The Media Today

An anatomy of a Republican talking point

November 19, 2019

As the impeachment process has ground on, the president’s defense has only become more convoluted and dishonest. A few weeks ago, Trump started telling anyone who’d listen to “read the transcript”; this was considered such an effective line that his supporters literally put it on t-shirts at a rally in Kentucky, even though the “transcript” in question—the White House summary of The Phone Call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president—is both incredibly incriminating and not actually a transcript. We’ve heard that Trump only asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and other Democrats because he cares about corruption, an argument that’s often boiled down to the proposition that Trump can’t be a crook because Biden is. (As Catherine Rampell wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “Just as O.J. Simpson pledged to search for the real killer, Trump and his fellow Republicans are on the hunt for the Real Crimes.”) The president has been the victim of a “Never Trump,” deep-state conspiracy, and was just doing normal foreign policy; in any case, we’re told, Ukraine did get the aid that Trump’s accusers say he tried to wield as a bribe. (A reminder: attempted crimes are still usually crimes.)

Amid this tangle of illogic, one talking point in particular merits dissection from a journalism-adjacent standpoint: the assertion that much of the Democrats’ impeachment case is based on secondhand information, and thus invalid. We first heard this about the whistleblower who initially flagged Trump’s call with Zelensky. (The whistleblower was not on the call, but did base his complaint on accounts from “more than half a dozen US officials” that were “in almost all cases… consistent with one another.”) Last week, “hearsay” was perhaps the most prominent Republican counterattack against the Democrats’ first public witnesses—Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch—none of whom had direct knowledge of Trump’s personal dealings with Ukraine. Last Wednesday, Doug Collins, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, tweeted a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—“My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night”—and labeled it “a live look into Ambassador Taylor’s testimony.” Trump retweeted it, of course.

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On its merits, the “no firsthand knowledge” line isn’t cleverer—or in better faith—than any of the other lines. If anything, it’s especially craven. Several of the witnesses testifying this week—starting with Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams this morningdo have firsthand knowledge of critical elements of the Ukraine affair. Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union who will testify tomorrow, was centrally involved in it (though he previously has seemed confused about what firsthand knowledge he actually knew). And other figures at the heart of all this—Mick Mulvaney and Rick Perry, for instance—have been blocked from testifying by the White House.

But “no firsthand knowledge” also echoes a broader Trumpian attack. There’s another word for secondhand knowledge: journalism. Not all journalism is secondhand, of course; still, by necessity, reporting which deals with the inner workings of government often is. Nor is all secondhand knowledge journalism: hearsay or gossip is not the same as a carefully corroborated account based on the testimony of several sources. But when it comes to impeachment, Trump boosters are trying to paint the latter as the former—just as they do when they attack diligent reporting as lazy or “fake.” It’s worth noting that some of the language in the whistleblower complaint—that “more than half a dozen US officials” gave accounts that were “consistent with one another”—wouldn’t look out of place in the news pages of the Times or the Post.

To be sure, journalism is different in kind from a series of impeachment hearings in Congress. But there are clear parallels: they both involve getting to the bottom of a matter of public interest by interviewing people with valuable information about it, even if some of those people are at some remove from the facts. And just as impeachment isn’t journalism, it isn’t a rigidly judicial process, either, though Republicans seem desperate to hold it to that standard. Ultimately, we’re discussing whether Trump should be removed as president, not trying to lock him up.

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We shouldn’t treat the secondhand-news talking point as an impeachment-specific deflection; instead, we should recognize it as a building block in this administration’s broader blockade of the truth. The idea that only people with firsthand experience of something can know it happened is dangerous. It’s dishonesty dressed up as empirical rigor, and it further dents trust in interlocutors—from concerned public officials to journalists—whose jobs rely on trust.

Below, more on impeachment:

  • Extremely firsthand knowledge: Yesterday, Trump tweeted that he would “strongly consider” testifying to the impeachment inquiry in writing—but Jon Healey, of the LA Times, says we shouldn’t bet on him following through. One reason for that is that Trump’s testimony to Robert Mueller’s probe is still causing him problems. Last week, evidence offered at Roger Stone’s trial appeared to contradict aspects of what Trump told Mueller; yesterday, House investigators confirmed in court that they are looking into whether the president lied.
  • “Epistemic crisis”: David Roberts, of Vox, argues that impeachment has finally ushered in an “epistemic crisis” in America. “In an information fog filled with vexed uncertainty, people will either tune out, revert to their tribal affiliations, or both,” Roberts writes. “They will seek a strong leader who offers simple certainties and a clear account of who is to blame for the chaos. Confusion and fear, not deception, are the ultimate goal. That is precisely the kind of machine the US conservative movement has built.”
  • Not the hill to die on: Yesterday, Bob Cusack, editor-in-chief of The Hill, told staff that the outlet is “reviewing, updating, annotating… and when appropriate, correcting” columns by John Solomon, a former Hill journalist whose writings alleging Democratic dirty tricks in Ukraine fed the loop that kickstarted the whole impeachment business. Elsewhere, CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter profile Jimmy Finkelstein, owner of The Hill, whose “crucial role” in the Ukraine saga has flown under the radar.
  • You think Ukraine’s bad?!: New York’s Jonathan Chait argues that the Ukraine scandal pales in comparison to Trump’s less-newsy treatment of Amazon, which is suing the federal government after the Pentagon denied it a cloud-computing contract. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Post, which Trump hates. The president, Chait reckons, “improperly used government policy to punish the owner of an independent newspaper as retribution for critical coverage.”
  • Checking Kyiv: Yesterday, Andrew E. Kramer, Moscow correspondent for the Times, tweeted that the paper is switching from “Kiev” to “Kyiv,” because the former is a transliteration from Russian. (Other copy desks—including that of BuzzFeed, on which I used to work—already made the switch.) Per Sam Sifton, food editor at the Times, “Chicken Kiev” will stay without a “y.”
  • A bitter taste: Often, Trump’s war on journalism has found echo at the local level: recently, officials in Citrus County, Florida, refused to fund digital subscriptions to the Times in a local library because the paper is “fake news.” The library advisory board just met to discuss the incident. For CJR, Rebecca Renner went along.

Other notable stories:

  • Over the weekend, the Times published a rare leak of documents from inside China. Yesterday—in collaboration with The Interceptit dropped an unprecedented cache from inside Iran, comprising intelligence reports detailing Tehran’s vast influence in Iraqi affairs, and “real-life espionage capers that feel torn from the pages of a spy thriller.” The Intercept’s Betsy Reed, Roger Hodge, and Vanessa Gezari (formerly of CJR), lay out the story behind the story. The source who leaked the documents remains anonymous.
  • Speaking of anonymity, A Warning—the book by the unknown Trump administration figure who wrote that Times op-ed last year—is out today. Its rollout has been overshadowed, somewhat, by the testimony of officials who are willing to put their names and faces to their concerns about the president, and by indifferent reviews. (The Guardian’s Lloyd Green wrote yesterday that the anonymous book “fails to make a name for itself.”) But it’s already selling well, so the author may not care all that much. (Though the profits from the book will be donated “substantially” to nonprofits focused on government accountability.)
  • Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center published emails showing that Stephen Miller, now a senior adviser to the president, promoted white-nationalist content while he was an aide to then-Senator Jeff Sessions. Now Katie Rogers and Jason DeParle, of the Times, have a follow-up on the sort of material Miller was citing. “It’s not based on ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’” Lawrence Rosenthal, a researcher at UC Berkeley, told them. “It’s based on ‘What were the color of the people who wrote those words?’”
  • CJR’s Akintunde Ahmad unspools a year of infighting at the Foreign Press Association, a nonprofit representing foreign correspondents who work in the US. “After the resignation of so many board members and the suspicion raised by general members, many former FPA affiliates felt the need to establish a new organization,” Ahmad reports. “In May 2019, the Association of Foreign Correspondents was born.”
  • The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove profiles Soledad O’Brien, the TV news anchor turned producer who has become an outspoken critic of the media’s handling of Trump. “The idea of something being ‘racially charged’ or ‘racially tinged’—what the fuck is that?” O’Brien asks Grove. “Journalists will bend over and literally do gymnastics to avoid calling someone a racist. Or ‘verifiably untrue.’ It’s just a lie! What is wrong with you?”
  • In Germany, the Berliner Zeitung, a left-leaning newspaper, is investigating its new owner, Holger Friedrich, after learning that he was once an informant for the Stasi, the secret police of the old communist East Germany. Friedrich said he was forced to work with the Stasi; the paper’s editor says he should at least have disclosed the connection.
  • Organizations including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch called on Russia to drop legislation that would force independent reporters and bloggers to register—and sign their work—as “foreign agents” if they get funding from overseas sources. Such rules already apply to NGOs and news outlets.
  • In Uzbekistan, a recording appeared online allegedly showing Jahongir Ortiqkhojaev, the mayor of Tashkent, threatening to “destroy” journalists and “turn them into gays.”, an Uzbek news site, says Ortiqkhojaev was addressing three of its reporters on the tape; authorities are investigating its authenticity. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has more.
  • And South Dakota launched an information campaign against methamphetamines with the unfortunate tagline, “Meth. We’re on it.” Twitter wondered if its creators had missed the double meaning. Officials insisted that they were trying to be provocative.

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that the author of A Warning will “substantially” donate the profits from their book.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.