The Washington Post exposed a fraud last week, which is not particularly remarkable. But there was something unusual about it.
Leading institutions of the American press sometimes behave as if they soar so high above the antics of partisan buffoons that it’s hardly worth acknowledging their existence, let alone their tactics.
Critics might attribute that posture to a condescending arrogance, and that’s partly true. But it’s the arrogance of an institution that believes not only in the importance of its mission and the righteousness of its values, but also in the unassailable quality of its methods, pursued and refined over decades.
Bias is human. But the effort to police it, and constrain it, is institutional. And the institutional ideal espoused and encouraged and however imperfectly executed at places like the Washington Post is that you survey the battlefield without becoming a combatant.
The Post put more than its methods on display in its handling of a scam run by Project Veritas, an agitprop outfit run by James O'Keefe, a younger and even less principled version of right-wing provocateur Roger Stone.
A woman with connections to Project Veritas contacted a Post reporter and relayed a story of having been raped by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. It was a lie, proffered to entice the Post to publish a false story.
O'Keefe would have then jumped up and down exposing the falsehood. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart – the whole slithering right-wing media serpent – would have cast the story as proof that the Post is nothing but a heap of liberal animus and lies.
It would have been a great leap forward in the right’s epistemological war.
But Post reporters detected ancillary lies that were presented to buttress the central falsehood. Then they did something uncharacteristic. They fought back. They rescinded their vow of confidentiality to the phony source and put the woman on camera and on the front page.
It’s highly doubtful the Post would’ve followed this course without Donald Trump’s presidency. Conservatives have been blasting the mainstream press for half a century, identifying liberal bias in the stories they dislike, while treating investigative stories about liberal wrongdoing as sacred gospel.
But Trump and his allies aren’t content to criticize the professional news media for political advantage. He’s trying to kill it, and belief in the very existence of truth along with it.
In an email exchange, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen (who has also been a target of O'Keefe) cast the Post’s engagement as evidence that Post editor Martin Baron recognizes that Trump’s presidency poses a threat to journalism itself.
That the editors of the Post waived their off-the-record rules to make clear what happened – and explained to their readers why they had to take this extraordinary step – suggests they have concluded that these are not normal times, and that sticking to normal practices won’t do.
Clearly Baron understands that there is a war against the press, against the principle of verification itself, and that it will take everything the Post has to prevail.
Journalism is the art of verification. But there are forces on the march behind verification-in-reverse. That’s when you take facts that have been nailed down and introduce doubt about them. That releases energy – controversy, furor, culture war, backlash – that you use to power a political movement.
Enemies of liberal democracy invariably attempt to use the values of liberal institutions against those institutions.
Fox News founder Roger Ailes wasn’t just cracking a devilish inside joke when he made “Fair and Balanced” the Fox motto. He was undermining the foundation of every journalistic institution that sincerely strived for fairness and balance.
Trump turned his campaign rallies into attacks on the journalists covering them, exposing reporters, who are trained to observe, not fight, into passive targets of the mob, incapable of defending themselves.
Even though plenty has been said and written about the threat of Trumpism, it’s easy to underestimate it. Doesn’t truth always prevail?
It’s also easy to grow hysterical in the face of a demagogic movement for which lies are not only tactical and strategic, but habitual and casual, deployed to overwhelm the system’s capacity for rational discourse.
Finding a balanced, and fair, state of vigilance is difficult; passivity may prove deadly, activism destructive.
The Washington Post got it right. It took journalism down from its pedestal last week and used it as a sword against character assassins who had set out to murder it. It was a modest, necessary measure of self-defense.
This is war.
Francis Wilkinson writes opinions on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. Reach him by email at email@example.com.