There were plenty of off-ramps available for both Sam Nunberg and the press in the early stages of the former Trump aide’s surreal and ultimately meaningless media merry-go-round yesterday. The signs of a meltdown were apparent, yet the rest of the Washington press corps began circling like vultures around wounded prey.
Nunberg blabbed to The New York Times and Washington Post about defying Mueller. Then he asked MSNBC’s Katy Tur for legal advice and said it would be “funny” if he was arrested. (“It’s all unbelievable, I’d say,” Tur said as she concluded the interview.) Then he bragged to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he’d be the first person crazy enough to do such a thing.
As the night went on, hosts began feigning concern for Nunberg’s mental state—CNN’s Erin Burnett asked him on air if he was drunk or off his meds—yet continued beaming his words to their audiences. The message was clear: Here was the good stuff, raw and uncut. (Splinter was among the sites that posted stories about Nunberg’s cable tour.)
Yet Nunberg awakened from his stupor—or reclaimed his sobriety—within hours, telling New York magazine last night, “Of course, I’m going to cooperate [with Mueller]!” The about-face cast doubt on everything else he said—all the “news” he made—including his hunch, presented without evidence, that Mueller has dirt on Trump himself.
The rest of us are now left where we started yesterday, with nothing to show for several frenetic hours of cable-driven coverage but more confusion. The episode was a neat encapsulation of the past 18 months of media chaos, with journalists lavishing attention on a subject who felt like the mirror image of the political media in the Trump era—maybe drunk, probably breaking down, and mostly a waste of time.
Nunberg was not an anomaly in this sense, but rather a conventional interviewee within the Trump orbit. He has dubious qualifications; his proximity to the action is unclear. But he likes to talk, a trait that gives him real, if fleeting, cachet.
He spoke yesterday on live TV as if he were chatting with reporters anonymously or off the record—ground rules that typically warrant checking information against other sources. But the fact that he was yakking about his own thought process gave cable outlets some cover to beam the interviews straight to viewers, unedited. It was as if they learned nothing from all those months of carrying Trump rallies live from the campaign trail. Even more careful news organizations, pressured to keep up with the live drama, threw up their hands at what the disorienting and circuitous press tour meant for the uber-complicated Mueller investigation.
It is telling this morning that the smart take among savvy reporters is that Nunberg is a nobody whom the press took advantage of for the sake of thrilling content. “This is one of the reasons America hates the media,” Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote in Axios AM. “Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an ass of himself—live.” The critique attempts to distance the insiders, like Axios, from the outsiders.
But the reality is that Trump’s entire sphere of influence, from “hangers-on” to the president himself, is tainted as an information source. Nunberg merely exposed the inability of the professional press corps, including Axios, of showing any restraint against broadcasting unreliable narrators in the first place. These people are all potential sources, after all. Behold a tale of four headlines:
While I write to you now hungover and whiplashed from last night’s insanity, I also implore you to be smart and steel yourselves for more: This is normal. Stunts like Nunberg’s—he boasted to The Atlantic of trending on Twitter—will always succeed when the spectacle becomes the news.