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The New York Times’ recently hired media columnist Ben Smith, who spent the previous nine years as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed as it grew into a media behemoth, did something Sunday night that very few other U.S. journalists would be willing to do: He published an unflinching and sometimes scathing critique of former-MSNBC-daytime-host-turned-widely-beloved-New-Yorker-star-investigative-reporter Ronan Farrow.
Farrow’s work in exposing Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator earned him celebrity, wealth, adoration in liberal circles, and — along with two New York Times reporters whose work on Weinstein was crucial — a Pulitzer Prize. His multiple appearances on late-night entertainment talk shows, his family lineage (he is the son of actors Mia Farrow and Woody Allen or, according to his mother, perhaps Frank Sinatra), his bestselling book, his New Yorker perch as star reporter, his marital engagement to former Obama speechwriter and current Pod Save America co-host Jon Lovett, and his telegenic appearance have all cemented Farrow’s status as one of the country’s most untouchable and lucrative media commodities. Few journalists have the stature or courage to criticize his work, especially in the pages of the New York Times, but Smith did exactly that in paragraph after paragraph of a long critique that seriously called into question the reliability and even integrity of Farrow’s reportorial methods.
Smith’s critique of Farrow’s journalism raises complex questions that are not easy to assess, and that critique is already receiving its own criticisms. Much of that particular debate depends on how one views the unique journalistic challenges of #MeToo reporting (though one of the most embarrassing mistakes Smith flags was unrelated to sexual assault claims: Farrow’s breathless and ultimately misguided allegation that the Trump administration destroyed records involving former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, a “blockbuster” revelation mindlessly and predictably hyped by MSNBC’s prime-time on-air personalities). I admire much of what Farrow has done over the last several years in battling corporate media outlets, particularly NBC and MSNBC, to get stories about powerful factions published, but I’ll leave the assessments of Smith’s specific critique of Farrow’s reporting to others more steeped in the specifics of those debates.
What is particularly valuable about Smith’s article is its perfect description of a media sickness borne of the Trump era that is rapidly corroding journalistic integrity and justifiably destroying trust in news outlets. Smith aptly dubs this pathology “resistance journalism,” by which he means that journalists are now not only free, but encouraged and incentivized, to say or publish anything they want, no matter how reckless and fact-free, provided their target is someone sufficiently disliked in mainstream liberal media venues and/or on social media:
[Farrow’s] work, though, reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: That if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.
That can be a dangerous approach, particularly in a moment when the idea of truth and a shared set of facts is under assault.
In assailing Farrow for peddling unproven conspiracy theories, Smith argues that such journalistic practices are particularly dangerous in an era where conspiracy theories are increasingly commonplace. Yet unlike most journalists with a mainstream platform, Smith emphasizes that conspiracy theories are commonly used not only by Trump and his movement (conspiracy theories which are quickly debunked by most of the mainstream media), but are also commonly deployed by Trump’s enemies, whose reliance on conspiracy theories is virtually never denounced by journalists because mainstream news outlets themselves play a key role in peddling them:
We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by President Trump, but others hyped by his enemies — that have lured ordinary Americans into passionately believing wild and unfounded theories and fiercely rejecting evidence to the contrary. The best reporting tries to capture the most attainable version of the truth, with clarity and humility about what we don’t know. Instead, Mr. Farrow told us what we wanted to believe about the way power works, and now, it seems, he and his publicity team are not even pretending to know if it’s true.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected, and one could argue even in the months leading up to his election, journalistic standards have been consciously jettisoned when it comes to reporting on public figures who, in Smith’s words, are “most disliked by the loudest voices,” particularly when such reporting “swim[s] ably along with the tides of social media.” Put another way: As long the targets of one’s conspiracy theories and attacks are regarded as villains by the guardians of mainstream liberal social media circles, journalists reap endless career rewards for publishing unvetted and unproven — even false — attacks on such people, while never suffering any negative consequences when their stories are exposed as shabby frauds.
It is this “resistance journalism” sickness that caused U.S. politics to be drowned for three years in little other than salacious and fact-free conspiracy theories about Trump and his family members and closest associates: Putin had infiltrated and taken over the U.S. government through sexual and financial blackmail leverage over Trump and used it to dictate U.S. policy; Trump officials conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election; Russia was attacking the U.S. by hacking its electricity grid, recruiting journalists to serve as clandestine Kremlin messengers, and plotting to cut off heat to Americans in winter. Mainstream media debacles — all in service of promoting the same set of conspiracy theories against Trump — are literally too numerous to count, requiring one to select the worst offenses as illustrative.
In March of last year, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi — writing under the headline “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD” — compared the prevailing media climate since 2016 to that which prevailed in 2002 and 2003 regarding the invasion of Iraq and the so-called war on terror: little to no dissent permitted, skeptics of media-endorsed orthodoxies shunned and excluded, and worst of all, the very journalists who were most wrong in peddling false conspiracy theories were exactly those who ended up most rewarded on the ground that even though they spread falsehoods, they did so for the right cause.
Under that warped rubric — in which spreading falsehoods is commendable as long as it was done to harm the evildoers — the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most damaging endorsers of false conspiracy theories about Iraq, rose to become editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, while two of the most deceitful Bush-era neocons, Bush/Cheney speechwriter David Frum and supreme propagandist Bill Kristol, have reprised their role as leading propagandists and conspiracy theorists — only this time aimed against the GOP president instead of on his behalf — and thus have become beloved liberal media icons. The communications director for both the Bush/Cheney campaign and its White House, Nicole Wallace, is one of the most popular liberal cable hosts from her MSNBC perch.
Exactly the same journalism-destroying dynamic is driving the post-Russiagate media landscape. There is literally no accountability for the journalists and news outlets that spread falsehoods in their pages, on their airwaves, and through their viral social media postings. The Washington Post’s media columnist Erik Wemple has been one of the very few journalists devoted to holding these myth-peddlers accountable — recounting how one of the most reckless Russigate conspiracy maximialists, Natasha Bertrand, became an overnight social media and journalism star by peddling discredited conspiratorial trash (she was notably hired by Jeffrey Goldberg to cover Russigate for The Atlantic); MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spent three years hyping conspiratorial junk with no need even to retract any of it; and Mother Jones’ David Corn played a crucial, decisively un-journalistic role in mainstreaming the lies of the Steele dossier all with zero effect on his journalistic status, other than to enrich him through a predictably bestselling book that peddled those unhinged conspiracies further.
Wemple’s post-Russiagate series has established him as a commendable, often-lone voice trying — with futility — to bring some accountability to U.S. journalism for the systemic media failures of the past three years. The reason that’s futile is exactly what Smith described in his column on Farrow: In “resistance journalism,” facts and truth are completely dispensable — indeed, dispensing with them is rewarded — provided “reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices.”
That describes perfectly the journalists who were defined, and enriched, by years of Russiagate deceit masquerading as reporting. By far the easiest path to career success over the last three years — booming ratings, lucrative book sales, exploding social media followings, career rehabilitation even for the most discredited D.C. operatives — was to feed establishment liberals an endless diet of fearmongering and inflammatory conspiracies about Drumpf and his White House. Whether it was true or supported by basic journalistic standards was completely irrelevant. Responsible reporting was simply was not a metric used to assess its worth.
It was one thing for activists, charlatans, and con artists to exploit fears of Trump for material gain: that, by definition, is what such people do. But it was another thing entirely for journalists to succumb to all the low-hanging career rewards available to them by throwing all journalistic standards into the trash bin in exchange for a star turn as a #Resistance icon. That, as Smith aptly describes, is what “Resistance Journalism” is, and it’s hard to identify anything more toxic to our public discourse.
Perhaps the single most shameful and journalism-destroying episode in all of this — an obviously difficult title to bestow — was when a national security blogger, Marcy Wheeler, violated long-standing norms and ethical standards of journalism by announcing in 2018 that she had voluntarily turned in her own source to the FBI, claiming she did so because her still-unnamed source “had played a significant role in the Russian election attack on the US” and because her life was endangered by her brave decision to stop being a blogger and become an armchair cop by pleading with the FBI and the Mueller team to let her work with them. In her blog post announcing what she did, she claimed she was going public with her treachery because her life was in danger, and this way everyone would know the real reason if “someone releases stolen information about me or knocks me off tomorrow.”
To say that Wheeler’s actions are a grotesque violation of journalistic ethics is to radically understate the case. Journalists are expected to protect their sources’ identities from the FBI even if they receive a subpoena and a court order compelling its disclosure; we’re expected to go to prison before we comply with FBI attempts to uncover our source’s identity. But here, the FBI did not try to compel Wheeler to tell them anything; they displayed no interest in her as she desperately tried to chase them down.
By all appearances, Wheeler had to beg the FBI to pay attention to her because they treated her like the sort of unstable, unhinged, unwell, delusional obsessive who, believing they have uncovered some intricate conspiracy, relentlessly harass and bombard journalists with their bizarre theories until they finally prattle to themselves for all of eternity in the spam filter of our email inboxes. The claim that she was in possession of some sort of explosive and damning information that would blow the Mueller investigation wide open was laughable. In her post, she claimed she “always planned to disclose this when this person’s role was publicly revealed,” but to date — almost two years later — she has never revealed “this person’s” identity because, from all appearances, the Mueller report never relied on Wheeler’s intrepid reporting or her supposedly red-hot secrets.
Like so many other Russiagate obsessives who turned into social media and MSNBC/CNN #Resistance stars, Wheeler was living a wild, self-serving fantasy, a Cold War Tom Clancy suspense film that she invented in her head and then cast herself as the heroine: a crusading investigative dot-connecter uncovering dangerous, hidden conspiracies perpetrated by dangerous, hidden Cold War-style villains (Putin) to the point where her own life was endangered by her bravery. It was a sad joke, a depressing spectacle of psycho-drama, but one that could have had grave consequences for the person she voluntarily ratted out to the FBI. Whatever else is true, this episode inflicted grave damage on American journalism by having mainstream, Russia-obsessed journalists not denounce her for her egregious violation of journalistic ethics but celebrate her for turning journalism on its head.
Why? Because, as Smith said in his Farrow article, she was “swim[ing] ably along with the tides of social media and produc[ing] damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices” and thus “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness [were] more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives.” Margaret Sullivan, the former New York Times public editor and now the Washington Post’s otherwise reliably commendable media reporter, celebrated Wheeler’s bizarre behavior under the headline: “A journalist’s conscience leads her to reveal her source to the FBI.”
Despite acknowledging that “in their reporting, journalists talk to criminals all the time and don’t turn them in” and that “it’s pretty much an inviolable rule of journalism: Protect your sources,” Sullivan heralded Wheeler’s ethically repugnant and journalism-eroding violation of those principles. “It’s not hard to see that her decision was a careful and principled one,” Sullivan proclaimed.
She even endorsed Wheeler’s cringe-inducing, self-glorifying claims about her life being endangered by invoking long-standard Cold War clichés about the treachery of the Russkies (“Overly dramatic? Not really. The Russians do have a penchant for disposing of people they find threatening.”). The English language is insufficient to convey the madness required to believe that the Kremlin wanted to kill Marcy Wheeler because her blogging was getting Too Close to The Truth, but in the fevered swamps of resistance journalism, literally no claim was too unhinged to be embraced provided that it fed the social media #Resistance masses.
Sullivan’s article quoted no critics of Wheeler’s incredibly controversial behavior — no need to: She was on the right side of social media reaction. And Sullivan never bothered to return to wonder why her prediction — “Wheeler hasn’t named the source publicly, though his name may soon be known to all who are following the Mueller investigation” — never materialized. Both CNN and, incredibly, the Columbia Journalism Review published similarly sympathetic accounts of Wheeler’s desperate attempts to turn over her source to the FBI and then cosplay as though she were some sort of insider in the Mueller investigation.
The most menacing attribute of what Smith calls “Resistance Journalism” is that it permits and tolerates no dissent and questioning: perhaps the single most destructive path journalism can take. It has been well-documented that MSNBC and CNN spent three years peddling all sorts of ultimately discredited Russiagate conspiracy theories by excluding from their airwaves anyone who dissented from or even questioned those conspiracies. Instead, they relied upon an increasingly homogenized army of former security state agents from the CIA, FBI, and NSA to propound, in unison, all sorts of claims about Trump and Russia that turned out to be false, and peppered their panels of “analysts” with journalists whose career skyrocketed exclusively by pushing maximalist Russiagate claims, often by relying on the same intelligence officials these cable outlets sat them next to.
This trend — whereby diversity of opinion and dissent from orthodoxies are excluded from media discourse — is worsening rapidly due to two major factors. The first is that cable news programs are constructed to feed their audiences only self-affirming narratives that vindicate partisan loyalties. One liberal cable host told me that they receive ratings not for each show but for each segment, and they can see the ratings drop off — the remotes clicking away — if they put on the air anyone who criticizes the party to which that outlet is devoted (Democrats in the case of MSNBC and CNN, the GOP in the case of Fox).
But there’s another more recent and probably more dissent-quashing development: the disappearance of media jobs. Mass layoffs were already common in online journalism and local newspapers prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and have now turned into an industrywide massacre. With young journalists watching jobs disappearing en masse, the last thing they are going to want to do is question or challenge prevailing orthodoxies within their news outlet or, using Smith’s “Resistance Journalism” formulation, to “swim against the tides of social media” or question the evidence amassed against those “most disliked by the loudest voices.”
Affirming those orthodoxies can be career-promoting, while questioning them can be job-destroying. Consider the powerful incentives journalists face in an industry where jobs are disappearing so rapidly one can barely keep count. During Russiagate, I often heard from young journalists at large media outlets who expressed varying degrees of support for and agreement with the skepticism which I and a handful of other journalists were expressing, but they felt constrained to do so themselves, for good reason. They watched the reprisals and shunning doled out even to journalists with a long record of journalistic accomplishments and job security for the crime of Russiagate skepticism, such as Taibbi (similar to the way MSNBC fired Phil Donahue in 2002 for opposing the invasion of Iraq), and they know journalists with less stature and security than Taibbi could not risk incurring that collective wrath.
All professions and institutions suffer when a herd, groupthink mentality and the banning of dissent prevail. But few activities are corroded from such a pathology more than journalism is, which has as its core function skepticism and questioning of pieties. Journalism quickly transforms into a sickly, limp version of itself when it itself wages war on the virtues of dissent and airing a wide range of perspectives.
I do not know how valid are Smith’s critiques of Farrow’s journalism. But what I know for certain is that Smith’s broader diagnosis of “Resistance Journalism” is dead-on, and the harms it is causing are deep and enduring. When journalists know they will thrive by affirming pleasing falsehoods, and suffer when they insist on unpopular truths, journalism not only loses its societal value but becomes just another instrument for societal manipulation, deceit, and coercion.