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Julian Zelizer: David Brooks is right in that news organizations shouldn't cover scandal at the expense of policy

But journalists have been doing the right thing giving sustained attention to the Russia controversy, writes Zelizer

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN  — 

In his ongoing quest to be the most reasonable person in Washington, New York Times columnist David Brooks offered an important warning to the media: Don’t allow yourself to become totally consumed by the Russia investigation.

Recalling how the Whitewater controversy surrounding President Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton felt for a time in the 1990s as big as the moment in which we currently live, Brooks argues that there has been almost no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Much of the investigation has grown out of the way Trump and his team have responded to the scandal and, he says, probably just reflects a President who has bad judgment. This might be a case, in his mind, of the news media fulfilling its constant need for breaking news and political drama.

Julian Zelizer

Brooks offers some useful warnings, the most important of which is that news organizations can’t keep making the mistake of covering scandal at the expense of policy. There are many substantive policy issues on the table that have not received sufficient attention: the accelerated deportation of illegal immigrants, the deregulation of the energy sector through executive action, and the possible transformation of health care being considered by a group of senators in the secrecy of the night. All these stories and more deserve as much attention as Russia, even if they don’t have the same appeal to viewers.

Brooks is also right to say that scandal has often been a destructive form of partisan politics since the 1970s. Very often the parties have used scandals, regardless of their significance, to tear down their opponents through character assassination rather than genuine debates over which party offers the best ideas. “The politics of scandal drives a wedge through society,” he writes, “Political elites get swept up in the scandals. Most voters don’t really care.”

It’s likely that nobody remembers this more clearly than President Clinton, who had to stand by as Republicans continually barraged him with charges, culminating in the House, under Speaker Newt Gingrich, voting to impeach him over perjury and obstruction of justice regarding an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Yet the notion that Whitewater was “far more substantive than the Russian collusion scandal” is simply not true. Whitewater revolved around corrupt actions involving Arkansas land deals, all of which were found, after endless investigation, to have no merit with regard to the Clintons’ involvement. Republicans trumped up the issue as a way to put the President on the defensive, as they did with other baseless stories, like the “Travel-gate” controversy.

The Russia investigation is about the possible corruption of a presidential election and the aggressive abuse of presidential power to stop the investigations that have followed.

The current scandal begins with a massive intervention into the US election, which was reported to Americans by intelligence agencies and not partisan activists, at a scale and scope unlike any we have seen in our nation’s history. That intervention, moreover, aimed to benefit one side: the side that won. At the same time, numerous officials in President Trump’s orbit have been elusive or have not been forthcoming about their conversations with Russian officials. To be sure, this is not evidence of wrongdoing. But it is reason to be suspicious.

While it is not a shock that members of a pro-Russian President Vladimir Putin campaign interacted with Russian officials, as Brooks reminds us, the story runs much deeper than that. The contacts took place in the context of the cyberintervention. That makes the conversation feel different. The contacts were then repeatedly kept secret even after the issue reached the front page, and the meetings were conducted with a number of officials.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one of the people who was not forthcoming about that information.

Trump’s own relationship with Russian officials and businesspeople remains unclear, partly because the President has never released his tax returns. Before taking office, Trump and members of his team had dealings with Russian companies. The President has denied connections, tweeting in January: “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

Yet, as the Atlantic pointed out, he has a long record of making statements about business dealings with Russians.

Yes, much of the controversy has been more about possible efforts to cover up a scandal rather than about the underlying question of whether there was collusion. But that doesn’t mean collusion did not take place.

To varying degrees, the House and Senate investigations have become politicized, with Republicans trying to change the subject to leaks in Washington and, to a lesser extent, some Democrats pushing their anti-Trump agenda.

More significant to the question of whether there was collusion is what the FBI investigation will turn up – and that has been overshadowed by the firing of Director James Comey. Special counsel Robert Mueller seems to be engaged in the kind of work that could produce accurate results, assuming the President and his staff allow him to finish his work unimpeded.

As opposed to a situation where there is no evidence proving collusion, we have a situation more accurately described as too early to tell.

The allegations about obstruction of justice are serious and deserve to be scrutinized. Here the evidence is very strong, according to many experts, and requires a close look.

The evidence of a pattern of obstruction comes from the testimony of an experienced law enforcement official, Comey, who is not known for partisanship. It is also a result of the tweets and public comments from the President himself, and his decision to fire Comey.

If there is a pattern of obstruction this severe, regardless of what the original investigation turns up, we have a problem on our hands. And if Republicans take their own rhetoric from the mid-1990s seriously, then there is more than enough reason for concern.

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    Brooks is certainly right to warn everyone to keep their heads on straight and make sure they are covering the right story and in the right way. It is also true that scandal warfare can be dangerous and often is simply a weapon to tear down opponents.

    But, as we learned in 1974 (with Watergate) and 1987 (with Iran-Contra), sometimes scandals are extraordinarily serious and grow out of real problems in the body politic that must be addressed if our democracy is to function properly. We don’t know right now if this is one of those moments, but there is more than enough evidence to be seriously concerned. In this case, unlike many other scandals, most journalists have been doing the right thing and fulfilling their role as the watchdog in our system.