Former CNN White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski declared on Twitter last week that American journalists would “never expect … Your own govt to lie to you, repeatedly” and “Your own govt to hide information the public has a right to know.” Kosinski denounced “Trump’s unAmerican regime” and declared, “No one should accept this.” Kosinski’s comments epitomize the “Trump-washing” of American history that explains much of the media’s rage, hypocrisy, and follies in the last five years.
Kosinski’s mindset also helps explain why Americans’ trust in the media has collapsed. Kosinski spent years as CNN’s State Department correspondent, but her inside sources apparently never mentioned to her how she was helping them con the world. As history professor Leo Ribuffo observed in 1998, “Presidents have lied so much to us about foreign policy that they’ve established almost a common-law right to do so.” In 1965, Arthur Sylvester, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, berated a group of war correspondents in Saigon: “Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? Stupid.”
A few weeks before the 9/11 attacks, New York Times columnist Flora Lewis wrote that “there will probably never be a return to the … collusion with which the media used to treat presidents, and it is just as well.” But the toppling of the World Trade Center towers made the media more craven than at any time since Vietnam. The media’s shameless deference was one of the most underreported stories of the Iraq War. Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung admitted in 2004: “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.” PBS’s Bill Moyers noted that “of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.” Jim Lehrer, the host of government-subsidized PBS’s NewsHour, explained his timidity in 2004: “It would have been difficult to have had debates [about invading Iraq] … you’d have had to have gone against the grain.” Lehrer explained why he and other premier journalists seemed clueless on Iraq: “The word ‘occupation,’ keep in mind, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was ‘liberation’…. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.” The elite journalists looked only where government told them to look. Former president George W. Bush’s lying America into a ruinous war has not deterred liberal media outlets from rehabilitating him as the “good Republican” in contrast to Trump.
Kowtowing is the high road to media stardom. A leak from the White House, like a touch from a saint, can instantly heal a reporter’s lame career. For many journalists, “access” is more important than truth. In DC, there is more cachet in snaring exclusive interviews with policymakers than in exposing official wrongdoing. Being invited into the inner sanctums is “close enough for government work” to learning what the feds are actually doing. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed, “The [George W.] Bush administration has made brilliant use of journalistic careerism. Those who wrote puff pieces about Mr. Bush and those around him have been rewarded with career-boosting access.” Knowing when to be sycophantic is as vital to career advancement as recognizing which fork to use at a Georgetown dinner party.
Is the problem that journalists don’t know history or that journalists don’t know how to read—or both? Kosinski’s assertion that American journalists would “never expect their own govt to hide information the public has a right to know” is astounding on both scores. The federal government is creating trillions of pages of new secrets every year. The more documents bureaucrats classify, the more lies politicians can tell. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has become mostly a mirage. (FOIA is never mentioned in Kosinski’s Twitter feed.) After she was appointed secretary of state, Hillary Clinton effectively exempted herself from FOIA, setting up a private server to handle her official email. The State Department ignored seventeen FOIA requests for her emails prior to 2014. Prior to the 2016 election, the State Department claimed it needed seventy-five years to fully answer a FOIA request on Hillary Clinton’s aides’ emails—thereby protecting Hillary from revelations that could have hurt her with voters.
Perhaps Kosinski is unaware that the Trump-era secrecy she denounced flourished mightily thanks to the beloved Obama administration. In 2011, Obama’s Justice Department formally proposed to permit federal agencies to falsely claim that documents that Americans requested via FOIA did not exist. The Obama White House crippled FOIA responses by adding a new requirement for all federal agencies to permit the White House to review and potentially veto releases of requested FOIA documents that had “White House equities”—i.e., anything that might make the Obama administration look bad. A 2016 congressional report noted that many journalists had abandoned “the FOIA request as a tool because delays and redactions made the request process wholly useless for reporting.” My own experience, stretching back thirty years, is that federal agencies routinely presume that anyone who has publicly criticized their programs forfeits his rights under FOIA.
Kosinski never tweeted about the role of the “state secrets” doctrine in permitting the Justice Department to shroud torture, war crimes, and illegal surveillance. The state secrets doctrine presumes “government knows best, and no one else is entitled to know.” The George W. Bush administration routinely invoked “state secrets” to seek “blanket dismissal of every case challenging the constitutionality of specific, ongoing government programs,” according to a study by the Constitution Project. A federal appeals court slammed the Obama administration’s use of “state secrets” for presuming that “the judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and the limits of the law.” Last month, the Biden administration joined the torture secrecy hall of shame by urging a court to dismiss a lawsuit brought by an American citizen who claimed he had been tortured in Egypt, because the alleged torturer had diplomatic immunity because he works for the International Monetary Fund. (I thought the IMF was only entitled to torture economies.) As the legal fate of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and John Kiriakou illustrates, telling the truth is the only war crime now recognized by the US government.
Kosinski’s assertions exemplify the new media storyline that Americans should respect Washington again now that Biden is president. But Leviathan doesn’t turn over a new leaf merely because a different hand swears an oath of office on the Bible. Lies are political weapons of mass destruction, obliterating all limits on government power. The more powerful government becomes, the more atrocities it commits and the more lies it must tell. But we can’t trust the press corps to expose any abuses that might imperil invitations to fancy receptions.
As I warned in a 2018 op-ed in The Hill, “Perhaps the biggest whopper in Washington nowadays is the assumption that the government and the political class will automatically be trustworthy once the Trump era ends…. There will still be a thousand precedents for federal coverups and duplicity. And neither political party nor the bureaucracy has shown any itch to cease deceiving the American people.” But I doubt that Kosinski read that piece or anything else that some government official didn’t hand her on a silver platter.