Note to Readers: I have another chapter of “Hate Inc.” coming out Monday. Given the events of yesterday, however, I thought I’d first release a fragment of the chapter below, which had been scheduled for later
The Media’s Giant Factual Loophole
Call them “four-sourced clovers” – unverifiable scoops.
On Friday, January 18, Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the unusual step of releasing a statement essentially shooting down the latest “bombshell” in the Russiagate story, which had been released by BuzzFeed earlier that day. The BuzzFeed story said Donald Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to congress, which would potentially have been a felony.
Democrats after the BuzzFeed piece broke not only wasted no time calling for impeachment, but within hours began fundraising to the story. This is from a mass mailing issued that same day by DNC chief Tom Perez:
“Huge news just broke that indicates Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen lied to congress under the specific direction of Donald Trump himself… If you’re committed to holding Trump accountable… today is an important day to show it. Donate $3 right now to help Democrats…”
Mueller’s statement said “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office… are not accurate.” It was an extraordinary step, one an official in that position rarely takes unless it’s necessary.
It wasn’t the first time it happened. Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, 2017, former FBI director James Comey shot down a New York Times story from February 14th of that year suggesting Trump campaign officials had had repeated contacts with “senior Russian intelligence officials.”
Asked by Idaho Senator James Risch about that story, Comey said, “in the main, it was not true.”
The Times story had been sourced to multiple “current and former American officials.” How could it have been wrong? Or was Comey wrong?
Both stories belonged to an ancient tradition of reports, predating Russiagate, that live in a precarious loophole in the American system of media. As an Appendix to Hate Inc., I had written up the following:
The public largely misunderstands the “fake news” issue. Newspapers rarely fib outright. Most “lies” are errors of omission or emphasis. There are no Fox stories saying blue states have lower divorce rates, but neither are there MSNBC stories admitting many pro-choice Democrats struggle with a schism between their moral and political beliefs on abortion.
Most of what’s “fake” is in the caricature: of our own audiences, and especially of despised groups. As even Noam Chomsky said, newspapers are “full of facts.”
With one exception.
There is a loophole that involves a procedural flaw in Western journalism’s fact-checking tradition. It’s gotten worse with time. The offending story type nearly always has the same elements:
It involves national security or law enforcement;
It’s sourced to unnamed officials;
The basic gist of the scoop is classified or otherwise unconfirmable.
On August 25, 1986, the Wall Street Journal, citing multiple unnamed sources, stated without qualification “The U.S. and Libya are on a collision course.” The article said the American intelligence community had new information Moammar Qaddafi was planning terrorist acts and we therefore were planning to bomb the crap out of him. Oh, and he was possibly facing an internal coup, too.
"There are increasing signs that [Qaddafi has] resumed planning and preparations for terrorist acts,” the Journal wrote.
Other outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, later picked up the story. International tensions heightened.
The whole thing was a crock. It was an American-generated “deception plan” designed to make Qaddafi nervous. We only found out because another unnamed person with a conscience designed to leak the memo explaining as much (the memo had been written by Reagan National Security Adviser John Poindexter) to Bob Woodward.
I call these stories “four-sourced clovers,” because the number of unnamed sources claiming to bolster such questionable scoops has, humorously, grown over time.
The “senior Russian intelligence officials” story James Comey was forced to shoot down had four unnamed sources. So did this one, suggesting Trump was about to fire the Fed chair. Luke Harding had two for his recent Guardian bombshell.
A lot of these stories begin with a single high-ranking intelligence official speaking to a reporter (or team of reporters) at an esteemed paper like the Times or the Washington Post. The reporters might ask for additional confirmation. The official gives them some names. They call the names.
The names might belong to agency subordinates, or to retired officials now working at think tanks or private “research” agencies. They confirm the initial story in its particulars. So you get four sources, or maybe six, but depending on the story type, it’s really just one story that’s been cycled through four friendly heads – a game of telephone with the reporter at the end.
Incidentally: it’s a red flag if the call is coming from the official, as opposed to the reporter calling the officials. The average intelligence official wouldn’t stop to tell you if your child was on fire. When they start cold-calling agencies, and/or rotating scoops by doling them out to different outlets and papers each week, that’s a huge red flag. When you see one of these stories, check to see if that reporter has a history of national security pieces. If he or she does not, if this transmission of classified scoops is taking place in the context of a new relationship, be extra wary.
Why? Because relationships matter in journalism. Reporters theoretically anyway must be willing to go to jail to protect their sources. Similarly, no good source will want to burn a reporter with whom he or she has a longstanding relationship.
It’s not easy for any security official to find a journalist with the intelligence, integrity, and wherewithal to successfully protect their identities. When an official finds a reporter who’s proved he or she will not burn them by running off-the-record disclosures, the official will tend to want to protect that relationship. The official therefore will not knowingly dump a big steaming pile of horseshit on that reporter’s lap.
So for instance, there was a pretty good chance the particulars of the story were correct when David Ignatius of the Washington Post printed the first “bombshell” about Michael Flynn having had phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It’s an open secret in the business that Ignatius is basically the pet reporter of the CIA.
God only knows who his source was on the Flynn story, but it was interesting that he ran a slobbering 2000+-word profile of departing CIA director John Brennan shortly after, somehow managing not to mention Brennan’s infamous episode of lying to congress about hacking the computers of Senate staffers.
In other words, we know the CIA folks aren’t going to toss their beloved Ignatius in the Judith Miller memorial shame-dungeon. There were some other things in that Flynn piece that raised eyebrows, but the gist of it was almost certainly dead-on.
In so many other cases, you just can’t been sure. Remember these stories?
Israel Ramps Up Campaign Against Gaza Aid Flotilla, 2011
When Israel effected a naval blockade of the Gaza strip, pro-Palestinian activists (including the likes of Alice Walker) organized to try to break through with boats to deliver humanitarian aid. In advance of the arrival of those flotilla-challenging civilians, Israeli authorities told every reporter with a pulse they had firm intel violence was planned.
This is from the above Washington Post article about the story: