The Columbia Journalism Review, one of the establishment media’s more neutral-seeming organs of internal criticism, recently published 24,000 words chronicling the American news industry’s serial wrongdoing across seven years of Russiagate coverage. Given the apparent lack of length constraints, it’s curious that the words “Lee Smith” appear nowhere in the piece. Smith began mapping the networks that peddled and marketed the “collusion” theory in Tablet starting all the way back in mid-2017. This was long before Robert Mueller found no evidence to support the claim that Trump was secretly in league with the regime of Vladimir Putin, and nearly five years before the discovery that the British ex-spy Chris Steele got most of the information for his infamous dossier third-hand, from a midlevel staffer at the Brookings Institution. Former New York Times and ProPublica reporter Jeff Gerth dug up an amusing stray detail or two for CJR, but almost nothing in Gerth’s report would have come as a surprise to dedicated readers of Smith, a writer who needed only until Trump’s first summer in office to uncover how the collusion thesis advanced through the Democratic Party, the communications firm Fusion GPS, the U.S. intelligence community, and the media.
Another name conspicuously absent from the CJR piece is Eli Lake. Gerth goes into granular details about alleged misconduct and shoddy tradecraft within the FBI and the broader federal law enforcement and intelligence apparatus. Lake beat him to all of it two years ago, and his readers at Commentary and Tablet are also liable to yawn their way through Gerth’s report. “Nearly two decades ago, the New York Times devoted a separate investigative team to explore how the paper of record botched the story of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction,” Lake noted in mid-2021. “The Times did no such thing when it came to Russiagate; instead, it went home with a Pulitzer Prize for years of misleading reporting.” Gerth makes roughly the same series of observations in CJR.
Gerth makes a handful of very brief references to Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Aaron Maté, all staff at liberal or left-leaning publications, without mentioning the substance of their objections to mainstream Russiagate coverage. Beyond this box-checking, it was apparently too self-incriminating for a watchdog like CJR to explain that there were writers outside the establishment media who documented Russiagate’s interrelated, mutually reinforcing failures of journalism and law-enforcement—and did it while these failures were actually happening. A blogger and Twitter user like Techno Fog, even one who became a leading resource for record-based, nonhysterical Russiagate coverage, exists outside of whatever universe CJR imagines itself to be in. But readers would have developed a more accurate picture of reality by reading Techno Fog’s Twitter feed than by reading The Washington Post, The New York Times, or CJR itself.
The media will never be able to overcome the Russiagate catastrophe unless it recognizes that its failures weren’t hidden inside labyrinths of Slack channels or text message traffic, but were in fact public and obvious. They were so public and so obvious that the media-consuming public itself noticed: Per Gallup’s polling, the percentage of Americans saying they had no trust at all in the media went from 24% in 2018 to an all-time high of 38% today, while the number saying they had a great to fair degree of trust plunged from 45% to 34% during that same span.
With Russiagate, the media doesn’t have the excuse of being flummoxed by a complex or nebulous factual record. Thanks to Smith, Lake, Techno Fog, and numerous others whom Gerth ignores, we’ve known for years that the media worked in concert with a political comms firm and elements of federal law enforcement and the intelligence community to peddle an incorrect theory about a secret deal between an enemy of the United States and an American presidential candidate they all didn’t like.
All of which begs the question: Does the media not want to overcome the Russiagate catastrophe? And why not?
The media’s resistance to any deep reflection on how, why, or even whether it threw away its credibility with the public became the major theme of my own single contribution to the Russiagate literature. In 2017, a Politico reporter named Isaac Arnsdorf wrote two articles strongly implying that a Ukrainian-born Canadian citizen had laundered money from Putin’s regime to pay future Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to illegally lobby for the Turkish government. The subject of those articles got in touch with me and encouraged me to re-report Arnsdorf’s stories. A theory similar to Arnsdorf’s, which would have put a Russian and Turkish asset in the center of Trump’s inner circle, was floated in a congressional hearing by Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. At no point in the Mueller investigation, the Flynn prosecution, or the prosecution of Flynn’s Turkish clients was a Russian link to the former general’s Turkish lobbying ever uncovered or even alleged. Arnsdorf’s articles, published in Politico and ProPublica, placed a semi-random private individual at the center of a geopolitical conspiracy that in fact never existed. Both publications stood by their stories. Arnsdorf is now a national political reporter at The Washington Post, covering, what else, “former president Donald Trump” and “the ‘Make America Great Again’ political movement.”
The media actually has learned a lesson from Russiagate, hinted at in CJR’s refusal to acknowledge the people and outlets who got the story right from the very beginning. The lesson is that serious self-reflection should be avoided at all costs. And why not? For much of the media, Russiagate was a rousing success: It kept everyone busy and motivated, and it saved a dying business model (one interesting detail in Gerth’s story is that the American media produced over a half-million articles or television segments about Russiagate).
Russiagate also pioneered a bold new political technology: one in which the role of The New York Times, CNN and the rest of the legacy media is to bestow truth status on plotlines, ideas, and theories generated within the much more consequential worlds of public relations, law enforcement, and political consulting. The media, in other words, grew comfortable with its role as a junior partner within a bigger and not at all truth-oriented political machine. And the machine won in the end: Trump flailed in the face of Russiagate-related probes for over half of his presidency, and then lost reelection. Today, The New York Times’ stock price is roughly four times what it was in the summer of 2015, when Trump entered the presidential race.
Service to a higher cause turned out to be satisfying on a spiritual level, too. Today, the great debate within the media pits moral crusaders against stubborn reactionaries who still believe journalism should function as a kind of public trust. The crusaders, such as the signatories to a recent open letter critical of the Times’ coverage of trans-related topics, issue occasional public broadsides about what their profession should be and do. They believe that their own particular views of what is and isn’t “justice” constitute a higher truth, since objectivity serves the interests of horrible people and “truth” is impossible anyway. Often the broadsides aren’t necessary, and the Times’ coverage choices—publishing a news article about how, for instance, well-administered publicly funded programs for special needs students are actually bad when Hasidic Jews run them—often show the extent to which the activist and content-creation arms of the machine are in bland, predictable alignment with one another.
If Russiagate discredited the media in the public’s eyes more than any single event this century, that’s because it also cemented the news industry’s role within a broader messaging structure. The media, for its part, seems not only to have accepted this new role, but to actually prefer it to loftier alternatives. There will be no serious self-exploration of the media’s Russiagate misdeeds. The American news industry traded away its credibility but is too satisfied with whatever money and sense of purpose it got in return to demand that much of itself.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.