Media Ethics and the Trump-Russia Leak Wars

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For all the craziness that defines Donald Trump’s presidency, it often appears as if political reporters are doing less work than ever. One often gets the impression that they sit by their phones waiting for leaks, and then rush to press with the accusations.  What’s missing is the traditional effort of ferreting out the leakers’ agenda, let alone trying to get both sides of the story. And when such stories are inevitably shown to be inaccurate or, at least, incomplete, no one is held to account because even scandalous accusations are now anonymously sourced. It’s a nice little scam.

The latest example of mistaking leaks for journalism comes from The New York Times. Last Thursday, the Times reported that “Lawmakers Are Warned That Russia Is Meddling to Re-elect Trump.” This report prompted John Brennan, former CIA head and charter member of the anti-Trump resistance, to declare, “We are now in a full-blown national security crisis. By trying to prevent the flow of intelligence to Congress, Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.”  

Brennan’s overheated warning proved to be premature. By Sunday, the Times was walking back its initial reporting in a second report, “Dueling Narratives Emerge From Muddied Account of Russia’s 2020 Interference.” Contrary to its first story, the Times was reporting that intelligence officials “now maintain that the House members either misheard or misinterpreted a key part of the briefing, and that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not mean to say that it believes the Russians are currently intervening in the election explicitly to help President Trump.”

It doesn’t help that the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, has been caught, among other things, telling bald-faced lies on national television,  deliberately mischaracterizing evidence in Trump’s impeachment trial, and leaking in an embarrassingly erroneous fashion that Donald Trump Jr. was working with Russians to hack Democratic Party emails.

Byron York has subsequently reported that it was Schiff who organized the intel briefing in the first place, and as soon as it was over “Republicans agreed that the news would leak soon.”

Of course, this is all just informed speculation about how the Times got burned, because, again, the sources are all anonymous.

On Friday, the morning after the Times’ first story appeared saying Russians were meddling to elect Trump, CNN’s Jake Tapper went public with information contradicting the Times’ story.  “A national security official I know and trust pushes back on the way the briefing/ODNI story is being told, and others with firsthand knowledge agree with his assessment,” he tweeted.

According to Tapper’s source, “A more reasonable interpretation of the intelligence is not that [the Russians] have a preference [in the 2020 presidential election], it's a step short of that. It's more that they understand the President is someone they can work with, he's a dealmaker.” By Monday, Tapper and two other CNN reporters had filed a more complete report contradicting the Times: “US intelligence briefer appears to have overstated assessment of 2020 Russian interference.

So good for Jake Tapper, whose anonymous sources seem to have effectively disputed the Times’ anonymous sources, which got the news-consuming public one step closer to the truth. And it may be a form of penance since Tapper and his colleagues at CNN played a large role in uncritically accepting the leaks that led to over three years of Russian collusion hysteria.

Tapper was one of four bylines – including Mr. Watergate himself, Carl Bernstein – on CNN’s infamous story in January 2017 that revealed Trump and outgoing President Obama had been briefed on the contents of the infamous Steele dossier, a partisan opposition research document claiming there was an “extensive conspiracy” between Trump and Russia help him win the 2016 election.

While nothing about that story was unfactual, everything we’ve learned since then about how it was reported and the anonymous sourcing of this “bombshell” suggests CNN let itself be used as the opening salvo in a leak war.

For one thing, CNN made the curious decision to report on “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” without verifying any of these supposed allegations contained in the Steele dossier, many of which were ultimately debunked.

Shortly after CNN’s story appeared, BuzzFeed published the dossier in full. It had been widely circulating in Washington for months, and when some of the more absurd allegations were exposed as nonsense, CNN looked disingenuous. Nonetheless, as one revelation after another exposed the dossier as chock-full of innuendo and demonstrable falsehoods, CNN continued to bizarrely insist the document was corroborated by the intel community and to publicly defend its reporting.

In January, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple published a nine-part series picking apart all the bad reporting that was prompted by the Steele dossier. A significant focus of this effort was dedicated to CNN’s problematic coverage. Wemple ultimately concluded, “CNN programming bathed the dossier’s large-bore claims in credibility that they turn out not to deserve.”

You’d think, therefore, that CNN would be chary about hiring former FBI official  Andrew McCabe. A leader of the anti-Trump efforts in the bureau, he was fired for lying about, yes, leaking to the press. Wemple would note that CNN’s decision to hire him was “offensive, awkward and corrupting.”

He wasn’t the first. CNN also retained the services of James Clapper, another known leaker, fierce anti-Trump agitator – and prevaricator. The director of national intelligence in the Obama administration,  Clapper has been controversial ever since he lied under oath before the Senate in 2013.

The common thread in all this bad Trump-Russia journalism is easily discernible: The media has surrendered its ethical responsibilities in order to be a conduit for airing anonymous, often-unverified accusations of rival political factions. But only one faction: the one opposed to Trump.

The upshot is that any attentive newspaper reader has reason suspect an agenda lurks behind the anonymous sources that have come to dominate political coverage.

After three years of chasing Trump-Russia headlines that have turned out to be inaccurate if not outright false, you’d hope journalists would want to get back to basics: getting on-the-record quotes, comparing conflicting accounts of events with a neutral eye, and viewing politically motivated sources critically. If there are any self-respecting reporters still left in Washington, they’ll tell you what’s going on isn’t reporting – it’s leaks all the way down.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.



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