Legacy media slammed in Columbia Journalism Review for botched Trump-Russia narrative

The "damage to the credibility of the [New York] Times and its peers persists, three years on," investigative reporter Jeff Gerth writes in explosive four-part series.

Published: January 30, 2023 12:23pm

Updated: January 31, 2023 12:02am

Mainstream media's partisan and sloppy handling of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative has irreversibly damaged its credibility with the American public, according to an explosive, four-part report by investigative journalist Jeff Gerth released Monday by the Columbia Journalism Review. 

In part one of the series entitled "The press versus the president," Gerth comes out swinging, naming specific outlets that dropped the ball. 

"'Holy sh*t, Bob Mueller is not going to do it,' is how Dean Baquet, then the executive editor of the New York Times, described the moment his paper's readers realized Mueller was not going to pursue Trump's ouster," Gerth reports. 

In part three, Gerth recounts how BuzzFeed News decided to publish the now debunked Steele Dossier, with then-editor Ben Smith deeming it "a journalist no-brainer," given how their outlet is a "slightly fringy place."

Despite Gerth's revelations and the withering quotes he collected from prominent media figures criticizing the reporting of outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, the Times remained unrepentant, maintaining its reporting and analysis regarding the discredited Russiagate narrative were always above reproach from the start. 

In a statement to CJR, the Times touted the journalism awards it won for its Russiagate reporting, adding that it "thoroughly pursued credible claims, fact-checked, edited, and ultimately produced ground-breaking journalism that has proven true time and again." 

Gerth, who has reportedly been investigating the Russiagate journalistic debacle for the past two years, refers to the Times as existing within its "own bubble," writing that "the damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on, and is likely to take on new energy as the nation faces yet another election season animated by antagonism toward the press."

Gerth's reporting highlights how adversarial the relationship between Donald Trump and the mainstream media was, even before he ascended to the White House back in 2016. He recalls how the public used to trust the news, credibility that has now been largely squandered, he contends, by the debunking of the media's cherished Russiagate narrative.

Today, only 26% of Americans "trust news generally," according to the Reuters Institute's annual Digital News Report for 2022.

Trump sat for interviews with CJR over the past several years, adamantly proclaiming his innocence, calling the Russia probe a “witch hunt” or “hoax," according to Gerth.

"At times, Trump seemed almost to be toying with the press, offering spontaneous answers to questions about Russia that seemed to point to darker narratives," Gerth recounts. "When those storylines were authoritatively undercut, the follow-ups were downplayed or ignored."

"During my interview with Trump, he appeared tired as he sat behind his desk," writes Gerth. "He wore golf attire and his signature red MAGA hat, having just finished eighteen holes. But his energy and level of engagement kicked in when it came to questions about perceived enemies, mainly Mueller and the media.

"[Trump] made clear that in the early weeks of 2017, after initially hoping to 'get along' with the press, he found himself inundated by a wave of Russia-related stories," the article continues. "He then realized that surviving, if not combating, the media was an integral part of his job. 'I realized early on I had two jobs,' the former president had said. 'The first was to run the country, and the second was survival. I had to survive: the stories were unbelievably fake."

Famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward told Gerth that news coverage of the Russia probe "wasn't handled well," going so far as to accuse the media of having "cheated" the public out of the truth. Woodward urged modern newsrooms to "walk down the painful road of introspection."

Gerth "sought interviews," he writes, "often unsuccessfully, with scores of journalists — print, broadcast, and online — hoping they would cooperate with the same scrutiny they applied to Trump."

In researching his series, Gerth "pored through countless official documents, court records, books, and articles," he recalls, "a daunting task given that, over Mueller's tenure, there were more than half a million news stories concerning Trump and Russia or Mueller." 

You can follow Nick on Twitter @NGivasDC

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