

But here’s the problem: These formulations do not constitute a neutral transmission of information, even though they are supposed to come across that way.

The new information actually does not “boost” Trump’s claims about the Russia investigation or “discredit” it. And if there is “no evidence of wrongdoing,” then it cannot legitimately be “turned into an election issue.”

There’s no way to neutrally assert that new info “boosts” an attack or constitutes a “salvo” or is “becoming an issue.” The information is being used in a fashion that is either legitimate or not, based on the known facts. Such pronouncements in a from-on-high tone of journalistic objectivity lend the dishonest weaponizing of new info an aura of credibility.

The ‘unmasking’

The new info is a document declassified by Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, which shows a list of names who had submitted requests to the National Security Agency. It says officials asked for an “identity that had been generically referred to in an NSA foreign intelligence report," that those officials were “authorized” recipients of that report to begin with, and that “standard process” was followed.

Trump paints this as a corrupt political effort to target a top adviser. But two facts undermine this. As a useful New York Times piece explains, officials couldn’t yet even know the identity of the “unmasked” person. What’s more:

Government rules intended to minimize invasions of Americans’ privacy in intelligence work generally require “masking,” or obscuring, Americans’ identities and information about them in reports based on foreign intelligence surveillance.
But the rules also permit recipients of such reports to request an unmasking if the identity is necessary to understand the information, and that step is routine: The National Security Agency handled about 10,000 unmasking requests in 2019 and nearly 17,000 in 2018.

This was likely an effort to better “understand” intelligence reports.

Those reports might have been about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador undermining Obama administration policy before Trump was in office. Flynn lied to the FBI about those conversations, but Trump’s attorney general has dropped that prosecution, to help undermine the Russia investigation.

As former intelligence officials quickly pointed out, this is exactly the sort of thing national security officials should have wanted to understand better.

Such processes can, of course, be abused, and maybe more information will emerge to that effect. But based on what we know now, there’s no way to claim this information legitimately boosts Trump’s claims.

Beyond all the problems noted above, it doesn’t undermine the validity of the Russia investigation itself (which the Justice Department inspector general found to have a lawful basis, despite many problems).

And, importantly, it in no way undermines that investigation’s conclusions, that Trump committed extensive and likely criminal obstructive acts and that Russia did engage in extensive electoral sabotage to help Trump, for which a dozen Russians were indicted.

All of that is what Trump is portraying as a “hoax.” The new information doesn’t “boost” that portrayal or “discredit” what Trump claims it does, or demonstrate any corrupt Biden involvement. This narrative is pure invention:

Some news accounts handled this well. The Times noted that the declassification itself suggests Trump’s allies are “wielding the information for his political benefit.” The Post prominently pointed out that this unmasking is a “common government practice.”

Are we really doing this again?

Ask yourself this: In 2016, how many times did you hear that this or that revelation about Hillary Clinton’s emails or other matters “gives Trump ammunition” or “gives Trump an issue” or some such, only to see the revelations themselves turn out to be little or nothing?

There is a legitimately difficult editorial challenge in figuring out how to scrutinize a mostly conventional politician who is running against a bottomlessly corrupt and dishonest opponent like Trump, as Brian Beutler has noted, without placing a similarly sized question mark over both of them.

When critics say Clinton was unfairly placed on an equivalent plane to Trump in this regard, journalists defensively point out that Democrats must be scrutinized, too. But this misses the objection, which centers not on a demand for light scrutiny of Democrats, but on a criticism of presentation and proportionality, and the ways in which getting that lopsidedly wrong misinforms in a larger and more intangible sense.

There’s just no doubt that this happened in 2016, as has been widely documented.

This is plainly on its way to happening again. But it doesn’t have to. One way to avoid this: If something doesn’t actually “boost” or “lend fodder” to a big claim that Trump is making, just don’t report that it does.

It’s simple, but it’s a start.

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