[A lot of things are great in waves – water, sound, light – but the release of public documents isn’t one of them.
Last week, the House Intelligence Committee declassified a memo that Republicans have said contained evidence that FBI and Department of Justice officials have been abusing their power. However, the committee released the document in waves to the conservative media, the mainstream media and then the rest of us.
Aside from making the memo’s release even more political than it already was, this gradual release meant that regular Americans weren’t given the chance to read and interpret the document themselves without it being filtered through the media – and at first, the conservative media.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by California Rep. Devin Nunes, wrote the memo that claims the FBI and DOJ cited the infamous Steele dossier in an application for a foreign intelligence warrant to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Outside of far-right circles, the memo has been considered part of a strategy to discredit the FBI’s investigation into issues related to Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials opposed the memo’s release and cautioned that it is riddled with errors and omissions. Prior to the document’s release, Nunes didn’t share it with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he chose to exclude FBI Director Christopher Wray’s concerns from the document.
House Speaker Paul Ryan advocated for the memo to be released, saying it would be “the best disinfectant” as the saying goes. Speaking of sunshine, the Intelligence Committee voted Monday to release a Democratic rebuttal.
[The memo was supposed to become public at 11 a.m. Central on Friday, but that’s not quite what happened. About 9 a.m., Washington Post reporter Philip Bump said on Twitter that “the Washington Examiner and Fox News got an early look” at the memo, and shortly thereafter said he had read it, too. NBC reporter Katy Tur also said on Twitter that the White House and GOP had sent the document “selectively to friendly outlets first.”
I kept checking the website for the House Intelligence Committee, but they hadn’t posted the memo by 11 a.m., and I didn’t see it there when I got back from lunch that day. A timestamp for another House of Representatives website where I didn’t think to look says it posted the PDF at 12:12 p.m., hours at least after conservative media organizations received it. A website that estimates when pages are created suggests the House Intelligence Committee may have uploaded the memo even later in the day.
I didn’t see the memo on major news sites until the afternoon, hours after it had been placed in reporters’ hands. The first article where I read about the memo’s contents was the conservative news site Washington Examiner, but the post was sans memo at the time. They have since uploaded it.
This may sound like splitting hairs. After all, it’s normal in journalism for the reporter with the tightest relationship with a source to get advance copies of anticipated documents, often with the understanding that they’ll wait until a designated time to publish a story on it.
Considering far-right conservatives’ current distaste for the media and their urgent calls for the memo to be made public, it strikes me as an unintuitive but deliberate choice to give Republican journalists the first taste.
As a news consumer, it was frustrating to have to rely on what I consider a biased news organization to learn what was in this document that had been a regular point of conversation among conservatives for weeks. However, I think that was the point.
The FBI and justice department both expressed concerns that the memo was inaccurate and misleading. In spite of, or because of that, it was initially placed in the hands of people who wouldn’t question its veracity and wouldn’t provide too much, if any, context that would give readers cause to question the document, its purpose or its contents.
Instead, our first impression of what was in the actual memo was distilled from an already-distilled document that transparently pulls for the conservative message at the moment. And it’s not Republicans’ typical position. They’re encouraging Americans to call into question the practices of federal intelligence and law enforcement, and their incentive to do so can be narrowed down pretty quickly.
Republicans’ aims to manipulate information and how we perceive it have more or less become normalized. Aside from depriving Americans of the freedom to think for ourselves, they want to erode our trust in agencies that they’ve shielded from criticism since the days of McCarthyism.
That trust is being eroded in waves.