The deep meaning of “no comment”

Former New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth has written a lengthy retrospective on the coverage of the Trump presidency and the award-winning journalism supporting the Russia hoax in particular. Indeed, we regularly mocked the coverage of the Russia hoax, as in my five-part mock epic Dossiad ridiculing the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. It is useful to have Gerth’s 24,000-word series as published in four parts by the Columbia Journalism Review as “The press versus the president.”

I found Gerth’s judgment on it all to be pallid. He writes, for example, in the afterword appended to part 4:

My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work. This combination adds to people’s distrust about the media and exacerbates frayed political and social differences.

One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative. In January 2018, for example, the New York Times ignored a publicly available document showing that the FBI’s lead investigator didn’t think, after ten months of inquiry into possible Trump-Russia ties, that there was much there. This omission disserved Times readers. The paper says its reporting was thorough and “in line with our editorial standards.”

There is more along this line, and all of it is useful to outsiders like me from a meticulous professional insider like Gerth, but it is not enough. Gerth notes:

My final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded. Of those who did, more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed on the record. However, not a single major news organization made available a newsroom leader to talk about their coverage.

Becket Adams summarized this aspect of Gerth’s efforts on his column on the series for the Examiner:

The Washington Post declined several of Gerth’s requests for comment. Former Washington Post editor Marty Baron declined to be interviewed. Washington Post editor Sally Buzbee and “other Washington Post” journalists likewise declined requests for an interview. The Washington Post was awarded a Pulitzer for its “Russian collusion” coverage. The Atlantic didn’t “respond to an email seeking comment.” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who claimed during an appearance on MSNBC that the Steele dossier supposedly implicating Trump in a Moscow plot “was looking better and better every day, more and more credible,” declined Gerth’s request for comment. A spokesman for NBC declined to comment.

“Other outlets mentioned in this piece declined to discuss their anonymous-sourcing practices,” Gerth writes.

I put the man who commissioned the Steele Dossier on behalf of the Clinton presidential campaign in this category as well. Gerth writes in part 1: “Simpson and I exchanged emails over the course of several months. But he ultimately declined to respond to my last message, which had included extensive background and questions about Fusion’s actions.

As to Steele himself, Gerth writes in part 2:

Steele, in response to my questions earlier this year, wrote that his “raw intelligence reports” were meant only “for client oral briefing, rather than a finished and assessed written intelligence product,” which would have contained “sourcing caveats.” Thus, Steele wrote, “the quality of the Dossier reports was fine imo.” He said only one minor detail had been “disproved,” with the rest either corroborated or unverified.

In response to follow-up questions, he provided additional corroborative information, but it was mostly off the record….[I]n response to my questions, Steele declined to discuss the work of his main source, Igor Danchenko, a Russian living in the US.

Well, a harsher judgment is warranted. The deep meaning of “no comment” is that a reasonable explanation is lacking and that something more than an admission of error is called for. On the other hand, in part 3, the Times states that it “stands behind the publication” of some of its blatantly erroneous reporting. Gerth also gets to Mayer in part 3. As noted above, she rests on her right to remain silent.

My friend Andrew McCarthy is the author of Ball of Collusion. In my judgment, the book remains the best to date on the Russia hoax. I asked Andy for his assessment:

I think we should be grateful to have the Gerth series. It is an important step in the direction of media accountability in what has otherwise been an infuriating refusal by the press to do any soul-searching.

Unlike Gerth, I don’t attribute much of this to journalists’ incompetence or getting too far out over their skis because the bogus Trump-Russia tale was too good to check. If I were a journalist by training or for life, maybe I’d want to see it that way.

Instead, I believe these are mostly very smart people who are essentially political activists, and they knew exactly what they were doing. I don’t purport to know enough about the psychology of it to speculate on whether they have convinced themselves that what they were doing was good, solid journalism — and whether that self-regard would be reinforced by the insular spectacle of the awards with which these guys laud themselves.

I believe, though, that like our legal profession, at some point in the 20th century the profession of journalism changed radically, from reporting the news to shaping the news to further the progressive vision of the public good. If that’s your self-rationalization, you can rationalize just about anything, I imagine.

That said, it would be a big mistake for readers to believe that journalistic accountability, even if done thoroughly and in good faith (as I believe Gerth has done), is what matters most here. The main Russiagate scandal was the collusion of the Democratic party (particularly the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign) with the government’s law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus — i.e., the placement of the latter in the service of the former.

The accompanying media malfeasance is a corollary of that story, but it’s not the main story, not by a long shot. For me, Gerth’s reporting doesn’t really convey that, though it’s fair to concede that this was not the burden of his project.

Although it took me a while to get through it, I found Gerth’s account worth reading in its entirety. I also think that Andy’s judgment is worth sharing with readers and I am grateful to him for letting me share his perspective with readers.

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