A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
If it weren't for the much-derided "mainstream media," Americans would be ignorant of some of this year's most consequential stories about our new president.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the issue more clearly than Monday evening when one of the most devastating stories about President Trump lit the Internet and cable news ablaze. At CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, and nearly every other news channel, the message was simple: several well-sourced members of Trump's administration have told The Washington Post that Trump divulged classified intel to Russian diplomats.
But on Fox News, at Breitbart News and basically every other openly right-wing publication, the story was almost entirely absent from view. Instead, members of the far-right media were (still) criticizing Hillary Clinton and peddling conspiracy theories about a deceased DNC staffer named Seth Rich.
As I've written before, it's worth noting that Fox News, the most-watched news channel in the country, and Breitbart News, one of the most trafficked news websites in the country, are both — by definition — mainstream. Also, turn onto any other news channel, and you'll notice that there's a wide range of opinions getting airtime, regardless of whether they're left- or right-leaning.
And yet, Breitbart, Fox News and almost every other right-wing media outlet seem far more interested in criticizing the so-called mainstream media than criticizing our government, which is what should be their focus. Instead, this meta self-loathing of "everyone but us is wrong" pollutes the airwaves with hatred for real journalism and leaves the press as one of the least trusted institutions in the country.
So, where does it get us? When a story as consequential as the president divulging classified info to a foreign adversary breaks, this is what those right-wing news organizations were discussing.
This screenshot was taken at the same time as those above, approximately two hours after the story broke.
Sean Hannity, one of the most watched anchors on Fox News now that Bill O'Reilly has left the network amid scandal, did a segment on the "propaganda media," how the White House should limit questions at press briefings to those the administration pre-selects, and claimed that news networks devote themselves to conspiracy theories.
And yet, there was nothing conspiratorial about The Washington Post report. In fact, almost every well-sourced news organization in the country confirmed it, including The New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, and Reuters. Even Erick Erickson, a CNN contributor and staunch conservative who supports Trump, wrote a piece saying he "knew the source" of The Washington Post story and was incredibly disturbed by it.
"What sets this story apart for me, at least, is that I know one of the sources," Erickson wrote. "And the source is solidly supportive of President Trump, or at least has been and was during Campaign 2016… I am told that what the president did is actually far worse than what is being reported."
Then, of course, there's General H.R. McMaster. Now the National Security Advisor, McMaster was only recruited for the position after The Washington Post had another bombshell report a few months back that disgraced General Mike Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian diplomats and had even discussed lifting economic sanctions on Russia before Trump took office. The news sent shockwaves through the intelligence community and forced Flynn out, who — had the media investigated— would be serving as a National Security Advisor today, while potentially compromised.
When McMaster took the podium to defend Trump, he repeatedly refused to deny the central claim of the report — that Trump had divulged sensitive classified information — while also claiming what he did was "wholly appropriate" and calling the news story "as reported" false. When he took questions, he confirmed that Homeland Security Advisor Thomas Bossert reached out to the CIA and NSA to do damage control, admitted that Trump disclosed a location of which there was intelligence on, but nevertheless insisted the story — which reported exactly these facts — was somehow untrue.
Naturally, Fox News seized on the general's words:
It also seems worth noting that the story Fox News and Breitbart focused on instead, that former DNC staffer Seth Rich had contact with Wikileaks before his mysterious death, was categorically denied by Rich's family, who said through a representative "there is a special place in hell for people" for people who are peddling that conspiracy. In other words, Hannity — who also amplified rumors about former President Obama's birthplace and religious devotion — is guilty of exactly what he accused the mainstream media of doing.
The truth is, the media is not deserving of the hatred from the right or the American public. Yes, television news can be sensationalist and plays to what they know gets views. Of course, online publications play to what they know will click well. But ultimately, whether we tune in or click is up to us — we are the ones who decide what goes viral and what shows are highly rated. By clicking and tuning in, we inform them on what we care about. And what they should make more of.
So many stories once declared "fake news" by armchair media critics like Fox and Breitbart, were in fact well-sourced and well-reported. In the end, the truth won out. Ivanka's now an official member of the president's staff. Flynn met with Russian diplomats, although he said he didn't. And who was behind those stories? Who sourced them and informed the public? Those familiar mainstream media names: The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and so on.