Rachael Maddow is Journalism’s Poster Child for 2019

“We start tonight’s show with an urgent warning: the nation is in danger, things are moving fast. Following some of the worst journalism since the McCarthy era during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, we said we would not do it again. We not only did it again with Russiagate, we did it worse. I’m Rachel Maddow, and I’m responsible for much of it. Stick around, there’s more.”

Though she doesn’t often bring it up these days, Rachael remembers the media abetted the Bush administration’s lies justifying the 2003 Iraq invasion. They spent months serving as stenographers for the push to war, reporting every carefully-crafted leak without question. They pushed skeptics aside as disloyal, and spiked stories which would have raised questions about the narrative. When they got caught they pleaded never again.

Yet with Rachel Maddow as their poster child (nominations were also considered for the entire staff at CNN, David Corn, Luke Harding, Chris Hayes, and hundreds more) journalists over the last two years did everything wrong their predecessors did in 2003.

They treated gossip as fact because it came from a “source” and told us to just trust them. They blurred the lines among first-hand knowledge, second/third-hand hearsay, and “people familiar with the matter” to build breaking news out of manure. They marginalized skeptics as “useful idiots” (Glenn Greenwald, who called bull on Russiagate from the beginning, says MSNBC banned him after he criticized Rachel Maddow. He’d been a regular during the Bush and Obama years.)

They accepted negative information at face value and discarded information which did not fit their prewritten narrative of collusion (WaPo never ran a story about how its reporters came up dead empty after working for months to prove Michael Cohen met with Russian agents in Prague.) They went all-in with salacious headlines, every story a sugar high. They purposefully muddled the impact of an indictment versus an actual conviction. They conflated anyone from Russia with the Russian government. They never paused to ask why there weren’t “Sources: Trump is Innocent” stories that later needed to be walked back; the errors were somehow all on one side of the story. They became a machine as trustworthy as the politicians they relied on.

Though the wars across the Middle East the media helped midwife are beyond sin, the damage to journalism itself is far worse this time around over Russiagate. With Maddow in the lead, the media went a step further than just shoddy reporting, instead proudly declaring their partisanship (once the cardinal sin of journalism) and placing themselves at the center of the story. In one critic’s words “In purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.”

So there was Maddow, night after night in front of her serial killer’s burlap board, Trump and Putin surrounded by blurry images of Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, she running twine between pins so her viewers could keep up with her racing intellect. Anyone with a Russiany surname “had ties to Putin,” “connections to Russian intelligence,” or was at least an oligarch. She nurtured an unashamed crush on Deep State clowns the Rachel Maddow of a few years back would have smirked at — Brennan, Clapper, Comey — to feed her fake facts.

She ignored or downplayed other news (Maddow devoted over 50% of her airtime to Russiagate alone. The Muslim visa ban got less than 6%.) She worked to convince Americans the cornerstone of justice was not “innocent until proven guilty” but “if there’s smoke there’s fire.” She lead journalists in knowingly publishing material whose veracity they doubted, centering on the Steele dossier. There’s gobs from every corner of the media. But it was Maddow who pressed the most extreme version of the Russiagate narrative.

Maddow became Infowars. She moved beyond the simpleton advocacy journalism of Bush-lie peddling journo tools. Maddow was going to save the country. She sought to create a story out of whole cloth that matched her own political beliefs and then convince people it was true. And it was all justified because the fate of the Republic itself hung in the balance; any day Trump might peel off a rubber mask Scooby-do style to reveal he was Putin all along.

Held aloft over the years by the incantation “just wait for Mueller Time,” one day it all fell apart. The Mueller report summary was short, but answered the most important question ever asked about a president: Trump was not a Russian asset. There was no Russiagate. No conspiracy, collusion, cooperation, or indictments for any of that and none to come and none sealed we don’t know about, no treason or perjury charges over the Moscow hotel or the Trump Tower meeting or anything else. The accusations were as explicit as was the conclusion: It. Did. Not Happen.

The great progressive hope — America was run by a Russian stooge — was over and done. Maddow’s response? Break another cardinal rule of journalism, and bury the lede. OK, sure Barr says Mueller says no collusion if you wanna believe that, but what matters now is after Robert Mueller did not find evidence of obstruction he could charge, and the FBI before him did not find any, and after Bill Barr confirmed he did not find it, Maddow knows obstruction took place. And if only she can see the full Mueller report, she will explain it all to you (Maddow is promoting a “day of action” for Americans to take to the streets and demand the report.) It wasn’t the Russians; it was old man Barr in the drawing room with the candlestick after all! Trump is guilty of failing to obstruct an investigation which cleared him!

In the interim while ticks tock Maddow hacks up little blobs of political phlegm — after waiting two years for Mueller, two weeks for Barr to release the report is unconscionable. But two days for Barr to write the summary was too fast, proof the fix was in. Trump threatens the rule of law, but when the system works according to the law and the Attorney General makes a lawful decision, it’s all an insidejobcoverupcrisis.

A big focus this week for Maddow was a foreign government-owned company resisting an old Mueller subpoena. The case is in front of a grand jury, so the public does not know what company it is, what government is involved, what the case itself concerns, or whether it has any connection to Trump, Russia, or the Spiders from Mars. But listening to Maddow spin it all out, it seems VERY BIG.

Over the course of a recent evening she tied what she dubbed The Mystery Case into Watergate (the case being heard in the same court used in 1974 was about the only connection) and because the Watergate judge released some grand jury testimony to help drive Nixon from office this bodes ill for Trump keeping the dirt Rachael just knows is there secret. It could break this wide open!

The whole oral manifesto was delivered Howard Beale-like in what seemed like one long breath, with the certainty of someone who sees ghosts and is frustrated you can’t see them too. It got so bad recently Maddow was being corrected by her own producers in real-time.

More after this commercial break. And don’t go away, there’s too much at stake.

It took the New York Times over a year after the Iraq war started to issue itself a mild “mistakes were made” kind of rebuke. At some point with Russiagate many people will come to understand there aren’t more questions than answers. They’ll abandon the straw man of waiting for prosecutors to issue a magic Certificate of Exoneration because they understand prosecutors end things by deciding not to prosecute.

But it’s hard to see Maddow returning to earth orbit. Instead of a reflective pause, she is spinning ever-more complex and nonsensical conspiracy tales, talking faster and faster to cover the gaps in logic. It is sad, but there are psychiatric terms for people who refuse to accept facts, and insist they alone understand a world you can’t even see. Delusion. Denial. Psychosis. Obsession. Paranoia.

Maddow is a sad story. Others playing the game never had her intellect, and just fed the rubes for clicks (looking at you, Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo.) They were weekend Vichy, showbiz grifters. But Maddow believed. Rachel Maddow’s goal was to end the Trump presidency on her own. And to do so she devolved from what Glenn Greenwald called “this really smart, independent thinker into this utterly scripted, intellectually dishonest, partisan hack.”

There’s a difference between being wrong once in a while (and issuing corrections) and being wrong for two years on both the core point as well as the evidence. There is even more wrong with purposely manipulating information to drive a specific narrative, believing the end justifies the means.

In journalism school, the first is called making a mistake. The second, Maddow’s offense, is called making propaganda.

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

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Peter Van Buren

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People