Lawyer Marc Elias has been much in the news lately for his role in funding the Steele dossier, which is a subject of the investigation of Special Counsel John Durham. That investigation just resulted in the indictment of Elias’ former partner at Perkins Coie, Michael Sussman, for lying to federal officials in spreading the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory. Sussman worked with Elias in representing the Clinton campaign. Yet, CNN’s Brian Stelter did a long interview with Elias on how to improve the media without asking him about the investigation or public accusations by reporters that Elias and the Clinton campaign lied to them about their funding of the dossier. It appears that improving the election coverage does not include telling the truth to the media. Instead, Elias objected that the media was not slanted enough toward his work, which he described as “pro-democracy.”
In the interview below, Stelter explores what the media is doing wrong in covering “threats to democracy.” To answer that question Stelter turns to Elias and just accepts that Elias’ work is “pro-democracy” and asks “so what should we be doing differently?”
Elias insisted that the media was not slanted enough in advocating for his type of work:
“For example, any encroachment on the First Amendment right to publish newspapers or curtail the media or to take action against the media is uniformly denounced by the media in absolutist terms. But when it comes to free and fair elections, there tends to be more of a nuanced and sliding scale that the media has.”
Elias called on the media to report with a “pro-democracy slant.” It is an open call for bias and just assumes that Elias’ work is pro-democracy and, by extension, those who oppose his work are anti-democracy. Elias has long benefited from such biased coverage. For example, Elias denounced Republicans for challenging elections while he was challenging elections that resulted in Democratic losses.
Elias was also criticized for what he said about the ability of Georgia voters to fill out simple forms. None of that was relevant to a discussion of how the media covers election issues.
Yet, “slanted” coverage is in vogue.
Reporters have been embracing “advocacy journalism” as the new model for their profession. This movement includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor, Ted Glasser, insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
What was truly incredible is that, on a show dedicated to the media and a segment dedicated to problems on election reporting, Stelter never asked Elias about allegations that he lied to the media about the Clinton campaign funding the Steele dossier.
I previously described news accounts linking the firm and Elias to the dossier scandal:
Throughout the campaign, the Clinton campaign denied any involvement in the creation of the so-called Steele dossier’s allegations of Trump-Russia connections. However, weeks after the election, journalists discovered that the Clinton campaign hid payments for the dossier made to a research firm, Fusion GPS, as “legal fees” among the $5.6 million paid to the campaign’s law firm. New York Times reporter Ken Vogel said at the time that Clinton lawyer Marc Elias, with the law firm of Perkins Coie, denied involvement in the anti-Trump dossier. When Vogel tried to report the story, he said, Elias “pushed back vigorously, saying ‘You (or your sources) are wrong.’” Times reporter Maggie Haberman declared, “Folks involved in funding this lied about it, and with sanctimony, for a year.”
It was not just reporters who asked the Clinton campaign about its role in the Steele dossier. John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, was questioned by Congress and denied categorically any contractual agreement with Fusion GPS. Sitting beside him was Elias, who reportedly said nothing to correct the misleading information given to Congress.
The Washington Post also reported that “Elias drew from funds that both the Clinton campaign and the DNC were paying Perkins Coie.”
The interview itself is an example of the “slant” that is all-too-common in today’s coverage. Stelter agrees that they are witnessing “democratic backsliding” and asks Elias to advise on what the media needs to do to stop it. The viewers would have no way of knowing that Elias is one of the most prominent figures in the Durham investigation or that he has been condemned for his role in the denial of the Clinton campaign’s funding of the dossier before the election.
However, the interview itself was not the answer to Stelter’s question “what should we be doing differently?” Most of the media has been doing this all along by avoiding inconvenient conflicts or allegations in election coverage. Stelter could have actually made news by pressing Elias on the allegations over his past work. Elias should be the subject of election coverage, not the adviser on shaping that coverage. Instead, Stelter chose to reinforce the narrative and avoid the actual news.