Unexamined Premises

'Schmucks with Underwoods'

In this photo taken Nov. 5, 1996 American real estate mogul Donald Trump, left, checks out sites in Moscow, Russia, for luxury residential towers. (AP Photo/Igor Tabakov)

The first rule of journalism is, as in screenwriting, “show, don’t tell.” It’s no wonder early Hollywood was populated with ex-newspapermen, who took their fastest-typewriters-in-the-West from New York and Chicago to the actual West and hired themselves out as scenarists and, when the talkies came, screenwriters. As Herman Mankiewicz wrote to Ben Hecht: “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” Less appealingly, Jack Warner referred to his hired scribes as “schmucks with Underwoods.”

Today’s journalists are no different in their passion for narrative-spinning. Most of them have forsaken whatever dreams they once had about selling that big spec script for zillions — and in any case there’s almost no market for original specs in Hollywood these days — but they’ve found that they can still make stuff up and get paid for it. Of course, they’re still schmucks.

Case in point is Friday’s one-day wonder, the BuzzFeed “scoop” that Trump told his shyster lawyer, Michael Cohen (a schmuck if there ever was one), to lie to Congress about his alleged dealings on a Trump Tower project in Moscow that never happened. Here’s a taste:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.

And even as Trump told the public he had no business deals with Russia, the sources said Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. received regular, detailed updates about the real estate development from Cohen, whom they put in charge of the project.

Well, that was all the other schmucks with Underwoods needed to hear, as if BuzzFeed — the outlet that first published Christoper Steele’s “Russian dossier” as an in-kind contribution to the Hillary Clinton campaign — had ever evinced any sort of journalistic probity. The typing orangutans in the writers’ rooms temporarily put aside their work on their “Hamlet” rewrites in order to shriek in unison about the inevitability of impeachment. Note the number of aging Boomers who reach back to the journalistic touchstone of their youth, the (non)-impeachment of Richard Nixon. For them, Watergate is forever:

The chorus of howling and poo-flinging lasted most of the day, until the zookeeper — in the case, Robert Mueller’s office — came in to settle things down:

In a rare move, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller has gone on the record to dispute the bombshell BuzzFeed report from Thursday night, which claimed that the special counsel has evidence that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.” — Spokesperson Peter Carr

Citing its own anonymous sources, the Washington Post has a detailed story about Team Mueller’s reaction:

When BuzzFeed published the story hours later, it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression, people familiar with the matter said, in that the reporting alleged that Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and self-described fixer, “told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie,” and that Mueller’s office learned of the directive “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”

In the view of the special counsel’s office, that was wrong, two people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. And with Democrats raising the specter of investigation and impeachment, Mueller’s team started discussing a step they had never before taken: publicly disputing reporting on evidence in their ongoing investigation.

Within 24 hours of the story’s publication, the special counsel’s office issued a statement doing just that. Trump, who has called the media the “enemy of the people,” on Saturday pointed to the special counsel’s assertion as evidence of what he sees as journalists’ bias against him.

As I noted on Twitter:

To which BuzzFeed responded with characteristic boilerplate bravado:

We are continuing to report and determine what the special counsel is disputing. We remain confident in the accuracy of our report.” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote on Twitter: “We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”

To this we’ve come. The “sources” cited in the BuzzFeed story were in fact never cited by name. We were told of, not shown, the allegations against the president and, as usual under the new standard of reporting, instructed that we must trust the dependable reporters whose bylines adorn the tale. But can we? In the case of at least one of the formerly ink-stained wretches, we’d be crazy to do so. Here is part of Jason Leopold‘s resume, from the august Columbia Journalism Review:

We wonder if the folks over at Truthout.org are rethinking their affiliation with reporter and serial fabulist Jason Leopold. Leopold, you may recall, is the freelance reporter who was caught making stuff up in a 2002 Salon.com article, self-admittedly “getting it completely wrong” in pieces for Dow Jones, and had his own memoir cancelled because of concerns over the accuracy of quotations.

Leopold’s latest addition to his application for membership in the Stephen Glass school of journalism came on May 12 of this year, when he got what appeared to be the scoop of a lifetime. Now writing for Truthout.org, Leopold reported that Karl Rove “told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials,” that he was about to be indicted in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, “according to people knowledgeable about these discussions.”

Leopold claimed that multiple sources “confirmed Rove’s indictment is imminent. These individuals requested anonymity saying they were not authorized to speak publicly about Rove’s situation.” Well, today we learned that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he would not seek charges against Rove.

No wonder even the bonobo chimps at CNN refer to his past as “checkered”:

Leopold, a former Los Angeles Times, Dow Jones, and Vice News reporter who has been at BuzzFeed since 2017, was involved in several major scandals that called into question the veracity of his reporting during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In 2002, Salon.com removed a story Leopold had written as a freelancer for the site. Salon said that as it investigated a piece he wrote about Enron, including an allegation of plagiarism against him, Leopold “distributed an account of events” that was “riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.” Ultimately Salon said it “reluctantly had to conclude” Leopold’s piece carried “an instance of plagiarism,” despite his strong denials.

After the scandal, Leopold wrote a book in which he said he had engaged in “lying, cheating, and backstabbing” in his life; battled mental illness; and struggled with substance abuse. “I have a checkered past, and I was hoping that by coming clean about my own past, it would allow me to move forward,” Leopold wrote, according to a 2005 article in The Washington Post.

A 2015 profile of Leopold in The New York Times noted that he has “been through a series of scandals.” But the Times also noted Leopold was able to make a comeback by breaking stories uncovered through the submission of Freedom of Information Act requests. He earned the nickname, featured in his Twitter profile, of the “FOIA terrorist.”

“I love the score,” he told the Times “So maybe there’s this drug-ish thing in me that still exists, maybe that was always part of my personality. I love the score. I love the score! Particularly when it is from the government! I just got you to give me your own documents, you know!”

Leopold joined Vice News in 2014 and in 2017 was hired by BuzzFeed News where he and Cormier have led reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow project.

I know what you’re thinking: how in hell does a guy with this string of disasters behind him get hired by anybody? Ah, but we are in the brave new world of “journalism,” in which any amateur with an axe to grind can get published (or self-published) and dupe a series of employers into helping him polish his “brand.”

The rise of “citizen journalism” I view as, at best, a mixed blessing (it was something that the late Andrew Breitbart and I could never agree on). On the one hand it did bring some fresh perspective into a sclerotic, hierarchical trade. On the other, the standards preached — and, to be fair, largely practiced — by the professional journalists of the period 1950-2010 were strong and needed. “Show, don’t tell,” was one of them, which meant that free-standing assertions without evidence were to be left to the opinion pages (and even then, only sparingly); that the story should unfold as a narrative with evidence on both sides and as much on-the-record detail as possible.

In particular, anonymous sources (the dreaded “anonymice”) were to be shunned in almost every instance. In my long experience in the field — nearly 50 years — far from being fearful whistle-blowers, most sources who request anonymity are simply cowards, back-stabbing rats, or disinformation agents, and it is — was — the reporter’s duty not to let them use his or her publication to settle personal scores. To do so was to be a schmuck.

That’s gone now. Even formerly real newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post (which, however, gave us a “Deep Throat” who turned out to be cranky FBI hack angered at being passed over for promotion) now litter their journalistic cages with droppings from anonymous “sources, often to the exclusion of any other kind.

The reason: the reporters may not be able to write movies, but they damn sure can write Narratives, almost entirely in the service of their beloved Democrat Party. The revolving door between Washington-bureau journalism and Democrat administrations is well-documented and, if and when another Democrat president is elected, no doubt her media spokesfolks will be former reporters and columnists from the MSM. Hey, there are millions to be grabbed and the competition are idiots.

How much better it is to be moving, shaping the Narrative! The media has chosen a side — not that there was ever much doubt about where its red-diaper baby sympathies lie– and now that it’s cast off its old, tired strictures, is merrily spinning tales of the “Resistance” as it tries to rewrite Casablanca (hey, that was my job), starring the Democrats as the Resistance fighters and the Republicans as the Nazis.

The difference between the old streetwise hustler reporters, few if any of whom had a college education, and today’s rum crew is that the latter went to Harvard and the former to the School of Hard Knocks. Those guys wore out shoe leather, knocking on doors, cajoling secretaries, pilfering evidence if they had to, in order to nail down the story:

By contrast, today’s “reporters” pick up the phone, make a few calls, and spin out their movie scenarios — for which they get a paid a fraction of what real screenwriters get for a sold script. It’s as if they’re writing an entire movie in Voice Over, aping the action and the emotions on the screen by means of an unseen narrator: tell (anonymously), don’t show.

Now, who are the real schmucks here?