The Problem With The Constant Russia ‘Stories’

Another day, another bombshell.

The New York Times published a report this past weekend that Donald Trump Jr. — last seen sitting on a stump in the woods like Kermit the Frog in boot-cut jeans — met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 election season under the auspices of receiving information that could potentially damage the Clinton campaign. Naturally, this report was breathlessly shared on Twitter as “The Story,” the final piece of the puzzle that would finally blow the lid off the Trump-Russia collusion theory and get the ball rolling on impeachment.

It is now Monday; barring a breathtaking display of stupidity on the part of Don Jr. (and I wouldn’t put it past him), the story seems destined to be just the latest in a series of fruitless wish fulfillment exercises. All sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In the months since Trump’s election, a cottage industry of sorts has sprung to life. Those inhabiting this industry traffic in equal parts journalism and hyperbole, facts and hysteria. Take, for example, Louise Mensch, a British former Parliament member who takes any report — substantiated or otherwise — of communication between Trump, his team, and Russians as incontrovertible proof that Trump is guilty of collusion.

Mensch is also known for her wild, bordering-on-insane theories, my favorite of which goes a little something like this:

  • Donald Trump will be impeached as early as next week (it doesn’t matter when she says this; it’s always next week);
  • Mike Pence would take Trump’s place, but because (according to Mensch) he’s been lying to us all along and is also guilty of collusion, he’s out too;
  • Paul Ryan would be next in line, but based on his joke last year that Putin was paying Trump to run for President, it’s clear that Ryan is also involved, which means;
  • Orrin Hatch (!) would become the next President. But, because he’s such a good person and proud American (which is a stretch considering that nobody — liberal or conservative — can stand the guy);
  • Hatch would nominate Hillary Clinton as his VP, then resign, effectively handing the presidency to Hillary.

This is an actual theory that not only exists but is taken seriously by a small ­(but still sizable)  portion of Americans.

Mensch is joined in her crusade to dumb down American political discourse by, among others, Eric “Time For Some Game Theory” Garland, best known for his frantic, late-night Twitter essays. And between them, they have done plenty to foster an instant-gratification, case-closed-let’s-impeach-the-bastard mentality among their devotees. (For a full rundown of liberal conspiracy theories, I strongly recommend Colin Dickey’s piece over at the New Republic.)

But Mensch and Garland aren’t the problem. They are merely a symptom.

The problem is the constant Russia “stories” that are being pushed in the news cycle seemingly on a daily basis. The working theory seems to be that quantity of evidence — regardless of what that evidence signifies — is an acceptable substitute for quality of evidence. Every new report just gets added to the pile, and though it’s tempting to point to this pile of stories as evidence that something is going on, the information is ultimately useless unless it can be supported by hard evidence.

With that said, let’s be clear: the mainstream media is not, as Trump the Elder is fond of saying, “fake news.” Just because the content of a report is presented through a prism that does not align with your worldview does not mean the information contained therein is false. Just because a media outlet relies on anonymous sources does not mean the information they provide is invalid. If you’ll recall, the Watergate story that brought down the Nixon administration was broken wide open by an anonymous source. (Anonymous sources often elect to remain that way either due to fear of retaliation or public shaming, or because they are not permitted to speak on the record as a condition of their employment at a given company.)

I’ve seen a lot of people crowing about CNN’s retracted report as evidence that the media is out to get Donald Trump, which is asinine; just because a media outlet is forced to retract a story does not mean they set out to publish false information. Putting your name on a story that ultimately requires a retraction is a career-threatening offense for a reporter, and no journalist would jeopardize their livelihood for the sake of publishing a false story — especially one that would end up being retracted anyway. In fact, the Scaramucci retraction actually helped Trump by giving him a concrete example of a media outlet being wrong on a report that he will now no doubt use to deflect criticism for the rest of his presidency.

For the most part, the stories that have been published regarding Trump and Russia thus far point to, at worst, startling ineptitude among Trump’s advisors and close associates. There is no smoking gun — not yet, at least.

The steady information drip of new reports is ultimately doing more harm than good, and the current practice of publishing each piece of information, regardless of its significance, is simply not sustainable. Each new story only adds to the complexity of the overall narrative, which makes it exhausting for the average person to follow it all.

It is not enough to simply hand the American people a folder of evidence and let them take from it what they will — that’s how lunatics like Mensch and Garland rose to prominence. Journalistic outlets would be better served holding off on publishing any information until they know exactly how it all fits together and can present a structured, well-thought-out case that is supported by the evidence available. The longer media outlets continue to report every conversation between the Trump camp and any Russian or Russia-adjacent individual as though it’s breaking news, the easier it becomes for the Trump administration to deny and disassemble, and for Trump supporters to roll their eyes and ignore the whole thing.

Media outlets have a responsibility to the American people to pursue potential ties between Trump and Russia, a foreign adversary who unquestionably meddled in our election process. And if Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, we have a right to know. But the more attention we pay to stories that may or may not be relevant, the less impactful it will be when (or if) the last piece of the puzzle is finally unearthed.

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