Posted by Curt on 1 May, 2018 at 7:06 pm. 3 comments already!


The White House Correspondent’s Dinner Saturday night was a platform for the media to push back against the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States. While Donald Trump constantly derides the top brands in American journalism as Fake News, the WHCA’s prize committee presented the Merriman Smith Award for broadcast journalism to CNN’s Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper, and Carl Bernstein for their Jan. 10, 2017 story reporting that Barack Obama’s four intelligence chiefs briefed Donald Trump that Russia had compromising information on the President-elect.

The compromising information—ranging from allegations of the Trump team’s criminal activities to the sexual depravities of Trump himself—was sourced to a 35-page-long opposition research file allegedly authored by the ex-British spy Christopher Steele. The so-called Steele dossier was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which hired the Washington, D.C. opposition research firm Fusion GPS to produce and disseminate it to the press. As the award citation explains: “Thanks to this CNN investigation, ‘the dossier’ is now part of the lexicon.”

CNN has never disclosed the close relationship between Evan Perez, one of the reporters on the Jan. 10, 2017 story, and his former Wall Street Journal colleagues who went on to start Fusion GPS, including the company’s founder Glenn Simpson. Nor did the Merriman Smith prize committee acknowledge how the dossier on which the leading lights of the news business have again staked their institutional credibility was disseminated to the public.

That story is now coming into focus with the recent release of seven government documents that together detail a working partnership between spy agencies and the press that helped a political attack meme go viral, even though the evidence on which it was based was demonstrably false. While this type of relationship—let’s call it collusion—may be routine in Third World countries, it does not bode well for the health of the American press, or our democratic institutions.

Of the seven memos written by former director of the FBI James Comey to document his meetings with Trump, two tell the first part of the story. Comey was one of the four intelligence chiefs who met with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Jan. 6, 2017. Comey wrote that at the end of the meeting, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper specifically wanted him to speak to Trump “alone or in a very small group.”

Then Comey told Trump that “the Russians allegedly had tapes involving him and prostitutes at the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow from about 2013. I said I wasn’t saying this was true,” Comey continued, “only that I wanted him to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands. I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook.”

Guess what? Comey’s briefing was the news hook.

Proof of the set-up is found in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s 253-page-long Report on Russian Active Measures that was published last week. According to the report, James Clapper acknowledged “discussing the dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper.” Their discussion “took place in early January 2017, around the time [intelligence community] leaders briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on ‘the Christopher Steele information.’ ”

So here’s how it worked: Clapper told Comey to brief Trump on the dossier. Clapper then told Tapper that Comey had briefed Trump on the dossier. In other words, the reporting on the Steele dossier for which CNN won its award was an operation coordinated between spies and the press whose purpose was to report the existence of “compromising information” on the president-elect—information that consisted of unverified politically-funded opposition research produced by one of the CNN journalist’s former colleagues. Buzzfeed then published the dossier in its entirety—a document that prior to the briefing no press organization had been able to verify and hence had refrained from making public.

Since then, thousands of articles on the Trump-Russia collusion story have taken CNN’s original story as the model for a new kind of American journalism, spoon-fed to a pliant digital press by cabals of political operatives and ex-spooks. Lies, innuendo, wild conspiracy theorizing, and the insistent assumption of guilt have replaced old-fashioned rules of sourcing, objectivity, and basic plausibility. While the social cost of this radical departure from these century-old norms is likely to be high, it has acquired two main forms of justification, the twin pillars of the new press.

The first reason, popular on both the left and among the Never Trump coterie on the right, is the assertion that Trump is a dangerous fascist who is on the verge of overthrowing the rule of law in America, an emergency that, if real, might indeed call for extreme measures, like throwing the principles of evidence-based reporting out the window. The problem with this argument being that however obvious and galling the man’s flaws are, no evidence for the thesis that Donald Trump intends to do away with Congress and the courts and rule by his own Trumpian fiat exists, at least not on planet earth. The assertion that such evidence does exist is the province of lunatics, and of people who find it useful to goose them on social media, or take their money.

The second reason for the departures from legal, institutional, and procedural norms that propagating a conspiracy theory requires is far more troubling. The lies and misinformation spoon-fed to the press by former high intelligence officials, who are now cashing paychecks from the same news outlets that they partnered with, are part of an ongoing campaign which, if successful, will protect those ex-spy chiefs from the legal consequences of their own law-breaking while in office.

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