Cable news talking heads suffered a collective conniption on Wednesday at Attorney General William Barr’s continued use of the word “spying” in reference to an FBI informant in the Trump campaign. Yet many of those melting down over this so-called “loaded language” had previously (repeatedly) used that same term in reference to the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign official Carter Page.
On the day of Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, CNN law enforcement analyst Josh Campbell did his best to explain precisely why everyone was suddenly treating “spy” like a curse word. “It’s only used to refer to what foreign governments do to us, for example when you’re trying to stop foreign spies, foreign threats,” he pontificated as the panel nodded approvingly.
Over at MSNBC, host Brian Williams was evidently appalled by Barr's chosen terminology:
Obviously, what we just saw there was an attempt by [Senator] Sheldon Whitehouse to nail down this Attorney General on the charge of shilling for the President who appointed him. Spying, being a word preferred by the Trump right-hand side of the media to describe authorized surveillance techniques by the government the United States.
During the 11:00 a.m. Eastern hour of his testimony, however, Barr brought up an interesting point about the reviled term: “Frankly, we went back and looked at press usage, and up until all the faux-outrage a couple of weeks ago, it’s commonly used in the press to refer to authorized activities.”
MRC analysts decided to look into that claim. As it turns out, both print and TV journalists consistently described the FBI’s 2016 surveillance of Carter Page as “spying.” Here are just a few examples:
Evidently many of the journalists decrying Barr’s verbiage were themselves using the same language only a year earlier. However, a Nexis search of CNN and MSNBC transcripts revealed that virtually every instance in which journalists colloquially described authorized surveillance as “spying” took place before May 23, 2018.
On May 23, President Trump tweeted: “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State. They go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!”
Rather than letting that tweet stand and continuing with their panel discussions about how the FBI had spied on Carter Page, journalists opted instead to “fact-check” the President’s allegation (guess how they rated it?). And so the term “spy” was condemned thenceforth to the bin of unspeakable pejoratives, along with “border security” and “white male.”
If journalists wish to offer another explanation for their seemingly overnight development of a new gag reflex, they are more than welcome to do so.