Carl Bernstein still carries lots of street cred in journalism, so forgive his mixed metaphors in pursuit of truth.
He spoke Sunday of the escalating attacks by amateur President Donald Trump and his right-wing media goons against the FBI, the Justice Department, and most legitimate American news outlets.
“We are in a hothouse, cold civil war,” Bernstein told Brian Stelter on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
Bernstein added that “attacking the press” is a basic element of “too many demagogues” and that “the best obtainable version of the truth is not necessarily about neutrality. It is about sorting through information and presenting what the facts and context are.”
Bernstein was just one highly charged element of a notably sharp R.S. episode that included harsh commentary by a tart-tongued conservative Alabama talk show host and criticism from journalist David Frum that CNN is too fair—that’s right, “too fair”—to Trump.
Stelter also detailed several minor mistakes in recent reporting by CNN and others that have allowed Trump and his Fox News Channel friends to cry “Fake News!” about anything reported that Trump doesn’t like regarding Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump gang.
So much of the conversation with Bernstein concerned why Trump and so many around him constantly tell lies.
“There is a cover-up going on in the White House,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein and Bob Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize more than 40 years ago for reporting the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The current investigation by special counsel Mueller could lead to something similar for Trump.
Trump, his family members and his closest aides are being investigated for, among other things, contacts with agents of Russia, who tried—successfully, with espionage—to tilt the 2016 election away from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and in favor of the red necktie-wearing, word-slurring, increasingly menacing, sex-assault-bragging, large, loud, filthy-rich, 71-year-old, orange-faced, yellow-haired Republican demagogue.
Among Trump’s allies is Fox News Channel commentator Jeanine Pirro, a Trump friend and unofficial advisor who backed Trump with a scalding commentary on her Saturday night show.
Stelter, who tries to present differing views, played much of her tirade demanding a political purge of the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies.
“There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice, it needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired but who need to be taken out in handcuffs,” Pirro said. “The stench coming out of the Justice Department and the FBI is like that of a third-world country.”
Bernstein said Fox commentators are not open to truth.
“(They) seem to be oblivious to the serial lying of the President of the United States and members of his family and those on his staff and those in the Trump organization,” Bernstein said. “…Why is he lying? These same commentators at Fox—and elsewhere—ought to be asking. It doesn’t mean that necessarily he ought to be impeached.”
By attacking the media and the Mueller probe, Bernstein said, Trump allies divert attention away from the dirty deeds of the Trump gang.
“Everyone’s conduct, except those under investigation, is suspect,” Bernstein said in reference to Trumpist logic. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. But we also are not living in a logical time.”
Disagreeing with Bernstein—a little—was Frum, who said it is “fundamentally misleading” to think the Trump case has two equal sides. Frum compared the difference between actual facts reported by media and the alternative facts of the Trumpists to the difference between astronomy and astrology.
He said the “worst mistake” of the media is its “overzealous effort to be fair to the president.” Accurate coverage of Trump, Frum said, is very different from neutral coverage.
“How do you fairly report the fact that the president lies all the time and that he recruits people to work for him who lie all the time?” Frum asked.
He faulted CNN for hiring right-wing Trump defenders as network commentators “to promote Trump’s falsehoods, not from Trump headquarters or not from the White House but with CNN’s own brand on them.”
Earlier, Stelter presented a lead segment about Tuesday’s special election in Alabama for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Trump is supporting Roy Moore, an accused child molester and proven crackpot ex-judge. He is the pistol-wielding, cowboy hat-wearing Republican running against Democrat Doug Jones in this deeply red Confederate state.
Stelter gave much time to Dale Jackson, a conservative talk-radio host from Alabama with a big chip on his shoulder. Jackson knows how to distort, deflect and distract away from allegations that Moore liked to put his hands and who knows what else on teenage girls as young as 14 years old when he was as old at 32.
Therefore, Jackson explained, citizens supporting Moore and Alabama’s Dixo-American cultural heritage are offended by outside agitators from the national news media coming into their fair state to tell them what to do.
“People don’t trust you guys and the reason they don’t trust you is because you are constantly telling them they are wrong, they are stupid, they are racist,” Jackson said. “And then they’re saying ‘Hey, listen to us, you wrong, stupid and racist people.’”
Of course, he cited no media that called Alabamians “wrong, stupid and racist” in the case of Moore.
But the media certainly did report that Moore liked to chase jail bait and a lot of folks down there knew it and it was not just one time and that he is anti-Muslim and anti-gay and defiant of the federal government and still has a good chance of winning because Alabama is filled with evangelical Christians who just love that crotch-grabbing Mr. Trump.
The dialogue’s intellectual level went up when Frum said occasional mistakes by the media show why the public should trust the media.
Unlike Fox and the echo chamber of talk radio, the responsible media outlets identify, admit and correct their mistakes from the first draft of history. But their day-to-day challenge remains hard.
“The people trying to find the truth are operating against bad-faith actors engaged in concealment,” Frum said. “The liars then complain about the mistakes.”
Bernstein recalled that he and Woodward made “a huge mistake in Watergate” on an incremental story by misreporting grand jury testimony.
Overall, however, most of their work checked out and so did Tricky Dick.
Bernstein wondered aloud if they would have been fired under current anti-press conditions. He said the mainstream media makes far fewer mistakes than major institutions like Wall Street and Congress.
“We, indeed, are in the business of trying not to make errors,” Bernstein said.
Joe Lapointe spent 20 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times and worked as a segment producer for Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Recently, he has taught journalism at New York University, Rutgers and Long Island University-Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @joelapointe