Another All-Time Media Faceplant
After the Biden administration and the press wrongly predicted a Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 16th, they kept compounding the error in spectacular fashion
If cluelessness can be art, American journalists unveiled their Sistine Chapel this week, in a remarkable collection of misreports and hack stenography surrounding a predicted invasion of Ukraine.
The mess began last Friday, February 11th, when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan gave an address warning American citizens to evacuate Ukraine. “If a Russian attack on Ukraine proceeds, it is likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality,” he said. “I will not comment on the details of our intelligence information,” he added, before doing just that: “I do want to be clear: It could begin during the Olympics,” i.e. before the Beijing games end on February 20th.
Around the time of Sullivan’s comments, American reporters began telling audiences a curiously detailed story about upcoming Russian invasion plans. PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin cited “three Western and defense sources” in saying Vladimir Putin had already made up his mind to invade. He then cited six sources — “US and Western officials” — who told him the U.S. expected an invasion of Ukraine the following week. These voices left little to the imagination, saying the invasion would be a “horrific, bloody campaign,” with two days of aerial bombardment, followed by electronic warfare and possible regime change:
That afternoon of the 11th, Politico cited “a person familiar” (not even “a person familiar with the matter,” just “a person familiar”) in reporting that Joe Biden held an hourlong call with Western leaders pegging February 16th as a possible invasion date:
NatSec Daily was told by a person familiar that President JOE BIDEN told Western leaders about the Feb. 16 date on an hourlong call today.
Russia will start a physical assault on Ukraine as soon as Feb. 16, multiple U.S. officials confirmed to POLITICO, and Washington communicated to allies that it could be preceded by a barrage of missile strikes and cyberattacks. One person said the leaders’ call indicated that cyberattacks are “imminent” and another said the intelligence is “specific and alarming.”
This produced the following header:
“Could” headlines are always interesting. Last year’s inspired effort from the Washington Post, “Contacting aliens could end all life on earth. Let’s stop trying,” showed the difference between the full-pucker paranoia of pandemic America and the goofy optimism of the Close Encounters days. Technically anything “could” happen, so these stories aren’t wrong. The issue is what message they send. In this case, the two obvious PR imperatives were 1) Putin is a menace, and 2) we’re still one step ahead of him.
It does seem Biden held a call with world leaders, as the same story about a detailed invasion prediction began appearing all over. Der Spiegel on February 11th wrote about info the U.S. had given European diplomats and military officials. “Routes for the Russian invasion were specifically described, as well as individual Russian units and what tasks they were to take on,” the Germans reported, adding, “February 16th was given as the possible date for the start of the invasion.”
The Daily Mail took things further. Their story, which referenced how “the plans were passed on to Biden's government and discussed in a series of secret briefings with NATO allies” — apparently they weren’t that secret! — turned into another memorable headline that seemed to imply there was something about invading on a Wednesday (as opposed to a Tuesday, Saturday, etc.) that was important to Putin:
It should be clear to any reporter that a national security source who whispers not only the alleged date of a coming invasion, but the number of days of aerial bombardment and the war’s expected level of horror and bloodiness, is either yanking your chain with a fairy tale, or using you, or both. Reporters on this beat nonetheless repeated this tale over and over, as if it were patriotic duty.