News Outlets Can and Should Ignore Barr’s Selectively Declassified Materials

This is the moment far-right conspiracy theorists have long been waiting for: the declassification of material related to the investigation of Donald Trump—“DECLAS” in alt-right parlance.

On Friday, Donald Trump gave Attorney General William Barr the go-ahead to declassify any and all documents related to the Russia probe. Unfortunately for the extreme right, there will be almost nothing much to see of help to the president. The origins of the investigation are public knowledge and entirely legal, the probe led to the arrest, convictions, and plea deals of multiple high-level criminals, including the president’s former campaign manager and national security adviser. The Mueller Report exposed not only deeply troubling ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agents, but also a consistent pattern of obstruction of justice that went all the way to the top. The worst behavior that any declassification is likely to turn up is an inappropriate comment here or there, or private communications among agents indicating a dislike of Donald Trump (all of which is, again, not only legal but well within ethical lines.) There will also likely be thousands of documents that paint the adminsitration in an extremely negative light.

That said, Barr has already shown himself more than willing to pervert his mission as attorney general for the people of the United States to serve as Trump’s personal defense attorney. There can be little doubt that while the president has given full declassification authority to Barr, the attorney general will selectively declassify only the material most favorable to Trump, attempting to cast doubt on the origins, legality, and ethics of the Mueller probe. It is no accident that this long-awaited declassification push is occurring as the administration is losing battle after battle in the courts over congressional subpoenas of the president’s financial records. The intent will be to muddy the news waters by attempting to tarnish the roots of the investigation that disclosed not only the malfeasance chronicled in the Mueller Report, but threaten to reveal even more scandalous details about the president’s personal behavior and the Trump Organization’s financial liabilities.

But this strategy can only work if news editors play along with it.

Media organizations decide every day which stories are newsworthy and which are not. Certainly in 2016, far too much attention was paid to every (largely manufactured) twist and turn of the Clinton email saga, while Trump’s misdeeds were treated sparingly. Fox News and the conservative infotainment sphere has long given an excuse to traditional news media to give undue attention to targets of right-wing propaganda—it helps them claim to be balanced in their coverage; they can point out that their competitors are covering the story, so why shouldn’t they?

But Fox News and Breitbart will always do what they do, which is deliver propaganda in bad faith to the conservative base. There is no need to follow them off that particular cliff.

Moreover, a free press has a moral obligation to refuse to cooperate with the blatant politicization of the Justice Department, and the cherry-picking of classified material. It’s one thing to run with juicy bits of packaged research on public figures and politicians delivered by partisans and factional interests. It’s quite another thing when the tipping of the scales is being orchestrated by the president and the attorney general against public servants legitimately investigating the most powerful person in the world.

Since the intent of selective declassification is manipulation of the media, all the media has to do is simply refuse to play ball.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.