Russiagate Journalism: Let’s Tell Both Sides This Time

John D. O'Connor | The attorney who revealed Mark Felt as Watergate's Deep Throat

As Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel’s team begins to focus on sitting White House officials, another “gate” beckons for scandal-seeking journalists. But as reporters vie to be the next Bob Woodward, they might be wise to break the mold, and report all the facts, both positively and negatively affecting their desired outcome. Skewing facts or hiding inconvenient ones, as The Washington Post did in Watergate so effectively, will no longer work.

Recent reporting on the much-ballyhooed four-page “Nunes memo” suggests that mainstream media is again headed into the tank. The Republican contention has been that high Justice Department officials were biased for presumed winner Hillary Clinton and against then-candidate Donald Trump. They failed to get a broad FISA warrant against Trump interests in June 2016. After that, only a casual, drunken comment by George Papadopoulos formed the seemingly pretextual basis for opening an investigation on Russian collusion in July 2016. No Republican claimed that the slanted investigation started with the controversial October 2016 FISA warrant, but only that the use of the dodgy Steele dossier to obtain the warrant showed the raging bias of the Justice Department. As in the case of Papadopoulos, the goofy, harmless Carter Page, according to the Republican argument, was but another pretextual basis for seeking vicarious dirt on Trump.

Given these Republican contentions, one would of course expect the strongly anti-Trump New York Times to skewer the Nunes memo in its editorial pages, but not necessarily to be untruthful in its supposedly factual front-page reporting. But here is what passed as its honest recitation of facts:

Notably, the Republican memo does not assert that Mr. Steele’s information was the fountainhead of the broader Russian investigation as many Republicans and conservative media commentators have insinuated.

(“House Republicans Release Secret Memo Accusing Russia Investigators of Bias.” New York Times. February 2, 2018.)

This statement, of course, is blatantly dishonest. No prominent Republican claimed that the October 2016 warrant began the investigation, and, indeed, the memo mentions the inquiry’s Papadopoulos origins. The main Republican argument, rather, appears to be that the use of the dossier reveals the weak and biased basis for the inquiry.

Deep in the middle of the three-page February 3, 2018 print Times treatment, the report buries the key assertion in the Nunes memo:

Andrew G. McCabe, then deputy director of the F.B.I. told the House Intelligence Committee that no surveillance would have been sought without Mr. Steele’s information.

(“G.O.P. Memo Leads to Fresh Jousting on Russia Inquiry.” New York Times. Page 12. February 3, 2018)

Indeed, Rep. Trey Gowdy on February 4, 2018, stated that the warrant could not have been obtained without use of the dossier. But rather than focusing on the implications of this crucial assertion, the article rushes right by it, hastening to add that the dossier “information” was only part of a “larger constellation of compelling evidence,” thus ignoring the key question of the dossier’s criticality: is it true that the warrant would not have been sought without the unverified dossier?

Following this article, the Times reproduced in full the Nunes memo, accompanied by extensive blue-ink footnotes explicating each part of the memo. Except one, of course: the key finding that the warrant would not have been sought without the Steele dossier. For almost three full pages, the Times discusses the memo in seemingly exhaustive detail, omitting only discussion or analysis of the memo’s central conclusion.

And for that matter, the Times ignores any inferences that flow from it. If use of the dossier shows FBI bias, what else has it done to trump up the Russian collusion claim? Crediting the Papadopoulos story is at least one, and attempting the June 2016 Trump FISA surveillance, uncharacteristically denied by the FISC, is likely another. So the “fountainhead” which Republicans would assert for the Russia collusion investigation is not the October 2016 FISA warrant, but, rather the palpable bias of politically motivated, senior Justice Department officials.

When in June 1972, five burglars were arrested breaking into the DNC headquarters in the Watergate office complex, their arraignment was covered by a rookie local crime reporter for the Post, Bob Woodward. The Post’s strong connections within the jail, and Woodward’s strong friendship with the FBI’s No. 2, Mark Felt, gave the paper a head-start and a virtual monopoly on the story. And quite importantly, the country had no scandal machine at the ready, with vigilant talk radio and cable commentators prepared to question the Post’s assertions. Unfortunately, the Post therefore gave into the temptation to use its monopoly to hide inconvenient facts.

For instance, the Post reported that there was no issue of CIA involvement in the burglary, even though it knew better. And although the FBI could discern no political campaign intelligence motive for the burglary, the Post gave the exact opposite impression, concealing what it knew of intimate male-female overhearings. I have previously detailed concrete examples of material concealments at The Daily Caller. (RELATED: Watergate Journalism: The Seeds Of Our Discontent)

Today, as in the Watergate era, there are no major conservative newspapers. But, unlike the Watergate era, there are numerous conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham ready to call the opposition on its dissembling. As a result, no broad Watergate-type consensus will be achieved on the thin tissue of highly slanted reporting. The New York Times, The Washington Post and MSNBC will likely continue to convince elite, educated females on both coasts, an anti-Trump audience, of the salience of their reporting, and win some partisan support. But in the face of down-home, commonsense rebuttal, this selective Watergate-style journalism will work only to divide us even more.

Let’s all try to tell it straight this time, shall we? As the Bible says and Abraham Lincoln repeated: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the co-author of “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” and is a producer of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017), written and directed by Peter Landesman.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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