On Monday morning, conflicting reports began surfacing regarding the fate of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Trump appointee currently overseeing the Mueller investigation.
Jonathan Swan of Axios broke the news that Rosenstein had “verbally resigned” to Chief of Staff John Kelly. Soon thereafter, Kaitlin Collins at CNN reported that a “senior official” had confirmed the news.
When pressed on if she was confident of her sourcing, given the high volume of conflicting reports, Collins said that she was sure Rosenstein had “offered to resign” to Kelly. This key distinction set off a separate stream of criticism and Swan later addressed his mistake of “giving it a certainty it didn’t warrant.”
For the next two hours, Washington and the news media were in complete disarray as reporters scrambled to determine if Rosenstein was actually out and if he had been fired or had resigned. The chaos came right after a terrible day for the Trump administration when two new “credible accusations” of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh surfaced the night before.
Finally, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement saying that Rosenstein had spoken with President Trump and that the two would have a meeting on Thursday, the same day Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh are scheduled to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The sheer confusion being transmitted by the media raises some serious questions about the nature of these leaks. In a matter of minutes, all media coverage shifted from Kavanaugh’s imperiled nomination to the bombshell reporting on Rosenstein – something the White House would have been acutely aware of.
Remember famous incident where Sessions offered to resign after Trump berated him. Then dragged back into White House from his SUV by Pence, Priebus, etc. Resignation eventually was not accepted. Just a reminder that it's often fluid/crazy with this White House.
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) September 24, 2018
Soon after Sanders released her statement, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman’s report cited “a source briefed on Trump’s thinking” who said Trump had decided firing Rosenstein was explosive enough to distract from the Kavanaugh situation. According to Sherman’s source, “the strategy was to try and do something really big.”
Sherman was essentially implying Swan had been used by the administration for political purposes and that the entire media “caught the bait,” and pursued a non-story. For his part, Swan hit back with a vociferous denial and implied Sherman’s source was Steve Bannon.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that this entire situation stemmed in large part from last week’s report in the New York Times that Rosenstein had privately suggested wearing a wire to record Trump and had discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th amendment in May 2017.
The story was met with considerable skepticism as the Washington Post and ABC News both broke follow up stories that partially disputed the Times’ claims. The Post cited sources present at a May 16th meeting who said Rosenstein suggested wearing a wire sarcastically. ABC News cited a secondary source who wasn’t in the meeting but said officials in the meeting generally viewed Rosenstein’s comments as sarcastic.
The main question remained: if Andrew McCabe, then Acting Director of the FBI, understood Rosenstein’s suggestion as sarcastic. It was McCabe who memorialized discussions from that meeting and in the Times’ reporting the paper cited secondary sources who were familiar with the memos in question.
The issue at hand is whether or not such a monumental story could rest on the accuracy and weight of secondary sources. In defense of the story, Matt Purdy, deputy managing editor at the Times, said that the stories published by the Post and ABC News “support our story, not debunk it;” however, it is unclear how that is the case.
In light of the Times’ story, some have renewed debates over whether the paper made the right decision in eliminating its public editor position in May 2017. At the time, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the public editor’s role had become outdated and cited social media as a powerful new venue for readers to engage with the paper and serve as watchdogs. After eliminating the public editor position, the Times created its Reader Center, which would be responsible for “responding directly to readers, explaining coverage decisions and inviting readers to contribute their voices.”
It is worth noting that the Times provided readers with an opportunity to ask questions about the reporting behind its Rosenstein story; however, these questions and the answers readers received are not published for the public to view.
In comments made to MediaFile, Jay Rosen, associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University said the backlash to the Times’ story illustrated “what a bad decision it was to get rid of the public editor,” and said a public editor was “badly needed.”
Rosen said he understands that some criticism of the Times includes “‘out there’ reactions from readers,” including “assertion[s] that the Times is ‘taking orders’ from above, or executing on some narrow political agenda like re-electing Trump,” and that such feedback can be “exasperating” for journalists.
However, he continued, “[other] readers also have much more nuanced questions, especially about the use of confidential sources and how we are supposed to trust them.”
After breaking the story, one of the reporters, Michael Schmidt, spoke with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner about the reporting process and sourcing involved. Chotiner asked several questions about the heavy use of secondary sources, and to his credit, Schmidt gave thoughtful and detailed responses while simultaneously acknowledging why readers found the story troubling.
Still, if the Times is explaining its complicated sourcing in interviews with other journalists, that begs the question: why not simply reinstate the public editor?
One of the reasons the Times has received so much backlash for this story is because of its potential danger to our democratic norms. Axios has said Trump has privately discussed wanting to fire Rosenstein for months and, today, the Washington Post reported that Rosenstein is now unlikely to resign or be fired after the upcoming midterm elections in November.
Either way, if Rosenstein leaves his post, a constitutional crisis may very well ensue.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon the media to carefully source and consider its stories.