The Ukraine Scandal Isn’t Just Bad for Trump — It’s an Indictment of the Media

How quickly we’ve forgotten the lessons of 2016

Photo credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

In the span of just a week, Trump’s dealings with Ukraine have consumed our entire political discourse, and we’re bound to spend weeks if not months hearing reporters and members of Congress discuss the minute-by-minute exchanges between this administration and other parties involved. This myopic investigation is necessary, but it carries the risk — much like the reporting over Mueller’s findings — of normalizing Trump’s wrong-doings. Worse, it’s revealed the way the media’s impulses have scarcely changed since contributing to the political climate that allowed Trump to ascend to the White House. What’s needed in addition to fact-finding is a big picture view of where this story came from, what it represents, and how the media’s nearsighted ignorance threatens to cause a repeat of the 2016 election.

In 2016, Steve Bannon commissioned Peter Schweizer to essentially concoct a scandal about Hillary Clinton, the result being Clinton Cash, a New York Times bestseller and subsequent film. The Times covered the claims made in his book as a typical “both sides” story without adequately explaining that there was no evidence supporting its assertions of corruption — which has since been exhaustively investigated by Congress with the same conclusion. By the time the paper corrected for it, online right-wing propaganda figureheads were already sharing the article relentlessly — from a source as seemingly reputable as the Times — in order to bring attention to the story from a wider audience. And thus the Uranium One and Clinton Foundation “scandal” was born.

Last year Banon and Schweizer did the same thing, this time targeting the Bidens with an understanding that Joe was likely to be Trump’s challenger. Breitbart is now circulating its claims as fact, and New York Times reporters are again framing the story as a potential conflict of interest for Biden. It didn’t take long for the Washington Post to follow suit.

Members of the Trump administration work with figures in the right-wing propaganda complex like Fox News by sharing talking points and spreading disinformation, and they’ve been readying this one in preparation for an ugly reelection campaign. To create the appearance of a legitimate scandal backing up the allegations, Trump ordered a hold on bipartisan millitary aid to Ukraine just after its new president came into office, then pressured him into opening an investigation into the Bidens — knowing full well that if that happened, Fox News would open fire with wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal as a deal breaker for Biden and to bring him down as a candidate that the public generally trusts. It’s not a stretch to guess that future “breakthroughs” or leaks would come at pivotal moments throughout the election year. In 2016, the Trump campaign worked with Wikileaks to release hacked DNC emails just before the Democratic Convention. Hillary then entered the general election race a bruised and weakened candidate from day one, constantly on the defense and forced to address her emails or corruption allegations at each debate. Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have played Trump’s point-man in coordinating the Ukraine scandal, played a very similar role in 2016.

This carefully constructed campaign strategy two years in the making was only undone because of one whistleblower within the administration, and explains why the administration went to such (illegal) lengths to try to stop the complaint from reaching Congress. Nothing about the plan was inventive or original — it’s almost step-by-step a repeat of the guerilla campaign launched to bring down Hillary Clinton’s once broad and bipartisan appeal, which translated into poll numbers that showed her beating Trump at every turn. There is no figure in American politics whose position is as analogous as Joe Biden is right now.

What’s unfortunate is that up until the whistleblower’s report, the media seemed to be following the story in the same exact way they handled the emails and Uranium One, giving Breitbart the same appearance of legitimacy needed to spread their message beyond their narrow band of fervent white nationalists.

Let’s remember that most voters don’t and can’t be expected to follow the intricate details of stories like this closely. But enough coverage of a candidate’s appearance of corruption — even if every article put out for publication explains that the allegations therein are unsubstantiated — is enough to push an otherwise decent voter into cynicism and to stay home or vote for the other side. When someone is accused of a misdeed, and that allegation is given credence, the logical side of our brains run secondary to the trusting, emotional side; as long as you’re in a defensive position, you carry the appearance of guilt, regardless of the facts.

Figures like Steve Bannon lacking commitment to the truth know they have the upper hand in this environment. If someone starts a fire, the media is sure to chase the inferno, only stopping to question who the arsonist is long after your home has burnt down to its foundation. Publications like the New York Times frame breaking stories through a filter of both sides equivalency because the veil of neutrality offers them journalistic credibility, and CNN does so because it invites conflict and ratings-driven profit. Either way, it’s a failure to confront how this administration transparently manipulates the way we consume information needed to make well informed decisions in our elections. This isn’t a condemnation of the countless number of journalists in newsrooms across the country who do honorable, grueling work every day. It’s an indictment of the system in which they exist, which fails them just as well as us.

Our current media landscape isn’t built to protect our democracy from those wishing to subvert it and elevate authoritarian voices, and it’s unlikely to play a positive role in the coming year. There is, however, an alternative to this failing model, if we’re brave enough to pursue it. In the meantime, it’s time to hold members of this administration accountable for its crimes and put this era of flagrant gaslighting and corruption behind us.

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