Media Under the Scope
Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 20. 2022
This was a week of striking contradictions for journalism and for how American sees its news media. In the end, there were few changed minds, but we saw yet more dimensions of our divides.
In all, the week showed who is getting put under the public microscope for mistakes, and who is being relatively celebrated unscathed for taking the broadest, even most outlandish swipes at what we understand as reality.
Some might see it as part of the right-left political clash, but it seems something closer to the continuing dismantling of institutional voice and would-be expertise.
On the one side was the spectacle surrounding Sarah Palin’s dismissed charges that The New York Times editorial department (its editorial staff is run independently of its news reporting staff) had libeled her in a 2017 editorial that called out political violence. Unusually, the federal judge first announced that he would be setting aside the claims of libel because Palin did not present evidence to justify the charges under law, and then the jury itself rejected her argument.
Among all the issues, The Times found itself in this lawsuit because of an acknowledged error to include a phrase linking Palin campaign’s use of crosshairs icons to target congressional districts to a mass shooting. In testimony, the editor of the editorial page owned up and rued making an error. That error was what Palin instead called libel, a charge that requires intent to falsify, “actual malice” and measurable damage to hold under the 1964 Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court decision.
Instead, we saw an institution rightly embarrassed to fess up to its mistake and to an apparently ineffective attempt to acknowledge it the next day.
The Spy Campaign
On the other hand, we saw a new conspiracy fully blossom from misinterpretations of a few paragraphs in a narrow court filing among a host of politically right-leaning news sites, including Fox, Breitbart, Newsmax and others, with no consequence. Those news sites took aim at mainstream news sites for ignoring what Donald Trump insisted was a 2016 spy plot paid for by Hillary Clinton that was “bigger than Watergate.”
In brief, those partisan allegations went much further than did a tangential, if complicated, mention of concerns about contacts between Russian phone and a Russian bank that were reported to U.S. intelligence. But the entire narrative appeared to be mostly wrong or old news, The New York Times, had previously reported this, weighed in.
Special Counsel John Durham had made the filing about possibility conflicts of interest for Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer under indictment for lying to Justice officials about whether he had reported these incidents as a paid consultant to the Clinton campaign, and the rest of his law firm, which has done work for Democrats.
Six years later, Durham continues to probe the origins of investigations involving Trump and Russia. Details included that someone using a Russian-made smartphone may have been connecting to networks at Trump Tower and the Executive Office Building, and that Sussmann obtained information from a technology client named Rodney Joffe reflecting computer traffic. Durham’s filing suggested that Joffe’s company mis-managed internet servers by mining certain legally available records to gather derogatory information about Trump.
I actually read the filing, which seems to be more effort than some of those who were exploding it into a bombshell.
There was no evidence posted about this with the filing, and certainly there were no charges filed as a result. Nevertheless, citing the filing, Fox News reported that Durham had evidence that Clinton’s campaign had paid a technology company to “infiltrate” a White House server. Durham’s filing never used the word “infiltrate.” It never claimed that Joffe’s company was being paid by the Clinton campaign. And anything involving the White House servers here came under the Barack Obama administration.
By Thursday night, Durham filed a new motion in court distancing himself from the false reports by right-wing news outlets, saying he had no responsibility for misreadings of his filings. Following that motion, Fox halted mention of the issue, reported Mediate.
Right-leaning commentators went further. Fox’s Maria Bartiromo suggested that the entirety of the Ukraine-Russian looming war is meant to divert us from looking at the Hillary Spy Campaign. Based on what?
Meanwhile, the Palin team is looking at its options to appeal the adverse decision — if on no other grounds than reports that two jurors still deliberating saw notice of the judge’s intent to dismiss pass over their phones.
When you step back from this week to consider the performance of who in the media is under review for what mistake, we seem to be looking at the wrong end of the instrument.
We’re conflating acknowledged mistakes by news groups that acknowledge and fix their errors with intention to deceive.
Further, we’re now watching conservatives shopping for a legal libel case that they can ride on appeal to the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority already has two outspoken justices in Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito who seem bent on wanting to rewrite the precedent for libel.
Meanwhile, social media, replete with misinformation, contends that it is not responsible for what people say — and are protected by federal law from litigation. Spotify says it has no interest in curbing specific misinformation or racial slurs uttered in popular podcasts by entertainer Joe Rogan.
Something is out of whack here, regardless of political viewpoint.