Keep Watching the News, But Be Very Skeptical of Everything You Are Told
It took a few years of police work to turn me into a discerning consumer of news. My family had subscribed to the Los Angeles Times as I grew up, a practice I continued as I went off to college and later joined the Los Angeles Police Department. The paper’s left-of-center leanings didn’t much concern me at the time as I, after coming of age in the days of Watergate and President Nixon’s downfall, and after being indoctrinated at a Jesuit high school and in college, shared many of these same leanings.
Then I became a cop, a job that offered an unequaled view of the many ways liberal politicians infantilize and enfeeble the very people they purport to help. It was on this Road to Damascus journey that I also learned to read and watch the news with a critical eye. I was working in South Central L.A. in a time of escalating gang violence, and even as it reached horrific levels it was largely ignored by the Los Angeles Times and other local media. And when crime was covered, it was most often in a way that made the police seem at least as responsible as the criminals for what ailed the city.
This was especially so in the Los Angeles Times, whose reporters and editors – even its editorial cartoonist – seemed to harbor a grudge against the police in general, the LAPD in particular, and police chief Daryl Gates most of all. I found that as I read the Times’s stories about the LAPD, the facts were invariably presented in a light that was more favorable to police critics than the police themselves. If any nuance was implied, the benefit of the doubt was always given to the crooks, never to the cops. This was most obvious to me when I read stories about incidents in which I had been involved. I once watched a Times reporter working through the crowd that had gathered after a racially charged incident in South Central L.A. Though I was within earshot as she interviewed people who expressed reasonable opinions on what had happened, when the story appeared the next day it was the loudest, most obnoxious, and most ignorant voice in the crowd who was quoted. The story itself wasn’t false, or “fake news” in today’s parlance, but it was incomplete, presenting only one version of events when others had been given to the reporter. This could only have been by design.
It has been with this experience in mind that I have read newspapers and watched television news ever since. In the frothing media maelstrom that now surrounds the Trump administration, it is important to maintain a certain level of skepticism. A reader taking in a story about the president in any major newspaper would be wise to imagine a prologue at the outset, one that goes something like this:
The story you are about to read was written and edited by people who a) voted for Hillary Clinton, b) think Donald Trump is a menace, and c) are appalled that 63 million of their fellow citizens – all those ignorant rustics out there in the howling wilderness between Beverly Hills and the Hudson River – could have so abased themselves as to choose Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton. Furthermore, these same reporters and editors go about their daily lives with no contact with anyone who might have a different opinion, and if they were to encounter one by accident they would run shrieking from the room. Every one of these people hope to be their own era’s Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein and be remembered as the journalist who saved America and the world from Donald Trump. And finally, these aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins have ready access to what seems to be an endless supply of aspiring Deep Throats, anonymous “administration sources” equally desirous of seeing President Trump impeached, jailed, or otherwise rendered impotent.
Which brings us to the latest (at least as of this writing) media revelation of something certain to doom the Trump presidency—the “Comey memo.” Perhaps like you, I first heard of the memo on radio and television, where it was breathlessly described as “devastating” and “extremely serious” and in other similarly grave terms. “The president obstructed justice,” we were told. “This may finish him.”
And then I read the New York Times’s story on the matter, after which I said, “That’s it?” As reported by the New York Times, now-former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo on a meeting he had with the president, who, we are told, urged Mr. Comey to drop the inquiry into Michael Flynn’s foreign ties. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump allegedly told Mr. Comey. Keep in mind that the Times reporter, Michael Schmidt, had not himself seen the memo, but relied on portions of it that were read to him over the telephone by an anonymous source.
So, we have a portion of a memo we have not seen and whose entire contents is unknown, being read over the phone by a person we do not know. From this we are to conclude the president should be impeached. Count me among the unpersuaded.
To start with, absent the larger context of the complete memo, if it indeed exists, it’s impossible to determine how damning it truly is. Did the president attach any conditions to his expressed hope for an end to the Flynn investigation? Did he say, for example, “If the evidence doesn’t pan out, I hope you can let this go”? Or did he say, “No matter how much dirt you have on Flynn, I hope you can let it go”? Judging from the way the New York Times (and almost everyone else) has covered the Trump administration, my suspicion is that the quote was isolated precisely for its inflammatory implications, but that when viewed in its full context the memo will amount to little.
But now to the larger point: By firing James Comey, did President Trump hope to end the Flynn investigation and any other FBI inquiries into his administration’s ties to Russia? If so, he’ll be disappointed. I can’t claim to have much inside knowledge of the FBI, but over the years I have worked with some agents on joint investigations. Based on this admittedly limited knowledge, I find it inconceivable that the investigation would shut down based on Mr. Comey’s ouster. If anything, the tempo and aggressiveness of the investigation would only increase, as the involved agents would be all the more eager to demonstrate their independence from political considerations.
So, the investigation will indeed continue, but now under the direction of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And with the continuing investigation will come all the leaks and rumor-mongering to which we are growing so wearily accustomed. Let us hope that Mr. Mueller can uncover the facts and let justice be done quickly.
In the meantime, Mr. Trump might enjoy any number of successes that will be overlooked in favor of the latest “explosive revelation.” Mr. Trump could simplify the tax code, he could bring peace to the Middle East, he could cure cancer, he could part the Red Sea, and the front-page, above-the-fold story in the New York Times would still be about how he failed to rewind a Blockbuster video in 1983.
Keep watching the news, gentle readers, but be skeptical of what you are told.