Suddenly, the media has become very, very worried about distractions rather than covering the news. When Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported that former national security adviser Susan Rice had a pattern of requesting the names of US persons redacted in surveillance transcripts, media outlets rushed to assure viewers, listeners, and readers that “there’s nothing to see … move along, move along,” as Joe Scarborough mockingly characterized the reaction. Within hours of Lake’s reporting, more media outlets expressed anger over Lake than curiosity about Rice.
Today, Lake wonders in his column why this is an either-or question in the first place:
Let me guess. You read about Obama’s national security adviser who unmasked the names of Trump associates who were caught up in surveillance and are bewildered that the media is even covering this nothing-burger. It’s a diversion from the real story: how the president and his associates collaborated with a Russian influence operation against the U.S. election.
Or perhaps you are sick of hearing about Russia. After all, no one has presented any evidence that President Donald Trump or his team colluded with the Russians. Even James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, last month acknowledged he saw no such evidence. The Russia story is #fakenews, to borrow a hashtag of the moment. The real story is about the Obama administration’s politicization of state surveillance.
Let me suggest that both stories are something-burgers. Depending on where the facts lead, we will know whether Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, was justified in unmasking the names of Trump transition officials or whether the media’s obsession with the government’s Russia investigation was warranted. …
Concern about unmasking is not a smokescreen, a nothing-burger or a diversionary tactic. It’s a real story. So is how Russia helped Trump win the White House. Don’t trust anyone who says “There’s nothing to see here.”
At the very least, as Matt Lewis explained in this panel discussion, both stories have the same amount of evidence for the speculative narrative so far, which is to say … not much:
“The one person who has looked at these documents carefully has said 1) They were not about Russia and 2) There was nothing illegal,” Lizza continued.
“We have spent weeks talking about, speculating about, the possibility that Donald Trump or his campaign might have been coordinating with Russia,” Lewis, a former Daily Caller columnist interjected. “Is there any evidence about that?”
Not so far, no, and investigations into the latter have been ongoing much longer than the former. What we do know, though, is that the data from unredacted transcripts did get leaked — and Rice is the first senior official identified to have requested such information on a repeated basis.
As I point out in my column for The Fiscal Times, the media has a curious case of incuriosity about the potential for official misconduct — when it comes to a Democratic administration:
This display of aggressive incuriosity was all the more remarkable given its immediacy. Not only did the national media want to instruct people to ignore Lake’s report, but they also wanted to make sure they were seen as completely unwilling to ask questions on the basis of it. Rather than investigate it and ask tough questions of former Obama administration officials about the approval and dissemination process that gave Rice access to unredacted information about US persons, they wanted to paint the questions themselves as illegitimate.
Furthermore, every one of these pushbacks painted the Rice story as an either/or decision for coverage with the Trump-Russia probe. Major media outlets can cover more than one story at a time, however, and the possibility that an administration might have used intelligence data for political purposes would be just as big a story – if not perhaps even bigger. That, after all, was a key component in the Watergate scandal that brought down the Richard Nixon presidency, a scandal largely uncovered under media pressure.
Perhaps further investigation would demonstrate that Rice and other Obama administration officials did not use intelligence for political purposes. The information from those unredacted transcripts got leaked by someone, though, and Rice is the first major figure known to have accessed them outside of the agencies that collected the data in the first place. After having demonstrated such drive to connect dots between Russians and Trump, the lack of curiosity from the same media to follow up on such an obvious lead on a major leak lends itself to the conclusion that the media only has an interest in intrigue when it involves Republicans.
Joe Concha sees the same phenomenon. He uses the Andrea Mitchell non-follow-up follow-up with Rice as Exhibit A:
Now if I’m host Andrea Mitchell or one of her producers, the first soundbite I cue up is Rice on PBS denying any knowledge that she knew “nothing about” surveillance allegations. It’s a simple but highly effective interviewing technique perfected by the late Tim Russert of NBC “Meet the Press” fame: Play the interviewee’s own words back to them and ask them to explain themselves if those words appear to be a lie.
Mitchell and team don’t bother doing so. …
Add it all up, and you have two news anchors and a national security correspondent who informed their audiences a major news story—major enough the principle at hand in Rice had to go on national TV to address it—the story was a fake scandal, ginned up and a diversion.
You have the two leading newspapers in the country also swatting the story away, with the Times calling it a deflection and the Post also going the “fake scandal” route. …
The bias of omission is the most dangerous kind of bias there is. It’s also becoming the most prevalent.
As Glenn Reynolds often writes: Think of them as Democratic Party operatives and you won’t be far off.
In both cases, let’s probe the potential for corruption and go where the evidence leads. And at least in one of these two cases, we know someone broke the law by leaking classified intel and violating the restrictions about disseminating the names of US persons surveilled under FISA.