All the disinformation that’s fit to print

Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, April 26. PHOTO: DAVE SANDERS/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, April 26. PHOTO: DAVE SANDERS/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Will heavy-handed U.S. intelligence spooks re-elect Trump? Will the New York Times help?

We sometimes lose sight of how downright weird so much news reporting has become. Imagine you’re the New York Times. Donald Trump might return to the presidency so you report, as the paper did on April 12, on the “distrust" that exists between him and the U.S. intelligence agencies. But you leave out the part about top Obama intelligence officers going on national TV to call Mr. Trump a Russian agent. You leave out the part about FBI counterintelligence leaders knowingly trafficking in fabricated evidence about him. You leave out the part about 51 former intelligence officials lying to voters to influence an election and help his opponent.

How should we cover Mr. Trump, the Times famously asked on its home page in 2017. The answer might have been “fairly." Don’t lie about him or anyone else. This fogey advice has now evidently given way to the psychology of “splitting," a defense mechanism that involves editing out facts and realities that cause emotional dissonance.

For a Times reader who wants to think the worst of Mr. Trump, after all, it can be painful to realize, yes, Mr. Trump is awful but his enemies did lie about him, intelligence officials did abuse their powers in shocking ways. Times readers aren’t babies, you respond. They can this handle emotional complexity. Difficult truths aren’t going to turn them into MAGA supporters. On top of everything else, you add, a world in which Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and the intelligence agencies are trying to thwart him, is an interesting world.

Exactly. The Times isn’t serving its readers, it’s serving itself. Whatever they say, readers tend to click on comfort food. More to the point, Times reporters and editors have learned they can be thrown overboard by management in any online controversy that erupts over reporting that seems to justify Mr. Trump or suggests less than total fealty to a groupthink worldview.

I saw this social fear at work first when certain conservative commentators panicked over a Trump threat to their insignificant personal “brands," rendering them incapable ever since of commenting objectively or intelligently on the Trump phenomenon.

Hillary Clinton was a victim. In her terror lest she humiliatingly lose to Mr. Trump, she oozed a visible contempt for voters that likely cost her a close election.

I could go on about the well-meaning Ukraine supporters who become Putin-like in their need to believe every unwelcome impulse arising from the U.S. body politic is the product of Russian propaganda. When I call this cowardly, it’s also stupid. Vast emotional and cognitive weight is piled on any cranky or ambiguous ad lib out of Mr. Trump’s mouth. Zero weight is accorded the tens of thousands of hours and billions of dollars of airtime devoted to the collusion hoax, its effect on voters, the painstaking analysis of Yochai Benkler and colleagues at Harvard showing that Russia’s real success came from U.S. partisans exaggerating Russia’s success for their own grubby purposes.

His enemies made Mr. Trump, a novelty act now on his way to becoming a historical figure for good or ill.

The press thought it clever to lie about him. The little Walter Mittys (as I called them after the 2016 election) of the intelligence agencies decided they would punish Americans for how they voted.

Your text here is “The Simpsons," Season 8, Episode 23. Frank Grimes is a coworker so frantic in his insistence that others acknowledge Homer’s laziness and incompetence that he causes his own death.

Whatever happens this fall, we are deluded to think we are done living with the consequences.

Ditto the giant roll of the dice by Democrats in a Manhattan courtroom this week, trying to get more mileage from the six-year-old Stormy Daniels scandal by making it a crime.

Latent but immanent, however it turns out, is the message to voters that Joe Biden has so little to recommend his re-election that he needs a never-ending Trump circus to keep you distracted, confused and disconcerted.

But I thank the Times for its story of April 12 on Mr. Trump and the intelligence agencies, supplying the best example yet of the paper’s impulse to sanitize truths that might cause readers any slight pangs of angst and disquiet. Those pangs once signaled to readers they were in the presence of good reporting about messy reality.

Kierkegaard said such feelings indicate an opportunity for personal growth. Would that the snowflakey types who characterize so much of American journalism in the current era take advantage. Alas, the moment comes too late for many grizzled commentators in their 60s and 70s (see a Politico report about their weekly Zoom call lest they be caught out of step on the latest MSNBC anti-Trump trope).

As terrible as the internet has been for the traditional news industry, even worse is the poor use so many survivors continue to make of the privilege of reporting and commenting on unfolding history.

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