Manteo, North Carolina, USA - November 13, 2013: A horizontal shot of five newspaper kiosks holding regional, and local newspapers for dispensing. From left to right, the kiosks hold: The Washington Post, Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot, Outer Banks Sentinel, and The Coastland Times.

One of the Most Important Lines in the Vanity Fair Story About the New York Times and Washington Post

Via Ben Domenech’s Transom (you should be a subscriber), I found this fascinating story about the rivalry between the New York Times and Washington Post. They have been competing with each other to get the scoop on the White House. Both have been working sources and getting prime leaks. I suspect many of their sources, if not all of them, are the same. But there is one line in the entire piece that I think needs way more attention and it highlights one of the problems mentioned in the story.

The key line is highlighted below.

‘It wasn’t even five minutes,’ recalled Baker, who has trouble, like most people, keeping track of the competing Post-Times exclusives about the Trump administration that have dominated the media world for months. Two revived bastions of Old Media are engaged in a duel that resembles the World War II rivalry of American general George S. Patton and British general Sir Bernard Montgomery as they scrambled to be first to capture Messina. There is a sense, too, that something fundamental about the nation is at stake. The Washington Post now proclaims every day in its print and online editions, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’

The ongoing tit for tat helps explain the online-traffic records for both newspapers and why they are, more than ever, the tip sheets and storyboards for cable and broadcast news. So the Post discloses that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians; then the Times discloses that Comey memorialized an Oval Office meeting in which the president allegedly pressured him to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials. In headlines, they both question the honesty of Trump, even using the once taboo words ‘lie’ and ‘lies.’

The Trump scandal, or perception of a scandal, is good for their business. The reporters and newspapers have every incentive to play it up as much as possible even if there is no there, there.

I still have yet to see anything illegal. There are certain things that should give Republicans heartburn. But the illegality of any of it is questionable. Likewise, both the New York Times and Washington Post have had their fair share of walk backs from the story. Sources are playing off each other, competing, and trying to sabotage each other. The newspapers are taking advantage of it to their benefit, but it does not mean the American people are actually being well served.

If anything, the race to get out the story has helped build up convoluted narratives and the Trump Administration has been able to take advantage of the seeming conflicts in the story to undermine the story as a whole.

The Vanity Fair piece includes this:

In June, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that more than half of those surveyed believe that the Russians interfered in the presidential election, with about one-third believing it influenced the outcome, and more Americans buying Comey’s explanation of his dismissal than Trump’s. But half think the press has been overly dramatic and irresponsible in its Russia-related coverage, with two-thirds of Republicans simply not believing that the Russians interfered at all, despite evidence assessed by four different U.S. intelligence services. Dig deeper and you find that, while 89 percent of Democrats believe in the importance of the media’s “watchdog” role, only 42 percent of Republicans do, according to the Pew Research Center. It is the widest gap that Pew has ever seen. What’s astonishing is that in early 2016, according to Pew, Democrats and Republicans essentially agreed on the role of the press, with Republicans (77 percent) actually outpacing Democrats (74 percent) in their support.

Some of that Republican skepticism and animosity is certainly tribalism, but a good bit of it is not. Both the Post and Times are seemingly on a ratings based witch hunt and there is plenty of polling out there that shows the Russia story is not the most pressing story in the minds of most Americans. The story plays perfectly to a leftwing audience and tells them exactly what they want to hear. But there has still not been a great deal of proof.

There seems to be something to the Russia story and only the most tribal of Trump supporters think otherwise. But even though there seems to be something there, there seems to be far less than the media would have us believe. And again, the media has a vested interest in us believing a lot while sensationalizing this story and giving it nonstop attention because it is very good for a business that has otherwise been on hard times.

The American public would be wise to treat the Trump Administration skeptically. But it would be equally wise to treat stories based on anonymous sources with undisclosed agendas skeptically.

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Erick Erickson

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