That Washington Post editors waived their off-the-record rules to make clear what happened — and explained to their readers why they had to take this extraordinary step — suggests they have concluded that these are not normal times, and that sticking to normal practices won’t do.
The Washington Post exposed a fraud this week, which is not particularly remarkable. But there was something unusual about it. Leading institutions of the American press sometimes behave as if they soar so high above the antics of partisan buffoons — is that a gutter I spy way down there? — that it’s hardly worth acknowledging their existence, let alone their tactics.
Critics might attribute that posture to a condescending arrogance, and that’s partly true. But it’s the arrogance of an institution that believes not only in the importance of its mission and the righteousness of its values, but also in the unassailable quality of its methods, pursued and refined over decades.
Bias is human. But the effort to police it, and constrain it, is institutional. And the institutional ideal espoused and encouraged and however imperfectly executed at places like The Washington Post is that you survey the battlefield without becoming a combatant.
The Post put more than its methods on display in its handling of a scam run by Project Veritas, an agitprop outfit run by James O’Keefe, a younger and even less principled version of right-wing provocateur Roger Stone. O’Keefe, who enjoys a $317,000 salary courtesy of right-wing funders, once tried to lure a female CNN reporter to a boat where he intended to seduce her — if that is the correct term for what he had in mind — and secretly film the results. A distraught O’Keefe colleague tipped off the reporter, sparing her who knows what.
This time a woman with connections to Project Veritas contacted a Post reporter and relayed a story of having been raped by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. It was a lie, proffered to entice the Post to publish a false story. O’Keefe would have then jumped up and down exposing the falsehood. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart — the whole slithering right-wing media serpent — would have cast the story as proof that the Post is nothing but a heap of liberal animus and lies. It would have been a great leap forward in the right’s epistemological war.
But Post reporters detected ancillary lies that were presented to…