The Maddening Coverage of the Mar-a-Lago Search

From CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop:

“GARLAND VOWED TO DEPOLITICIZE JUSTICE. Then the FBI raided Trump’s safe.” That was how the Washington Post chose to headline a story on Tuesday, one day after federal law enforcement searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in apparent connection with classified documents that he took with him when he left the White House. The top of the Post’s story noted that “supporters” of Merrick Garland, the current attorney general, said he would try to “rebuild trust” after the “tumultuous” Trump years by convincing “the public and lawmakers” that he is “apolitical”—“but” that the search had landed him “square in the middle of a huge political firestorm,” drawing “praise from Democrats who have been hoping the Justice Department would seriously investigate Trump and the ire of conservatives who decried the search as an abuse of power.” Two expert sources quoted further down characterized Garland’s conduct as appropriate, but a third said the Justice Department’s reputation would suffer if it didn’t yield blockbuster evidence. “Part of it depends on what happens hereafter,” they said.

“The search of former President Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is a high-risk gamble by the Justice Department, but Mr. Trump faces risks of his own.” That was the subheading on a “news analysis” piece that the New York Times published about the search, also on Tuesday. The gamble, the top of the piece explained, is whether the search will “stand up to accusations that the Justice Department is pursuing a political vendetta” against a political opponent; the piece noted in the following paragraph that Trump’s own “demonization” of federal law enforcement during his time as president has made Garland’s task more sensitive, but then characterized Garland as having put his department’s “credibility on the line.” “If the search for classified documents does not end up producing significant evidence of a crime,” the piece continued, “the event could be relegated by history to serve as another example of a move against Mr. Trump that backfired.” The piece then assessed what the risks for Trump might be. In its sixth paragraph, it noted that “a number of historians” viewed the search as appropriate.

These two stories—and, in particular, the headline on the first and subheading on the second—quickly drew the ire of media critics: the former for insinuating that the search was, as the media professor Jay Rosen put it, “unduly politicized” and that Garland had thus U-turned on a commitment not to be unduly political; the latter for equating the risks faced by Garland and Trump when the latter is the one under investigation, and for neglecting, as Rosen also put it, to consider the risk to the country should Trump be suspected of wrongdoing but allowed to escape consequences.

These were just two articles of many, of course, both at their own papers and across the wider media landscape. But the criticism seemed to reflect a much broader frustration with the sweep of coverage as a whole since the search. (The NYT Pitchbot Twitter account, which has shot to viral fame by satirizing lame headlines in the Times and elsewhere, has been working overtime.) That coverage has been voluminous, and, as always when that’s the case, generalizing about it is perilous. We’ve seen some smart analysis of the stakes of the search, and reporting that has sought to expand our understanding of how it went down. Newsweek, for instance, reported yesterday that a confidential FBI source tipped agents off as to where Trump was keeping classified materials. The Wall Street Journal later confirmed this.

Still, there remains a whole lot that we don’t know about the search, including very basic facts like what the searchers were looking for—and critics of the coverage are, I think, ultimately right to say that the resulting vacuum has been filled with a lot of noise that has been unhelpful at best, destructive at worst. The latter characterization, of course, applies principally to right-wing coverage of the search, which has veered from the risibly hyperbolic to the outright dangerous to the intensely hypocritical. (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah juxtaposed footage of the Mar-a-Lago search with Fox News commentary from 2016 excoriating Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified documents.) Mainstream coverage has obviously met a higher bar than that—but it has sometimes amplified these right-wing talking points, and we’ve seen other flaws, too. CNN’s Brian Lowry noted that the search was a new example of an old problem: “how to handle a story that’s impossible to ignore in the hours of time to fill, but lacking more detail, equally hard to advance.” He was referring specifically to cable news. But the problem hasn’t stopped there.

Let’s start with the aforementioned amplification of right-wing talking points, which haven’t been limited to right-wing media figures: Republican politicians (including some who tend to be held up as paragons of reason by mainstream outlets) have more or less united in defending Trump and excoriating the FBI, with many of them throwing around incendiary references to “the Third World” and the Nazis, suggesting that the FBI may have planted evidence, pledging to investigate Garland, and warning that “if the FBI can raid a US President, imagine what they can do to you.” (This was apparently not meant as an accurate summary of the rule of law.) This reaction was newsworthy, particularly given its breadth and extremity, and some coverage put it in context: one Post story referred to “top Republicans” echoing “evidence-free” claims; another to “thinly veiled calls for violence.” But major outletsincluding the Post—sometimes just relayed quotes, an exercise that bordered on he said/she said“stenography,” as the academic Jeremy Littau put it, allowing “bad actors to frame what’s going on when details are at their most scant.” The latter point, again, is important. Whatever else you think about top Republicans’ rhetoric around the search, it’s undeniable that it was based on minimal factual information—unless they think any investigation of Trump is inherently illegitimate, a position that itself demands close unpacking.

Worse than stenography, no little coverage of the search overtly treated it as a story about the 2024 presidential election, often concluding that it is rebounding to Trump’s political benefit. The broader 2024 framing—while generally premature, horse-racey, and annoying, as I wrote on Mondayis, in this instance, substantively relevant, at least in part: it says something about a political party, after all, when a search of its standard-bearer’s home in a well-documented criminal matter only solidifies his support. In practice, though, 2024 chatter around the search has often been, well, premature, horse-racey, and annoying. Reuters said that the search “arguably placed Trump in his political sweet spot”; after Trump-backed candidates won midterm primaries on Tuesday, Politico actually published the line: “Election deniers had a good night. So did women. But the week belongs to Trump.” Even on its own terms, such commentary is nonsense—because, again, we don’t know much about the search. If Trump were to end up in prison because of it, that would be, in Beltway-media parlance, a crushing blow to his 2024 aspirations.

The lack of actual information here has not only led to errors in framing what the search means, but also in framing whose faultthe lack of information is in the first place. A narrative has developed, including in the press, that Garland’s silence on the search (the Justice Department and FBI still haven’t commented, to this point) is untenable, and that he’ll need to say something to plug the informational hole to stop Trump and his allies from exploiting it. As I’ve written of other ongoing investigations involving Trump, it’s legitimate for journalists to ask the Justice Department for more transparency and clarity in the public interest. But there are limits to what officials can properly say—and, if they stay quiet, it’s irresponsible for the press to respond by letting the loudest voices flood the void and calling that Garland’s fault. Most pertinently here, Trump himself could easily help us learn much more about the search by releasing the warrant and saying what the FBI took. No little coverage has noted this fact—but it hasn’t been uniformly prominent, which is hard to justify when Trump is instead trying to fill the news cycle with wild, unevidenced claims. The Post and Times stories on Garland’s “gamble” that I cited above don’t even mention that Trump has the proof.

Ultimately, all of the above—the furious right-wing response, the 2024 chatter, the analysis of Garland’s risk—is rooted not just in an absence of evidence but in the person at the center of the story actively withholding that evidence so he can shape the narrative in a way that’s favorable to him. Again, no few astute articles have pointed out the absurdity and danger in this, but no few is not enough—by now, anyone covering politics in the US, or who is just alive on Earth, should know what Trump’s narrative tricks are. Sure, Trump being searched is new, and the apparent fact that it’s over his handling of records is surprising. But major newsrooms have had months to prepare for the general scenario of federal law enforcement criminally probing Trump, the profound democratic questions that this would trigger, and the cravenness with which far-right voices were always likely to respond. Those newsrooms could have thought seriously about how best to cover that. Perhaps they did. But the evidence from this week’s coverage is mixed at best. Too much of it has been reactive, speculative, trivial, or naïve.

After facing criticism yesterday, the Post changed its initial headline—“Garland vowed to depoliticize Justice. Then the FBI raided Trump’s safe”—at least once. It now reads: “FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago lands Merrick Garland in a political firestorm”; on Google, it displays as: “For Garland, FBI search of Trump property makes it hard to avoid political fray.” The updates constitute an improvement in that they don’t implicitly accuse Garland of politicizing the rule of law. But they’re far from perfect, resting on DC clichés—“political firestorm”; “political fray”—that are worn and passive, offering no insight into who might have started the fire or frayed democracy. This might seem pedantic, but headlines, and language more broadly, matter. How we frame political developments is always a choice, even if we think we’re neutrally writing down conventional wisdom or just things that people are saying. One choice available to us, of course, is to say, “Let’s just wait and see.” It all depends on what happens hereafter.

More on the search and democracy:

  • Mole in one?: The Newsweek and Journal stories, and another in Axios, about a source guiding the FBI to classified materials at Mar-a-Lago have heightened fears in Trumpworld that it has a mole. Trump is “wondering if his phones are tapped, or even if one of his buddies could be ‘wearing a wire,’” Rolling Stone’s Asawin Suebsaeng wrote yesterday. “One Trump adviser tells Rolling Stone that since Tuesday, MAGA loyalists have been asking to pass their suspicions to Trump, telling him not to trust certain individuals and to investigate them for possible contacts with federal authorities.”
  • Schorsch-sided: Before Trump himself said on Monday night that his home had been searched, the news was broken on Twitter by Peter Schorsch, a former political operative who now runs a site called Florida Politics. A contact of Schorsch’s texted him to say he had a “Yyyyyuuuuugggggeeeee scoop,” then chitchatted with him for twenty minutes before delivering the goods, the Post’s Elahe Izadi reports. After that, Schorsch “essentially gave the news away,” Izadi writes, tweeting it out with the admission that, “TBH, Im not a strong enough reporter to hunt this down.” His approach stood “in stark contrast to the norms of a hyperventilating digital political news environment.”
  • Fifth hole: Trump’s present legal jeopardy, of course, doesn’t stop at his records management. Yesterday, he was deposed by Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, in a civil case concerning his business dealings, reportedly confirming only his name before asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than four hundred times. As many journalists were quick to point out, Trump has previously ridiculed people who take the Fifth. “The mob takes the Fifth,” he said in 2016, of aides to Hillary Clinton. “If you’re innocent why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”
  • Albatross: According to Michael Scherer, Ashley Parker, and Tyler Pager, of the Post, President Biden sat last week for “a nearly two-hour private history lesson from a group of academics.” The conversation unfolded “as a sort of Socratic dialogue between the commander in chief and a select group of scholars, who painted the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance,” the Post reports. The participants included Jon Meacham, Anne Applebaum (who writes for The Atlantic), Sean Wilentz, Allida Black, and Michael Beschloss (who is NBC’s presidential historian).

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