This week Steve Inskeep and Carrie Johnson at NPR interviewed former FBI director James Comey. For later airplay, NPR redacted much of what was interesting about the interview.
Inskeep asked: “What would you say was your greatest concern when it became clear to you that the email case was going to at some point come down to a decision by you?”
My greatest concern towards the end of that email investigation — it lasted about a year — towards the end was how does the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, credibly close this investigation without charges and maximize public confidence that it was done in a just way. If it ends without charges. Because by the spring, if it continued on the same course and speed it was on, it looked to me like it was going to end without charges. And the credibility of the institution is important even in ordinary times. But all the more so when you’re investigating one of the two candidates for president of the United States. How are you able to maintain public confidence that you’re not a partisan, it’s not the Obama Justice Department trying to give a break to Hillary Clinton.
Comey’s concern isn’t the truth. His concern is that his organization—and subsequently, he—remain credible.
And to him, credibility means not appearing partisan.
The idea that we should try to please both “sides” no matter how conspiratorial one side is can corrupt organizations and people from doing what’s right into doing what is “politically correct.”
From the interview, here’s more on how Comey’s view influenced his decisions and, more importantly, how propaganda networks like Fox News work to influence people into trying to be fair to conspiracy theorists.
Steve Inskeep, to his credit, did a great job on following up in response to Comey’s answer about his concern. First, he asked about what Comey would have done if it were a normal investigation, if he weren’t so worried about the public perception of the FBI.
In the ordinary case, we would most likely in writing prepare some sort of summary of what our investigation had determined and then send it over to the Justice Department, and they would in the ordinary case either say nothing, which is the most common case, or at most issue a letter to the target saying, or the subject saying it’s over, or some minimal statement about it.
Instead, the FBI and Justice Department changed their process in order to try to appear non-partisan. Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, said she would accept the recommendation of the FBI. James Comey then tried to show transparency in his decisions. Instead of doing things in the normal way, he announced the recommendations publicly.
Inskeep then follows up with a brilliant question:
You were hoping to demonstrate that the FBI was above political influence. Did you, in your course of action actually allow yourself to be politically influenced? Because you write first that you were concerned about criticism — essentially conspiracy theorizing — about the FBI, from Republicans that President Obama’s candidate for president would be cut a break. Later on you talk about this meeting between the Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Clinton. And you say you had no thought that there was any conspiracy there, but after it became a big thing on cable TV, it changed your mind. Were you actually being influenced by cable TV pundits in what you decided to do?
Inskeep points out how conspiracy theories have seemed to influence Comey. Comey responded that this wasn’t the case:
Yeah, that’s a reasonable question, Steve. I don’t think so, and here’s why I say that: Even if cable TV punditry had never been born and there were no such thing, there would be intense public interest in a criminal investigation of one of the two candidates for president of the United States. So even if there weren’t wings in our politics, which there always have been, but even if there wasn’t that punditry, I think it would be an intense interest in knowing that this had been done in an honest, competent, independent way. And a number of things that occurred in the lead-up to that first week in July that led me to conclude, and reasonable people can disagree about this, but led me conclude that the best way to foster that confidence of an intensely interested public was to show transparency and do it separate from the attorney general.
Yet Comey has already admitted that what really matters is the perception of appearing non-partisan.
He’s admitted that he has to give equal time to the conspiracy theories, no matter how ridiculous or conspiratorial.
This is how conservative propaganda works. It starts with the idea that there are two “sides” and that what is important is giving equal time to both sides.
Following the evidence and making evidence-based decisions is no longer “fair and balanced.”
Lock her up
I talk to a lot of conservatives. There are very few things that conservatives hate more than Hillary and Bill Clinton. Even before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they put together elaborate conspiratorial lists of the people the Clintons have supposedly had killed. During the 2016 campaign, I often heard her demonized as Killary and we all saw the chanting “lock her up” crowds at Trump rallies.
When talking to folks like this, there aren’t many ways to appear non-partisan. The minute you don’t buy the conspiracy, you become part of the conspiracy. This is how the FBI, always a friend of liberals (said sarcastically), suddenly became part of the “liberal deep state.”
Isn’t it part of the danger we face when our institutions care more about trying to appease conspiracy theorists than about the truth?
We’ve seen this in our news as it has changed over the years from ideas about evidence-based objective journalism to the idea that there is nothing but opinions from two “sides.” This is the Fox News idea of “balanced,” where news is nothing more than opinions from two sides.
When one side is presenting little more than conspiracy theories, maybe the best way to appear objective is to ignore the conspiracy theorists.