Judith Miller: No, Rep. Devin Nunes, reporters are not dead

Rep. Devin Nunes thinks the press is dead, or brain-dead, at least. That’s the conclusion he says he has drawn from the “whole Russia fiasco” – that is, Robert Mueller’s independent investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 president elections.

In a recent interview with my Fox News colleagues, the popular Republican from California’s conservative Central Valley complained that reporting on him and the House Intelligence Committee he chairs shows that “90 percent” of us journalists are “hard-left.”

We are also not only propagandists for Democrats, but part of an alleged vast leftist conspiracy to undermine Donald Trump and his presidency. Reporters are required to criticize him and other Republicans, he asserts, to please our “billionaire masters” and “to get clicks.”

Nunes is partly right. Some of us are lucky enough to work for billionaires. It is also true that news generates clicks. So Saturday’s release of the Democratic memo countering the memo he released over FBI and Justice Department protests two weeks ago generated lots of them. But what about the main thrust of Nunes’ charges?

Yes, journalists are many things. We are often annoying, intrusive, dogged, insufficiently skeptical, and sometimes flat out wrong, if all-too-rarely in doubt. And yes, most reporters overwhelmingly self-identify as liberals. But most are not “hard-left.”

First, a quibbling point. The “media,” as he calls us, ARE plural. The noun is not singular, Mr. Nunes. (Sorry, sir, but bad grammar is among my pet peeves.) But yes, journalists are many things. We are often annoying, intrusive, dogged, insufficiently skeptical, and sometimes flat out wrong, if all-too-rarely in doubt. And yes, most reporters overwhelmingly self-identify as liberals. But most are not “hard-left.” Nor are most of us propagandists for political parties or members of an ostensible leftist cabal to de-throne a president who seems to aspire to be king. Above all, we are not dead, though Rep. Nunes may wish us so.

Thanks to a professional commitment that he clearly finds irritating, reporters have disclosed much of what Americans now know about Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 elections. This is in addition to President Trump’s persistent misstatement or distortions of fact -- the Washington Post counts over 2,000 of them since his inauguration -- the gross conflicts of interest that riddle his staff, the environmental and safety regulations his team has quietly repealed, and other innumerable White House scandals that have made headlines in his first year in office.

Our latest achievement, or reportorial sin in Nunes' view, was comparing the memo that he and other House Intelligence Committee Republicans released two weeks ago with the longer, though more heavily redacted memo the Democrats managed to pressure the White House to release on Saturday. (Nunes released his own memo despite FBI and Justice Department warnings that its disclosure risked compromising sensitive intelligence sources and methods).

Repeating Trump’s frequent claim that  Mueller’s inquiry into Russian election meddling has been a “witch hunt,” the Nunes memo tried to discredit Mueller’s inquiry by asserting that FBI and other Justice Department officials misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when it applied for permission to surveil former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page because of his contacts with Russian officials. Nunes claimed the FBI and DOJ had engaged in a “troubling breakdown of legal processes” by relying in its application on a dossier prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele. 

The Democratic memo, named for California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff and six pages longer than the Nunes memo even with black blocks of censored material, shows that the FBI had ample cause to investigate Carter Page quite apart from the famous, or infamous Steele dossier. The Schiff memo says that Page, who has denied wrongdoing, had gone to Moscow and met Russian officials in the summer of 2016. The memo says Carter had “past relationships with Russian spies,” that he “knowingly assisting clandestine Russian intelligence activities in the U.S.” and was “someone the FBI assessed to be an agent of the Russian government.”

Four of the FISA judges who granted and renewed the surveillance warrants were not partisan hacks, as Nunes’ memo implies, but appointed by Republican presidents. Mueller, too, is a Republican.

While the Schiff memo does not address a core Nunes contention – namely that then FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe testified in December, 2017, that the FBI would not have tried to monitor Page had it not been for the Steele information – at least one Democrat demurred. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said this weekend that he heard what McCabe told the panel, and that McCabe did not make that claim.  McCabe, for his part, has yet to clarify his testimony.

Still, the Schiff memo claims the FBI had “multiple,” “independent” sources to “support the case for surveilling Page,” and made only “narrow use” of Steele’s dossier, much of which it found “credible.” Justice officials told the FISA court that Steele’s inquiry was funded by Democrats, and that he may have been biased against candidate Trump. They also told the court that it had ended its relationship with Steele because he had shared his information with reporters. “FBI and DOJ officials did not ‘abuse’ the FISA process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the memo asserts.

Now, by echoing President Trump’s claim that the disclosure of such inconvenient truths is “fake news,” Nunes has revealed himself once more to be President Trump’s faithful lapdog – or his “stooge,” as his hometown paper the Fresno Bee called him for doing the White House’s “dirty work.”

In echoing Trump’s “fake news” meme, Nunes has also joined the likes of the National Rifle Association, whose leaders, including Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch, the group’s outrageous spokesperson, out-Trumped Trump, so to speak, by contending that reporters relish school shootings because such massacres produce “ratings gold.”

In echoing the “fake news” charge to undermine the media, Nunes is serving the interests of his real boss, President Trump, rather than those of his constituents, the Bee argued. He is also undermining true conservative values. Real conservatives, and neo-conservatives, in particular – as opposed to Trumpians – have remained the president’s most ardent critics.

From his first secret trip to the White House a year ago to get Trump’s talking points to his partisan stewardship of a vital Congressional panel, Rep. Nunes has discredited himself as a member of the legislative branch, which should serve as an independent check on unbridled executive power.

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author. Her latest book is, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, 2015).