Something dangerous is happening in the American media.
Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, recently argued that journalists have no choice but to abandon “normal” journalistic standards in covering Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump because “Mr. Trump is conducting his campaign in ways we’ve not normally seen.” It’s hard to think of a more alarming statement.
Rutenberg’s approach—which many others seem to share—is especially evident in the media when not only Trump, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin is involved. In combination, the two seem specially formulated to prompt journalists to cast aside not only their objectivity, but necessary standards of evidence. One particularly vivid example is a recent article by Newsweek’s former Moscow Bureau Chief Owen Matthews, entitled “How Vladimir Putin is Using Donald Trump to Advance Russia’s Goals.” But we will return to that later.
Notwithstanding Trump’s flaws as a presidential candidate (or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s), and without accepting Putin’s troublesome conduct, how can individual journalists simultaneously assert that their work has special value, and deserves social respect, even as they decide when “normal” standards apply and when they don’t? More dangerously, what are the consequences when many journalists simultaneously choose not to apply rigorous standards to their reporting?
If journalists essentially set their own standards, they erase the distinction between reporting and advocacy. Taking that approach to its logical conclusion turns journalism into a collection of one-person campaigns against real and imagined evils, often with little factual basis. Conversely, if a large number of American journalists suspend their standards in reporting on a particular issue, they can warp the country’s public debates and damage both our policy and our society.
None of these observations are new. They are—or should be—self-evident. In his famous account Liberty and the News, which appeared after World War I, Walter Lippmann warned, “the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”
Yet the very perils that Lippmann pointed to keep sabotaging American journalism, perhaps most recently in the period before the 2003 war in Iraq. Afterward, The New York Times itself acknowledged that its reporters relied too heavily on information from “a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change.’” As a result, journalists at the Times and other publications who saw a unique danger from a despicable dictator with fictitious nuclear weapons gave far too little scrutiny to the objectives, potential costs, and possible consequences of a major U.S. war. They failed either to adequately inform the U.S. public or to check government power.
Here we go again.
Russia today presents formidable national security challenges to the United States that often require tough responses. Yet precisely because Russia’s challenges are formidable, U.S. responses should be serious, informed, and effective—something virtually impossible in a climate when attempting to analyze and describe the sources of Russia’s conduct is loudly decried as “pro-Russian.”
None of this prevented Newsweek’s Owen Matthews from attempting to do so in an article attacking Trump and (apparently) individuals or entities whom he found to be connected to the Republican candidate somewhere on the internet. Instead, Matthews commits journalistic sins that defy credulity and, if repeated regularly by others, threaten the foundations of a free society—just as Walter Lippmann warned.
To start, Matthews assailed the Center for the National Interest, this magazine, and the magazine’s Advisory Council Chairman Richard Burt without contacting any of us to confirm what he asserts. The first obligation of any reputable journalist is to give the subjects he is writing about a chance to provide their version of events. Amazingly, Matthews never bothered to do so. Are his editors indifferent to his blithe disregard for fundamental journalistic obligations? Or do they agree with Rutenberg that where Trump, Putin or others they don’t like are concerned, “normal” standards don’t apply?
Next, Matthews draws very heavily on a single source, an article in Politico by James Kirchick. Indeed, he leans on Kirchick to such an extent that he repeats one of his sentences nearly verbatim, stating that “In May 2014, the two institutions held a joint press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.“ Kirchick had written that “In May 2014, the two think tanks held a press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.” But Kirchick, a neoconservative polemicist who has no problem thumping his chest about democracy abroad while simultaneously justifying a military coup at home should Trump be elected president, may not exactly be the most careful or disinterested source.
In fact, there was no “joint press conference” of the Center for the National Interest and the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, the Russian organization to which Matthews and (earlier) Kirchick refer. While the Institute’s director did speak during a Center event in May 2014, it was neither “joint,” nor a “press conference,” nor “defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.” The event—a media call—was solely sponsored by the Center and featured Center Executive Director Paul Saunders, a former George W. Bush administration political appointee who worked on human rights and other issues at the State Department and was critical of Russia’s conduct, and the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, who was clearly identified as an advisor to Russia’s presidential administration and was advertised as providing “a Russian perspective.” In view of the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine at the time, this Russian perspective was precisely why the Center considered the event to be of possible interest to a U.S.-based audience.
Had Matthews tried to contact the Center for the National Interest to verify any of what he wrote, the Center staff could easily and gladly have told him this. [Instead, Matthews has now written us on September 12 to say, "I am very sorry that we made an error and have corrected the web version to acknowledge the fact that the meeting hosted by the Centre for the National Interest in May was not a press conference jointly with the Institute of Demcoracy and Cooperation as we wrongly suggested but a round table discussion with their participation." Well, well, well. In this instance, it is not a case of better late than never for the error should never have been committed in the first place, as one phone call from Matthews to inquire about the event would have immediately have dispelled this canard. This he did not do, as he was too lackadaisical to follow basic journalistic conventions.] If he had investigated the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, or merely tried to call the group, he would have discovered that its New York office has been closed for some time—something he did not report and apparently did not realize.
Matthews’ attempt to imply some nefarious hidden meaning underlying the fact that Russia’s Ambassador to the United States attended Trump’s speech at the Center for the National Interest in April 2016 is particularly revealing. Had he made even a minimal effort, Matthews could easily have learned that three other foreign ambassadors attended the event, representing close U.S. allies and partners—Italy, the Philippines and Singapore. But perhaps Matthews would not have cared about this once he was able to cherry-pick something he seems to find somehow incriminating.
But what is so controversial about Russia’s ambassador attending a televised speech by a major presidential candidate as one of approximately 130 guests? Russia is a nuclear superpower and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials regularly speak with their Russian counterparts. One wonders whether Matthews met with any Russian officials while serving as Newsweek’s Moscow Bureau Chief—a role featured in his official biography. If so, is he not tainted too? Or does Matthews think that he alone has the strength and courage to resist the siren call of Russian propaganda?
This makes clear just how preposterous Matthews’ guilt-by-association tactics really are. The reality is that no serious reporter could do his or her job effectively in Moscow without interacting with Russian officials and other sources connected to the Russian government. Americans should want their journalists to be well-connected and well-informed.
And Americans should want the same from their think tanks, whose mandate is to provide independent research and perspectives to the public and to U.S. policymakers. U.S. officials certainly want that, and have sought to encourage unofficial dialogue between U.S. and Russian think tanks and universities. Even some considered quite hawkish toward Moscow, such as former NATO Commander General Philip Breedlove, have called for this.
Nevertheless, the likes of Matthews seem to envision a country where journalists have no obligation to objectivity and where think tanks and experts face charges of disloyalty if they invite an ambassador to a speech, much less seek to fulfill their responsibility to conduct thorough research and honest analysis by engaging with “undesirable” foreigners representing not only the points-of-view we find sympathetic, but the full range of politically influential opinions in important rival nations. For someone displaying such hostility to Putin, Matthews seems bizarrely eager to replicate Moscow’s political environment here in Washington. As committed American patriots at an organization founded to advance U.S. national interests, we find that profoundly disturbing.