Media Bias And The Death Of Intellectual Honesty, Doubling Down
Yesterday we wrote about the bizarre story of Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald completely overselling his story about Trump repeating some misinformation that was printed by a Russian news site. I won’t replay the whole thing, but the short version: WikiLeaks released a cache of Clinton campaign boss John Podesta’s emails. In them was an email from Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal, with a link and text of an Eichenwald piece. Some people — first on Twitter, apparently, and then in an article on the Russian site Sputnik News — misrepresented the email in two ways. First, they took a single sentence of the long article out of context and second, they attributed that one sentence to Blumenthal instead of Eichenwald. Then, Donald Trump, at a rally, repeated the false claim that Blumenthal had said this. Again, there is a story here: Trump is willing to repeat false information from sketchy sources (whether Twitter or a Russian news organization). That’s interesting (though, perhaps not a new revelation).
But Eichenwald massively oversold the piece, with a massive tweetstorm repeatedly suggesting that it proved a connection between Russia and the Trump campaign — even falsely claiming that “only” the Russians and Trump had the same info, despite it being public on WikiLeaks. He also kept claiming that this showed the email was “manipulated.” Except it wasn’t. It was just misrepresented, perhaps on purpose, or perhaps just being oversold by those in search of a good story — just like Eichenwald did. Eichenwald had also suggested that this proved WikiLeaks was connected to the Russians as well, though it appears he’s since deleted those tweets.
Eichenwald is not backing down on this story. In fact he’s doubled down, with an “update” that only seems to again show himself overselling the story. First, he “updated” his post with claims from anonymous “intel sources” basically saying the Russians engage in disinformation, and quotes from a classified letter that was sent to the intelligence committees in Congress from the Director of National Intelligence.
“Moscow appears to use monetary support in combination with other tools of Russian statecraft, including propaganda in local media, direct lobbying by the Russian Government, economic pressure, and military intimidation,’’ the letter says. “Russian trolls and other cyber actors post comments on the Internet, maintain blogs, challenge ‘pro-Western’ journalists and media narratives, and spread pro-Russian information on social media.”
Because of its important role in the Russian effort, Sputnik does not simply publish whatever it chooses, the government official tells Newsweek. Articles pertaining to politics in the United States and Europe require high-level review. It is not clear if Russian authorities conduct that review, the official says, but no article directly related to American politics would just be sloppily thrown into public view without careful consideration. (The article in question disappeared from the website shortly after Newsweek attempted to contact Sputnik about it.)
Well, duh? Of course, Russia uses misinformation. But that doesn’t mean anything with respect to what Eichenwald originally claimed about Trump and the Russians coordinating. Eichenwald continues:
“The process has begun and stage has been set for the introduction of false information,’’ the national security experts wrote. “Altering stolen documents and introducing them to the public is not the stuff of spy movies. It is a proven tactic of Russian intelligence, and we expect it will happen here.”
Other altered documents have already been the basis of articles on Sputnik, the government official with knowledge of the intelligence agencies’ inquiries tells Newsweek. However, the Blumenthal email appears to be the first manipulated record to be publicly identified.
Except that the Blumenthal email was not manipulated. It was just misrepresented — this is a big difference — just as Eichenwald is now misrepresenting what Sputnik did.
Eichenwald doubles down even further, arguing after a bunch of reporters pointed to a tweet that went out way before the Sputnik article, making the same claim (and which may have been the source for both the Sputnik article and the Trump statement), that this is fine because he’s sure that the Tweet may be a Russian ploy too.
After Newsweek first published its article on Sputnik and the Blumenthal email, some reporters suggested that a tweet from an anonymous account may have been the source of the Russian article or Trump’s statement. An image attached to the tweet showed the sentences in question, but provided no indication that it came from an email. Based on the information from the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiries, Sputnik would never base a story it portrayed as the “October surprise” in the American election on a tweet with which it had no connection. The account in question is also quite unusual: It has put out an average of 285 tweets a day about American politics since it was created in February. (The account deleted the Blumenthal tweet on Monday.) The image from the tweet could have been anonymous propaganda by someone who searched through thousands of words to find sentences to attribute to Blumenthal. More troubling, it could have been distributed over social media as a step in the Russian effort to quote an altered email in Sputnik; that would match the tactics described by the government official who spoke to Newsweek.
Again, this is pure conjecture and not evidence. And a lot of it is based on what some random unnamed “government official” claimed. Yes, it’s entirely possible that the Russians were behind the hack, the tweet and the Sputnik article. But merely saying so without proof is not good journalism. It’s really bad journalism. Especially when Eichenwald keeps insisting that the email was “manipulated.”
And, of course, Eichenwald went back to overselling his “update” too. I’m posting screenshots in case Eichenwald starts magically deleting tweets again:
Again, there is a real story here: it’s Trump falling for false information. It’s entirely possible that Russia is pushing propaganda here. Or it’s possible that Russians misread something and accidentally misrepresented it. Eichenwald can’t say. But he pretends he’s able to claim it on authority that it’s happening, without providing any of the proof. And, on top of that, he’s still insisting that the document was “manipulated.” It was not. He’s misrepresenting just as much as Sputnik misrepresented things.
And, I mean, given how quickly Eichenwald is willing to connect the dots to a big Russian propaganda campaign, it seems worth pointing out that his own publication, Newsweek, has similarly been accused of some sketchy connections via its ownership. But, of course, Eichenwald would insist that’s totally unconnected to his reporting. Yet he refuses to give the same benefit of the doubt to others. Odd.
And here’s the real problem with all of this: in misrepresenting the story and over-claiming what it’s about, Eichenwalddiscredits the actual story. It’s easy for people to dismiss the entire story because Eichenwald is overselling the Russian involvement here. He has no proof, and because of that, the thing he does have proof of — that Trump stupidly relies on badly sourced information — gets missed. He’s so focused on “the Russian connection” that it kills what would otherwise be an interesting story.
But he can’t let go. Meanwhile, other publications are pointing out that the claims that WikiLeaks is connected to the Russians is not actually supported by the evidence and other “intelligence sources” don’t believe it’s true. Now why should we believe those other sources more than Eichenwald’s “sources”? We shouldn’t. But at least the second one admits a lack of evidence. Eichenwald’s takes a “this is how Russians have been known to act” and turns it into “proof” that they’re “manipulating” info and getting it into Trump’s hands.
Meanwhile, on his Twitter feed, Eichenwald has defaulted to two separate defenses: first, the old “just asking questions” defense, and second (falsely) denying that he ever was concerned about WikiLeaks, despite the now deleted tweets that we show above. Separately, he’s also angrily threatening to “wreck” and “destroy” the lives of people he claims are “going after” his wife and kids (and he’s right that if people are doing that, that’s despicable and uncalled for — though his discussions about how he “wrecks people lives for fun” and lawsuit threats are pretty ridiculous).
Again, there’s a marginally interesting story in here, but it’s not about Russian disinformation — at least without more actual proof. You’d think that an accomplished reporter like Eichenwald would get that. But he seems too invested in the story to recognize that it doesn’t hold up, and his overselling of it actually undermines the stuff that’s actually interesting.
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