Political Journalism is Dead
Columnist Max Boot in The Washington Post put into writing what we have all known for some time: real journalism, Jefferson’s informed citizenry and all that, is dead. The job has shifted to aspirational writing, using manipulated droplets of facts and just plain made-up stuff to drive events.
Boot writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election. Max: “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office…. I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.”
Boot has spent the last several years creating and circle-supporting others who create false narratives. They manufacture reasons for Trump to resign, press Democrats to impeach, and try to persuade voters they otherwise hold in contempt that they don’t know what’s good enough for them. We kind of figured this out after senior staff at the New York Times had to remind reporters that they were “not part of the f*cking resistance,” but it is helpful to see it in daylight. After all, democracy dies in darkness.
The uber-false narrative Max and others Frankensteined into existence was Russiagate. Trump wasn’t the Manchurian Candidate and there was no quid pro quo for Russian election help. Yet the media literally accused the president of treason by melding together otherwise unrelated truthlets—Trump wanted a hotel in Moscow, some ads were run on Facebook—that could be spun into a narrative to bring him down. Correlation was made into causation in a purposeful freshman Logic 101 fail. What was true was of little consequence; what mattered was whether the media could collectively create a story that the rubes would believe and then pile on.
The critical flaw in Russiagate (other than that it didn’t happen) was that the media created an end-point they could not control. Robert Mueller was magic-wanded into the Last Honest Man, the Savior of Democracy, as the narrative first unfolded and then fell apart like a cardboard box in the rain. After his dismal testimony, there was nowhere for the story to go.
Was it only a week ago Law and Order: Scotland SVU was the locus of the Next Big Thing following Greenland? Because even as we race to catch up (debunking takes longer than making up accusations,) a whole new Big Thing popped up over the Ukraine. Details are vague, based all on leaks and persons familiar with some of it, but are as dire as they are lacking.
But as with every other outrage, leaks in the new phone call-gate instantly became certainties, certainties became foreign influence in our elections, and demands to impeach were recycled until Twitter voted for the death penalty. And all before a single piece of hard data is public. See the pattern yet?
If the latest “gate” doesn’t pan out, Democrats have already jumpstarted an old favorite, upgraded for the 2020 election: Trump is now manipulating domestic and foreign policy for personal gain via…hotel fees.
At first glance, it seems like a non-starter. Trump’s hotels are as much a part of him as the extra pounds he carries. He campaigned as a CEO and announced early on that he was not going to divest. But with the first cold slap of his election victory, a narrative was being shaped: he could not become president because of his business conflicts of interest; it was danged unconstitutional.
Early proponents of this dreck dug around in the Constitution’s closet and found the Emoluments Clause, a handful of lines intended to bar officeholders from accepting gifts from foreign sovereigns, kings, and princes to prevent influence buying. Pre-Trump, the last time the issue was in actual contention was with President Martin Van Buren (no relation) over gifts from the Imam of Muscat.
The media ran with it. They imagined out of whole cloth that any foreign government official getting a room at any Trump hotel had been given a “gift.” Then they imagined that any tiny percentage of that room profit that actually went to Trump himself represented a bribe. Then they imagined that despite the vast complexity of U.S. relations, Trump would alter course because some guy rented a room. It was Joker-like in its diabolicalness, the presidency itself merely a prank to hide an international crime spree. Pow!
It was ridiculous on its face, but they made it happen. The now-defunct leftist site Think Progress ran what might be Story Zero before Trump even took office. An anonymous source claimed that, under pressure, the Kuwaiti ambassador had canceled a major event at one hotel to switch to Trump’s own D.C. hotel. It turned out to be untrue. “Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?” the Kuwait ambassador asked when someone got around to his side of the story. But no matter: the narrative was set.
Then it grew. Though the Emoluments Clause is quite specific, the media decided that every time anyone stayed at a Trump property, it was corruption. Even when Trump visited one of his own homes, it was corruption, because the Secret Service paid Trump for the privilege. Of course, the Secret Service has always paid for the facilities used in their work because the government cannot commandeer private property or accept free rooms (which, ironically, could be seen as a bribe), not from Marriott and not from the Trump Organization. Even Joe Biden still has to charge the Secret Service rent on a cottage he owns so they can protect him when he’s home in Delaware.
More? T-Mobile booked nine rooms at a Trump hotel, in media hive minds ostensibly to influence federal approval of a $26 billion merger. Those rooms were worth about $2,700. Of course, the president, who can influence the Dow with a tweet, prefers to make his illegal money off jacked up hotel bills. Think small has always been a Trump trademark.
Reuters headlined how foreigners were buying condos from third-party owners (i.e., not Trump or his company), but they were in a Trump-managed building and maybe the monthly maintenance fees would qualify as mini-emoluments? Trump was accused of “hiding” foreign government income at his hotels when servers at the bar failed to ask cash customers if they were potentates or princes (the headline: “Trump Organization Says It’s ‘Not Practical’ to Comply With the Emoluments Clause”).
And of course, there was the Air Force crew staying at a Trump place in Scotland. No matter that the hotel had forged its relationship with a nearby airport long before Trump became president, or that the Air Force had used the airport and hotel hundreds of times before Trump became president (going back to World War II), or that a decision by the Pentagon to have flights stop more frequently there was made under the Obama administration. None of that stopped the media from proclaiming corruption. One piece speculated that the $166 per night the Air Force pays for rooms was always part of Trump’s cornerstone financial plan for the floundering multi-million golf course.
But to see how much the corruption narrative really is a media creation, you have only to compare it to how the mainstream media covered what might have been a similar question in the past. Imagine if journalists had treated every appearance by Obama as a book promotion. What if his every speech had been slandered across the channels as corruption, Obama just out there pimping his books? Should he have been impeached for commercializing the office of president?
Follow the money, as Rachel Maddow likes to say. The Trump Organization pays to the Treasury all profits from foreign governments. In 2018, that was $191,000. The year before, the amount was $151,470. So Trump’s in-pocket profit is zero.
Meanwhile, Obama’s profit as an author during his time in office was $15.6 million (he’s made multiples more since, including a $65 million book advance). In the two weeks before he was inaugurated, Obama reworked his book deals to take advantage of his new status. He agreed not to publish another non-fiction book during his time in office to keep anticipation high, while signing a $500,000 advance for a young adult version of Dreams From My Father.
Obama’s books were huge sellers in China, where publishing is largely government controlled, meaning he likely received Chicom money in the Oval Office. His own State Department bought $79,000 worth of his books to distribute as gifts.
As with Trump, nothing Obama did was illegal. There are no laws per se against a president making money. Yet no one bothered to raise ethical questions. No one claimed he sought the presidency as a bully ATM machine. No one claimed his frequent messaging about his father was designed to move books. No one held TV hearings on his profits or how taxpayer funds were used to buy his books. It’s not “everybody does it” or “whataboutism”; it’s why does the media treat two very similar situations so very differently?
Max Boot confessed why. The media has created a pitch-and-toss game with Democrats, running false, exaggerated, and shallowly reported stories to generate calls for hearings, which in turn breathe life into the corruption stories they live off. We will soon see how far last week’s breathless drama—unnamed “whistleblower” leaks supposedly charging Trump with pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate his rival Joe Biden—will go.
Boot and his ilk are doing a new job. Journalism to them is for resistance, condemnation, arousal, and regime change. And that’s one way democracy does die.
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 Percent.