Aggressive news reporting can be a public service, like when courageous journalists exposed Richard Nixon’s Watergate, the Catholic church’s cover up of the sexual abuse and the U.S. intelligence failures that preceded 9-11.
But breathless, half-baked reporting in times of tumult can also misserve the public, like when The Wall Street Journal retracted a false story that Bill Clinton had been seen in a compromising position with an intern in the White House or when NBC wrongly identified Richard Jewell as the Olympic Park bombing suspect.
This past week, professional journalism offered us several new examples of breathless reporting during the brouhaha over Donald Trump, James Comey and Russia intelligence. At their least, some stories misled the public, and at their worst they outright misinformed.
Here are some examples this week that should cause the media to search whether its current standards are doing enough to ensure the public gets the whole truth. You can review the facts and decide for yourself whether the media shamed itself.
The Rosenstein “Quitting Episode”
The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had “threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey.”
The story cited an unnamed source close to the White House. But it did not have any comment or confirmation from the man who was alleged to have made the threat.
When Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Michelle Macaluso finally caught up to Rosenstein, a funny thing happened. He debunked the story.
“No, I'm not quitting,” he said.
The reporter pressed on: “Did you threaten to quit?”
“No,” Rosenstein said.
The Post did not return a call for comment Friday on whether it stood by its story.
The Comey resources request
The New York Times and several other outlets reported Wednesday that Comey, just before he was fired, had asked the Justice Department’s Rosenstein for more funding and personnel for the Russia intelligence probe. But when Comey’s deputy got to Capitol Hill the next day, he denied there was any need for more resources.
"I believe we have the adequate resources to do it and I know that we have resourced that investigation adequately," FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told lawmakers.
McCabe said the FBI, if it needed more resources, wouldn’t even go to the Justice Department but instead to Congress. ““We don’t typically request resources for an individual case,” he explained.
He even went further to assure Congress that nothing - from resources to political pressure - was interfering in the Russia probe.
“There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date,” McCabe said.
Justice and congressional officials told Circa that that Comey never asked for more money for the probe but may have observed the FBI had to wait a long time for a deputy attorney general to be confirmed and appointed to help oversee the probe from the Justice Department’s side.
But that’s a big factual difference from the original reports.
The New York Times didn't return a call Friday seeking comment on whether it stood by the story.
CNN's claim that Trump “is under investigation”
During the breaking story on Comey Tuesday night, respected CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin declared the FBI director’s firing was a “grotesque abuse of power” and that it was a "political act when the President is under investigation.”
Toobin is entitled to his opinion but he should have the right facts. Numerous sources confirm to Circa that Comey told Congress just last week that Trump is NOT a target of the Russia probe.
In fact there are just a half dozen or less targets right now and none are senior administration officials.
This was affirmed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, who cited Trump’s claim that he was not a target of the probe and added during a hearing Thursday that “I heard nothing (from Comey) that contradicted the president’s statement."
Grassley’s statement was seconded by a top Democrat, “I very much appreciated what you’ve said,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. “And it’s very accurate."
The ex-FBI director himself took issue with any observation his firing this week was illegal or abusive.
“I long believed that a president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all,” Comey wrote in his farewell letter to FBI agents.
Trump isn't even the first president to fire an FBI boss. Bill Clinton has that honor, firing then-FBI Director William Sessions in 1993 over ethical concerns.
CNN’s connection of grand jury subpoenas to Comey’s firing
CNN went live with an exclusive the night Comey was fired, reporting that grand jury subpoenas were issued to associates of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn seeking business records in the Russia case.
But with one slight turn of hand, CNN’s legitimate scoop was crafted to suggest there had been some correlation to Comey’s firing.
“CNN learned of the subpoenas hours before President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey,” the network reported.
I was at a lunch counter at a Baltimore restaurant 48 hours later when some of the customers got into a conversation about Comey’s firing. To a number, each had seen or heard the CNN report and each was left with the impression that Comey was probably fired because he had asked for the grand jury subpoenas and was “getting closer to Trump.”
I chimed in, explaining the grand jury subpoenas were issued a week or more before Comey’s firing and that they were approved by the Justice Department and its U.S. Attorney in eastern Virginia, Dana Boente, because the FBI can’t issue subpoenas on its own.
Boente was appointed by Barack Obama and trusted enough by Trump to temporarily be named acting attorney general earlier this year, I added.
I also explained that Comey had told Congress that Trump is not even a target of the Russia probe, something confirmed by Republicans and Democrats alike.
After those explanations, nearly everyone at the counter had a far different perception about the relevance of CNN’s report.
“So Trump’s Justice Department or its prosecutor could have said no and blocked the probe but didn’t?” one patron, an avowed Democrat, asked rhetorically. “That’s way different than what I thought.”
No one would doubt that the subpoenas were a legitimate story. But its juxtaposition to Comey’s firing - whether intentional or not -- clearly had an impact on the public that doesn’t understand the intricacies of the justice system.
The multitude of media comparisons to Watergate
Countless media outlets from Politico and The New York Times to Mother Jones have suggested the whole Russia scandal is akin to Watergate, right down to Comey’s firing mirroring Nixon’s efforts to axe the special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
There’s just one problem with that. Nixon was the target of the Watergate probe and he was accused of specific crimes.
Right now, Trump isn’t accused of any crimes. In fact, by Comey’s account to Congress, the president isn’t even a target nor are any current senior government officials.
And by countless testimony, including that of Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the probe hasn’t even found any evidence yet to prove criminal collusion between Trump associates and Russia to influence the election.
On the other side, many Fox News pundits suggest that the Obama administration’s unmasking of Trump associate identities in National Security Agency intelligence reports and the leaking of intelligence is a scandal as big as Watergate.
While there’s legitimate concern about the civil liberty implications, there’s not proof yet that any is remotely the type of political espionage that the Watergate break-in amounted to.
That doesn’t mean the Russia probe isn’t a big deal.
It is because it cuts to the integrity of Americans most precious gift of democracy, free and fair elections. And that doesn’t mean the FBI won’t eventually find evidence that implicates higher ups in wrongdoing, on either the Trump or Obama sides of the aisle.
But right now the Watergate comparison lacks too many factual links to merit the comparison to one of the darkest political scandals in American history.
John Solomon, the Chief Operating Officer of Circa, is a lifelong investigative reporter whose three-decades of reporting has spanned many political scandals from Iran-Contra to the Clinton impeachment.