Somebody went after Rachel Maddow last week.
You might not have heard about it. The story didn’t get much traction in a week that began with video of Failed President Trump “wrestling” CNN and ended with his embarrassing trip to the G20 summit in Germany.
Still, some of us would argue that it merits at least as much attention as the latest antics of the boy president. What nearly happened to Maddow carries ominous implications for us in news media – and for those Americans who still consider an informed electorate an essential component of democracy.
As reported by Maddow herself, someone sent the MSNBC anchor what appeared to be an “unbelievably red hot” tip, a classified document substantiating explosive allegations about the Trump campaign colluding with Russia. “What got sent to us,” said Maddow, “was not just a smoking gun, it was a gun still firing proverbial bullets.”
Except that it wasn’t. Maddow’s team concluded after close inspection that what they had actually received was a fraud, a counterfeit document designed to bait them into running a false story which would have necessitated an embarrassing retraction.
News media are no strangers to hoaxes. From the proverbial guy in his pajamas who gets his jollies making up internet rumors to the deceptively edited videos of James O'Keefe, hoaxes have become a common hazard in this business. The old journalistic axiom, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” has seldom seemed more apropos.
But in its very sophistication, this attempted hoax represents a quantum leap. While some people lazily cry “Fake news!” every time facts don’t go their way, someone is out there actually creating fake news in hopes of getting a journalist to bite on it and damage her reputation in the process.
Consider it superfluous proof that the institutions sustaining this democracy are under assault. The presidency, of course, is being attacked from within by the aforementioned boy president in all his preening incompetence. Many observers have found solace in believing his denigrations of that office will be kept at least somewhat in check by three other institutions: Congress, the courts and the media. But that optimism may or may not be vindicated.
Congress, after all, has only fitfully managed to muster the moral courage to hold the rogue president to account. The courts have proven somewhat braver, though their legitimacy has been repeatedly undermined.
Meantime, news media have done yeoman’s work in untangling Trump’s troubling ties to Russia. But this has come against a backdrop of abuse without modern precedent.
Bad enough reporters have been called names and even physically attacked. But if you really want to harm a journalist, you go after her credibility. That’s the one indispensable element of news gathering and reporting, the thing without which a journalist cannot meaningfully function. And last week, somebody tried to assassinate Maddow’s.
All of us in the news business should stand warned. But we ought not be surprised.
You can gauge the depth of that fear in the sophistication of last week’s attack. That attempted hoax suggests two things. The first is that this may be the opening of a troubling new front in the right wing’s war on journalism.
The second is that we must be doing something right.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.