It's safe to say that right at the moment, only people obsessed with politics know what the words "Nunes memo" mean. But very soon everyone else may learn, because the memo in question is likely to be publicly released. Prepared by Republican staffers of the House Intelligence Committee and championed by the chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), it makes a case that the FBI is at the heart of a conspiracy to destroy President Trump, and the entire Russia investigation is hopelessly compromised by this hideous anti-Trump bias. When the memo is released, there will be a burst of news coverage that could well end up misinforming the public and serving exactly the purposes of confusion and calumny that Nunes, his Republican colleagues, and President Trump intend.
Since I'm a low down dirty liberal pundit, I'm reasonably sure that the memo is going to be complete garbage. Given what a clown Nunes has shown himself to be, given how ludicrous the underlying theory is (that the FBI — the FBI! — is a den of liberal conspirators), given how crazily Republicans have been acting, and given what has been said about it by the few people who know what's in the memo and aren't desperately committed to protecting President Trump, I feel quite comfortable making that prediction.
But eventually, we'll have the document and then we'll be able to assess whether it really is garbage or not. Republicans on the committee voted to release it (and then voted to keep classified a rebuttal Democrats had written in response), and now it's up to the president. His chief of staff, John Kelly, told Fox News radio on Wednesday, "It will be released here pretty quick, I think, and the whole world can see it."
But there's at least one hitch. On Monday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — both Trump appointees, I should add — went to the White House to urge Kelly not to allow the release of the memo, saying it could compromise sensitive intelligence-gathering sources and methods. Then in a highly unusual step, on Wednesday the FBI released a public statement, saying: "We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." Which is exactly what the few Democrats who have seen it have said — that it's a bunch of cherry-picked bits of information deceptively assembled to paint a misleading picture.
And as The Daily Beast reported, at a contentious private meeting of the Intelligence Committee on Monday, a Democratic member asked Nunes whether his staffers had worked with the White House in preparing the memo; he evaded the question and then said, "I'm not answering." So you know it's just an objective assessment of a very serious situation, not an effort to protect Donald Trump.
But according to rules on this kind of declassification, the decision to release the memo lies with the president. Since it validates his paranoia and helps make his case that the Russia investigation is all a big hoax created by his enemies, the chances it won't be released publicly are approximately zero.
So what should the media do when they get their eager little hands on it? The worst thing would be if they treated it the way they did the emails that were hacked in 2016 from accounts belonging to the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. In that case, they gave every supposedly juicy revelation enormous play while sidelining much more important questions about why it was that those emails became public, i.e. the Russian effort to manipulate the election to Donald Trump's benefit.
Unfortunately, that's the most likely outcome. The press loves secret information, and all the back-and-forth about this memo has only heightened their interest. The more dramatic the allegations (no matter how little support they have), the more likely they are to wind up on the front pages and get round-the-clock cable coverage.
Which is exactly the opposite of how such claims should be treated. The responsible approach is to be even more skeptical about explosive claims, particularly given what has happened up to this point. We saw with the pratfall the Republicans took over what they thought was a "secret society" in the FBI how eager they are to rip any tidbit that comes their way out of context and put the most sinister spin on it.
So the most important thing for the media to do is to keep the question of the truth of the memo's claims front and center — not judging "winners and losers," or asking how it's going to play down at the VFW hall, or making a bunch of flashy "Showdown at the FBI!!!" graphics. Is what the Republicans are charging true? Or is it a bunch of deceptive drivel? If they judge, based on their reporting and what relevant experts have to say, that it's just a tendentious collection of talking points and unfair allegations against civil servants, journalists should be willing to say so forthrightly. And they should ask — and keep asking until they get a good answer — why the Republicans on the committee want their memo made public but refuse to allow the Democrats' rebuttal to see the light of day.
Those who want to get damaging but dubious claims about their opponents to the public have rarely had much trouble convincing the media to do their work for them. That's what Joe McCarthy counted on, and it's what Republicans perfected during the Clinton years when cable news was a relatively new phenomenon. Again and again, journalists decide to undertake lengthy discussions of questionable charges, often with the justification that since the charges are "out there" or "play into a perception" of something or other, then it's acceptable to devote endless hours to spreading them as far and wide as possible. The guy standing on your corner talking about how aliens planted a chip in his brain is "out there" too, but that doesn't mean you should stick a megaphone in front of his mouth.
Of course, it's possible that Nunes' memo will turn out to be everything Republicans say it is: a carefully documented, persuasive case that the entire Russia investigation is a sham and there's a nefarious conspiracy inside the FBI and Justice Department that's out to get Donald Trump. If that's actually what it turns out to be, the media should say that. But if it turns out to have all the credibility of an RNC press release or a Sarah Huckabee Sanders press conference, the media should say that too.