Margaret Sullivan: The media is helping Trump turn the bogus 'Obamagate' into an issue
Summary: And so, former White House strategist Steve Bannon's cynical political advice manages to gain traction once again: That the best way for Trump to proceed is to constantly distract, to create chaos, to "flood the zone" with nonsensical excrement.
It's becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage. We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.
As you may recall, the news media — from Fox News to the New York Times and plenty of others across the political spectrum —managed to make the relative molehill of Hillary Clinton's dicey email practices into a daily obsession, roughly equal to the mountain of Donald Trump's financial and personal transgressions.
Well, don't look now but this is happening again before our eyes. Its name this time is "Obamagate." That's a moniker that, in President Trump's outraged tweets, is rendered in all capital letters, but let's not.
This vaporous, apparently made-up offense, according to Trump, is the political crime of the century — and, heck, last century too, since he claims that it makes the 1970s Watergate scandal look like child's play.
As best as he's even attempted to spell out, it supposedly involves a deep-state conspiracy by the former president and his allies to undermine Trump by being informed of the identity of the private citizen having covert and legally questionable discussions with the Russian ambassador — a citizen who turned out to be Trump's national security adviser designate Michael Flynn.
Despite the fact that this practice is legal and normal, the non-scandal around it is getting plenty of attention.
On Chris Wallace's Sunday morning interview show — usually an island of relative sanity in the hyper-partisan, pro-Trump world of Fox News — a bottom-of-the-screen chyron read: "Is 'Obamagate' an Effective Campaign Strategy?" And Trump water-carrier Karl Rove was allowed to opine that there were "some very serious questions that need to be answered. . . . It does stink."
Juan Williams, the network's designated left-leaning contrarian, tried to pour water on this nonsense. "There is no Obamagate," he said bluntly, declaring Trump's blather a smokescreen to distract from his disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the conversation about the non-scandal went on for about seven minutes on this popular show at the nation's most-watched cable network.
Nor was it ignored on NBC's "Meet the Press," where host Chuck Todd — while acknowledging the subject's ultimate emptiness — kicked around its potential political fallout for a while with White House correspondent Peter Alexander and others.
And at CBS News, Catherine Herridge has been heavily hyping her updates on the non-story. "SCOOP," she declared on Twitter to herald her story that acting directing of national intelligence Richard Grennell had notified Congress about the great unmasking.
CBS's hiring of Herridge from Fox last year was sharply criticized by progressives who recalled her persistent reporting on the Clinton email debacle and on debunked allegations that the former secretary of state personally approved the diminishment of security at the Benghazi compound in Libya prior to the 2012 attack there.
So let's just say that Obamagate is getting plenty of attention across the media spectrum, even if it's filtered through the lens of whether it will matter to swing-state voters.
"Watching the media pounce on this story like greyhounds chasing mechanical rabbits has been painful, but also deeply familiar," wrote Sean Illig on Vox.
And it's so horribly familiar because we have failed to learn very much, if anything, about how much attention to give exaggerated pseudo-scandals — which in this case should be nothing at all.
It may be that searching deliberations about what went wrong in the 2016 news coverage have taken place behind dozens of newsroom doors. I've heard reports of such post-election discussions, but they seem to have mostly focused on how the media missed the story of economic anxiety and growing anti-elitism in the heartland. This has been remedied by what I like to call the Endless Diner Series: Coastal journalists venturing inland to ask members of Trump's base if they really still like the guy they voted for.
We've left it to scholars at Harvard University and researchers at Columbia Journalism Review to perform the autopsy on our 2016 coverage. "In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton's emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election," CJR calculated.
But did these lofty views in Ivy League publications amount to a public-facing mea culpa by those who erred? Something that might have helped head off a venture like "Obamagate"?
And so, former White House strategist Steve Bannon's cynical political advice manages to gain traction once again: That the best way for Trump to proceed is to constantly distract, to create chaos, to "flood the zone" with nonsensical excrement.
It's already happening.
Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it, as Santayana said. And those who don't admit they messed up? They are far more likely to do it again.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.