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25 September 2018

The US media played itself over Rosenstein

The over-hasty reports that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had resigned play into the hands of those stoking distrust of the media.

In the middle of the morning DC-time, Axios’ Jonathan Swan – one of the best-sourced and highly-rated reporters on the Trump White House – exclusively reported that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had “verbally resigned” to White House chief of staff John Kelly.

Rosenstein’s resignation or firing would be seismic news, with the potential to set off a huge chain reaction. Following attorney general Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself, Rosenstein is the man responsible for ultimately overseeing the Mueller probe into allegations of collusion against Donald Trump and his associates – a probe that has so far resulted in eight guilty pleas and one conviction.

Trump has regularly tweeted furiously about the Mueller probe, calling it a witch hunt, and has reportedly privately considered on multiple occasions firing either or both Mueller and Rosenstein. Recent reports in the New York Times that Rosenstein pondered “wearing a wire” while meeting the president – which other outlets have claimed were intended as a joke – have solidified that pressure.

As such, Rosenstein’s departure would be huge news that could alter the path of the presidency and bring about a clash between Trump and Congress. The problem with Swan’s scoop is that at the time of writing, it appears to have been wrong.

We still don’t have a good picture of what actually happened, but Swan himself has conceded he “screwed up by giving it a certainty it didn’t warrant”. Axios walked back its headline to a claim that Rosenstein had “offered” his resignation, which is distinct from actually resigning, while other outlets claimed Rosenstein had “considered” resigning, but had not ever actually offered one up.

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As the dust settled, what emerged was that Rosenstein had a routine call with the President, and was seeking a face-to-face meeting with him, which has been scheduled for Thursday. It could still be the case that he will resign or be fired, but it hasn’t happened yet, and we could still see neither happen.

Given Swan’s (well-deserved) reputation, pretty much every other major US outlet wrote up his story, usually with some reporting of their own – leading to a confusing morning where anyone googling the story would see up to five directly contradictory lines on what turned out to be a non-story.

Ever since the launch of rolling news channels, people have griped about their detrimental effect on the news and on public trust. This particular saga fits into that long-running pattern: if TV shows were waiting for a broadcast, and papers were waiting for their evening print run, this story would never have run – or would have run as a small item about a potential showdown on Thursday. There would have been no pressure for a minute-by-minute scoop.

That’s a long-running cultural clash, and one that’s largely pointless: we’re not about to move back to that world, so there’s no point in romanticising it, or in being overly nostalgic about it.

That said, we should think about what the culture of insider scoops does to those who don’t follow the news as obsessively as news journalists. Insiders and reporters who follow every minute will understand that yesterday’s excitement wasn’t fake news, or even by its own standards bad reporting – lots of people honestly reported what their credible sources told them.

But most of the worst journalism comes from honestly reporting what credible sources say, as – at the most serious level – reporting in the run-up of the Iraq war showed on a grand scale.

And anyone who doesn’t know how reporting and the source game works quite so closely won’t be so generously minded towards the media: to them, it just looks like we collectively got this wrong. When this story breaks, it will be huge, and could lead to a legal and constitutional crisis – for which a lot of the public will want to mobilise. Reporting too early like this is the journalistic equivalent of crying wolf, and will damage trust even among those sympathetic to the media.

There are, however, millions of Americans not remotely sympathetic to the media, and they are being egged on by the White House and the president’s regular cries of “fake news”. Despite this not being “fake news” in reality, it will be effortless for Republican commentators and Donald Trump himself to shape it as such, and make it much easier to be ignored.

Scoops are the currency of journalism, and will remain so – but there is a difference between reporting a story that otherwise won’t see the light of day, versus reporting a story everyone will have three minutes before a rival. It’s the latter that leads to farragoes like Monday’s, and it’s those that play into the hands of those wanting to undermine journalism.

The US media played themselves, and they will keep doing so until they get used to the new rules of the game. That doesn’t look likely anytime soon.

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