For years, corporate media has maintained that Donald Trump was under the influence of Russian agents and that the Russians helped him win the 2016 presidential election. All of these claims turned out to be unsubstantiated. How exactly did the media err on such a monumental scale?
How the Corporate News Media Hoodwinked Itself
Veteran investigative reporter Jeff Gerth has published a comprehensive dissection of the Russiagate coverage in the august Columbia Journalism Review. He introduces the article, which comes in at over 24,000 words, as follows:
The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to essentially say no. “Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it,” is how Dean Baquet, then the executive editor of the New York Times, described the moment his paper’s readers realized Mueller was not going to pursue Trump’s ouster.
Baquet, speaking to his colleagues in a town hall meeting soon after the testimony concluded, acknowledged the Times had been caught “a little tiny bit flat-footed” by the outcome of Mueller’s investigation. That would prove to be more than an understatement. But neither Baquet nor his successor, nor any of the paper’s reporters, would offer anything like a postmortem of the paper’s Trump-Russia saga, unlike the examination the Times did of its coverage before the Iraq War.
In fact, Baquet added, “I think we covered that story better than anyone else” and had the prizes to prove it, according to a tape of the event published by Slate. In a statement to CJR, the Times continued to stand by its reporting, noting not only the prizes it had won but substantiation of the paper’s reporting by various investigations. The paper “thoroughly pursued credible claims, fact-checked, edited, and ultimately produced ground-breaking journalism that has proven true time and again,” the statement said. But outside of the Times’ own bubble, the damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on, and is likely to take on new energy as the nation faces yet another election season animated by antagonism toward the press. At its root was an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth.
Before the 2016 election, most Americans trusted the traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. The phrase “fake news” was limited to a few reporters and a newly organized social media watchdog. The idea that the media were “enemies of the American people” was voiced only once, just before the election on an obscure podcast, and not by Trump, according to a Nexis search.
Today, the US media has the lowest credibility — 26 percent — among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In 2021, 83 percent of Americans saw “fake news” as a “problem,” and 56 percent — mostly Republicans and independents — agreed that the media were “truly the enemy of the American people,” according to Rasmussen Reports.
On the eve of a new era of intense political coverage, this is a look back at what the press got right, and what it got wrong, about the man who once again wants to be president. So far, few news organizations have reckoned seriously with what transpired between the press and the presidency during this period. That failure will almost certainly shape the coverage of what lies ahead.
What follows is a long, and extremely detailed analysis, of the media coverage based on the Steele dossier and subsequent investigations by the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller. He analyses almost all of the stories that actually broke news in this respect and how they were sourced. Along the way, he also shines a light on some of the follies the journalists involved fell prey to.
→ See also: Matt Taibbi’s coverage of the CJR article (includes a short interview with Gerth on the background of the piece)
Origins of the Steele Dossier
It all started with the Steele dossier.
In late May 2016, Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a Fusion cofounder, flew to London to meet Steele, a former official within MI6, the British spy agency. Steele had his own investigative firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. By then, Fusion had assembled records on Trump’s business dealings and associates, some with Russia ties, from a previous, now terminated engagement. The client for the old job was the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online publication backed in part by Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire and a Republican Trump critic. Weeks before the trip to London, Fusion signed a new research contract with the law firm representing the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
Simpson not only had a new client, but Fusion’s mission had changed, from collection of public records to human intelligence gathering related to Russia. Over lasagna at an Italian restaurant at Heathrow Airport, Simpson told Steele about the project, indicating only that his client was a law firm, according to a book co-authored by Simpson. The other author of the 2019 book, Crime in Progress, was Peter Fritsch, also a former WSJ reporter and Fusion’s other cofounder. Soon after the London meeting, Steele agreed to probe Trump’s activities in Russia.
As that work was underway, in June 2016, the Russia cloud over the election darkened. First, the Washington Post broke the story that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, a breach the party’s cyber experts attributed, in the story, to Russia. (The Post reporter, Ellen Nakashima, received “off the record” guidance from FBI cyber experts just prior to publication, according to FBI documents made public in 2022.) Soon, a purported Romanian hacker, Guccifer 2.0, published DNC data, starting with the party’s negative research on Trump, followed by the DNC dossier on its own candidate, Clinton.
The next week, the Post weighed in with a long piece, headlined “Inside Trump’s Financial Ties to Russia and His Unusual Flattery of Vladimir Putin.” It began with Trump’s trip to Moscow in 2013 for his Miss Universe pageant, quickly summarized Trump’s desire for a “new partnership” with Russia, coupled with a possible overhaul of NATO, and delved into a collection of Trump advisers with financial ties to Russia. The piece covered the dependence of Trump’s global real estate empire on wealthy Russians, as well as the “multiple” times Trump himself had tried and failed to do a real estate deal in Moscow.
The lead author of the story, Tom Hamburger, was a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had worked with Simpson; the two were friends, according to Simpson’s book. By 2022, emails between the two from the summer of 2016 surfaced in court records, showing their frequent interactions on Trump-related matters.
At the end of July, the DNC held its nominating convention in Philadelphia. In attendance were legions of journalists, as well as Simpson and Fritsch. On the eve of the events, the hacked emails from the DNC were dumped, angering supporters of Bernie Sanders, who saw confirmation in the messages of their fears that the committee had favored Hillary.
The disclosures, while not helpful to Clinton, energized the promotion of the Russia narrative to the media by her aides and Fusion investigators. Still, the campaign’s effort “did not succeed,” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri would write in the Washington Post the next year. So, on July 26, the campaign allegedly upped the ante. Behind the scenes, Clinton was said to have approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services,” according to notes, declassified in 2020, of a briefing CIA director John Brennan gave President Obama a few days later.
On another track, Fusion became involved in an effort to promote another unproven conspiracy theory, that Trump’s company was involved in back-channel communications with a Russian bank. Clinton personally supported pitching a reporter to explore the story as the campaign was not “totally confident” of its accuracy, according to 2022 court testimony by Mook. The back-channel theory was pushed to the media and the FBI at the same time, though the campaign did not direct and was not aware of all the various efforts.
Hundreds of emails were exchanged between Fusion employees and reporters for such outlets as ABC, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, the Washington Post, Slate, Reuters, and the Times during the last months of the campaign; they involved sharing of “raw” Trump-related information and hints to contact government and campaign officials to bolster the information’s credibility, according to a federal prosecutor’s court filings in 2022. The lawyer who hired Fusion, Marc Elias, testified, in 2022, that he would brief Sullivan and other Clinton campaign officials about Fusion’s findings, having been updated himself through regular meetings with Simpson and Fritsch. With Elias as the intermediary, the Fusion founders could write in 2019 that “no one in the company has ever met or spoken to” Clinton.
With other words: The Steele dossier, which was compiled on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC, was now being pitched to the press.
The 2016 dossier’s conspiracy claim was never corroborated by the media, and the supposed plot involving the Russian bank, Alfa Bank, didn’t fare much better.
The Alfa Bank Story
In an effort to discredit Trump and win the election, Clinton’s campaign kept pushing these kinds of unverified (and unverifiable) stories to the press.
The Clinton campaign, in mid-September, was eagerly anticipating a “bombshell” story on “Trump-Russia” from the Times. It was causing a “Trump freak out,” headlined a private September 18 memo by Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime close Clinton confidant. His memo circulated among top campaign aides, the two Fusion leaders, Elias, and Michael Sussmann, then a partner in the same firm as Elias. (The memo was made public in 2022.)
Two hours after Sussmann received the memo, he texted the private phone of James Baker, the general counsel of the FBI, seeking a meeting on a “sensitive” matter. They met the next afternoon, where Sussmann briefed him about the back-channel allegations. Sussmann upped the ante with Baker by pointing out that the media — soon understood to be the Times — was about to publish something about the supposed secret Russian communication link. Sussmann later testified to Congress that he gave the story to a Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau.
As the election entered its final weeks, Lichtblau thought there was a bigger story beyond the FBI rejection of the Alfa Bank theory; the bureau, the paper had learned, was conducting a broader counterintelligence investigation into possible Russian ties to Trump aides. In mid-October, two Times reporters, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, were in California, where they met with a top federal official who cautioned them about the larger FBI inquiry, according to current and former Times reporters.
After Baquet heard the feedback from California, the story stayed on hold, according to current and former Times journalists. Finally, at the end of the month, the languishing story was published. The headline read “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” The top of the piece dealt with the FBI’s doubts about the Alfa Bank allegation, and waited until the tenth paragraph to disclose the broader inquiry. It also noted the FBI believed the hacking operation “was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.” The piece mentioned a letter to Comey the day before from Senator Reid, who again was trying to spur the FBI to look into what he believed was “explosive information.” The letter, according to Myers, was an impetus for publishing the story.
Another factor, Times journalists said, was the publication earlier that day of a piece about the Alfa-Trump allegation in Slate, which wrote less critically about the supposed back channel at length, though the title framed it as a question. That piece’s author, Franklin Foer, worked closely with Fusion, forwarding drafts of his stories to the private investigative firm prior to their publication, according to court records.
Clinton was aware of all of this.
Clinton had also been aware of the Times’ unpublished story. She hoped it “would push the Russia story onto the front burner of the election,” but was “crestfallen” when an aide showed her the headline, according to an account in Merchants of Truth, a 2019 book about the news media by Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times. The story was a closely guarded secret, but campaign operatives had been pushing it with Times reporters and were aware of some internal deliberations, according to the book by Fusion’s founders. Moreover, the candidate herself was aware of efforts to push the Trump-Russia story to the media, according to court testimony.
Trump Wins the Election
When Trump won the election, many in the media were dismayed and outraged. Clinton had lost, but the material compiled by her campaign now took on a life of its own as journalists settled into their adversary relationship with the new president.
That Halloween night the Clinton campaign, anticipating the imminent publication of the Alfa Bank story, was prepared to “light it up,” Fritsch emailed a reporter that morning. Another story Fusion helped arrange appeared that day, too, in the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones. It said a “veteran spy” had provided the FBI information about an alleged five-year Russian operation to cultivate and coordinate with Trump. That came from Steele’s dossier. Within hours, the FBI contacted Steele, who “confirmed” he had been a source for the article. After working with the bureau for several months as a confidential informant on the Russia inquiry, he was terminated by the FBI, bureau documents show.
Before the election, the author of the article, David Corn, provided a copy of the dossier to Baker, the FBI’s general counsel, a longtime acquaintance. “It was a standard journalistic ploy to try and get information out of them, because I knew they had the dossier,” Corn said in an interview. But, he added, “it didn’t work.”
After the election that ushered Trump into office, the Times began to undertake some soul-searching about its Trump-Russia coverage. The intelligence community did its own assessment on Russia, including a new take by the FBI.
Now, say what you want about Trump, but the guy is pretty candid sometimes. And funny.
In a windowless conference room at Trump Tower, on January 6, 2017, Comey briefed the president-elect about the dossier about him and Russia. “The only thing that really resonated,” Trump said about the briefing, “was when he said four hookers,” a reference to the unsubstantiated claim of a salacious encounter in Moscow. Trump’s immediate reaction was that “this is not going to be good for the family,” he recalled. But his wife, Melania, “did not believe it at all,” telling him, “That’s not your deal with the golden shower,” Trump recalled.
Trump’s marriage might have survived but his hoped for honeymoon with the press was about to end. The dossier, largely suppressed by the media in 2016, was about to surface.
On Sunday, January 8, McCabe, the FBI’s deputy director, sent a memo to the bureau’s leadership headlined “the flood is coming.” He noted that CNN was “close to” publishing a piece about the dossier, with the “trigger” being Comey’s brief and the dossier’s attachment to the ICA.
The dam broke two days later when CNN disclosed the Comey briefing. Hours later, BuzzFeed News posted the full dossier, with a warning that the material was “unverified and potentially unverifiable.” Both outlets cited the government use of the dossier to justify their going ahead.
Comey, in his 2018 book A Higher Loyalty, wrote that CNN had “informed the FBI press office they were going to run with it as soon as the next day,” so “I could see no way out of” telling Trump. Comey also cited CNN’s imminent disclosure in a subsequent explanation to Trump, according to Comey’s notes.
Ben Smith, then the editor of BuzzFeed News, said in an interview the decision was a “journalistic no-brainer,” especially since BuzzFeed was a “slightly fringy place.” A BuzzFeed reporter, Ken Bensinger, got access to the dossier via David Kramer, a close associate of then-senator John McCain. He photographed the pages when Kramer was out of the room, according to Kramer’s testimony in a libel suit. Kramer also testified he would not have granted “access” to Bensinger if he knew “BuzzFeed would publish.”
Bensinger had been vetting the dossier, but was on vacation at Disney World with his family when CNN aired its story. A BuzzFeed editor called him to say the publication planned to publish the entire document, a possibility that had not previously been discussed, Bensinger said in an interview. A few minutes later, in a call with Smith and other editors, Bensinger voiced his opposition to publishing the raw material but was told the decision had already been made.
So the press justified publishing the dossier because the FBI had briefed the president on it. Which the FBI had done because it had been told by the press that it would publish the dossier. A perfect example of circular reasoning.
The biggest problem here, of course, is that the dossier was unverifiable bullshit. Which is obvious when you read it.
→ c.f.: The Steele dossier
And it was obvious to the people involved.
It turns out that a few weeks after the FBI began checking out the dossier, in the fall of 2016, it offered Steele as much as $1 million if he could offer corroboration and he didn’t, according to court testimony by an FBI official in October.
Steele, in response to my questions earlier this year, wrote that his “raw intelligence reports” were meant only “for client oral briefing, rather than a finished and assessed written intelligence product,” which would have contained “sourcing caveats.” Thus, Steele wrote, “the quality of the Dossier reports was fine imo.” He said only one minor detail had been “disproved,” with the rest either corroborated or unverified.
CNN’s story claimed “his [Steele’s] investigations related to Mr. Trump were initially funded by groups and donors supporting Republican opponents of Mr. Trump during the GOP primaries.” But the sponsors of the dossier, writing in a book in 2019, made clear the dossier came later, as a separate project, and the research trove commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans was never shared with Steele. Steele confirmed that in his response to my questions.
Hours after the Times story ran, the Post upped the temperature on Russia even more. Columnist David Ignatius disclosed that incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn had phoned Russia’s US ambassador “several times” at the end of the year, according to “a senior US government official.”
On the heels of the Ignatius column, the FBI’s “investigative tempo increased,” according to FBI records, and the Senate intelligence panel announced an inquiry into Russia’s election activities. Two days after the Senate announcement, Bob Woodward, appearing on Fox News, called the dossier a “garbage document” that “never should have” been part of an intelligence briefing. He later told me that the Post wasn’t interested in his harsh criticism of the dossier. After his remarks on Fox, Woodward said he “reached out to people who covered this” at the paper, identifying them only generically as “reporters,” to explain why he was so critical. Asked how they reacted, Woodward said: “To be honest, there was a lack of curiosity on the part of the people at the Post about what I had said, why I said this, and I accepted that and I didn’t force it on anyone.”
The Media Dreams up a Second Watergate
The dossier was bullshit, but the corporate news media was smelling another Watergate and the allure was just too big. This story was simply too good to check.
As Trump prepared to take office, the possibility of another Watergate was on the mind of some reporters, several journalists told me, intensifying the competition. “There was a feeding frenzy to try and be first with the story,” Entous explained to me.
Liz Spayd, the Times’ public editor, posted a column criticizing the October 31 piece, which reported that the FBI had found no clear link between Trump and Russia. Spayd wrote that the story “downplayed its significance” and disclosed that the FBI had asked the paper to delay publication. Spayd also contrasted the paper’s “relentless” coverage of the Clinton email matter with its “timid” pursuit of the Russia investigation in 2016. After the column came out, Baquet quickly emailed several colleagues, saying Spayd’s piece was “really bad,” mainly for its disclosure of confidential information regarding deliberations about whether to publish the Alfa Bank matter
Spayd, in an email to me, complained that the Times had “two standards.” Before the election, she wrote, the October 31 piece was “downplayed” because the paper “didn’t know whether the allegations held up,” but after the election, “the Times produced a steady stream of stories about whether Trump conspired with Russians to win the election without knowing whether the allegation was actually true.”
The Times was so sure of itself, that it did something – in hindsight – incredibly embarrassing.
Even as those debates were unfolding in the Times newsroom, the paper was about to land what it thought was its bombshell. The paper was so sure of itself that it let a filmmaker capture internal deliberations, which wound up airing in a 2018 series on Showtime called The Fourth Estate.
As the story is being edited, Mark Mazzetti, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau who was also helping edit some of the Trump-Russia coverage, is shown telling senior editors he is “fairly sure members of Russian intelligence” were “having conversations with members of Trump’s campaign.” (The story would say the conversations were based on “phone records and intercepted calls” and involved “senior Russian intelligence officials.” ) He asks Baquet, “Are we feeding into a conspiracy” with the “recurring themes of contacts?”
Baquet responded that he wanted the story, up high, to “show the range” and level of “contacts” and “meetings, some of which may be completely innocent” and not “sinister,” followed by a “nut” or summary “graph,” explaining why “this is something that continues to hobble them.” Baquet’s desire to flush out the details of supposed contacts is similar to his well-founded skepticism in October 2016 about the supposed computer links between a Russian bank and the Trump organization.
Mazzetti reports back that the story is “nailed down.” Baquet asks, “Can you pull it off?” “Oh yeah,” Mazzetti replies. So Baquet signs off, adding that it’s the “biggest story in years.” Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief, adds her seal of approval: “There’ll be hair on fire.”
Of course, the story was bullshit.
The story said “the FBI declined to comment.” In fact, the FBI was quickly ripping the piece to shreds, in a series of annotated comments by Strzok, who managed the Russia case. His analysis, prepared for his bosses, found numerous inaccuracies, including a categorical refutation of the lead and headline; “we are unaware,” Strzok wrote, “of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.” Comey immediately checked with other intelligence agencies to see if they had any such evidence, came up empty, and relayed his findings to a closed Senate briefing, according to testimony at a Senate hearing months later.
In the article’s discussion of the dossier, it described Steele as having “a credible track record” and noted the FBI had recently contacted “some” of Steele’s “sources.” Actually, the FBI had recently interviewed Steele’s “primary” source, a Russian working at a Washington think tank, who told them Steele’s reporting was “misstated or exaggerated” and the Russian’s own information was based on “rumor and speculation,” according to notes of the interview released later. The day the Times piece appeared in print, Strzok emailed colleagues and reported that Steele “may not be in a position to judge the reliability” of his network of sources, according to Justice Department documents released in 2020.
The Times piece “was the peak of the frenzy” over Trump and Russia, Cullison, the Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the issue, told me. “It’s kind of like the Watergate burglary,” Woodward said, because it helped “launch the issue.” Trump would often call the Times “failing,” including the day after the controversial story about Russia-Trump ties, but in fact the soaring digital-subscriber base throughout his presidency offset the steady fall in revenue from print subscribers and advertising.
So, the stories had reached their goal, from the point of view of the journalists. But even as it became more and more obvious that they had been wrong, they didn’t correct their mistakes, they doubled down. And won journalism prizes for it.
On June 8, at a Senate hearing, Comey was asked whether the Times story was “almost entirely wrong.” He said yes. He told a senator they were “correct” when they said he had “surveyed the intelligence community” after the article came out “to see whether you were missing something.” Comey also agreed he later told senators, in a closed briefing shortly after the Times piece was published, “I don’t know where this is coming from, but this is not the case.” Finally, in his own voice, Comey testified that the story “in the main, it was not true.”
Back at the Washington bureau, Times journalists were uncomfortable, but confident, as captured by a filmmaker documenting the paper’s Russia coverage. Bumiller, the bureau chief, tells colleagues in New York, “The FBI won’t even tell us what’s wrong with the story, so we don’t know what Comey’s talking about.”
Mazzetti, a reporter on the original story, remarks how “uncomfortable” it is to have the former FBI director “challenging aspects of our story” because “it became a way to bludgeon the press and discredit our reporting.” Still, he added, “we’re very confident of the story” after going back to “our sources.” “We were solid,” they told him. Despite the criticism from Comey, the Times continued to aggressively report on Trump and Russia.
On July 9 the paper landed a major scoop about a meeting in 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, that rekindled the collusion narrative. For the Times, Trump’s mess was a pot of gold: two of the Times stories about the meeting and the emails were part of its winning Pulitzer Prize package.
In the end, the “I love it” email showed a receptiveness by Trump’s world to dirt from Russia. But the meeting itself was a “flop,” wrote Barry Meier, a former Times reporter, in his book about the Trump dossier, Spooked.
Ironically, the only information given to the Trump delegation at the meeting was a memo, prepared by Fusion, the sponsor of the dossier, about some obscure Clinton donors mixed up in Russian business dealings. Fusion, it turns out, had worked for American lawyers representing a Russian real estate company, and Veselnitskaya was their Russian lawyer.
“I think the Pulitzers make a statement,” Baquet told the Times newsroom the day of the announcement. He compared the recent attacks against the paper to criticism of its coverage of civil rights and the Vietnam War. But even though the attacks “hurt us,” Baquet said, “the New York Times is still here.”
The month after the Pulitzers were announced, Showtime aired the four-part documentary film about the Times’ pursuit of the Russia story, The Fourth Estate. Other films were in the works, including a few that would feature Steele’s work and efforts by reporters to delve into the Russia story. Some that involved Steele were dropped, according to journalists familiar with them, while Steele declined to comment, citing contractual obligations.
One stalled project involved the Washington Post and Robert Redford’s production company, according to journalists familiar with the project, including Entous, the former Post reporter. They say the Post dropped out of the project in 2021; a Post spokesperson, who would not talk on the record, said it was “correct” that the Post had backed out some time ago but declined to discuss the proposed project.
Manipulating an Election with $3000
And still the press doubles down even more. Him actually finally meeting with Putin just makes them want to believe their own bullshit even more.
Trump, in July 2018, finally had a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, the man he mistakenly claimed in 2015 to have met years earlier and his supposed puppet master, according to Steele’s dossier. At a press briefing, the final question was whether US intelligence or Putin should be believed with regard to meddling in the 2016 election. After going on a tangent about the server at the DNC, Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that did it. Then, a bit later in his answer, he expressed “great confidence in my intelligence people.” The first remark received all the attention. Some outlets, like the Times, didn’t include his comments about “great confidence” in US intelligence in their stories, while others, such as the Post, did. Trump flew home to Washington, and when aides talked to him the next day about the reaction, he said he meant the opposite.
Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host, saw the day’s events as affirmation of her having covered the Trump-Russia matter “more than anyone else,” because, as her blog pointed out, Americans were now “coming to grips with a worst-case scenario that the US president is compromised by a hostile foreign power.”
The narrative now shifts back towards the 2016 election again.
In the aftermath of the summit, Trump’s critics believed the worst. A YouGov/Economist poll found that two-thirds of Democrats were definitely or somewhat sure that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected.”
Despite the US intelligence community’s assessment in January 2017 that it couldn’t measure “the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the Times weighed in, at over ten thousand words in September, with its own verdict: “The Plot to Subvert an Election,” the headline read. The first sentence described an obscure banner of Putin that unfurled on his birthday, a few weeks before the election, on a Manhattan bridge. The report quickly noted that the banner was promoted by a fake Twitter account that ultimately was traced back to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a privately owned troll operation in Russia.
This was part, the Times concluded in the fourth paragraph, of “the most effective foreign interference in an American election in history.” To help buttress its sweeping conclusion, the Times wrote that the Facebook posts by the IRA had an “eventual audience of 126 million Americans,” describing that as an “impressive” reach that almost matched the numbers of voters in the election.
For most of the media, and official Washington, the impact of Russian activities on the 2016 election loomed large, though a number of rigorous academic studies that the media largely ignored painted a more benign footprint.
Gareth Porter, a veteran journalist and historian, called the Times’ description of the IRA’s “eventual audience” of 126 million “bogus” because Facebook had told Congress, and reporters, months earlier that the figure was only a potential audience for IRA content over two years, including nine months after the election. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified, several months before the piece, he said “approximately 126 million people may have been served content” from the IRA.
Facebook data submitted to Congress about the IRA’s ads on its site further diminished their impact: more than half of the impressions associated with the IRA’s Facebook ads came after the election.
Porter, writing in Consortium News, said the Times’ use of the 126 million audience number, plus the piece’s failure to reflect that Facebook users were exposed to 33 trillion news feeds during the relevant period, “should vie in the annals of journalism as one of the most spectacularly misleading use of statistics of all time.”
As for the IRA’s supposed “efficiency,” noted in the article, the Times piece didn’t include Facebook submissions to Congress that called the IRA’s targeting “relatively rudimentary,” with only a small fraction having anything to do with the election or specific geographic targets.
Court filings in 2019 showed that the total value of the IRA’s Facebook ads that were deemed election-related amounted to $2,930, in a political cycle where billions of dollars were spent. The only reporter to write about that finding was Sperry, of Real Clear Investigations.
With other words: There was absolutely no evidence of mass manipulation of the election by Russian propaganda actors.
Even before that, studies, largely ignored by the media, pointed to a more modest impact. A book by Harvard researchers, Network Propaganda, published by Oxford University Press in October 2018, found “strong” evidence of Russian interference operations in America but noted that “evidence of its impact is scant.” A study by Danish and American scholars published by the National Academy of Science the following year found “no evidence” that interaction with the IRA accounts “substantially impacted” the “political attitudes and behaviors” of Twitter users.
The deep dive by Harvard researchers warned that “overstating the impact” of Russian information operations “helps consolidate” the aim of the operations to “disorient American political communications.”
Still, several years after the 2016 election, many voters believe Russian meddling had a big impact on those results, and the mainstream narrative in journalism was that it had. A study by Rasmussen in April 2022 found that 47 percent of voters, including 72 percent of Democrats, think Russian interference likely changed the outcome of the 2016 race.
This means the misinformation in the mainstream press had a lasting effect on public opinion.
From Mueller’s Flop to January 6
As mentioned at the top of the article, Mueller’s investigation failing was a major shock to the media. But not big enough to leave Trump alone. The corporate media finally swept Russiagate under the carpet and continued their attacks on Trump from every possible angle.
Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation was winding down. The inquiry had issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, interviewed 500 witnesses, and generated enormous interest. There were 533,000 news articles published involving Russia and Trump or Mueller, between Mueller’s appointment and the release of his report, according to a study by NewsWhip, a media analytics company. The articles led to 245 million interactions on social media, the study, funded by the media site Axios, also found.
With the release of the findings imminent, Barr was briefed on the inquiry, sat down with Mueller and his colleagues, and learned of their two overarching conclusions: no case of conspiracy or collusion between the Russians and Trump—though there had been offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to help the Trump campaign—and ten episodes that raised possible obstruction-of-justice issues but no analysis or determination of whether they constituted a crime.
Woodward told me the Mueller report was a “fizzle” but reporters were “never going to declare it’s going to end up dry.” The following morning, less than eighteen hours after Mueller left the congressional hearing, a more confident Trump had his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in which he asked him for help in digging up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden.
What Trump thought was a “perfect” phone chat turned out to be the impeachment vehicle Democrats so desperately wanted after Mueller’s far-from-perfect performance. A new media frenzy was about to begin.
And so, from the Zelensky phone call, which eventually led to a failed attempt to impeach Trump, to the January 6 debacle, the final round of The Press vs. The President started. Things weren’t going well for those in the press that were clinging to the “Trump is a Russian agent” narrative, though.
Even with Mueller finished, the ongoing probes into Trump’s activities were giving the press the fodder to keep the drumbeat going. First was the appointment in May 2019 of John Durham, a career prosecutor, once praised by his home-state Democratic senators in Connecticut, to examine the origins of the various Trump inquiries. Then came a lengthy, and critical, report, released in December 2019 by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, into the secret surveillance of former Trump adviser Carter Page. And in early 2020 Barr asked Jeffrey Jensen, a former FBI agent and the US Attorney in Missouri, to review the Flynn inquiry.
One result of Durham’s investigation has been to further discredit the dossier in the eyes of many in the media. It prompted the Washington Post to retract large chunks of a 2017 article in November 2021, and to follow with a long review of Steele’s sources and methods. The Wall Street Journal and CNN did similar looks back.
The Times has offered no such retraction, though the paper and other news organizations were quick to highlight the lack of firsthand evidence for many of the dossier’s substantive allegations; “third hand stuff” is what Isikoff now calls them. But they rarely, if ever, pointed out that the origin of the FBI inquiry was itself third hand information, at best. The supposed original source of the information, Mifsud, the Maltese academic, disappeared, leaving behind many questions.
By the end of the year Barr answered his own question: no, the FBI inquiry was not properly predicated. On his way out the door as attorney general, Barr told a Wall Street Journal columnist that the inquiry shouldn’t have been opened because “there wasn’t any evidence.” The Times dismissed those remarks.
As the next election looms in 2020, the Hunter Biden laptop story hits.
Then a mirror image of the Trump-Russia story surfaced, after the New York Post ran a series of stories disclosing “raunchy” details of Hunter Biden’s private life, as well as inside correspondence related to his business dealings in Ukraine and China. It came from the contents of his laptop, said to have been abandoned in 2019 at a computer repair shop in Delaware.
In the wake of the New York Post story, Schiff went on CNN to claim “the origins of this whole smear are from the Kremlin.” Around this time, a group of more than fifty former intelligence and national-security officials were preparing a statement linking the laptop story to Russia, saying it “has all the classic hallmarks of a Russian information operation.”
In short order, the letter, was given to Natasha Bertrand, then a Politico reporter and now at CNN, by Nick Shapiro, a former aide to Brennan, Obama’s last CIA director. The headline on Bertrand’s story read “Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say.” The letter, and Bertrand’s story, made clear the signers were relying on their “experience,” not evidence: “we do not have evidence of Russian involvement,” they wrote. But it was good enough to be picked up in dozens of news reports, tweeted by Biden’s campaign, and cited by Biden himself in his final debate with Trump, which attracted sixty-three million television viewers.
Trump loses the election, and ironically much like Hillary before him, refuses to recognise it.
On January 6, 2021, Trump’s legacy, in most of the media and elsewhere, was sealed. Some of Trump’s most devoted supporters — who also believed in his unsubstantiated claims of a rigged election — went wild, as Trump had predicted in a December tweet, leaving a dark stain on the Capitol, and the country.
Gerth' Takeaway from His Analysis
At the end of his article, Jeff Gerth sums up what went wrong with the Trump-Russia coverage in the main.
I’ve avoided opining in my more than fifty years as a reporter. This time, however, I felt obligated to weigh in. Why? Because I am worried about journalism’s declining credibility and society’s increasing polarization. The two trends, I believe, are intertwined. My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work. This combination adds to people’s distrust about the media and exacerbates frayed political and social differences.
One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative. In January 2018, for example, the New York Times ignored a publicly available document showing that the FBI’s lead investigator didn’t think, after ten months of inquiry into possible Trump-Russia ties, that there was much there. This omission disserved Times readers. The paper says its reporting was thorough and “in line with our editorial standards.”
Another axiom of journalism that was sometimes neglected in the Trump-Russia coverage was the failure to seek and reflect comment from people who are the subject of serious criticism. The Times guidelines call it a “special obligation.” Yet in stories by the Times involving such disparate figures as Joseph Mifsud (the Maltese academic who supposedly started the whole FBI inquiry), Christopher Steele (the former British spy who authored the dossier), and Konstantin Kilimnik (the consultant cited by some as the best evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump), the paper’s reporters failed to include comment from the person being criticized. The Times, in a statement, says some of the subjects were approached on occasion, yet the paper’s guidelines also call for their comments to be published.
Another exhibit is a familiar target: anonymous sources. I’ve used them myself, including, sparsely, in this piece. What’s different in the Trump era, however, is both the volume of anonymous sources and the misleading way they’re often described.
One frequent and vague catchphrase — “people (or person) familiar with” — is widely used by many journalists: the Times used it over a thousand times in stories involving Trump and Russia between October 2016 and the end of his presidency, according to a Nexis search. The last executive editor I worked for, Bill Keller, frowned on its use. He told the staff repeatedly the phrase was “so vague it could even mean the reporter.” The Times, in a statement to CJR, said, “We have strong rules in place governing the use of anonymous sources.” Other outlets mentioned in this piece declined to discuss their anonymous-sourcing practices.
Another anonymous-sourcing convention that was turbocharged in the Trump era was the use of more neutral descriptors like “government official” or “intelligence official” or “American official” to mask congressional leakers. A few reporters admitted that to me, but, of course, only anonymously. Here’s how it works. First, a federal agency like the CIA or FBI secretly briefs Congress. Then Democrats or Republicans selectively leak snippets. Finally, the story comes out, using vague attribution. “It was a problem for us,” Mike Kortan, the former FBI spokesman until 2018, told me. Kortan, who also worked in Congress, added: “We would brief Congress, try and give them a full picture with the negative stuff, and then a member of Congress can cherry-pick the information and the reporter doesn’t know they’ve been cherry-picked.” The typical reader or viewer is clueless.
My final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded. Of those who did, more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed on the record. However, not a single major news organization made available a newsroom leader to talk about their coverage.
The article ends on a chilling analysis.
During this time, when the media is under extraordinary attack and widely distrusted, a transparent, unbiased, and accountable media is more needed than ever. It’s one of a journalist’s best tools to distinguish themselves from all the misinformation, gossip, and rumor that proliferates on the Web and then gets legitimized on occasion by politicians of all stripes, including Trump.
Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me of her concerns about news silos. “If you are only getting your news from one source, you are getting a skewed view,” which, she said, “increases polarization” and “crowds out the room for compromise, because people base their views on these siloed news sources.” She added: “People don’t have time to deal with nuance, so they settle on a position and everything else tends to become unacceptable.”
Walter Lippmann wrote about these dangers in his 1920 book Liberty and the News. Lippmann worried then that when journalists “arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”
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