Politics & Media
Apr 15, 2024, 06:27AM

The Washington Post Abandons Journalism

They've looked at clouds from one side now.

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Organizations such as CNN and The Washington Post, which share many staff members, drew an important conclusion after Trump was elected in 2016: "bothsidesism" has got to go.

The idea of "balance," according to which there are two sides to each story (corresponding perhaps to the two major political parties), started to collapse a decade ago or more with regard to climate change coverage. After it was obvious that the scientists were in consensus, giving those who purported to doubt that climate change was occurring equal time seemed irresponsible. Bothsidesism is absurd, and not only because the alleged word is so ridiculous: there are not two sides of every genocide, for example. Some opinions are false and have been shown to be false.

Various approaches might’ve been taken after the bothsides idea broke down. That there are several or many sides on almost any issue would be good to emphasize. But the response at the Post and elsewhere (but particularly at the Post) has been straightforward and primitive: evidently, the only cure for bothsidesism is onesidedness. The Post practices onesidedness now to the extent of fundamentally compromising its political coverage, folding it into their opinion operation. Every time they quote Trump or various Trumpians, they manage to insert the adverb “falsely,” as though every sentence required its own disclaimer. As they've continued strolling down that road, they've managed to leave factuality behind for good and all.

In an April 11 news story (not analysis or opinion) on the renewal of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), Marianna Sotomayor—ironically and appropriately enough—allows "falsely" to drag her and the newspaper down into sheer fabrication. Evidently, her editors are no longer capable of detecting that, as long as the assertions would, if true, discredit Trump. Referring to House Freedom Caucus members who (agreeing with Pramila Jayapal and other lefties) managed to block FISA renewal for a while, Sotomayor wrote:

They may have been emboldened by a Wednesday morning social media post from former president Donald Trump decrying the FISA law.
“KILL FISA, IT WAS ILLEGALLY USED AGAINST ME, AND MANY OTHERS. THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN!!!” he wrote on Truth Social. Trump supporters falsely claim that without reforms, the “weaponized” Justice Department under President Biden will continue to target Trump and other conservatives. Spy agencies, however, do not have authority to surveil U.S. citizens under FISA.

Here "falsely" is used to characterize assertions about what might happen in the future. Sotomayor straightforwardly asserts not only that FISA hasn’t been abused, but that it will not be, and that it can’t be. No fact check is even required to prove that her reporting can’t support these claims. I can’t imagine how her editors allowed her to make them.

What was debated in the House was whether US intelligence agencies would be required to get a warrant before surveilling American citizens who are in communication with foreigners FISA-authorized surveillance. That is, FISA as it stood then and as it stands now (it was indeed re-authorized) empowers intel agencies to surveil Americans without a warrant, if they’re connected to suspicious foreign actors according to those agencies. But Sotomayor's reporting makes the whole issue entirely incomprehensible. Republicans, according to her and hence according to her newspaper, were trying to change the law to reflect what Sotomayor flatly asserted was already the case, that FISA doesn’t authorize warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

She manages to equate the false claim that FISA doesn’t authorize surveillance of Americans with the claim that these agencies do not and cannot abuse their power. This is in The Washington Post, mind you. Trump advisor Carter Page, for example, was surveilled on the basis of a doctored warrant, and one assumes that a number of other people in Trump's orbit were swept up; if Page's communications were under surveillance, then he was communicating; if he was communicating, he was communicating with someone, now being subjected to the surveillance directed at him.

How bad has this gotten over at the Post? Amazingly bad, as shown by this astonishing article by Meryl Kornfield: a pure opinion piece published as news on the Post's front page.

The headline starts out factually as "RFK argues that Biden is a bigger threat to democracy than Trump." Now, that's the news. But the Post tacks on the observation that Kennedy's claim is "drawing criticism." Kornfield evidently regards the claim as "ridiculous" and the entire piece is constructed around quotes from "experts" who agree. She starts by saying that RFK denied that Trump, "who continued to falsely claim" that the election was stolen, is a serious threat to democracy. Then she quotes Kennedy: "Him trying to overthrow the election clearly is a threat to democracy."

That's a really weird moment—though maybe not as weird as Sotomayor's claim to know the future—but then the rest of the piece is simply a response on behalf of the Biden campaign to the idea that Biden is a threat to democracy, quoting a series of professors. Harvard University's David Ziblatt and New York University's Ruth Ben-Ghiat think it's obvious that Trump is a bigger threat than Biden. They, and the whole Washington Post staff (who possibly come directly from Ziblatt and Ben-Ghiat's classrooms), think that the Biden administration's various projects to "consult with" or "advise" social media companies on Covid, or possibly on Hunter Biden's laptop, or on the FISA process, for example, don’t amount to censorship and raise no free speech issues whatever.

A federal judge strongly disagreed, and the Supreme Court has yet to decide the matter. Any way you look at it, though, and in just the same way as with FISA surveillance, serious questions arise. But the Post has already settled the questions to their own satisfaction. And they’ve set themselves up as epistemic authoritarians: when they say that a Harvard prof says that Trump is a bigger threat to democracy than Biden, they take that to entail that Trump is in fact a greater threat. My view is that they’re both threats, but of different sorts, which also seems to be more or less what RFK was saying. My view is that this is a complex and vague question and asserting that any position on it is factually false isn’t useful. Let's talk about the threats in detail.

So, Washington Post, you've looked at clouds from one side now, but it's still clouds' illusions you report. Opinion journalism is no substitute for news reporting.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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