The CJR’s critique of ‘Russia Russia Russia’ coverage is all trees, no forest

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in 2017. Photo via Kremlin.ru.

On Jan. 27, Holman Jenkins Jr., a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, asserted that revelations by special counsel John Durham show that Donald Trump probably owed his 2016 election to a Russian influence campaign. Jenkins was referring to a “presumably fake email exchange” between Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then the head of the Democratic Party, and Leonard Benardo of the Open Society Foundation. Jenkins wrote:

The fictitious email referred to a presumably equally fictitious conversation between the Clinton campaign’s Amanda Renteria and Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch about making sure the Clinton server investigation didn’t “go too far.” The words found their way into a Russian intelligence document, which found its way to the FBI, becoming the justification for FBI chief James Comey’s chaotic actions in the 2016 election, which likely elected Mr. Trump.

I offer this tidbit by way of a brief comment on Jeff Gerth’s 24,000-word analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review in which he takes the media to task for “Russia Russia Russia,” as Trump would put it. Now, I’m in no position to assess all of Gerth’s claims — he’s mastered the details, and I haven’t. But Jenkins’ column shows that, contrary to Gerth’s assertions, the Russia investigation was grounded firmly in reality and that new revelations continue to emerge.

Much of Gerth’s coverage focuses on his former employer, The New York Times. Gerth writes:

Outside of the Times’ own bubble, 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. At its root was an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth. (The Washington Post has tracked thousands of Trump’s false or misleading statements.) 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. When those storylines were authoritatively undercut, the follow-ups were downplayed or ignored.

In fact, Gerth offers pretty convincing evidence that the Times engaged in some sloppy reporting. And yet, what I keep coming back to is this paragraph, in which then-Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron defended the press’ performance (or at least the Post’s performance) in a way that perfectly encapsulates what we all saw being reported in real time:

Baron declined to be interviewed but, in an email to me, defended the Post’s coverage, writing that “the evidence showed that Russia intervened in the election, that the Trump campaign was aware of it, welcomed it and never alerted law enforcement or intelligence agencies to it. And reporting showed that Trump sought to impede the investigation into it.”

What about Baron’s statement is wrong? No, botched facts can’t be condoned, and, as I said, Gerth seems to have found plenty of them. But the overall arc of the narrative as described by Baron is exactly what we all saw.

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David Corn, whose reporting for Mother Jones has been a lodestar for anyone following the Trump-Russia connections, wrote an analysis headlined “Columbia Journalism Review’s Big Fail: It Published 24,000 Words on Russiagate and Missed the Point.” Corn, whose mastery of the details matches Gerth’s, accuses Gerth of “misdirection,” writing:

Gerth finds plenty of ammo for his assault on the media. But here’s where he goes wrong: He misrepresents the scandal that is the subject of the media coverage he is scrutinizing. He defines the Trump-Russia affair by only two elements of the tale: the question of Trump collusion with Moscow and the unconfirmed Steele dossier. This is exactly how Trump and his lieutenants want the scandal to be perceived. From the start, Trump has proclaimed “no collusion,” setting that as the bar for judging him. That is, no evidence of criminal collusion, and he’s scot-free. And he and his defenders have fixated on the Steele dossier—often falsely claiming it triggered the FBI’s investigation—to portray Trump as the victim of untrue allegations and “fake news.” Gerth essentially accepts these terms of the debate.

Corn adds: “Trump may have been the victim of occasionally errant reporting. But he was no victim of a hoax or an off-the-rails media witch hunt. He helped an adversary sabotage an American election.”

Once in office, Trump was impeached twice. The first time was for threatening to withhold weapons from Ukraine unless President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would announce that his government was investigating Hunter Biden. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, you may recall, was involved in supporting the previous Russian-backed regime, which had been overthrown by pro-democracy activists several years earlier. You have to wonder what U.S. policy in Ukraine’s war of self-defense against Russia would be today if Trump had defeated Joe Biden in 2020.

Gerth has shown that the press, and especially the Times, was not as careful as it should have been in reporting on Russia Russia Russia. And yes, details matter. But the notion that Trump was a victim of bad reporting with regard to Russia is just nonsense. In the end, Gerth has produced a report that’s all trees, no forest.

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Stomp out clichés and aim for ‘austerity of language’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

If you feel under par, work your fingers to the bone, and know it’s time for a change, click on the Cliché Site to trade tired phrases for compelling images.

That was one of myriad tips from top nonfiction writers last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.

Organized by BU journalism department writer-in-residence Mark Kramer, the conference drew some 400 writers and editors from around the world. They discussed everything from viral content to social justice reporting to humanizing even the worst criminals.

Kramer preached his well-known gospel of “austerity of language: elegant, taut” prose that convinces readers they’re in the hands of an engaging storyteller. “Go on a to be hunt,” he said. “Get rid of whens and as’s. Lose clichés and metaphors.”

Keynote speaker Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor now teaching at Harvard, repeated the good writing mantra: “Show, don’t tell. Collect anecdotes and revealing detail.” She called Gay Talese’s 1966 classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the epitome of the narrative genre.

Abramson had good news and bad news as journalism faces a “rapid riptide of change.” The good: long, ambitious reporting is in high demand. She singled out BuzzFeed’s “wonderful” criminal justice series and former Times colleague Jeff Gerth’s exposé of Hillary Clinton’s private emails as exemplars of excellent coverage delivered over new platforms. Gerth, a two-time Times Pulitzer winner now with ProPublica, co-wrote the March 27 article with Gawker reporter Sam Biddle.

The bad news, according to Abramson: worldwide legal threats to freedom of the press. She noted that a study of corruption in Russia under President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been published in Britain because of fears of legal action.

Abramson sees storytelling platforms consistently shifting, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram giving nonfiction writers new tools and outlets.

One of those is BuzzFeed, where Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer winner at The Village Voice, now leads an investigative unit as the site augments viral content with some 130 domestic and foreign news staffers,

Schoofs said social justice reporting hasn’t changed much since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and others started muckraking powerful institutions more than 100 years ago. As ever, he said, it is based on “the desire to change, to expose a wrong, to have your journalism matter.”

He said these stories may start with “outrage,” but you have to skewer sacred cows if their assertions are incorrect. “You’re not in the tank for any one ideology or group. Test your assumptions versus whatever you see on the ground.”

He loves immersive participatory journalism and stories that have wrongdoing at their heart, calling David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times series on Wal-Mart bribery one of the best in recent years.

Exposing wrongdoing? Fine. But why humanize evil-doers?

Beth Schwartzapfel examines the inner lives of rapists and murderers because “just calling someone a scumbag is lazy, way too easy. He’s a person” and understanding him can be a valuable way to examine what made him do it.

Schwartzapfel is a staff writer with the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice, system; she is also a frequent freelancer. She tries to get beyond obvious good guy/bad guy distinctions, asking what if Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “In Cold Blood” had ignored the killers and concentrated only on their victims.

Profiling a man who’s served more than three decades for a murder he committed as a teenager, she doesn’t gloss over what he did. She includes graphic descriptions of the crimes and always details the victim’s family’s grievous loss.

“Don’t give [inmates] a soapbox,” she said. “Being sympathetic is not being their advocate. Let readers come to their own conclusions” about whether they deserve parole. “Show how they’re human, not how they’ve been wronged. That’s up to the reader to decide. I tell them ‘I see it as my task to make you human.’”

As an example of a profile that goes far beyond the image of a stock villain, she praised Albert Samaha’s Village Voice profile of a New York City detective who framed innocent men to boost his conviction rate.

Some dismiss memoir as an unreliable narrator’s narcissistic ramble through the past. But in “Big Little Man,” Alex Tizon created a highly praised blend of history, memoir and social analysis.

“Many people dismiss memoir as easy, and a lot of the time memoir is just a cheaper form of storytelling — but it doesn’t have to be,” said Tizon, who won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at The Seattle Times. “Report the hell out of your own story,” he advised, having interviewed about 40 people for his book’s exploration of Asian-American masculinity.

To write a memoir, he said, “you have to risk being a fool unless you’re writing public relations. Include the painful parts. I put my siblings at a certain risk — what to leave out? I had to ask, ‘Could I live with this if a sister never spoke to me again?’ The truth is impossible, but my aim is to be as truthful as possible.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.