Though she doesn’t often bring it up these days, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow remembers how the media abetted the Bush administration’s lies justifying the 2003 Iraq invasion. That was when elite (in many cases handpicked) journalists spent months serving as stenographers for the push to war, parroting every carefully crafted leak without question. They dismissed skeptics as disloyal and spiked stories that would have raised questions about the narrative. When they got caught, they declared “never again.”
Yet with Rachel Maddow as their poster child (along with David Corn, Luke Harding, Chris Hayes, the entire staff at CNN, and hundreds more), journalists over the last two years repeated every mistake their predecessors had made in 2003.
They treated gossip as fact because it came from a “source” and told us to just trust them. They blurred the lines between first-hand knowledge, second- and third-hand hearsay, and “people familiar with the matter” to build breaking news out of manure. They marginalized skeptics as “useful idiots.” (Glenn Greenwald, who called bull on Russiagate from the beginning, says MSNBC banned him after he criticized Maddow. He’d been a regular during the Bush and Obama years.)
They accepted negative information at face value and discarded information that did not fit their pre-written narrative of collusion. The Washington Post never even ran a story about how its reporters came up empty after working for months to prove that Michael Cohen met with Russian agents in Prague.
They went all in with salacious headlines, every story a sugar high. They purposefully muddled the impact of an indictment versus an actual conviction. They conflated anyone from Russia with the Russian government. They never paused to ask why there weren’t “Sources: Trump is Innocent” stories that later needed to be walked back; the errors were somehow all on one side. They became a machine as trustworthy as the politicians they relied on.
Though the wars across the Middle East the media helped midwife are beyond sin, the damage done to journalism itself is far worse this time around. With Maddow in the lead, journalists went a step further than just shoddy reporting, proudly declaring their partisanship (once the cardinal sin of journalism) and placing themselves at the center of the story. In one critic’s words, “In purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.”
So there was Maddow, night after night in front of her serial killer burlap board, Trump and Putin surrounded by blurry images of Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, she running twine between pins so her viewers could keep up with her racing intellect. Anyone with a Russian-y surname “had ties to Putin,” “connections to Russian intelligence,” or was at least an oligarch. She nurtured an unashamed crush on deep state clowns that the Rachel Maddow of a few years back would have smirked at—Brennan, Clapper, Comey.
She ignored or downplayed other news, devoting over 50 percent of her airtime to Russiagate alone (Trump’s Muslim visa ban got less than 6 percent). She worked to convince Americans that the cornerstone of justice was not “innocent until proven guilty” but “if there’s smoke there’s fire.” She joined journalists in knowingly publishing material whose veracity they doubted, centering on the Steele dossier.
Maddow became Infowars. She moved beyond the simpleton advocacy journalism of Bush lie peddling journo tools. She was going to save the country. So she created a story out of whole cloth that reinforced her political beliefs and convinced people it was true. And it was all justified because the fate of the republic itself hung in the balance. Any day now, Trump would peel off a rubber mask Scooby Doo-style to reveal that he was Putin all along.
And then, after years of being held together by the incantation “just wait for Mueller Time,” one day it all fell apart. The Mueller report summary was short, but it answered the most important question ever asked about a president: Trump was not a Russian asset. There was no Russiagate, no conspiracy, collusion, cooperation, or indictments, none to come and none sealed we didn’t know about, and no treason or perjury charges over the Moscow hotel or the Trump Tower meeting or anything else. The accusations were as explicit as was the conclusion. It. Did. Not. Happen.
The great progressive hope—America was run by a Russian stooge—was over and done. Maddow’s response? Break another cardinal rule of journalism and bury the lede. Okay, sure, Bill Barr says Mueller didn’t find collusion if you wanna believe that, but what matters now is that, even after Robert Mueller did not find evidence of obstruction he could charge, and the FBI before him did not find any, and Bill Barr confirmed he did not find it, Maddow still knows obstruction took place. And if only she could see the full Mueller report, she would explain it all to you. (Maddow is promoting a “day of action” for Americans to take to the streets and demand the report.) It wasn’t the Russians; it was old man Barr in the drawing room with the candlestick! Trump is guilty of failing to obstruct an investigation that cleared him!
Meanwhile, after waiting two years for Mueller, waiting two weeks for Barr to release the report was unconscionable. But two days for Barr to write the summary was too fast, proof the fix was in. Trump threatens the rule of law, but when the system works according to the law and the attorney general makes a lawful decision, it’s all an inside-job-cover-up-crisis.
A big focus for Maddow this week was a foreign government-owned company resisting an old Mueller subpoena. The case is in front of a grand jury, so the public does not know what company it is, what government is involved, what the case itself concerns, or whether it has any connection to Trump, Russia, or the Spiders from Mars. But listening to Maddow spin it all out, it sounds VERY BIG.
Over the course of a recent evening, she tied what she dubbed The Mystery Case into Watergate (the same court being used as in 1974 is about the only connection), and because the Watergate judge released some grand jury testimony to help drive Nixon from office, this bodes ill for Trump keeping the dirt Rachel just knows is there secret. It could break this wide open!
The whole oral manifesto was delivered Howard Beale-like in what seemed like one long breath, with the certainty of someone who sees ghosts and is frustrated you can’t see them too. It got so bad that recently Maddow was corrected by her own producers in real time.
It took the New York Times over a year after the Iraq war started to issue a mild “mistakes were made” kind of self-rebuke. At some point with Russiagate, many people will come to understand that there aren’t more questions than answers. They’ll abandon the straw man of waiting for prosecutors to issue a magic Certificate of Exoneration because they’ll understand that prosecutors end things by deciding not to prosecute.
But it’s hard to see Maddow returning to earth orbit. Instead of a reflective pause, she is spinning ever-more complex and nonsensical conspiracy tales, talking faster and faster to cover the gaps in logic. It is sad, but there are psychiatric terms for people who refuse to accept facts and insist they alone understand a world you can’t even see. Delusion. Denial. Psychosis. Obsession. Paranoia.
Maddow is a sad story. Others playing the cable news game never had her intellect (looking at you, Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo). They were weekend Vichy, showbiz grifters. But Maddow believed. Her goal was to end the Trump presidency on her own. And to do so, she devolved from what Glenn Greenwald called “this really smart, independent thinker into this utterly scripted, intellectually dishonest, partisan hack.”
There’s a difference between being wrong once in a while (and issuing corrections) and being wrong for two years on both the core point as well as the evidence. There is even more wrong with purposefully manipulating information to drive a specific narrative, believing that the ends justify the means.
In journalism school, the first is called making a mistake. The second, Maddow’s offense, is called propaganda.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99%.