According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey (2022), the US media has the lowest credibility, 26% among 46 nations, writes Jeff Gerth.
On 30 January 2023, the Columbia Journal Review (CJR) published a four-part investigative report on the now-debunked Russiagate narrative that suggested Putin’s Russian agencies, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning independent journalist Glenn Greenwald, “had infiltrated the US and was clandestinely controlling the levers of American power through some combination of sexual and financial blackmail.” CJR is a biannual magazine published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The report dives deep into several key aspects of Russiagate, also referred to as the Russian collusion controversy. It showed the mirror to American journalism and media, and the look in the mirror wasn’t so pretty. It shows how the press uncritically handled the now-discredited Steele dossier, inserted misleading facts, and ignored apparent lacunae in the story to fit their Russia collusion narrative.
The report is the result of painstaking work by Jeff Gerth. The 78-year-old Gerth is a former investigative journalist for the New York Times (NYT). He worked for the NYT between 1976 and 2005. He is the recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for covering the American satellite-launch technology to China.
While writing the report, Gerth pored over numerous documents and interviewed several dozen people involved with the Russiagate story. The result is “an encyclopedic look at one of the most consequential moments in American media history.”
These are extremely trying times for American media. It is going through a crisis of credibility. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey (2022), the US media “has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations,” writes Gerth. The cumulative effect of the Russiagate hoax, the coverage of the Covid pandemic, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the war in Ukraine has laid bare American media’s claim to journalistic excellence and objectivity.
As the 2016 presidential primaries in the US were slowly heating up, a politically light-weight candidate Donald Trump entered the race on 16 June 2015. Trump’s eventual rival in the final phases of the battle for America’s top job, Democrat Hillary Clinton, had announced her candidacy three days prior.
No one took Trump’s candidacy seriously. At least not initially. Maggie Haberman of the Times, writes Gerth, “burst into a boisterous laugh when a fellow panelist on a television news show suggested Trump might succeed at the polls.”
Before Trump, it was Clinton who had a Russia problem. Weeks earlier, writes Gerth, “the Times had collaborated with the conservative author of a best-selling book to explore various Clinton-Russia links, including a lucrative speech in Moscow by Bill Clinton, Russia-related donations to the Clinton family foundation, and Russia-friendly initiatives by the Obama administration while Hillary was secretary of state.”
As Trump’s lacklustre candidacy started to resemble a potential threat to Hillary, “her campaign would secretly sponsor and publicly promote an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that there was a secret alliance between Trump and Russia.”
According to declassified (in 2020) CIA briefing notes cited by Gerth, Clinton approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.” The Clinton campaign tweeted a link to a “bombshell report” on Yahoo. The campaign had secretly paid the researchers to pitch the story to Yahoo News’s investigative correspondence Michael Isikoff. “In essence,” writes Gerth, “the campaign was boosting, through the press, a storyline it had itself engineered.”
The media played a significant role in linking Putin and the Russian government to Trump. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate and NYT columnist, called Trump the “Siberian candidate.” Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic, described Trump as a “de facto agent” of Putin. “Over the last four years,” wrote (November 2020) Glenn Greenwald on his Substack, “they [the media] devoted themselves to the ultimate deranged, mangled conspiracy theory: that the Kremlin had infiltrated the US and was clandestinely controlling the levers of American power through some combination of sexual and financial blackmail.”
There was an air of scepticism within some quarters, though most media would glance over that scepticism. Masha Gessen found labelling Trump a Putin agent “deeply flawed.” Another Russia expert Matt Taibbi compared the media’s failure similar to that of leading up to the Iraq War. Those with scepticism, however, felt isolated and began to “lose confidence.”
Not to be undone by the media, America’s national security apparatus had its role in this one of the most gripping stories of our time. According to the Intelligence Community Assessments (ICA) pushed by the FBI, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
The ICA received ample and uncritical coverage in the media. CNN linked the source of the story to a “former British intelligence agent, soon to be outed as Steele.” Thus, the Steele dossier was born. The dossier, a series of reports in 2016, was included in the ICA. According to court testimony, the FBI offered Steele up to $1 million in the fall of 2016 to corroborate the story.
“It was a twist to the symbiotic relationship between the media and the national-security apparatus; usually, reporters use pending government action as a peg for their stories,” writes Gerth. “In this case, the government cited the media for its actions.”
Veteran journalist Bob Woodward called the media coverage of the Russian collusion story a disservice to readers and viewers. He called the Steele dossier “a garbage document.” Jonathan Karl of ABC said that the media coverage of Trump was “relentlessly and exhaustively negative.”
In 2018, New York Times and Washington Post reporters shared a Pulitzer Prize “for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage… of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team, and his eventual administration.”
Journalism’s primary mission is to inform the public and hold powerful interests accountable. However, according to Gerth, these missions “have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work.”
This “erosion of norms” presents immense challenges to the credibility of the established media institutions of the West.
Avatans Kumar is a recipient of the San Francisco Press Club’s Journalistic Excellence Award in 2021 and 2022.