On Friday morning – which already feels like a month ago – Washington Post White House reporter Seung Min Kim posted an exhausted sigh of relief on Twitter: “Well. We at least made it to Friday, everyone.”
The universe seemed to read that like a dare. It reared up in anger and hurled blazing fireballs of news.
Within a few hours, the New York Times had posted a blockbuster story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested last year that President Trump should be secretly recorded, and that the 25th Amendment might be explored to remove him from office.
And Washington once again was in a froth. There would be no weekend.
No sooner had that been processed – challenged, defended, disparaged, celebrated – then the news arrived that a date had been set for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
Then, on Sunday evening, the New Yorker dropped a shocker about a second allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh. All hell broke loose again.
With the Kavanaugh hearings – and possibly a collective nervous breakdown – approaching like a Category 4 hurricane, I humbly offer a media user’s guide to the week ahead, with a little help from my media-desk colleagues Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison.
Here’s what you can do to keep the insanity to a dull roar.
Consider actually reading that story before you share it on social media. It’s astonishingly common to see a story hit Twitter and see it retweeted with outraged commentary even before it could possibly be digested. Headlines are only a hint, after all, and the fine print in the 19th paragraph may change your mind about what you think, or what you say to your Facebook friends in your next blistering post.
Know your source. When you see the names Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow – two of the most careful, disciplined reporters in America, it’s reasonable to take them seriously. (Although even with reporters of this caliber, it’s important not to overstate what their New Yorker story really says and to pay close attention to what it doesn’t say.) When you see declarations from Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’ attorney, about representing a third Kavanaugh accuser – without naming names or providing details – doubtful hesitation is in order.
Trust the stories you like less than those you want to believe. At the very least, it’s a good exercise in critical thinking to employ extreme skepticism to fight the confirmation bias we’re all guilty of. Seek out reaction and commentary from the other side of the situation; you don’t have to believe it, but you ought to consider it.
Wait and see. Know that cable news anchors – and all who deliver breaking news – may be scrambling in the first hours of a development. On Sunday night, CNN’s Ana Cabrera – grappling with the just-dropped New Yorker story, seemed never to have heard of the estimable Mayer, whom she referred to as Farrow’s co-author before consulting her notes and then mispronouncing her name. CNN’s Brian Stelter took pains in his Sunday-night newsletter to backtrack on something he had said spontaneously on air earlier: That “frat boy” behavior is forgivable. (He clarified to say that’s not true when it allegedly involves sexual assault.)
Know who is paid to say what on cable. Remember that cable commenters – particularly Trump surrogates – are paid to bring a particular point of view to the table. They may be legally constrained by nondisclosure agreements from doing anything other than gushing positively. Take this, therefore, with a few extra pounds of salt.
As Farhi asked pointedly in a story: Shouldn’t media organizations be disclosing this? Clearly yes, but they don’t. So consumer beware.
Compare and contrast. Those who were quick to disparage the Times’ Rod Rosenstein story when it first appeared had to recalibrate their angry disbelief as other news organizations, including The Post, were able to match the story with their own sources. In some cases, the follow-up reporting from other places had a different tone or emphasis, making more, for example, of the possibility that Rosenstein had been speaking sarcastically. (On Monday morning came widespread reports that the deputy attorney general was resigning.)
Take a break. The news never stops, so put down your phone, turn off your TV, and do something else for a few hours. Cook a meal, take a walk, go to yoga class, read a 19th century novel.
Of course, there’s a downside.
Chances are that when you come back, some fresh hell will have hit the fan. But at least your heart rate will be lower – for a minute – while you catch up.
Local journalism is essential.
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