In announcing the resignation of the three journalists — Thomas Frank, who wrote the story (not the same Thomas Frank who wrote “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”); Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eric Lichtblau, recently hired away from the New York Times; and Lex Haris, head of a new investigative unit — CNN said that “standard editorial processes were not followed when the article was published.” The resignations follow CNN’s Friday night retraction of the story, in which it apologized to Scaramucci:
And this episode follows an embarrassing correction CNN was forced to issue earlier this month when several of its highest-profile on-air personalities asserted — based on anonymous sources — that James Comey, in his congressional testimony, was going to deny Trump’s claim that the FBI director assured him he was not the target of any investigation.
When Comey confirmed Trump’s story, CNN was forced to correct its story. “An earlier version of this story said that Comey would dispute Trump’s interpretation of their conversations. But based on his prepared remarks, Comey outlines three conversations with the president in which he told Trump he was not personally under investigation,” said the network.
But CNN is hardly alone when it comes to embarrassing retractions regarding Russia. Over and over, major U.S. media outlets have published claims about the Russia Threat that turned out to be completely false — always in the direction of exaggerating the threat and/or inventing incriminating links between Moscow and the Trump circle. In virtually all cases, those stories involved evidence-free assertions from anonymous sources that these media outlets uncritically treated as fact, only for it to be revealed that they were entirely false.
Several of the most humiliating of these episodes have come from the Washington Post. On December 30, the paper published a blockbuster, frightening scoop that immediately and predictably went viral and generated massive traffic. Russian hackers, the paper claimed based on anonymous sources, had hacked into the “U.S. electricity grid” through a Vermont utility.
turned out to be false. First, the utility company — which the Post had not bothered to contact — issued a denial, pointing out that malware was found on one laptop that was not connected either to the Vermont grid or the broader U.S. electricity grid. That forced the Post to change the story to hype the still-alarmist claim that this malware “showed the risk” posed by Russia to the U.S. electric grid, along with a correction at the top repudiating the story’s central claim:
a new article days later entirely repudiating the original story.
published a blockbuster story — largely based on a blacklist issued by a brand new, entirely anonymous group — featuring the shocking assertion that stories planted or promoted by Russia’s “disinformation campaign” were viewed more than 213 million times.
That story fell apart almost immediately. The McCarthyite blacklist of Russia disinformation outlets on which it relied contained numerous mainstream sites. The article was widely denounced. And the Post, two weeks later, appended a lengthy editor’s note at the top:
published another article that went viral on Trump and Russia, claiming that a secret server had been discovered that the Trump Organization used to communicate with a Russian bank. After that story was hyped by Hillary Clinton herself, multiple news outlets (including The Intercept) debunked it, noting that the story had been shopped around for months but found no takers. Ultimately, the Washington Post made clear how reckless the claims were:
made big news when it announced that it had been hacked and its network had been taken over by the state-owned Russian outlet RT:
published a story by reporter Ben Jacobs claiming that WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, had “long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.” That claim, along with several others in the story, was fabricated, and The Guardian was forced to append a retraction to the story:
“A cybersecurity firm has uncovered strong proof of the tie between the group that hacked the Democratic National Committee and Russia’s military intelligence arm — the primary agency behind the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election,” the Post claimed. “The firm CrowdStrike linked malware used in the DNC intrusion to malware used to hack and track an Android phone app used by the Ukrainian army in its battle against pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine from late 2014 through 2016.”
Yet that story also fell apart. In March, the firm “revised and retracted statements it used to buttress claims of Russian hacking during last year’s American presidential election campaign” after several experts questioned its claims, and “CrowdStrike walked back key parts of its Ukraine report.”
What is most notable about these episodes is that they all go in the same direction: hyping and exaggerating the threat posed by the Kremlin. All media outlets will make mistakes; that is to be expected. But when all of the “mistakes” are devoted to the same rhetorical theme, and when they all end up advancing the same narrative goal, it seems clear that they are not the byproduct of mere garden-variety journalistic mistakes.
There are great benefits to be reaped by publishing alarmist claims about the Russian Threat and Trump’s connection to it. Stories that depict the Kremlin and Putin as villains and grave menaces are the ones that go most viral, produce the most traffic, generate the most professional benefits such as TV offers, along with online praise and commercial profit for those who disseminate them. That’s why blatantly inane anti-Trump conspiracists and Russia conspiracies now command such a large audience:
because there is a voracious appetite among anti-Trump internet and cable news viewers for stories, no matter how false, that they want to believe are true (and, conversely, expressing any skepticism about such stories results in widespread accusations that one is a Kremlin sympathizer or outright agent).