Where have you gone Woodward & Bernstein?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (April 6, 2018)

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com}

As journalism slowly dies in this country, the major news media organizations are gaining customers. These two trends are not unrelated.

Television and digital news audiences for many media outlets have been steadily growing since the election of Donald Trump. He is their golden goose.

According to the News Media Alliance, “Newspaper websites in the United States have seen an increase in paid subscribers (in 2017) — The New York Times has grown to more than 2 million paid digital-only customers, while The Wall Street Journal passed the 1 million mark.”

On the television side of the news business, as just two examples, MSNBC is attracting its largest audiences ever and CNN posted record profits in 2017.

Say what you want about President Trump, he is good for the news business.

Unfortunately, the news media’s coverage of Donald Trump has too often been riddled with errors and falsehoods.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden story in 2013 and a favorite target of the Democratic Party’s neo-liberal elites, offered in a recent article on theintercept.com a list of just some of the reporting errors made by major news organizations in their coverage of the Trump-Russia story:

  • Russia hacked into the U.S. electric grid to deprive Americans of heat during winter (Wash Post)
  • An anonymous group (PropOrNot) documented how major U.S. political sites are Kremlin agents (Wash Post)
  • WikiLeaks has a long, documented relationship with Putin (Guardian)
  • A secret server between Trump and a Russian bank has been discovered (Slate)
  • RT hacked C-SPAN and caused disruption in its broadcast (Fortune)
  • Crowdstrike finds Russians hacked into a Ukrainian artillery app (Crowdstrike)
  • Russians attempted to hack elections systems in 21 states (multiple news outlets, echoing Homeland Security)
  • Links have been found between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund under investigation (CNN)

All of these stories contained substantively false or misleading information that was (and may still be) promulgated as fact.

Isn’t the Trump menace justification for a little journalistic hyperbole and reckless conjecture?

Of course not. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Now is the time for journalists to be more accurate than ever. Even minor journalistic mistakes can delegitimize otherwise well-reported stories.

What does good journalism look like?

As news consumers, we should all be asking ourselves: When done well, what does investigative journalism look like? To what extent should we discount journalism that fails to meet our own expectations and standards for good news reporting?

These are not easy questions to answer. But in my own effort to answer them, I reached into the news archives and re-read the actual reporting that led to our nation’s first presidential resignation. For me, what I found was stunning and more relevant than ever.

So, find an old pair of white stripe “Big E’ Levi pants (with the flared boot cut) and follow me back in time to the early summer of 1972…

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Washington, D.C. (June 18, 1972):

Richard Nixon is in the middle of his presidential re-election campaign when a news story breaks in The Washington Post. The headline on June 18, 1972 reads: 5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here (Original Story Here). The first four paragraphs in the story, written by Alfred E. Lewis, reports about a simple break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.:

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(Washington) — Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.

Three of the men were native-born Cubans and another was said to have trained Cuban exiles for guerrilla activity after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

They were surprised at gunpoint by three plain-clothes officers of the metropolitan police department in a sixth floor office at the plush Watergate, 2600 Virginia Ave., NW, where the Democratic National Committee occupies the entire floor.

There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.

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From this story, we know who, did what, where, when and how: Five men, a former CIA employee, three Cubans, at DNC offices, June 17th at 2:30 a.m. The most important paragraph is: There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee…or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations.

Those questions, of course, eventually would be answered.

But this is just crime-blotter reporting. Right? It’s not investigative journalism. How can you compare court record regurgitation to the hard work required to understand the potential complexities of the Trump-Russia connection? You can’t. Enter Bob Woodward (who did the legwork on Lewis’ story) and Carl Bernstein — — two young, ambitious Washington Post reporters who are given a story assignment that they cannot know beforehand how it will change this country’s history.

Their August 1, 1972 Washington Post story, three months before the general election, gives the first real glimpse into the potential scope of their investigation — which, itself, is mirroring an ongoing FBI investigation. Sound familiar?

The headline reads: Bug Suspect Got Campaign Funds (Original Story Here). The story’s primary information is not reliant on anonymous sources or baseless conjecture. No clever innuendo required:

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(Washington) — A $25,000 cashier’s check, apparently earmarked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign, was deposited in April in a bank account of one of the five men arrested in the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters here June l7.

The check was made out by a Florida bank to Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the President’s campaign finance chairman for the Midwest. Dahlberg said last night that in early April he turned the check over to “the treasurer of the Committee (for the Re-election of the President) or to Maurice Stans himself.”

(Four more paragraphs down in the story…)

A photostatic copy of the front of the check was examined by a Washington Post reporter yesterday. It was made out by the First Bank and Trust Co. of Boca Raton, Fla., to Dahlberg.

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The story is a little over three months old when a September 29, 1972 Woodward and Bernstein story carries the headline: Mitchell Controlled Secret GOP Fund (Original Story Here). The substance of the story connects the Watergate break-in to the Nixon administration:

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(Washington) — John N. Mitchell, while serving as U.S. Attorney General, personally controlled a secret Republican fund that was used to gather information about the Democrats, according to sources involved in the Watergate investigation.

Beginning in the spring of 1971, almost a year before he left the Justice Department to become President Nixon’s campaign manager on March 1, Mitchell personally approved withdrawals from the fund, several reliable sources have told The Washington Post.

Those sources have provided almost identical, detailed accounts of Mitchell’s role as comptroller of the secret intelligence fund and its fluctuating $350,000 -$700,000 balance.

Four persons other than Mitchell were later authorized to approve payments from the secret fund, the sources said.

Two of them were identified as former Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans, now finance chairman of the President’s campaign, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, manager of the Nixon campaign before Mitchell took over and now a deputy director of the campaign. The other two, according to the sources, are a high White House official now involved in the campaign and a campaign aide outside of Washington.

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There is no rhetorical hedging with words like ‘may have’ or ‘possibly.’ Note also that Woodward and Bernstein rely on multiple, anonymous sources. And, more notably, these FBI sources, which are involved in an ongoing investigation, are willing to confirm names, dates, and timelines. There is no conjecture or speculation. The story is built on the best information available at the time. Further down in the story, Woodward and Bernstein give the reader some important background information on the anonymous sources themselves:

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Sept. 29, 1972 Washington Post story continued…

…The sources of The Post’s information on the secret fund and its relationship to Mitchell and other campaign officials include law enforcement officers and persons on the staff of the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

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In today’s daily, often leak-driven, news cycle, such detailed background on anonymous sources is rarely provided. When it is, it is so vague and amorphous it denies the reader any real context to judge the veracity or reliability of the source(s).

While there are still special prosecutors and congressional hearings to be appointed and held in the future, Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative work reaches its apex in their story on October 10, 1972. Citing conclusions from the FBI and Department of Justice investigations, they lay the foundation for what will be a national obsession over the next two years. The Post headline reads:

FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats (Original Story Here). The story wastes no time cutting to the chase:

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(Washington) — FBI agents have established that the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.

The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of Justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic presidential contenders and — since 1971 — represented a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort.

During their Watergate investigation, federal agents established that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nixon campaign contributions had been set aside to pay for an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting individual Democratic presidential candidates and disrupting their campaigns.

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On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency, over two years after the Post’s initial break-in story.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is how high-quality investigative journalism is conducted.

Unfortunately, we must return to present day journalism…

…the times have changed and journalists have been forced to change with it. The Washington Post in 1972 wasn’t competing with 24–7 cable news networks. And is it fair to compare the journalism on today’s CNN with The Washington Post or any other national-audience newspaper? They have different audiences and business requirements.

Nonetheless, we should all expect more from today’s journalists than what we getting in the coverage of the Trump-Russia connection. The use of anonymous sources is just one mechanism today’s journalists use to generate more stories faster. The blurring of hard news with news analysis also increases the volume of content.

Perhaps the most insightful, and ironic, reaction to the quality of journalism on the Trump-Russia collusion story came from Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reacting to an anonymous-sourced CNN story last year: “This is another piece of information without any sources which can’t be commented on, neither can it be taken as some serious thing.”

Was he wrong?

Good journalism requires multiple, independent confirmations of the crucial facts and their cogent, unbiased recitation by the journalist(s) or news organization.

The Only Reliable Defense for Bad Journalism, ‘Fake News,’ and Russian interference is an Educated Public

Can we expect today’s news consumers to consistently recognize and ignore bad journalism that fails to meet even the basic journalistic standards? Perhaps not.

Can we expect the news and political opinion industries to self-police with respect to the dissemination of bad journalism and ‘fake news’? Most definitely not. ‘Fake news’ in particular has set up a permanent encampment on the Worldwide Web.

So what do we do?

We must empower individuals to draw their own conclusions regarding the news they consume, and only then will our society and political system be protected from the corrosive impact of bad journalism and ‘fake news.’

Until that day comes, the public is on its own. There is no industry or government solution to this problem (though, God knows, the Congress and lobbyists are already writing laws and regulations in the attempt to solve the problem).

Yet, there is reason for optimism based on research regarding the ability of news consumers to discern the levels of quality and bias in news reporting. One such study, a 2013 experiment conducted by the Ilmenau University of Technology and reported by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO), found that all types of news consumers (in terms of education and interest) could recognize the differences between high- and low-quality news. Another study, also reported by the EJO, concluded that “media users recognize comparatively well whether a news article is up-to-date, answers the important questions of who, what, why, when, and gives information about causes, consequences, and classifications of an event.” More importantly, the same research showed that media users are reasonably good at evaluating the bias in a new story.

Therefore, as you digest future Trump-Russia collusion stories, I suggest you look for the following attributes to determine the quality of the reporting:

  • Are the story’s facts linked to named sources that would be expected to know such facts?
  • If the story’s primary information is heavily dependent on anonymous sources, is there sufficient background information provided on those sources to know if they would have access to this information? Has the journalist or news organization referenced these same anonymous sources in previous stories and has their information proved reliable in the past?
  • Does the journalist connect the story’s facts in a logical and comprehensive way or does it seem more like an ad-hoc collection of information with no inherent or obvious connection?
  • Is the story full of weasel-words like: “possibly,” “may have,” “could indicate” or “suggests”?

As for Trump-Russiagate, the reporting has too often come up short on these attributes.

We are lucky to have the Watergate reporting legacy of Woodward and Bernstein to remind us what real journalism looks like.

K.R.K.

{Send comments to: kkroeger@nuqum.com}

About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY). He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.

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I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at: kroeger98@yahoo.com)

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