Consider this one of the more interesting pull quotes from a gargantuan effort at the Columbia Journalism Review to determine what went wrong in Russiagate. Washington Post reporter and author Bob Woodward only plays a small role in this four-part series as a voice in the wilderness of narrative journalism, but significant enough for Fox News to highlight.
The authors of “Trumped Up: The Press versus The President” spoke with Woodward about where everything turned poisonous. That’s an easy point to identify — the Steele Dossier, swallowed whole by mainstream media outlets despite its clear and obvious problems. Woodward reminds CJR that he went on air at the time — on Fox — to call it a “garbage document,” only to be roundly ignored by his fellow reporters, especially at the Post:
Two days after the Senate announcement, Bob Woodward, appearing on Fox News, called the dossier a “garbage document” that “never should have” been part of an intelligence briefing. He later told me that the Post wasn’t interested in his harsh criticism of the dossier. After his remarks on Fox, Woodward said he “reached out to people who covered this” at the paper, identifying them only generically as “reporters,” to explain why he was so critical. Asked how they reacted, Woodward said: “To be honest, there was a lack of curiosity on the part of the people at the Post about what I had said, why I said this, and I accepted that and I didn’t force it on anyone.”
Give one cheer to Woodward for getting this right, but he didn’t exactly go out on a limb after that to counter the narrative. Woodward has himself been known to push a narrative or two and to cut corners at times in order to succeed. His celebrated achievement in the Watergate scandal has been overblown and mythologized, to some extent by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in ways that overlook the work done by others.
At least Woodward recognized the danger of swallowing whole dubious claims simply because they fit your preferred narrative. The lengthy CJR report damns the media in general for doing exactly that, and in particular the New York Times for refusing to admit it:
One result of Durham’s investigation has been to further discredit the dossier in the eyes of many in the media. It prompted the Washington Post to retract large chunks of a 2017 article in November 2021, and to follow with a long review of Steele’s sources and methods. The Wall Street Journal and CNN did similar looks back.
The Times has offered no such retraction, though the paper and other news organizations were quick to highlight the lack of firsthand evidence for many of the dossier’s substantive allegations; “third hand stuff” is what Isikoff now calls them. But they rarely, if ever, pointed out that the origin of the FBI inquiry was itself third hand information, at best.
This look at the reaction in the NYT office to the conclusion of the Mueller report is priceless for its window into narrative journalism:
The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to essentially say no.
“Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it,” is how Dean Baquet, then the executive editor of the New York Times, described the moment his paper’s readers realized Mueller was not going to pursue Trump’s ouster.
Baquet, speaking to his colleagues in a town hall meeting soon after the testimony concluded, acknowledged the Times had been caught “a little tiny bit flat-footed” by the outcome of Mueller’s investigation.
To this day, the NYT remains defiant about its coverage of Russiagate generally and the Steele dossier specifically. Baquet told CJR that the Times “covered the story better than anyone else,” and pointed to the awards won for their coverage at the time. CJR’s analysts scoffed at Baquet’s defense, and that forms the core of their retrospective on the damage done to journalism:
But outside of the Times’ own bubble, the damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on, and is likely to take on new energy as the nation faces yet another election season animated by antagonism toward the press. At its root was an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth. (The Washington Post has tracked thousands of Trump’s false or misleading statements.) At times, Trump seemed almost to be toying with the press, offering spontaneous answers to questions about Russia that seemed to point to darker narratives. When those storylines were authoritatively undercut, the follow-ups were downplayed or ignored.
Trump and his acolytes in the conservative media fueled the ensuing political storm, but the hottest flashpoints emerged from the work of mainstream journalism.
The damage to journalistic credibility has been nothing short of catastrophic, CJR notes. Prior to 2016, the American press enjoyed a relatively high rating for its media credibility. By 2022, a Reuters poll showed that it had dropped to the bottom of a 46-nation ranking, with only 26% of Americans believing mainstream media to be credible sources of information. Undoubtedly, the clear bias in reporting on the farcical Russia-collusion claim and the undeniable drive by editors like Baquet to push Trump out of office has played a large part in that disillusionment.
Rather than read that, however, the editorial clique has decided to double down on narratives rather than return to reporting facts. “Objectivity has got to go,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief at the San Francisco Chronicle, in a review of the current media meltdown by the Cronkite News Lab. One of Woodward’s former colleagues at the Post, former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr, argues that the journalist’s own life experiences and need for expression and diversity trumps the value of objective reporting:
“[I]ncreasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world,” Downie Jr. wrote. “They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.”
“Journalists of color” and LGBTQ journalists said that reporting objectively “negates their own identity, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work,” according to Downie Jr.
In other words, the American media industry plans to double down on the stupidity that led them down the primrose path with the Steele dossier. This is a public embrace of narrative journalism over facts, and the need for journalism to serve its own rather than its consumers or the public interest.