By elevating Trump’s ‘spying’ claims, reporters continue to mislead their readers

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The Young Turks / YouTube Could George Papadopoulos Bring Trump Down...
The Young Turks / YouTube

The media has learned absolutely nothing from 2016.

New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt has nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, but few will click through to the article underlying the tweet above, and fewer still will read it through. They will see only the tweeted both-sides comparison of an “alarmed” FBI paired equally with the notion that Trump has been given “ammunition” to charge that investigating potentially criminal conduct by members of his campaign amounted to “spying” on it.

The underlying details of the story are not sinister. The FBI learned that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had bragged to a diplomat that he had inside information about a Russian espionage effort aimed at the United States presidential elections. Treating the claim seriously, the FBI sent an undercover agent to investigate Papadopoulos’ claims.

It could have done nothing else. An American citizen was claiming he had prior knowledge of an enormous and dangerous foreign espionage effort aimed at undermining the integrity of U.S. elections. Was it not supposed to investigate? And if an outright claim of collusion between a hostile foreign power and a U.S. campaign member was not sufficient for an investigation, what would be?

Whether the FBI was “alarmed” by Papadopoulos’ claims or considered him from the outset to be a probable crank is unimportant. The agency was obliged, during a probe of ongoing hostile acts against the United States, to follow up on such leads. It did so.

The Trump claim, on the other hand, is that the FBI’s probe of Papadopoulos’ self-claimed ties to Russian espionage amounts to “spying” on the Trump campaign. It asserts that even if Papadopoulos was found to have engaged in such acts, the FBI was attempting a “coup” in investigating to find that out. Like many of the things Trump says, it is self-evidently stupid. It is also obstructive, unpatriotic, and malevolent in intent.

And as such, it requires no sympathetic repetition by reporters who confine themselves to facts. There is no both sides to whether the FBI ought to investigate Americans who claim to be willing beneficiaries of foreign espionage efforts.

A member of the Trump campaign bragged to a foreign diplomat of knowledge of an ongoing espionage effort against a U.S. presidential candidate. The FBI launched—quietly—a counterintelligence investigation to determine if it was true. To give a moment’s credence to the argument that the response by federal investigators was, as Trump may be charging, scandalous misrepresents the truth by a wide margin. It is nonsense. It conveys negative information to readers, making them less knowledgeable about the story than they would have been had you left it out. It is the willing elevation of propaganda.

Enough. Regardless of partisan stance, it should at least be obvious that investigating a campaign adviser who bragged of apparent foreign espionage efforts is an uncontroversial and necessary act. Allowing Trump room to claim otherwise is allowing him to continue to obstruct the espionage investigation by demonizing and retaliating against the agencies tasked with doing the investigating. A neutral journalistic stance would not elevate those claims to equal footing with the facts themselves.

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