There’s only one American journalist who truly merits a Pulitzer Prize this year: Glenn Greenwald. He’s been on the biggest story of the year from day one. No, I don’t mean Russiagate, the main stage for the media’s preening self-advertisements of its heroic “resistance,” like “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” In fact, the narrative holding that Donald Trump colluded with Russia is the chief piece of evidence that Greenwald has used to nail the year’s real top story—how the American press became a woozy facsimile of Pravda.
Last week, Greenwald called out the press for its latest blunder: “Friday was one of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time,” wrote Greenwald. “The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, with countless pundits, commentators and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.”
The question of why everyone got the same big scoop on the same day—only to find that the story was totally wrong—is a thread that leads to some very interesting places. So let’s follow it.
CNN claimed that an email sent to Donald Trump and his campaign officials that linked to WikiLeaks documents was dated Sept. 4, 2016—therefore showing that WikiLeaks, and by implication the Kremlin, had offered the Trump campaign an exclusive preview of damaging Democratic National Committee emails. But in fact, the email was dated Sept. 14—10 days later—and linked to a trove of documents that WikiLeaks had publicly released a day earlier, meaning the big scoop proving Trump’s Russia ties was, in fact, a story about spam.
“Surely anyone who has any minimal concerns about journalistic accuracy,” Greenwald continued, “which would presumably include all the people who have spent the last year lamenting Fake News, propaganda, Twitter bots and the like—would demand an accounting as to how a major U.S. media outlet ended up filling so many people’s brains with totally false news.”
I’m not generally a big fan of Greenwald. His attacks on Israel are gross; His continued defense of Edward Snowden, who turned over information to an adversary that may endanger American lives, seems, at best, naïve and self-serving. That said, the last few years have certainly brought me around to his view that abuses of our national-security-surveillance apparatus and the power it gives to unelected bureaucrats are a real threat to how Americans live. But finally it doesn’t matter what I think about Greenwald’s opinions—he might believe that a race of super-intelligent gender-neutral cats rules the galaxy next to ours, or that John Travolta has an important message for all mankind—because good journalism isn’t about the personal or political beliefs of individual reporters. All that actually matters is whether you use the tools of the trade to get the story right.
But that sort of thing isn’t what matters to journalists anymore, or else they wouldn’t have spent the past year running pieces about Trump and Russia that are almost immediately falsified, then updated with clarifications, or corrected, or retracted, and then are vanished down the memory hole—with no institutional accountability or apparent concern for truth. This startling unconcern goes back at least as far as that big Washington Post “exclusive” in January about Russia hacking an electrical dam in Vermont—a story that was entirely false. Since then, it’s all been downhill.
How many times has the media since promised the smoking gun that will finally and incontrovertibly prove that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to swing the Presidency away from Hillary Clinton? Boom! And then nothing. Poof.
When you repeatedly publish “news” that isn’t true, you’re no longer in the news business. Call it what you like—infotainment, media theater, crowd-sourced onanism, a human be-in—but it’s not “news,” because it isn’t true.
Just last week the press screwed up two other Russiagate stories, in addition to the CNN blunder. On Dec. 1, ABC News reported that Michael Flynn was going to testify that presidential candidate Donald Trump directed him to contact Russian officials. No—Trump was president-elect when he told his national security adviser to speak with foreign counterparts. Dec. 5, Reuters and Bloomberg reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for information on accounts relating to President Trump and his family members. No—the subpoenas dealt with “people or entities close to Mr. Trump.” And to round it off, CNN dropped its stink-bomb Dec. 8. Anyone who relied on this kind of information to fix the electrical wiring in your home, say, or tell you whether your food contained dangerous toxins would be a natural magnet for a major lawsuit.
The press’ wildly error-laden coverage would seem to corroborate the perception that Russiagate is a partisan information operation—led by Democratic political operatives, using the press as their willing instrument—designed to block or bring down Trump. And indeed reports last week concerning Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation team lends further weight to that unpleasant theory.
On the face of it, it’s hard to describe Mueller’s team as impartial. His dream team of investigators, celebrated by Twitter legions of newly-minted left-wing law-and-order nuts and Russia-phobes, have included an FBI counterintelligence officer who exchanged anti-Trump text messages with his lover, who was also an FBI employee; a Department of Justice lawyer who sent an email applauding his superior Sally Yates for blocking Trump’s travel ban and partied with Hillary Clinton on Election Night; a former Clinton Foundation lawyer who also was former Obama deputy Ben Rhodes’ personal lawyer; a lawyer who represented a key figure in the Clinton email controversy; an associate deputy attorney general who met with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who authored the controversial anti-Trump dossier, as well as Glenn Simpson, one of the principals of Fusion GPS, the Washington, D.C.-based opposition-research firm that packaged and distributed the dossier. And now it appears that the wife of the above mentioned associate deputy attorney general worked for Fusion GPS while the dossier was being assembled and disseminated to the press.
Maybe Mueller’s team really is made up of top-notch professionals whose commitment to following the truth wherever it leads overrides their personal partisanship and professional commitments. It’s possible, even in our present moment of overheated political partisanship from which no other corner of American life seems to be immune.
One thing is for certain, however—someone is looking very closely at Mueller’s team of legal unicorns. That DOJ officials got hold of 10,000 texts between anti-Trump FBI texter Peter Strzok and his FBI lover suggests a pretty serious investigation is underway. Some observers argue that the three wrong stories this week are further evidence of that investigation. Maybe they are.
The investigation itself is real enough. In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced the formation of a counterintelligence unit inside the FBI that was going to get to the bottom of national-security leaks. They were looking not just at the intelligence community but also Congress. Which is where the biggest of last week’s botched CNN stories gets even more interesting.
The email that CNN reported was part of the investigative evidence shared with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Republican Devin Nunes, with ranking Democratic member Adam Schiff. So a member of the committee or staffer is the likely source of the CNN leak—and it probably was not a Republican. If the mistaken date was on a document that was leaked to CNN and was part of a government sting operation—which sought to identify the leaker by altering a date on a document, and providing that document to only one member of the oversight committee—then whoever leaked that document has now been outed, and is facing some real trouble.
Of course, you can argue that Trump’s appointees to the DOJ and DNI are playing a dirty game against the elected officials and honorable civil servants who are just trying to get to the bottom of Trump’s collusion with Russia. On this reading, the GOP is just providing cover for a treasonous president. But the unending string of false stories being fed to a pliant media points in a different direction.
As anyone who’s ever watched a police procedural knows, when the facts keep changing, someone isn’t telling the truth. The reason that Russiagate reporting keeps choking on its errors is because the narrative itself is founded on a big untruth—the Steele dossier.
“The dossier really did help to touch off, or literally touched off, this entire investigation into Trump and Russia and remains kind of the spine of both investigations by intelligence agencies and the FBI,” Reuters reporter Mark Hosenball told Rachel Maddow in October. No one has yet disproved the dossier, says Hosenball, who according to one veteran journalist on the national security beat is close to Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson. However, Hosenball’s employer, as Hosenball wrote that same month, was briefed on the dossier before the election, but “decided not to report on the material because its inflammatory and sometimes salacious content could not be verified.”
So: Is the Trump dossier true, or not true? The answer to that question is important, because it tells us what we’ve been looking at, and reading, and listening to, for the past year.
Put aside for a second the Steele dossier’s most lurid details—like Trump hiring prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed where Obama once slept. And forget the dossier’s most outrageous claims—like Trump campaign hanger-on Carter Page being offered a 19 percent stake in one of the world’s energy giants, worth billions, in exchange for getting Trump to drop sanctions on Russia. Try to forget the thousands of stories that have been published using the dossier as its overarching storyline. Let’s focus for a moment on what the dossier’s nominal author, the ex-British spy for hire Christopher Steele, says about the contents of his own report, 70-90 percent of whose contents he claims to be accurate.
Now imagine that this was a criminal case. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” says the prosecutor, “up to 30 percent of what I am going to tell you about the accused may not be accurate—and at least 10 percent is guaranteed to be false. What parts are false? Well, I shall not prejudice the outcome by disclosing that beforehand, but rest assured that 70-90 percent of the state’s case rests on facts.” That case would be thrown out of court.
What if it the Steele dossier was a nonfiction book? If a review in The New York Times Book Review claimed a nonfiction book about some of the most important issues of our day got a third of its facts wrong—maybe less, or maybe even more—that would be a scandal. If the author himself says that 10-30 percent of his book is untrue, then pandemonium would break loose. The publisher sues the author, the editor loses his job, and every single book is recalled. There is no way that Amazon, which sells roughly 50 percent of the print books sold in America, continues to keep selling that book. So why does every media organization, including The Washington Post, the newspaper owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, continue to report a story based on a project whose own author admits is packed with untruths?
Steele claims that two of his sources are Russian officials, including an intelligence officer. The bulk of the case for collusion rests on their information because they would be best placed to have the skinny on the Trump team’s dealings with the Kremlin. And who knows? Maybe Russian spooks really do give up secrets to anyone who asks, even a former British spy who asks long-distance questions of Russian officials through paid intermediaries.
But why on earth should we believe them? Isn’t the premise of Russiagate that Trump is bad precisely because he colluded with Russian officials? So Russian officials are conniving bastards when they seek to secretly undermine an American election by conspiring with Trump—but when they conspire with an ex-British spy to claim that Trump is conspiring with Russian officials they’re 100 percent trustworthy? Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.
Yes, the Steele dossier is nonsense. Before the election, Fusion GPS met with the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, who passed on the biggest story on the planet. As Baquet wrote to Axios in an email: “I can say without hesitation that we were never told anything reportable about Russia that we held back at any point.” In other words: Nothing in the Steele dossier was fit to print.
Did Baquet blow a New York Times exclusive on maybe the biggest story of all time? Did Reuters blow it, too? Did all the other news organizations that threw the Steele dossier in the trash in the fall of 2016 also get the story wrong? That would certainly be news. But I don’t think it happened.
Future histories of the collapse of the 20th-century media industry seem likely to present the rejection of the Steele dossier by traditional American newsrooms as a doomed last stand against the forces of derangement unleashed by social media, and by the actions of the bureaucrats and political operatives who decided to wage war against the man who—whatever you think of him, or his policies, whatever they are, or will turn out to be tomorrow—was duly elected president.
What Russiagate revealed is that the press no longer functions as an independent power center in America. It lacks the resources or the control over the medium in which it reaches its audience. As a result, it is defined by more powerful actors and channels, instead of defining them. There is no longer any class of independent journalists and editors who joust with presidents, and very few sharp-witted wiseguys who tell it like it is, without fear or favor, no matter what side of the aisle the truth is living this week or this month.
When Barack Obama’s four intelligence chiefs briefed the newly elected president on the Steele dossier weeks before the inauguration, they re-credentialed the dossier for the press. The dossier that respectable editors—nearly all of them—had rejected in the fall was suddenly news. Why? Because now the story was about senior American spies briefing the newly elected president about a report that no respectable press outfit could verify. So now it was OK to publish it. No, wait, it was a vital public service to publish it. It was an act of #resistance.
Today’s journalists are simply keys on a piano, which is played by higher powers—like Fusion GPS, the Obama echo chamber, bureaucrats who operate in the shadows, and ambitious congressmen angling for the spotlight. “Reporting” means joining the line for the handouts that these entirely self-interested “sources” use as weapons in their extra-constitutional wars with each other. A “scoop” means being reliable enough to get jumped to the head of the handout line. This isn’t news from nowhere—it’s weaponized dirt whose sources are concealed in order to give it the appearance of “news.”
How much of the American public’s confidence in news—not “news” as a marker of partisan belief or in-group identification, but as an approximation of objectively verifiable reality—has been spent on Russiagate? And who cares anymore? The print media is broke, so if journalists want to make a living they need to get on TV, but you can’t get on TV unless you’re doing Russiagate. It’s a media-jobs program. Why, CNN even designed special graphics and an austere tagline, “The Russia Investigation,” just like other major ongoing stories in media history, like the Iranian hostage crisis, or Watergate.
Except, of course, those stories were real.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).