Roger L. Simon

Should Journalists Go to Jail for Spreading Russia Lies?

Should Journalists Go to Jail for Spreading Russia Lies?
MSNBC Host Rachel Maddow (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

As a First Amendment maximalist, I am inclined to reply an automatic “no” to my own headline — should journalists go to jail for spreading Russia lies? But a penalty of some kind, indeed a serious one, should certainly be levied for misinforming the public on the most important subject of our day, which has happened repeatedly over the last few years concerning the Russia probe. And when these prevarications can be shown to have been deliberate, to have been done knowingly, difficult as that may be to prove, the line to sedition may have been crossed and there is an argument the reporters involved should face legal consequences. They should also be fired.

Unfortunately, because reporting is an occupation with no official standards like law or medicine, no professional organizations to disbar them, and because, as A. J. Liebling wrote long ago, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” with media operations like CNN and NBC often encouraging those very lies, this is unlikely to happen.

Nevertheless. as Kimberly Strassel indicated in “For Fear of William Barr: The attorney general gets attacked because his probe endangers many powerful people,” heads of those who instigated the Russia probe are likely soon to roll. Shouldn’t members of the press who gave them voice be more than unindicted co-conspirators?

Who was indeed culpable when David Corn of Mother Jones and Michael Isikoff of, not to mention the jejune character from BuzzFeed, were given access to and then promulgated the Steele dossier — a document that, from what we now know, might as well have had “DISINFORMATION” stamped in red on the front page with “Made in the Kremlin” printed not-so-discretely at the bottom. They are intelligent men. Didn’t they realize this?

Of course, they did. Or at least they suspected it. But the ends (the defeat of the orange man) justified the means (helping release this disinfo to the public and spread the lies). Did they do this deliberately? Are they guilty of sedition? Decide for yourselves. (Isikoff later recanted and called the dossier dubious, undoubtedly to avoid having his reputation further besmirched. After the Mueller report was published, he had no choice.)

Interesting in all the discussion of this dossier that went on to infect the Mueller investigation for years is that many of its details almost certainly could have been disproven by the NSA and the CIA in a matter of hours, considering the vast technological reach of those intelligence agencies. Maybe it was. If so, that would make the entire investigation some kind of twisted American version of Kafka’s The Trial, with the president as a most unlikely Joseph K. “Witch hunt” would be an understatement.

In the end, Corn and Isikoff have shown themselves to be nothing short of propagandists who actually did collude with Russia, doing Putin’s work for him by sowing suspicion across the country and dividing Americans. But they are far from alone in their perfidy. Many of the major media organizations and their reporters lied about Russia collusion on a regular basis, even, in the cases of the New York Times and the Washington Post, winning Pulitzers for their deceptions.

This evolved out of what we might call a “systemic folie á deux,” a corrupt alliance between the (almost always anonymous) leaker with an ax to grind and the leakee (i. e. the reporter) who is all too eager to grind that ax. A search for the leakers, who are in legal jeopardy, is putatively underway by the DOJ, but, although it obviously takes two for this pernicious tango, the leakees seem bound to get off scot-free.

Unjust? Of course, it is. And not so deep down, the media outlets know this. I was not the only person to think the NYT was engaged in CYA when it reported (finally admitted) the other day there was indeed actual “spying” being done on the Trump campaign. The paper has done that before, reported bad or inconvenient news in advance, aware that revelations to come may not be flattering to their work.

We can all recall the brouhaha set off two-plus years ago when Trump first complained he was being wiretapped, how that word was endlessly parsed and ridiculed by our supposed guardians of truth in the media. All the time it was obviously true, just as the president’s imprecations of “fake news,” rough-hewn though they may have been, were entirely accurate. Such language, it turns out, was needed to get our attention.

Will these journalists have learned a lesson and change their habits? Not likely. For the most part, they are moral narcissists, primed to feel confident of the righteousness of their cause even when faced with countervailing reality. And in any case, to change would lead to personality disintegration, loss of friends and family and, worse, being fired by the profiteers who run their companies. That’s the way of the media world today.

Time for the rest of us to learn new ways of getting our news, if we already haven’t. And we probably have. Will those sources too be biased? Of course. All news is. It’s written by humans. But at least it won’t be criminal — or seditious.

Roger L. Simon – co-founder and CEO emeritus of PJ Media — is an author and screenwriter. His new novel — THE GOAT — will be published shortly.