Before last week, Brian Ross’s greatest claim to infamy was that he had his hand slapped by a former pope. He once ambushed Joseph Ratzinger (then a cardinal) as he got out of a car in Rome. Hitting him with questions related to the abuse scandal, Ross caught Ratzinger raw, which threw him badly enough that he slapped Ross’s hand and barked at his bad manners.
Now Ross has had his hand slapped again, not so much because he committed an act of journalistic malpractice that smeared the presidency and caused markets to tumble but because he made his colleagues look bad in their perpetual struggle with Trump. They want to smear Trump in the future and his gross blunder makes that harder to accomplish. His false report about Michael Flynn had handed Trump a “sword,” they whined, giving themselves away as maneuvering partisans, not objective journalists.
The advertised rage among executives at ABC is hard to take seriously. Ross, after all, has long been paid by them to slap together politically useful smears. They are just upset that he got caught on this one. Were they not in an optics war with Trump, they wouldn’t have punished him at all.
To understand the hackish and biased culture at ABC from which a rodent like Ross emerged, all one has to do is watch the hysterically jubilant treatment The View gave his “breaking news.” That moment deserves a special place in the annals of media jackassery. A producer, in mid-show, momentously brought the report out to its cackling host Joy Behar, who read it like a telegram announcing the end of World War II. After she tremulously read the report aloud, she threw it up in the air like confetti as the other panelists hooted with delight.
On Monday, they reviewed Ross’s destructive folly but not their own. He had made a good-faith mistake, they said, an explanation that they never extend to Trump. (His mistakes are always “lies.”) As of Tuesday, Behar, ever the insane partisan, still hasn’t removed her tweet memorializing her Publishers Clearing House-style reaction.
It is common to hear news executives these days describe problems as “systemic.” But on this one, they want all the blame to fall on Ross. We have heard the usual prattle about ignored editorial protocols and so forth. Never mind that the network let his false story stand for hours and then let him go back on the air to uncork the whopper that his Flynn source apprised him of a “clarification,” a euphemistic howler Ross used to describe the withdrawal of the biggest fake news story of the year. He had found the Never Trump media’s Holy Grail and now he wanted to “clarify” that he hadn’t.
This is beyond farce, but it is unsurprising given the depth of the media’s Trump hatred. In the grip of that illness, they can’t seem to help themselves. No sooner had they finished denouncing Ross for his erroneously anonymous source than they resumed discussing their own anonymous sources: Mike Pence’s wife “reportedly” hates Trump; Trump “reportedly’ denies it is his voice on the Access Hollywood tape; Tillerson “reportedly” will receive a pink slip. And on and on it goes, with the chattering class whipping itself up into towering rages on the basis of nothing more than fragments of gossip.
The fake news has never been faker. Usually its formula is to take some stale piece of information and repackage it in sensationalized form. Or it will cast conventions, utterly common to candidates and presidents, as controversial simply because Trump has employed them. In his race against George Bush Sr., candidate Bill Clinton, in an attempt to bolster his foreign policy credentials, made a great show of holding meetings with Boris Yeltsin. The media never considered that collusion. But it is sinister breaking news to them that this or that Trump campaign volunteer “may” have sought meetings with Kremlin officials and so forth.
Another bad habit of the media is that it runs grave headlines that never quite correspond to the content within the stories. It will devote lavish resources to a story, come up with almost nothing, and then try to salvage the project with a sensationalized headline. Take the Guardian’s comic coverage of Roy Moore to the ends of the earth — a story on his “mysterious” year in Australia with the ominous headline, “Why did Roy Moore escape to Australia? Clues remain in the outback wilderness.” Read the story and you will find no sinister clues whatsoever. You will just find a string of laudatory quotes from people who knew him there. The Guardian laid an egg, which it sheepishly acknowledges deep in the story: “But in Australia, the Guardian did not find any reports of improper behavior.” The story adds nothing to what Roy Moore had already revealed in his autobiography. (He said that he went to Australia after an embittering loss in a judgeship race and wanted to take a break.) Desperate for something, its correspondent resorted to the smearing trick of getting speculative responses to speculative questions, yielding such illuminating responses as “I couldn’t say whether the allegations may be correct or not.”
It was about as riveting as the Washington Post’s multiple-correspondent piece on Steve Bannon’s street addresses, a story so important to the Post that it paid for an intrusive and costly stake-out. The only thing interesting about the piece is that it was actually assigned. Brian Ross would no doubt call such straining efforts high investigative journalism, but an exhausted public increasingly sees it as the pitiful propaganda of a media that is no different than a political party.