The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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The Comey firing

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey appears to be highly suspicious for all the reasons others have already stated. In a democracy, you just can’t get rid of the person who is investigating your administration for possible wrongdoing.

Yet I have to point out that there is nothing in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s report that is wrong. Comey was a terrible FBI director in many respects, and he mishandled the public aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in every way imaginable.

As late as Tuesday, several hours before the firing, we learned that he had grossly overstated (under oath) the extent to which former Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded emails to her estranged husband, former congressman Anthony Weiner. It was the Abedin-Weiner connection that formed the pretext for Comey’s announcement just before Election Day that he had reopened his investigation, a move that likely cost Clinton the presidency.

Of course, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had no problem with Comey’s sabotage of Clinton’s campaign at the time, and their claims that they are deeply, deeply troubled by it now are absurd. The outrage with which the Comey firing has been greeted is entirely justified.

But if President Obama had fired Comey the day after the election, or Trump shortly after his inauguration, it’s not likely that many people would have objected.

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James Comey is back. And this time his FBI is taking aim at Trump’s inner circle.

James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.
James Comey. Photo (cc) 2016 by tua ulamac.

FBI Director James Comey, who did more to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign than anyone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is back. Investigations are under way into the Trump inner circle’s ties to Russia — and leaks from those investigations are one of several factors in the chaos that has defined Trump’s presidency. As we all wonder what will come next, it’s a good time to take a look at what Comey has wrought.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Making sense of the intelligence agencies’ report on Russia and the election

Vladimir Putin. Photo (cc) by xx.
Vladimir Putin. 2015 photo via Kremlin.ru.

Like all of us, I am trying to make sense of the intelligence agencies’ report in which they found that the Russian government, going right up to the Shirtless Horseman himself, interfered in the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf.

I have read all of it. And it is hard to overlook the lack of any actual evidence, which is apparently laid out in classified versions of the report. As a result, a number of observers are erecting “caution” signs to guard against anyone drawing a definitive conclusion. Scott Shane writes in The New York Times:

What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. That is a significant omission: Mr. Trump has been expressing skepticism for months that Russia was to blame, variously wondering whether it might have been China, or a 400-pound guy, or a guy from New Jersey.

On Twitter, too, I’m seeing skepticism from the right and, of course, from the ubiquitous Glenn Greenwald, who’s been going off on it for hours. Here’s one example:

But I think focusing on the lack of evidence overlooks the central reality: Reams of evidence were put before us over the course of many months during the presidential campaign. Consider what we know for a fact:

  • Emails were stolen from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
  • Those emails landed at WikiLeaks, whose leader, Julian Assange, is clearly (and at the very least) a Russian ally.
  • WikiLeaks published multiple emails that were embarrassing to the Clinton campaign and none that reflected badly on Trump.

So yes, in one sense the intelligence agencies offered no evidence for their assertions. But in another, more important sense, we’ve already seen the evidence. The main role of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA was to tell us that they agree, that we’re not crazy, and what we all saw play out was exactly what it appeared to be.

Did Russian interference cost Clinton the election? As Sam Wang has written at the Princeton Election Consortium, FBI Director James Comey’s horrendously misguided last-minute decision to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s private email server almost certainly put Trump over the top. Wang writes:

Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. Many factors went into this year’s Presidental race, but on the home stretch, Comey’s letter appears to have been a critical factor in the home stretch.

Russian interference was less of a factor than Comey’s letter. But it nevertheless kept the media’s and the public’s attention on Clinton and emails, even though questions about her server and hacking by the Russians had nothing to do with each other. We can’t know for sure, but my sense is that Comey’s actions by themselves elected Trump, and that Russian subterfuge added to the damage.

What happens now? If it could somehow be shown that Trump himself had colluded with the Russians, he might face impeachment and even prosecution on espionage charges. The word treason tends to get thrown around way too lightly, but a Trump-Putin alliance to steal the election might very well qualify.

Such actions would require not just persuasive evidence that Trump was involved but also principled members of the Republican Congress and of Trump’s Justice Department. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Report shows how the media failed us in the 2016 campaign

Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.

In a close election, you can point to any single factor and say that was responsible for the outcome. The presidential election was not close in the popular vote (Hillary Clinton is ahead by 2.7 million votes), but the margin of victory in the states that put Donald Trump over the top in the Electoral College (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) was narrow indeed.

Now comes Thomas E. Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to tell us that the press failed in its coverage of the general-election campaign. Plenty of us have been making the same argument, though I tend to believe that the coverage of Trump was so wildly negative that the more plausible explanation is his voters knew and didn’t care.

But Patterson takes that into account. His data-based findings show that coverage of Trump and Clinton was more or less equally negative. As a result, the landscape flattened out, with voters deciding Clinton’s emails were every bit as serious as Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, his hateful rhetoric, his dubious business dealings, and on and on and on. Patterson’s report is chock full of quotable excerpts. Here’s a good one:

[I]ndiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.

Patterson also finds that Trump got more coverage than Clinton, giving him the opportunity to define both himself and her. Another important observation: Even when coverage of both candidates is uniformly negative, it tends to help the political right, since it’s conservatives who are promoting the message that government doesn’t work.

Clinton's "scandal" coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey's reopening of the email investigation.
Clinton’s “scandal” coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey’s reopening of the email investigation.

My own caveat about Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state: You can choose to believe that it was not a serious matter. In fact, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the importance of that issue was vastly overblown (see Matthew Yglesias at Vox).

But I also think it’s difficult to assign too much blame to the media given that James Comey, the director of the FBI, came forward in July to say Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, and then reopened his investigation just before the election. Reporters report what the head of the FBI says, and if what he says is wrong and/or politically motivated, that generally doesn’t come out until much later. In any case, Comey took a tremendous amount of criticism in the media for his late hit on the Clinton campaign.

To get back to my opening point: The election was close enough that the media’s failures might very well have been sufficient to tilt the outcome toward Trump.

Patterson’s study was the fourth in a series dating back to the earliest days of the campaign, and was “based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York TimesUSA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.”

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Bad news for Hillary Clinton: ‘Carlos Danger’ is back

Anthony Weiner during his New York mayoral campaign. Photo (cc) by Azi Paybarah.
Anthony Weiner during his New York mayoral campaign. Photo (cc) by Azi Paybarah.

At a time when no one knows anything about the latest Hillary Clinton email story beyond the cryptic letter that FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress last week, I decided that the best way to research this piece was to pour a glass of wine, grab some Halloween candy, and watch Weiner, a documentary released a few months ago.

I didn’t learn anything about the emails. But I did gain some insight, at least superficially, into the marriage between disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin, the top Clinton aide whose emails were reportedly found on her estranged husband’s computer.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

The state of the Clinton email investigation

Based on what we know so far, FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell letter is likely to lead to very little. Having upended the election campaign with just days to go, Comey owes it to the public to tell us exactly what the FBI knows as soon as possible.

Here’s what we seem to know: Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin, exchanged emails (now, there’s a big surprise, eh?). Some of those ended up on devices used by Abedin’s estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, because they shared a computer.

It is already well established that Clinton used a private email account for her official business, that she showed bad judgment in doing so, but that she did not commit a crime. Somewhere between many and all of the newly discovered emails may be duplicates that the FBI has already looked at.

There is nothing new here—just more evidence of what a mistake Clinton made in not using her State Department email account. For one thing, sensitive emails can end up in the hands of someone like Weiner.

Update: Jane Mayer of the New Yorker weighs in with essential reading on Comey’s decision to go public.

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A few thoughts on the 2016 Pulitzers

Congratulations to my former Beat the Press colleague Farah Stockman and to Jessica Rinaldi, both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes earlier today for their work for the Boston Globe.

Rinaldi won the Feature Photography award for her photo series of Strider Wolf, a boy in rural Maine trying to overcome a harrowingly dysfunctional upbringing. Amazingly, Rinaldi was also one of two runners-up in the same category for her photos of a Massachusetts drug addict caught up in the opioid epidemic.

Stockman, who is now a reporter with the New York Times, won in Commentary for a series on the legacy of Boston’s school-desegregation turmoil in the 1970s and ’80s. Stockman’s award is the third fourth Pulitzer recognition in a row for the Globe‘s editorial pages: last year Katie Kingsbury won for editorials that shed light on the harsh world of restaurant work; in 2014 Dante Ramos was a runner-up for writing about how to revive Boston’s less-than-vibrant nightlife; and in 2013 Juliette Kayyem was a finalist in Commentary.

The Globe covers its Pulitzer wins here.

Among the other Pulitzer winners, I was especially pleased to see the Washington Post win the National Reporting award for its deep investigation of fatal shootings of civilians by police. Not only is it an important topic, but it was based on a meticulously detailed database that the Post built in-house.

Last October, FBI director James Comey lamented that the Post and the Guardian, which assembled a similar database, had better data on police-involved shootings than law-enforcement agencies. “It is unacceptable that the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the UK are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians,” Comey said. “That is not good for anybody.”

The Post‘s coverage of its Pulitzer victory is here.