Jeffrey Goldberg is a veteran reporter, who worked his way as a writer and correspondent at The Washington Post to his current position as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. After publishing a withering account of four anonymous sources who claimed that President Trump called fallen veterans “losers and suckers” and asked why he should visit the graves of Marines killed at the WWI battle of Belleau Wood in France in 2018, Goldberg told CNN’s Brian Stelter Sunday morning, this is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
This is one of those “he said, she said” situations like a wife beater’s wife showing up with a black eye and saying he punched her. Three of his buddies claim he was out bowling that night, but nobody could deny that it’s not the first time she’s had a shiner from his fist.
Even John Bolton, whose book account in “The Room Where It Happened”–generally based on Bolton’s meticulously kept notes–details a decision process that backs Trump’s version, wouldn’t discount the fact that this is something Trump might have said, just not to him in his own recollection of that day.
So we’re left with whom to believe. What I think is irrelevant, because the sources are anonymous. But if you asked me, I’d say it’s more likely political grist being milled, and telling Goldberg (and all the places it’s been “confirmed”) what they want to hear. Therefore, without on-the-record accounts from named individuals willing to stand up to certain attack from the president and his online army, nobody is going to really be persuaded.
Perhaps Goldberg, who I’m willing to grant truly believes that Trump must have said what he was told, and that the people who told him have every reason to be truthful, believes enough undecided people might be persuaded to doubt just enough to change their minds if they considered voting for Trump. But that falls out of the realm of a reporter/editor’s ken and into the realm of political activism.
Trump has turned the entire media complex opposing him into a giant political activism machine, which has damaged the fourth estate far more than their own performances such as Dan Rather vs. George W. Bush in 2004. Now entire networks, newspapers and magazines simultaneously exist for no higher editorial purpose than deposing Trump, and also to reap record profits writing negative stories about him. Such a conundrum, because if they succeed at the former, the latter becomes harder to do.
It wasn’t always this way, caught between Trump and the desire for an insatiable narrative, for The Atlantic. In 2014, it published a summary of then-New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s (now a media columnist for The Washington Post, where Goldberg once worked as a yeoman reporter) takedown of Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on Somaly Mam, who bamboozled Pulitzer-winning Kristof with stories of sex trafficking victims, some of which were fabricated.
“The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly,” Pat Joseph wrote in The Atlantic, “they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.” At the time, Goldberg was a national correspondent, specializing in the Middle East and Israel, but also writing on American politics, for that magazine. Two years later, he would become its 14th editor-in-chief.
It seems Goldberg might take the advice by Pat Joseph in his own magazine and apply it to himself.
The “tip of the iceberg” on Trump and the certain-to-come new revelations of truly awful things he may have said would be a heroic narrative to those who are already convinced Trump is an unsurvivable catastrophe for American government and our republic’s very survival. And the desire for those kinds of narratives, among Goldberg’s many friends and professional acquaintances, colleagues and political allies, is an overflowing cup.
Kristof’s hagiography of Somaly Mam was broken by various accounts debunking her stories, which were largely ignored by a media high on its own reporting and drunk with its own riveting narrative. Of course, because Mam lied, doesn’t change the seriousness of sex trafficking, and the pressing need to fight its evil consequences and the terrible people who support it.
Similarly, just because Trump may not have said (and according to Bolton, he didn’t, at least in relation to his 2018 canceled visit to the Belleau Wood cemetery) what Goldberg’s sources attribute to him, doesn’t mean that Trump might not have said it under other circumstances, talking about specific people. We know what Trump said about Sen. John McCain, a Navy Captain and pilot who was shot down during an act of gallantry over North Vietnam, and captured by the NVA.
McCain was held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi for five and a half years, refusing to shill for the communist regime when they offered to let him come home, because he was the son of an admiral. Instead, McCain remained a prisoner, suffering great physical and mental harm. But Trump called him a “loser” because McCain didn’t personally like him.
As Aaron Blake noted in The Washington Post, “Trump’s denial may have been intended to mean he never called McCain a loser in this specific instance. But the fact is that Trump’s past commentary makes it utterly believable that he did.”
Just because it’s utterly believable doesn’t mean it’s not a lie. And just because Goldberg wants to believe the sources he heard it from doesn’t mean they’re not making it up to hurt Trump.
“We have a responsibility and we’re going to do it regardless of what [Trump] says,” Goldberg told Stelter. Stelter wouldn’t dare question this narrative, but then again, nobody questioned Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on Somaly Mam, not until it was thoroughly debunked.
Goldberg’s first responsibility is determining the truth, not reporting a narrative, no matter how alluring or “utterly believable” it is. Failing to fulfill the first responsibility is journalistic malpractice, regardless of whether the narrative itself fills The Atlantic‘s coffers with cash, and accomplishes a political activist’s dream: literally writing the next chapter of history.
Maybe Goldberg is dreaming of the book he’ll write if Trump loses: “How I exposed, and deposed, the loser President.” I bet that’s a compelling narrative that will sell very well, just like all the tell-all books coming from the media, and the publisher’s business card collection box beneath the “Exit” sign of the West Wing.
I think Goldberg’s “tip of the iceberg” is a bit behind the times. It smells like a two-minute political drill for a Hail Mary October Surprise. But like I wrote above, what I think is irrelevant.
Goldberg needs to get his sources to go on the record, with names, and then maybe he can write his book, if the stories really check out. Until then, he’s likely to persuade nobody. And a little humility wouldn’t hurt anyone, especially those who are high on their own insatiable desires.