On Mark Milley, Stephanie Grisham, reputation laundering, and complicity

Two weeks ago, political journalists undertook a familiar ritual: obtaining another journalist’s forthcoming book and reporting on the contents. Neither the book’s authors (the veteran reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa), subject matter (the dangerous final days of the Trump presidency), nor key characters (including General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) were new to this ritual—Woodward wrote two prior tomes about the Trump White House, in 2018 and 2020; top reporters from the Post and the Wall Street Journal (and Michael Wolff) published books on the Trump endgame over the summer, with Milley often featuring prominently—and all have reliably driven media buzz. This time, CNN was first to report Woodward and Costa’s claim that, in the days after the insurrection at the Capitol, Milley “single-handedly took secret action to limit Trump from potentially ordering a dangerous military strike or launching nuclear weapons,” fearing that Trump might “go rogue.” Sure enough, the details—not least a call in which Milley supposedly reassured a Chinese counterpart that he’d give advance warning of any hypothetical US attack—occasioned feverish punditry across the political spectrum. Many liberals gasped at just how close we came. Trump and his boosters accused Milley of “treason.” (“‘Deep state’ isn’t strong enough,” Tucker Carlson said.)

Amid the fallout, a defense official told Politico that the book’s description appeared to have “grossly mischaracterized” the China call, which they said was routine and authorized. (Woodward and Costa stood by their reporting, and their book’s full account of the call turned out to be less extraordinary than the selective quote suggested.) Milley publicly made a similar point, but said he would save his fuller explanation for Congress, where he’d soon be appearing before committees probing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan; yesterday, he went to the Senate and fulfilled his promise, dedicating a portion of his opening statement to the recent “issues in the media” and defending himself against the charge that he exceeded his authority. The rest of the hearing was mostly about Afghanistan, but various Republican senators returned to the topic of the book. Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, asked Milley to state for the record whether he’d spoken to its authors and to the other Post and Journal reporters whose books came out over the summer; Milley confirmed that he’d cooperated in each case. Rick Scott, of Florida, asked Milley whether he had leaked private conversations with Trump; Milley denied this, but acknowledged that he does often speak to the media, including under the cover of anonymity, in the interests of transparency. Trump supporters in the room made hay with these answers. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, said that Milley’s “priority” of “making sure that you were favorably portrayed by the DC press corps” had distracted him from the situation in Afghanistan. After the hearing, Blackburn accused Milley of making himself “a hero in the media instead of a hero to the men in his command.” And Trump himself weighed in, of course: Milley, he said, is “not a soldier or general,” but “a public relations agent.”

From the magazine: What we want to discard from political journalism

Others defended Milley, pointing out that politicians in Washington—not least Republican senators—speak to the press all the time. This is true. But as the Trump books have cascaded, Trump fans aren’t the only ones to have expressed reservations about Milley’s apparent—and now confirmed—cooperation. Jonathan Swan, of Axios, has reported that even some of Milley’s friends “are cringing over his extensive and high-profile scenes in these books”; Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank, told the AP that Milley seems to have “taken a more active approach to trying to shape his image” that “has not served him well.”

Amid the concern for Milley, there have been concerns, too, for the impact of his narrative on the accuracy of the historical record. “Milley has kind of been presenting himself as the savior of democracy,” Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted. “He did some admirable things, and these things were not outside the chain of command—but it wasn’t just him.” Writing after one of the books quoted Milley as saying that Trump’s “Reichstag moment” would not succeed because “we’re the guys with the guns,” the New Republic’s Alex Shephard warned that his account should be taken “with a grain of salt,” since “becoming a primary source for reporters in exchange for reputation laundering—particularly useful after serving a chaotic and lawless administration—is one of the oldest tricks in Washington.” Milley, perhaps, has more incentive to salvage his reputation than most officials who worked under Trump—he is still in-post under Biden, and has been at pains to stress his independence from Trumpworld ever since he walked, in combat uniform, at Trump’s side as the former president did a photo op with a Bible after racial-justice protesters were gassed outside the White House. Shortly after that incident, Milley cut a video calling his involvement “a mistake.” More recently, he pushed back, during a hearing, against Republican attacks on critical race theory.

Another way to launder one’s reputation in Washington, of course, is to cut out reporters and write a book yourself—though reporters, of course, always end up involved in this process, too. Yesterday, many journalists salivated over nuggets, reported by the Post and the New York Times, from a new tell-all by Stephanie Grisham, who, as Trump’s press secretary, told very little: she failed to hold a single formal briefing for these journalists or their colleagues. (The book is called I’ll Take Your Questions Now, because of course it is.) The anecdotes ranged from the serious (sexual harassment in the White House) to the not-so-much (the calming influence on Trump of the song “Memory,” from Cats), though they were uniformly damning of the former president. As with Milley, Trump and those in his orbit lined up to savage Grisham’s honor. “Stephanie didn’t have what it takes,” Trump said, and “now, like everyone else, she gets paid by a radical left-leaning publisher to say bad and untrue things.” Peter Navarro, who was a trade adviser to Trump, argued that if Maggie Haberman was “pimping” Grisham’s account then it must be “BS.” The Times’s story on the book was written by Katie Rogers, not Haberman.

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Again, though, one needn’t have a pro-Trump agenda to question Grisham’s credibility—she served for nearly the entire span of the Trump administration, working mostly for Melania Trump before finally resigning after the insurrection, and her no-show as press secretary should speak for itself. The Post and Times stories mentioned her failure to hold a briefing, and the coda of the latter story quoted Grisham’s admission, in her book, that she “should have spoken up more.” Still, the Grisham discourse I’ve seen has generally cast her as a valuable frontline witness to Trump’s character, without much interrogation of her own character and motivations for only “speaking up” now. This isn’t to say that her account is inherently unreliable or lacking in value. But we ought to view the important bits as leads to follow, not just juicy gossip.

The cases of Grisham and Milley are very different, but some similar points apply to coverage of the latter, and more urgently so, given that he still holds an extremely powerful position. His actions during the Trump endgame may very well have been highly necessary and appropriate; in any case, he has much to say and a right to say it. But we should be careful not to let his account trickle unchallenged into a wider media narrative casting him as the last line of defense against fascism in America, with tales of his brave acts asserted as fact, rather than attributed to him. Interrogating Milley’s intentions—and past actions—is not to indulge bad-faith Trumpian attacks; quite the opposite. A key storyline of the Trump era has been the complicity of others in his abuses—the exact sort of people, in fact, who are now savaging Milley and Grisham on Trump’s behalf. But Milley and Grisham were there, too. Sometimes, in our desperation to hear damning stories about Trump personally, we seem to forget to ask what the storytellers did.

Last year, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, came out with a book of his own in which he excoriated the former president. Bolton, of course, has a questionable foreign-policy record that long predates Trump—in the book itself, he said Trump’s “most irrational” act to that point had been his failure to bomb Iran—yet as he promoted the book, journalists (with some noble exceptions) mostly asked him about Trump’s threat to America. Last night, Bolton went on CNN and defended Milley against Republican senators’ attacks on his dealings with the media. “Everybody in Washington talks to reporters, as you well know,” Bolton told Wolf Blitzer. “Milley could have felt that there was history at stake here with these authors writing these books. And he wanted to make sure that his version of it was out there.”

Below, more on Milley, Grisham, and Trumpworld:

  • Gone with the Vind: After the details from the Woodward and Costa book became public, Trump fans weren’t the only people to question whether Milley had stepped beyond his rightful authority; some liberals did, too. Writing for the Post, Alexander Vindman, a former military official who testified against Trump as part of his first impeachment, argued that while Milley had “justifiably deep concerns on multiple occasions regarding an unhinged and increasingly erratic president,” Milley could have resigned and publicized his concerns rather than seek to “circumvent or subvert the chain of command.” He added that, if we want institutional “guardrails rather than relying on a constant supply of individual saviors, we should hold our leaders accountable.”
  • Holding our leaders accountable: Last month, after the US military fired a drone at a vehicle that it said posed an imminent terror threat to Kabul’s airport as the US finalized its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Milley described it as a “righteous strike”—but reporters from the Times, the Post, and other outlets soon reported that the strike killed ten civilians, none of whom were terrorists and seven of whom were children. Milley eventually acknowledged that he had spoken too soon, calling the strike “a horrible tragedy of war.” Senators asked about the strike at the hearing yesterday, and the Times pegged a related video investigation to the top of its homepage, just below its live coverage of the hearing. The investigation found that a supposed ISIS “safe house” that Zemari Ahmadi, the target of the strike, had visited was actually the home of an aid worker and his family.
  • Pushback: Not every political journalist jumped on the Grisham bandwagon yesterday. “She couldn’t do her job when she had it,” the Post’s Dave Weigel remarked. “Why would I want to read her tell-all?” Ryan Bort, of Rolling Stone, covered the book’s claims under the headline “Toadstool Dicks and Soothing Show Tunes: New Book Details More Trump White House Insanity,” but concluded that “Grisham is clearly using the book to distance herself from Trump’s actions,” and that the time she spent publicly defending the former president remains “a fact that no amount of salacious gossip or details about his tyrannical behavior offered up to the media will ever change.”
  • The ghost of tell-alls past: In 2018, Trump’s presidential campaign filed a case against Omarosa Manigault Newman, an Apprentice candidate turned Trump aide, for allegedly violating a nondisclosure agreement after she published her own scathing book about the administration. On Monday, the arbitrator in the case finally handed down a ruling in Manigault Newman’s favor, concluding that the terms of the NDA were so vague as to be meaningless, and that Trump had tried to cast “expressions of unflattering opinions” as “confidential information.” Haberman, of the Times, has more.

Other notable stories: 

  • On Sunday, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, reported that Samir Rao, a top executive at Ozy, a digital-media company, impersonated a YouTube staffer on a call with potential investors. Since then, Ozy has come under a harsh spotlight, with follow-up stories exploring other deceptions including its leaders’ apparent practice of attributing their own praiseful quotes about the company to other outlets that had quoted them; meanwhile, an Ozy festival in Miami was postponed, and Carlos Watson, the CEO, stepped back as host of tonight’s Documentary Emmy Awards. Ozy’s board initially backed Watson’s statement attributing Rao’s conduct to a mental-health crisis—but yesterday, it commissioned an investigation and asked Rao to go on leave.
  • Also yesterday, Sara Fischer reported, for Axios, that the NewsGuild of New York charged Gannett with unfair labor practices, alleging that the company “interfered with the federally-protected right of workers to organize and form a union.” (Gannett denies breaking the law.) “Conversations with journalists across several Gannett newsrooms reveal attempts by Gannett management to undermine union efforts via alleged threats to pay increases, 401(k) matches and diversity initiatives,” Fischer writes. Susanne Cervenka, a reporter at the Asbury Park Press, said, “I felt like I’ve been gaslit.”
  • In July, a jury in Maryland found that the gunman who killed five staffers in the Capital Gazette’s newsroom in Annapolis, in 2018, was criminally responsible for the attack. (He pleaded guilty but also lodged an insanity defense.) Yesterday, a judge handed the gunman five life sentences without parole, a sixth life sentence for the attempted murder of another staffer, and 345 years on other charges. The Capital Gazette has more.
  • After Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at the Post, sued the paper for banning her from covering sexual violence after she spoke out about her own experience as a survivor, Carter Sherman, of Vice, spoke with other survivors who feared what coming forward might mean for their media careers. “They have struggled with editors over how to cover sexual assault,” Sherman writes. “They had imagined that they would not be believed.”
  • Replicating a past study in Australia, researchers at the University of Kansas surveyed more than three hundred US journalists about the toll of unemployment. The study found “large percentages of former journalists who suffered depression, shock and financial difficulties, but also significant numbers who reported relief and improved lifestyle”—a split “highly predicted by whether they chose to leave or were forced out of their job.”
  • A report card compiled by researchers at the University of Central Florida found that, despite some small recent progress, the representation of women, and particularly women of color, remains poor across sports media in the US and Canada. The report found that nearly eighty percent of sports editors are white and that more than eighty-five percent of sports reporters are men. Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire has more details.
  • Marcos Efraín Montalvo, a journalist in Colombia, was shot and killed by an unidentified gunman in a store. While the circumstances of the murder remain murky, the gunman did not rob the store, and Montalvo, who covered official corruption and organized crime, had previously received death threats related to his work, though he did not take these seriously enough to report them. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more.
  • Le Monde profiled Pablo Iglesias, the former leader of Podemos, a left-wing political party in Spain, who quit politics in May and recently signed on as a commentator for no fewer than five news organizations. Iglesias has said that “critical journalism” is “what I do best,” and that the press is now more important to Spanish politics than traditional political parties. Radical change, he says, “must happen first in people’s heads.”
  • And on Monday, Nick Oza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist at the Arizona Republic, died following a car accident. He was fifty-seven. Oza “was known for an immersive style of photography,” the Republic writes. “Though he often was with people as they suffered through trying times—cleaning up a hurricane-ravaged house, anxious about a looming deportation—Oza had a disarming personality that put subjects at ease.” The day before, Myron Dewey, a journalist known for his coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline and for founding Digital Smoke Signals, died in a car accident. “The world lost a dedicated water protector and digital warrior with the death of Myron Dewey,” Dallas Goldtooth, an Indigenous Environmental Network organizer, told Native News Online.

From the magazine: Our Damned Trump Fixation

Update: This post has been updated to clarify the nature of the Trump campaign’s case against Omarosa Manigault Newman.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 28, 2021. Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times, via AP