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How the Media Rewards Bad Faith

Late on Monday we learned that President Trump has stubbornly resisted staff efforts to secure his smartphones, leaving his cameras and microphones vulnerable to bugging, and turning his lengthy evening gab sessions with friends and former aides into broadcasts for the world’s intelligence services.

It has been airbrushed out of popular lore, replaced with gauzy platitudes about populism, but the 2016 election turned to a comical degree on a fabricated consensus among Republicans and the political media that strict adherence to information security protocols was a central qualification for the presidency. Specifically, Republicans pretended to believe Hillary Clinton had committed a disqualifying and imprisonable crime by using a personal email server to do work when she was secretary of state, and reporters pretended to believe that these infosec concerns were offered up in good faith.

The notion that Republicans didn’t actually care about infosec practices, and that reporters knew they didn’t care, isn’t just bitter gloss on bygone reporting decisions. It is a fact reporters themselves have let on in their collective response to serial Trump-era infosec lapses. It is so taken for granted in the halls of power that Republicans don’t actually care about this issue, and never did, that nobody even bothers to ask them to square their hair-on-fire behavior in 2016 with their insouciance today. Two years ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly and publicly requested that Clinton be stripped of her security clearance because of her email practices. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Trump phone-breach story broke, he held a routine Capitol briefing for reporters and fielded zero questions about it.

Trump’s laziness has probably left the country’s secrets more vulnerable to capture by hostile powers than Clinton’s email server, which was more secure than Trump’s phone and contained none of the codeword intelligence Trump has nonchalantly shared with senior Russian officials, the authoritarian president of the Philippines, and others. To the extent that Trump—an inveterate crook and philanderer—keeps blackmail material on his phone, his insistence on using easily hacked equipment creates further risk to the national security.

Nevertheless, it is arguably reasonable of reporters to tuck this scandal under other, larger ones. Trump’s administration teems with corruption. He is at the center of a federal criminal investigation which looks more and more every day like an effort to ascertain whether he and his aides sold out the country’s foreign policy to a consortium of authoritarian foreign governments who offered to help him get elected. The fact that Trump is passively lax with national security when he fires up his smartphone pales in comparison to the fact that he actively trades away national security to autocrats.

But the fact that Republicans played the political press corps—and, worse, that the political press corps consciously allowed itself to be played—is a huge professional failing that should, but by all appearances won’t, be accounted for and corrected going forward.

Trump’s behavior is aberrant enough, and Republican indifference to it so stark, that many reporters now freely acknowledge it calls the sincerity of past conservative fixations (with Clinton’s email, or her health, or Bill Clinton’s tarmac encounter with Loretta Lynch, or Benghazi) into question.

There’s a broad (and correct) media consensus that Republicans feign outrage about alleged infractions, then proceed to do much worse when in power—that right-wing politics is built on a foundation of feigned outrage and bad faith. But there’s also a broad (and incorrect) consensus that this should not factor in to how journalists interpret and report on the parties.

If the standard journalists set for themselves is that anything Republicans claim to be outraged about must be treated as a live controversy, then journalists disclaim a major potential point of failure, and become conduits for propaganda. This insulates media organizations from accountability for their handling of the email server matter, but also guarantees that the patterns of the past years will repeat themselves. One month ago, a handful of conservatives pretended to be upset about a standup comedy routine at the White House correspondents dinner, which they pretended to consider indecorous. Everyone knew they were pretending because they had a wonderful time at the dinner and continued to hobnob with their supposed elite media antagonists at black-tie afterparties when the dinner ended. Everyone knew they were pretending because these self-professed keepers of decorum support Donald Trump. And yet rather than dismiss their complaints as obvious fabrications, the White House press corps publicly disassociated itself with the comedian Michelle Wolf, who was the correspondents association’s invited guest.

The Wolf incident was the talk of the chattering classes for several days, but for all the wrong reasons. It was only really important as a window into the future. It showed that when the balance of political power shifts again, the right will resume pretending to be outraged over nonsense as if the Trump presidency had never happened, and most reporters will proceed as if it’s all sincere. This standard of newsworthiness can be changed in theory, but only if our media institutions decide that bad faith politics should be treated as such, and not rewarded indefinitely at the expense of the truth.