Rosenstein, Kavanaugh, and the curse of the news narrative

September 24, 2018
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Thursday September 6, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The fate of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and the vote on Brett Kavanaugh, nominee to the Supreme Court, have turned in recent days on decisions by news organizations to ignore or embrace how their reporting fits into a broader, partisan uber narrative swirling around them. The New York Times and The New Yorker took opposite approaches to the problem. Neither, in my view, emerged unscathed. In both cases, the news narrative was a curse.

First, Rosenstein. The Times piece on Friday, using anonymous sources to claim that Rosenstein talked in 2017 about wearing a wire to secretly record President Trump and about rallying members of the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to oust him, was immediately seized on by Trump’s opponents, including many in the media, as irresponsible. Surely, the Times had to know that Trump would use the story as an excuse to dump Rosenstein, in a likely precursor to firing Robert Mueller and torpedoing the Russia investigation. Shortly after the Times story was published, Donald Trump Jr. (agreeing, in astounding hypocrisy, with the Times when it suited his interest), tweeted that the piece also proved that Rosenstein was behind the notorious anonymous Times “Resistance Inside” op-ed.

Times reporters and editors spent the weekend defending the piece, mainly from people who saw it as a plant from the administration to provide a pretext for shutting the Russia investigation down. (This Twitter exchange, between Maggie Haberman and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, was the best of that genre.) By Monday morning, with news that Rosenstein had resigned—until, it turned out, he hadn’t—the skeptics seemed vindicated.

RELATED: The New Yorker drops a Kavanaugh bombshell 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

There’s no doubt that the Times editors knew how their piece would be received, and that the they’d inevitably be seen as part of the story. To their credit, I think, they barreled ahead anyway, no doubt with Adolph Ochs’ “without fear or favor” war cry rattling around in their heads. Newsrooms should publish the news, without undue concern for how it will land, particularly inside the West Wing or the Beltway.

But when you’re going to take on that fight, you’ve got to be realistic about the fight you’re in. The paper’s initial failure to be clear about its sourcing and reporting process, later rectified through various behind-the-story additions, didn’t help. Nor did the fact that other news organizations had a hard time standing the piece up. In the end, the Times report seemed more hard-headed and contrarian than enlightening.

Enter, two days later, The New Yorker, and a Kavanaugh piece that seemed pickled in the brine in which it was written. In the piece, Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer—an investigative dream team—tell the story of a woman who remembered being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh while they were students at Yale.

But unlike the Times, The New Yorker went all in on process, seemingly obsessed with how the piece was going to be read in our moment of great political agita. I believe the account of the woman in the story, Deborah Ramirez, and I believe Mayer and Farrow do, too. But the magazine’s over-caveated account, in which readers are forced to live through Ramirez’s difficult decision to go public, is an excessive exercise in transparency—and a needless airing of reportorial achievement. After the piece was published online, the Times said that it, too, had been chasing the same story, but had been unable to prove it; The New Yorker countered that the problem is that the paper of record doesn’t employ Ronan Farrow, who got her to talk.

Soon, Trump acolytes began using The New Yorker’s hedging phrases against it, compiling them in a document that they blasted across social media to raise questions about the magazine’s account. Here, The New Yorker’s curse of the narrative was revealed to be the opposite of that of the Times: by bending over backwards, almost to the point of tipping over, to enter the narrative at a critical moment, it undermined its authorship of a story.

All of this is interesting, inside stuff, the kind of sausage-making that a publication like CJR is made to follow. Except, of course, that this is all much bigger than that. At a time when much of the country has no trust in journalism and, thanks to the president, the press is seen as an oppositional force to the republic, it’s become increasingly hard for reporters to disentangle themselves from the world in which they work. For an amusing part of the day Monday, journalists on Twitter tried to make sense of the Heisenberg Principle, which holds that  observing actions—or commenting on them—has the power to change the outcome of the actions themselves.

Journalism’s challenge, and its urgent need, is to find a way to pull itself out of the story. Let the news narrative be what it wants to be. But try like hell to let every story stand on its own; find a way to keep the outside world from seeping in to warp the facts or the context that every story demands.

RELATED: We can probably measure media bias. But do we want to?

Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.