Below is my recent column in The Hill Newspaper on the Rice controversy. Media spins for Rice continue including MSNBC “AM Joy” host Joy Reid describing the softball interview with Andrea Mitchell as a type of “Government for Dummies” lecture: “She was on with our own Andrea Mitchell yesterday trying to explain how government works, for those that don’t know.” Of course, unmasking political opponents (if the allegations are proven to be true), would not be how the government is supposed work. Nor is alleged lying about knowing nothing about the unmasking in prior interviews — a curious conflict with Reid’s take that Rice was trying to explain how government works. This was Rice’s second or third explanation.
The controversy occurs after the Washington Post gave Rice a retroactive “Four Pinnochios” for her claim that the Obama Administration got rid of all chemical weapons in Syria. (That is not the first time that Rice has been accused of false statements on national security issues, as discussed below). None of this seems to matter in the coverage of the most recent controversy involving Rice. It appears that Trump is the temptation that many journalists simply cannot resist. It is a Faustian bargain: media is so intent on pursuing Trump that they have lost any sense of their own navigational beacons of objectivity and neutrality.
There is a common expression in the media that there are “some facts too good to check.” It is used in jest to reflect how you sometimes hate to give up a great story for the real facts. That tension was well on display this week as media seemed to tie itself into knots to avoid admitting that there are legitimate questions raised by the “unmasking” allegations surrounding the actions of Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
For weeks, the media has hammered President Trump over his sensational tweets accusing President Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. The media was right to demand proof and to castigate the administration for a less than forthcoming response to the controversy.
Then came the disclosure that Susan Rice had repeatedly asked for the unmasking of the protected identities of Trump associates who were intercepted by American intelligence in the course of lawful surveillance. By any objective measure, that should be a major story. Rice may have an explanation but, at least on its face, it would confirm the interception of Trump aides by the Obama administration.
Instead of acknowledging that this is a serious development, the immediate response of the media was to actively debunk the story and portray it as facially invalid. CNN anchor Chris Cuomo responded to the story with the following: “All right, President Trump, right-wing media types [are] peddling a fake scandal.” CNN anchor Don Lemon called the story a “diversion” and refused to discuss it so “not insult your intelligence.”
In the meantime, NBC had Andrea Mitchell interview Rice. One would think that any interview would begin where Rice had left the controversy just last month in an interview on PBS Newshour. Rice was asked about the allegations of unmasking raised by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and responded with a categorical denial: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today … So today, I really don’t know to what Chairman Nunes was referring. But he said that whatever he was referring to was a legal, lawful surveillance and that it was potentially incidental collection on American citizens.”
It would seem a rather newsworthy place to start, right? Yet, in the segment, Mitchell asked nary a single question on the prior statement. Not one. Instead, she spent time discussing the “politicized” investigation of the House Intelligence Committee and outrage over Trump’s tweets. She never got around to noting that Rice was saying something diametrically at odds to her prior statement on this very controversy.
She was not alone. ABC News ran an interview with Rice and again never mentioned to the viewers that she said the opposite on a national news program just weeks ago.
Instead, the media actively sought to focus on aspects of Rice’s statement that could still be supported. Media insisted that that was no proof that Rice leaked the information. Indeed, Rice said that she has never — ever — leaked anything as a high-ranking government official. If so, she would be in one of the smallest groups of Washington (that could be a difficult question under oath in a future hearing). The threshold question is whether Trump aides were indeed subject to surveillance and were indeed unmasked. Alternatively, the media hit on the fact that such surveillance is legal. Of course, the use of lawful surveillance in an abusive way could still be abusive and, yes, newsworthy.
The media also did not pursue the question of how the unmasked transcripts might have been shared with officials like former National Intelligence chief James Clapper, who also said that he had no knowledge of such unmasking. Clapper and Rice would seem to warrant such added probing. After all, Clapper lied about his knowledge of one of the most massive secret surveillance programs in history and later explained that he simply chose “the least untruthful” answer to give the Senate.
For her part, Rice has been repeatedly criticized for past false statements. The most glaring was her repeated public statements in 2012, that the Benghazi terror attacks were spontaneous responses to a “hateful” Internet video. Later it was shown that the administration already knew the Benghazi attacks were the result of terrorism and unnamed administration officials criticized Rice for misrepresenting the facts. Rice later said that she did “regret that the information I was provided was wrong. That doesn’t make me a liar.” That is correct but it also does not make Rice the most reliable source. So why run a story and not lead (or even mention) a prior conflicting question?
A more serious question is raised by the other ignored aspect of this story. For years, many of us have criticized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows surveillance without meeting the warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The law is filled with nice sounding protections that are practically meaningless. That includes the rule that Americans incidentally intercepted on surveillance of foreign targets must have their identities “masked.”
U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive (Section 18) only allows unmasking of the identity of U.S persons when it is essential to national security. The question is why the identity of Trump aides satisfied this standard if there was no evidence (as has been reported) of collusion. Nevertheless, this intent standard is difficult to violate absent a confession or incriminating statement.
Objectively, a reporter might want to ask Rice how privacy is protected when she can just routinely unmask names without any serious review or need for explanation. That concern would seem particularly great when these are the names of Republican operatives on a campaign criticizing your administration. Indeed, Rice herself was a common target of such criticism by Trump aides.
I happen to share the anger in the media over the treatment of the press by this president. However, journalistic ethics require reporters to transcend such anger and maintain objectivity. It often means acknowledging facts that favor someone who has shown little respect for the press. That is the point of the joke. No matter how much we might prefer blissful ignorance, there are no facts too good to check.
Reporters are now so committed to refuting Trump that they are refuting actual stories. The loss of objectivity in the response to the Rice story reflects a broader problem of the press focusing so hard on Trump that it is losing sight of its own bearings. The irony is that Trump was wrong about the media but many in the media seem to be working hard to prove him right.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.