Last Wednesday’s Democracy Now posed a superficially vexing question to the two Pulitzer Prize winning journalists it had invited to appear on the program.
How could they have reached radically different conclusions on the recently released Mueller report?
One of these, David Cay Johnston, was not shy about offering his explanation.
The discrepancy was due to a basic difference in journalistic approach: Johnston, he claimed, was “not driven here at all by emotion. . . I deal in facts that I can prove and verify.” Johnston was distinguishing himself from the other invitee, Pulitzer winner Glenn Greenwald, who, Johnston inferred, deals in the realm of speculation and irrationality.
These sentences rang a bell, reminding me of an exchange of some three years ago.
The context was the surprisingly competitive 2016 Democratic campaign where questions raised about Clinton’s viability as a candidate, in particular, her long record of shading the truth was becoming impossible for even some of her strongest supporters to ignore.
But Johnston was adamant that there was no basis for such concerns. Those who claimed “to know of instances of HRC lying” were challenged to email him “six verifiable examples of (Clinton) consciously saying what was untrue.”
Upon hearing of Johnston’s challenge, at least two of us, Doug Henwood and myself, responded with documentation of numerous Clinton lies on Johnston’s facebook page.
When asked about our responses, Johnston registered that he had received them, that they were “good starting points” and that he would “look into them.”
But he was doubtful that they were “dispositive.”
That’s because, according to Johnston, these might have been “simple errors” of the sort made by, Ronald Reagan among others. Those were not “lies. Those are mere mistakes.” What might appear to be a lie from Clinton might be “naivety and poor judgment.” For example, Clinton’s “statement that Al Qaeda and Saddam are related” wasn’t a lie. “If you can show that she was told there was no connection (and of course there was none nor would there have been, as many of us understood at the time) and then that she said there was a connection that would be a lie. Otherwise it is just being misinformed.”
All this was a preview of Johnston’s Democracy Now appearance three years later, albeit a mirror image. Rather than attempting to exonerate Clinton of lying as he was doing three years ago, now Johnston was on offense to convict Trump of “collusion” or “conspiracy” with Russia electoral “meddling.” That his hermeneutic capacities would be pushed to the extreme was required by the unambiguous language of the Mueller report. According to Mueller, not only was the evidence insufficient to issue indictments, as Greenwald repeatedly noted, Mueller went beyond this, going out of his way to state that there was no evidence of collusion.
Greenwald correctly compared Johnston’s stunning incapacity to admit what was in front of his nose to “arguing with people who have adopted religious beliefs” who will “believe in their view of how the world works, no matter how much evidence you present them that it didn’t happen.”
The characterization is well taken. A half century ago, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin described the defenders of the cold war liberalism as a “secular priesthood.”
The term secular is notably applicable to Johnston in that he is always ready to accuse those like Greenwald of being captive to emotions. As for Henwood and myself, we were similarly acting on “on prejudice or assumption(s)” unable to operate from “hard verifiable facts.”
But so is Johnston functioning as a member of the priesthood in defending two key articles of Clintonite neoliberal faith: 1) that Clinton would never lie and 2) that Clinton’s defeat by Trump was not due to the Clinton campaign’s abject incompetence but criminally engineered via Russian collusion.
While he has done valuable work in the past, his role should be understood in evaluating in his reporting in the future.