September 25th Update: As Rod Rosenstein heads to the White House Thursday for a talk with Trump, everyone in the media is asking “Will he resign? Will he be fired?” Few pundits are still talking, however, about the New York Times story that Rosenstein described as a “knife to his heart” and that precipitated the crisis. When they do reference the story, it’s with the most timid, often deferential questioning of Schmidt’s reporting, always accompanied by genuflecting to how “trustworthy” he is, what a stellar reputation he has. Will the mainstream media forever let itself off the hook for the damage it causes?

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During the election and shortly after, I wrote pieces comparing Trump and Henry VIII. Now there’s a new dimension to add to the comparison — not about the two despots, but about the transformation of casual talk into dangerous “fact.”

Few people except for Tudor scholars know that Anne Boleyn was done in, not because of witchcraft or even only because of trumped-up charges of infidelity and incest, but because Thomas Cromwell had declared it treason to merely talk about the death of the King — and word was taken to Henry that Anne was overheard verbally jousting with a courtier, teasing that he was looking to “dead man’s shoes” in order to have her. The verbal jousting was innocent courtly banter. But under Cromwell’s new laws, it could be used by him (and was used by him) to charge her (and the courtier) with treason.

I thought about all that yesterday (September 21) when Michael Schmidt of the NYT recklessly reported on some words of Rod Rosenstein, as jotted down in a memo (by Andrew McCabe) and “corroborated” variously by different anonymous, second-hand sources, none of whom were in the room when the alleged comments were made, or even saw the memo, but were simply “briefed” on it. The notes were made during a meeting between Rosenstein and other FBI officials; it occurred shortly after Trump had fired Comey, and just two week into Rosenstein’s time on the job. Rosenstein, who several colleagues have described as having a “sardonic wit,” commented — with an inflection that can only be speculated on — that perhaps he should “wear a wire” in conversations with Trump, and apparently there was some discussion — -just how serious is unclear — about the 25th amendment.

At the very best, what occurred is an ambiguous “text” requiring interpretation; at worst, it’s a notch up from gossip. But Michael Schmidt did not report it as such. Here’s the first paragraph of his story, and the beginning of the second; they refer to Rosenstein’s comments, without qualification, as “suggestions.”

“The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, suggested last year that he secretly record President Trump in the White House to expose the chaos consuming the administration, and he discussed recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office for being unfit.

Rosenstein made these suggestions….”

Michael Schmidt, we should recall and as I recount in my book (pp. 105–113 in the paperback) was the reporter who wrote the misleading (and quietly retracted) initial stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails that launched the “scandal” — and he was at the head of the media juggernaut that kept it running throughout the campaign. Now, he’s nabbed a new headline based on what may well have been a dry joke made by Rosenstein about recording Trump. The notes were fragmentary, the tone was unclear and — most significantly — never resulted in action of any sort.

Rosenstein’s throw-away comment has now become a headline in the NYT (and picked up by many other papers) that suggests Trump’s paranoia (Henry VIII was paranoid, too) may be well-founded — that there is indeed a “Deep State” out to get him in Justice. And this suggestion may well be used to provide the cover for Trump to fire Rosenstein without it being seen as obstruction.

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Schmidt says he’s been following this story for months, and it just “came together.” Hmmm….Why now? And exactly how did it “come together”? He won’t reveal that. Ari Melber on MSNBC’s “The Beat,” questioned him, to no avail.

I’m not accusing Schmidt of plotting a la Cromwell. But did he pause to consider the context, the possible consequences, or the slightness and second-handedness of what is essentially gossip before blowing it up into what is fast becoming FACT by this morning?

Last night, MSNBC’s Ari Melber did a great job questioning the reporting, and had Maya Wiley, Matt Miller and other experts solidly disputing — even proclaiming as ridiculous — the idea that Rosenstein would actually consider wearing a wire to record Trump. They rightly speculated whether this might have “come together” via a right-wing leak to goad Trump into a week-end “massacre” of firing — which was certainly supported by Laura Ingraham and others calling for the immediately ouster of Rosenstein. But by this morning, CNN’s early morning shows are already presenting it as a “bombshell” — as a factual “report” of “potential wire-tapping.”

Michael Schmidt is no Cromwell. I don’t think he is the one engineering anything. But we don’t need that nowadays. Nowadays all that’s required is a reckless reporter’s hunger for breaking news, and a once-distinguished paper’s willingness to take advantage of that.

The New York Times already has Hillary Clinton’s “blood” on their hands. If Rosenstein is fired and Trump gets away with it as non-obstructive, they can add that to their record of irresponsible journalism. Not “fake news.” Just irresponsible journalism.

Susan Bordo is the author many books, most recently The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact That Decided the 2016 Election, now out in paperback with a new Afterword.

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Forthcoming in 2021: TV (A volume in Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series)

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