Forget Iran: Television, prodded by lawyer, pounces on Cohen-Russia allegation

It's mildly amusing to watch cable pundits say that Michael Avenatti hijacked the prime-time coverage on Tuesday night from what was unquestionably a story of global importance, President Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

What happened is that journalists made the decision that the latest bit of information about Michael Cohen was more important at that moment than a landmark foreign policy decision that has U.S. allies and others concerned that the Iran regime can resume its nuclear program. Perhaps ratings were a factor. But you can’t blame it on Stormy Daniels' camera-coveting lawyer.

I'm not saying the Cohen revelation is'’t newsworthy. But given that most of the coverage of the president's Iran move has been negative, making Cohen the lead underscores how invested the mainstream press is in the Russia investigation.

While Avenatti released some of the information, The New York Times had its own account:

"A shell company that Michael D. Cohen used to pay hush money to a pornographic film actress received payments totaling more than $1 million from an American company linked to a Russian oligarch and several corporations with business before the Trump administration."

This refers to "Columbus Nova, an investment firm in New York whose biggest client is a company controlled by Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch. A lawyer for Columbus Nova, in a statement on Tuesday, described the money as a consulting fee that had nothing to do with Mr. Vekselberg."

If that denial is bull, it could mark a convergence of what had been two separate investigations: Robert Mueller's probe of possible Russia collusion and obstruction, and the fix-it activities of Trump's personal lawyer on the hush money paid to Stormy and other matters. Mueller's investigators have interviewed Vekselberg, who has ties to Vladimir Putin and has been banned from entering the U.S.

The Russian billionaire's potential involvement smells fishy. After all, Trump was already paying Cohen a monthly $35,000 retainer.

But the other part of the story that has excited the press involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to Cohen from major corporations—including AT&T, Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries. (The Washington Post says Mueller has sought information from Novartis.)

These appear to be just what they look like—an attempt to buy influence by hiring a friend of the president, under the guise of "insights" or "strategic advice." But can we just take all the pearl-clutching down a notch? This goes on in every administration, Democratic and Republican. Isn't this in part what every K Street consultant shop stocked with former administration insiders is selling? Isn't this in part how Tony Podesta, brother of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman and Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, built a lobbying empire? It is swampy, to be sure, but it's hardly novel.

Now if Cohen was using these barrels full of cash for questionable purposes, that's another question. But no one knows that at the moment.

Avenatti, who is constantly on CNN and MSNBC and has mused about getting his own show in the future, has played the media like a proverbial fiddle.

After releasing what he said were documents about Cohen's financial transactions around 5 p.m. Tuesday, Avenatti appeared—perhaps arranged in advance?—on  "AC360" and then with Lawrence O'Donnell and Don Lemon. On Anderson Cooper, he gave a shout-out to the just-published Times story, and when a Times reporter tweeted that the paper had confirmed much of Avenatti's information, the lawyer tweeted back: "Always good to be confirmed and verified by The New York Times."

By Wednesday morning, Avenatti was on "Good Morning America," "Morning Joe," and CNN's "New Day."

Aware that he's looking like a publicity hound, Avenatti told Cooper there has been "some criticism about our media strategy, and how often I'm on CNN, and how often I've been on your show, and other networks. It's all a bunch of nonsense, because here's the bottom line, Anderson: it's working, OK? It is working in spades." He said people see him on the tube and call him with information.

Avenatti is doing his job. But the pundits should stop saying that his news-management skills are single-handedly driving the Stormy/Cohen story and pushing the Iran deal down a couple of commercial breaks. Those are decisions made by journalists themselves.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author "Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth." Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.