BUZZFEED WAS ONCE notorious for traffic-generating “listicles”, but has since become an impressive outlet for deep investigative journalism under editor-in-chief Ben Smith. That outlet was prominently in the news this week thanks to its “bombshell” story about President Trump and Michael Cohen: a story that, like so many others of its kind, blew up in its face, this time when the typically mute Robert Mueller’s office took the extremely rare step to label its key claims “inaccurate.”
But in homage to BuzzFeed’s past viral glory, following are the top ten worst media failures in two-plus-years of Trump/Russia reporting. They are listed in reverse order, as measured by the magnitude of the embarrassment, the hysteria they generated on social media and cable news, the level of journalistic recklessness that produced them, and the amount of damage and danger they caused. This list was extremely difficult to compile in part because news outlets (particularly CNN and MSNBC) often delete from the internet the video segments of their most embarrassing moments. Even more challenging was the fact that the number of worthy nominees is so large that highly meritorious entrees had to be excluded, but are acknowledged at the end with (dis)honorable mention status.
Note that all of these “errors” go only in one direction: namely, exaggerating the grave threat posed by Moscow and the Trump circle’s connection to it. It’s inevitable that media outlets will make mistakes on complex stories. If that’s being done in good faith, one would expect the errors would be roughly 50/50 in terms of the agenda served by the false stories. That is most definitely not the case here. Just as was true in 2002 and 2003, when the media clearly wanted to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and thus all of its “errors” went in that direction, virtually all of its major “errors” in this story are devoted to the same agenda and script:
10. RT Hacked Into and Took Over C-SPAN (Fortune)
On June 12, 2017, Fortune claimed that RT had hacked into and taken over C-SPAN and that C-SPAN “confirmed” it had been hacked. The whole story was false:
9. Russian Hackers Invaded the U.S. Electricity Grid to Deny Vermonters Heat During the Winter (WashPost)
On December 30, 2016, the Washington Post reported that “Russian hackers penetrated the U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont,” causing predictable outrage and panic, along with threats from U.S. political leaders. But then they kept diluting the story with editor’s notes – to admit that the malware was found on a laptop not connected to the U.S. electric grid at all – until finally acknowledging, days later, that the whole story was false, since the malware had nothing to do with Russia or with the U.S. electric grid:
8. A New, Deranged, Anonymous Group Declares Mainstream Political Sites on the Left and Right to be Russian Propaganda Outlets and WashPost Touts its Report to Claim Massive Kremlin Infiltration of the Internet (WashPost)
On November 24, 2016, the Washington Post published one of the most inflammatory, sensationalistic stories to date about Russian infiltration into U.S. politics using social media, accusing “more than 200 websites” of being “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.” It added: “stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign [on Facebook] were viewed more than 213 million times.”
Unfortunately for the paper, those statistics were provided by a new, anonymous group that reached these conclusions by classifying long-time, well-known sites – from the Drudge Report to Clinton-critical left-wing websites such as Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, and Naked Capitalism, as well as libertarian venues such as Antiwar.com and the Ron Paul Institute. – as “Russian propaganda outlets,” producing one of the longest Editor’s Note in memory appended to the top of the article (but not until two weeks later, long after the story was mindlessly spread all throughout the media ecosystem):
7. Trump Aide Anthony Scaramucci is Involved in a Russian Hedge Fund Under Senate Investigation (CNN)
On June 22, 2017, CNN reported that Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci was involved with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, under Senate investigation. He was not. CNN retracted the story and forced the three reporters who published it to leave the network.
6. Russia Attacked U.S. “Diplomats” (i.e. Spies) at the Cuban Embassy Using a Super-Sophisticated Sonic Microwave Weapon (NBC/MSNBC/CIA)
On September 11, 2017, NBC News and MSNBC spread all over its airwavesa claim from its notorious CIA puppet Ken Dilanian that Russia was behind a series of dastardly attacks on U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Cuba using a sonic or microwave weapon so sophisticated and cunning that Pentagon and CIA scientists had no idea what to make of it.
But then teams of neurologists began calling into doubt that these personnel had suffered any brain injuries at all – that instead they appear to have experienced collective psychosomatic symptoms – and then biologists published findings that the “strange sounds” the U.S. “diplomats” reported hearing were identical to those emitted by a common Caribbean male cricket during mating season.
4. Paul Manafort Visited Julian Assange Three Times in the Ecuadorian Embassy and Nobody Noticed (Guardian/Luke Harding)
On November 27, 2018, the Guardian published a major “bombshell” that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had somehow managed to sneak inside one of the world’s most surveilled buildings, the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and visit Julian Assange on three different occasions. Cable and online commentators exploded.
Seven weeks later, no other media outlet has confirmed this; no video or photographic evidence has emerged; the Guardian refuses to answer any questions; its leading editors have virtually gone into hiding; other media outlets have expressed serious doubts about its veracity; and an Ecuadorian official who worked at the embassy has called the story a complete fake:
3. CNN Explicitly Lied About Lanny Davis Being Its Source – For a Story Whose Substance Was Also False: Cohen Would Testify that Trump Knew in Advance About the Trump Tower Meeting (CNN)
On July 27, 2018, CNN published a blockbuster story: that Michael Cohen was prepared to tell Robert Mueller that President Trump knew in advanced about the Trump Tower meeting. There were, however, two problems with this story: first, CNN got caught blatantly lying when its reporters claimed that “contacted by CNN, one of Cohen’s attorneys, Lanny Davis, declined to comment” (in fact, Davis was one of CNN’s key sources, if not its only source, for this story), and second, numerous other outlets retracted the story after the source, Davis, admitted it was a lie. CNN, however, to this date has refused to do either:
2. Robert Mueller Possesses Internal Emails and Witness Interviews Proving Trump Directed Cohen to Lie to Congress (BuzzFeed)
1. Donald Trump Jr. Was Offered Advanced Access to the WikiLeaks Email Archive (CNN/MSNBC)
The morning of December 9, 2017, launched one of the most humiliating spectacles in the history of the U.S. media. With a tone so grave and bombastic that it is impossible to overstate, CNN went on the air and announced a major exclusive: Donald Trump, Jr. was offered by email advanced access to the trove of DNC and Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks – meaning before those emails were made public. Within an hour, MSNBC’s Ken Dilanian, using a tone somehow even more unhinged, purported to have “independently confirmed” this mammoth, blockbuster scoop, which, they said, would have been the smoking gun showing collusion between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks over the hacked emails (while the YouTube clips have been removed, you can still watch one of the amazing MSNBC videos here).
There was, alas, just one small problem with this massive, blockbuster story: it was totally and completely false. The email which Trump, Jr. received that directed him to the WikiLeaks archive was sent afterWikiLeaks published it online for the whole world to see, not before. Rather than some super secretive operative giving Trump, Jr. advanced access, as both CNN and MSNBC told the public for hours they had confirmed, it was instead just some totally pedestrian message from a random member of the public suggesting Trump, Jr. review documents the whole world was already talking about. All of the anonymous sources CNN and MSNBC cited somehow all got the date of the email wrong.
To date, when asked how they both could have gotten such a massive story so completely wrong in the same way, both CNN and MSNBC have adopted the posture of the CIA by maintaining complete silence and refusing to explain how it could possibly be that all of their “multiple, independent sources” got the date wrong on the email in the same way, to be as incriminating – and false – as possible. Nor, needless to say, will they identify their sources who, in concert, fed them such inflammatory and utterly false information.
Sadly, CNN and MSNBC have deleted most traces of the most humiliating videos from the internet, including demanding that YouTube remove copies. But enough survives to document just what a monumental, horrifying, and utterly inexcusable debacle this was. Particularly amazing is the clip of the CNN reporter (see below) having to admit the error for the first time, as he awkwardly struggles to pretend that it’s not the massive, horrific debacle that it so obviously is:
- ABC News’ Brian Ross is fired for reporting Trump told Flynn to make contact with Russians when he was still a candidate; in fact, Trump did that after he won.
- The New York Times claimed Manafort provided polling data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a person “close to the Kremlin”; in fact, he provided them to Ukrainians, not Russians.
- Crowdstrike, the firm hired by the DNC, claimed they had evidence that Russia hacked Ukrainian artillery apps; they then retracted it.
- Bloomberg and the WSJ reported Mueller subpoenaed Deustche Bank for Trump’s financial records; the NYT said that never happened.
- Rachel Maddow devoted 20 minutes at the start of her show to very melodramatically claiming a highly sophisticated party tried to trick her by sending her a fake Top Secret document modeled after the one published by the Intercept, and said it could only have come from the U.S. Government (or the Intercept) since the person obtained the document before it was published by us and thus must have had special access to it; in fact, Maddow and NBC completely misread the metadata on the document; the fake sent to Maddow was created after we published the document, and was sent to her by a random member of the public who took the document from the Intercept’s site and doctored it to see if she’d fall for an obvious scam. Maddow’s entire timeline, on which her whole melodramatic conspiracy theory rested, was fictitious.
- The U.S. media and Democrats spent six months claiming that all “17 intelligence agencies” agreed Russia was behind the hacks; the NYT finally retracted that in June, 2017: “The assessment was made by four intelligence agencies — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The assessment was not approved by all 17 organizations in the American intelligence community.”
- AP claimed on February 2, 2018, that the Free Beacon commissioned the Steele Dossier; they thereafter acknowledged that was false and noted, instead: “Though the former spy, Christopher Steele, was hired by a firm that was initially funded by the Washington Free Beacon, he did not begin work on the project until after Democratic groups had begun funding it.”
- The national media have offered multiple, conflicting accounts of how and why the FBI investigation into Trump/Russia began.
- Widespread government and media claims that accused Russian agent Maria Butina offered “sex for favors” were totally false (and scurrilous).
- After a Russian regional jet crashed on February 11, 2018, shortly after it took off from Moscow, killing all 71 people aboard, Harvard Law Professor and frequent MSNBC contributor Laurence Tribe strongly implied Putin purposely caused the plane to go down in order to murder Sergei Millian, a person vaguely linked to George Papadopoulos and Jared Kushner; in fact, Millian was not on the plane nor, to date, has anyone claimed they had any evidence that Putin ordered his own country’s civilian passenger jet brought down.
As I’ve said many times, the U.S. media has become quite adept at expressing extreme indignation when people criticize them; when politicians conclude that it is advantageous to turn the U.S. media into their main adversary; and when people turn to “fake news” sites.
If, however, they were willing to devote just a small fraction of that energy to examining their own conduct, perhaps they would develop the tools necessary to combat those problems instead of just denouncing their critics and angrily demanding that politicians and news consumers accord them the respect to which they believe they are entitled.