Months of disparate coverage from the two political wings of the media have, until now, largely broadcast past each other.
The focus from the left has been, first, on anticipated smoking guns in the Mueller Report, and then on perceived gaps in Attorney General Barr’s initial memo, and then his subsequent testimony regarding the Report. Meanwhile, the right seemed more intent on pivoting to the budding (and politically beneficial) controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s alleged monitoring of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
While outlets on the right have given irresponsible coverage to the contents of the Mueller Report, and left-leaning outlets should not give up on taking them to task for that, the left’s dismissal of the campaign surveillance story has led to problematic reporting of its own and if the story ends up having bite, this mishandling could have serious implications. To take just one example, last June Vox published a story entitled “Trump invented a fake spy scandal. People will still believe it.” Just over a week ago, Vox doubled-down on allegations of campaign surveillance as being ‘conspiracy theories.’ Right after, MSNBC echoed Vox’s ‘conspiracy theory‘ label.
In other words, they dismissed a potentially unfavorable story as ‘fake news.’
Charitably, these and other outlets were right to be suspicious of Trump’s broad proclamations of campaign spying, especially given his demonstrated disinterest in strict truth and the fact that he was parading the story far before the evidence merited any sort of proclamation. Regardless, the proper course of action (and the course that any of these outlets would have taken if the public figure in question was anybody but Trump) is to do an independent investigation into the veracity of the claims, not to dismiss them as unhinged fabrications.
Now as more credible evidence starts to come in and news outlets are forced to take the story seriously, these publications are playing catch-up to report on a story for which they’ve already lost credibility.
In an interview with FoxNews Thursday, President Trump highlighted the issue. During the interview, Trump said that he intends to declassify documents related to controversial surveillance warrants ‘pretty soon.’ Then on Friday, Trump tweeted about the apparent asymmetry in different outlets’ reporting on the issue – collecting what political capital he can from the credibility-threatening mishandling:
While the right-leaning media is characterizing the story as a purely political struggle to keep then-candidate Trump out of office, it’s now being taken by the left as an illustration of how serious the FBI’s concern with potential collusion was even at the time. Of course, this perspective could have been argued earlier, and with more credibility, if the left had done its due diligence rather than try and sweep an unfavorable story under the rug.
Both political wings of the media are finally at least operating in the same universe, but the results are puzzling in some instances (and evince a distorting desire to play advocate). One curious line of contention that the left and the right have gotten bogged down in is the use of the word ‘spying’ and whether it should only apply when the surveillance act in question is ‘bad.’ Readers shouldn’t get caught in the weeds. It’s clear at this point that the story is breaking into the mainstream news and it may have real implications. Forgetting sophist arguments of whether the word ‘spying’ is inherently loaded, Attorney General Barr articulated the distinction that will be important going forward: “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated.”
This framing properly unifies the issues of Russian interference and campaign surveillance, and forces left-leaning and right-leaning outlets to at least report on the same issues. If played right, it could also force conservative media to address legitimately concerning findings in the Mueller Report more fully than it has to date.
This is the fight that you can clearly see beginning to play out between the two political wings of the media – a fight to color the public’s impressions of the adequacy of the Obama Administration’s grounds to monitor the Trump Campaign. In its propensity to dismiss any story friendly to Trump, however, the left has put itself at a disadvantage. Left-leaning outlets could have been reporting on this axis earlier, and with more credibility, had they done their due diligence. These outlets should learn from their mistakes and approach the allegations going forward from a place of principled reporting rather than a partisan propensity to sweep away facially unfavorable stories.