Media, Politics & The Death Of Intellectual Honesty
from the what-just-happened dept
Yeah, so I get that it’s political silly season, and people like to throw around all kinds of arguments of “bias” — especially towards the media. I’ve been on the receiving end of those accusations, but for the most part, I think claims of media bias are silly and over-hyped. What’s true, though, is that it’s all too easy to be sloppy in reporting and to try to hype up a nothing story into a something story. Here’s a story where no one comes out of it looking very good and the end result is a complete mess. It starts with Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald. Last night I saw a marginally interesting story by Eichenwald about how a Russian government connected news website, Sputnik, misread an email leaked via Wikileaks from Hillary Clinton pal Sidney Blumenthal to campaign chief John Podesta. The email contained a link and full text to a much earlier Eichnwald story about Benghazi and Clinton. The Sputnik story incorrectly stated that the text in the email was by Blumenthal, and not by Eichenwald. It took one sentence out of this longer article, and falsely claimed that Blumenthal was admitting that the mess in Benghazi was “preventable.” As Eichenwald notes, this is wrong:
Those words sounded really, really familiar. Really familiar. Like, so familiar they struck me as something I wrote. Because they were something I wrote.
The Russians were quoting two sentences from a 10,000-word piece I wrote for Newsweek, which Blumenthal had emailed to Podesta. There was no mistaking that Blumenthal was citing Newsweek?the magazine?s name and citations for photographs appeared throughout the attached article.
Okay. So that’s actually kind of interesting. This Russian source was so eager to get a story out of the leaked emails that it misrepresented them — either by accident or on purpose. That’s marginally interesting, and certainly a fun thing to report on. What happened next is where things really go off the rails. While Sputnik pulled down its story once Eichenwald pointed out the error, a few hours later, Donald Trump mentioned the story at a rally as if it were true:
At a rally in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump spoke while holding a document in his hand. He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal, whom he called ?sleazy Sidney.?
?This just came out a little while ago,?? Trump said. ?I have to tell you this.? And then he read the words from my article.
?He?s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,?? Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. ?This just came out a little while ago.?
Okay. So we’ve still got a story here, and the story is this: holy shit, Donald Trump is willing to take very, very unreliable sources and broadcast them as fact. But that’s not the story that Eichenwald started pushing. He went on something of a Twitter rampage making a bunch of claims that were not supported at all by the story, claiming variably that (1) the leaked emails were doctored (2) that Wikileaks was responsible for this (3) that the Russians and Wikileaks are in cahoots and (4) that Trump and the Russians are in cahoots. Now, any of these might actually be true. But none of them are actually supported by any actual evidence. Eichenwald just makes the logical leaps from what’s written above, assuming that only the Russians could have given Trump that news — ignoring that the story on Sputnik was getting passed around on social media (again: real story: Trump relies on unreliable sources for news). Here are just a few of Eichenwald’s many, many tweets promoting his own article (and note how most have tons of retweets):
Note that he insists that the only way Trump could have gotten this is from the Russians. But that’s clearly not true. The Sputnik story was up and lots of people saw it, and it was discussed on Twitter and elsewhere. It makes perfect sense that someone who saw it either works for the Trump campaign or knew someone there and sent it over. Again: that’s the real story: Trump relies on sketchy sources found online.
This morning lots of people were pointing out the problems with Eichenwald’s exaggerations about his story, including the Washington Post, NY Magazine and Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept. Greenwald’s account highlights that many Hillary Clinton supporters keep saying that the Podesta leaks include faked emails, but no one has pointed out a single one.
Eichenwald, for his part, keeps insisting that the original Sputnik report involved a “manipulated” email, which implies that the email was faked or doctored. This is flat out wrong. The email was misrepresented. It’s entirely possible that it was misrepresented on purpose to make Clinton look bad. But misrepresented is different than doctored. Here, let me prove it to you: Eichenwald misrepresented who could have possibly seen the Sputnik piece. He did not doctor that information.
I don’t think — as some are claiming — that this is evidence of “media bias” on Eichenwald’s part. I honestly think that he’s guilty of the same thing that probably happened with Sputnik. He saw what seemed to be a really great story, and oversold it. Sputnik did the same. Both look bad.
And, honestly, almost everyone comes out of this looking bad. Eichenwald and Newsweek oversold a story. Various Clinton supporters look bad for buying the claims in the story without reading them or checking them carefully. Trump, of course, looks bad for relying on a Russian government site for unreliable news. And, basically, everyone looks at this story and sees from it what they want. Trump supporters can see more examples of media bias. Clinton supporters believe there’s more support for the idea that Russia is supporting Trump. Wikileaks haters get more ammo claiming that the site is working with the Russians and/or that it’s releasing fake emails (though it does not appear to be doing so). Again: many of these things may actually be true, but this story only supports the single claim of Trump relying on bad info.
But this is the state of things today. 2016 can’t end fast enough. Hopefully 2017 is better.