On October 31, 2016, in the immediate aftermath of running 5 A1 stories in 2 days about the FBI having found some redundant and immaterial emails on the laptop of the husband of an aide to Hillary Clinton, the New York Times published this story about the FBI’s investigation into Russian ratfucking of the 2016 elections:
ALSO DURING THE NEW YORKER INTERVIEW, Remnick revisited a controversial New York Times article published a week before the 2016 election: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” Remnick asked Comey why the FBI would “push that story” to the Times on Oct. 31, 2016. In the article, unnamed FBI and intelligence officials said they believed the hacking of Democratic emails was “aimed at disrupting the presidential election” rather than specifically helping elect Trump.
— But Comey said the FBI had already concluded at that point there was an ongoing effort “to hurt Hillary Clinton and help elect Donald Trump.” Comey said he didn’t know who was talking to the Times. And though Comey said he couldn’t react to everything in the Times article, “at least with respect to the bit about what the goals of the Russian effort were, it’s just wrong.”
This is a pretty egregious mistake to make at a particularly inopportune time! Erik Wemple asked Dean Baquet about it, and he courageously admitted the error and explained the proc….sorry, I can’t even finish that sentence with a straight face:
Asked to comment on whether the newspaper is prepared to revisit the article in light of Comey’s comments, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet emailed the Erik Wemple Blog: “I think the headline was off but if you read the story I think it was NOT inaccurate based on what we knew at the time. Sort of like the Hillary Clinton story that turned out to be right.”
This is an astounding answer:
- Even at face value, this is a very much “apart from the election, how was your November 8 Mrs. Clinton?” answer. The headline is what people see when people share the story on Facebook and Twitter. The headline is the takeaway for people who just glance at the story. And even for people who Read the Whole Thing, the headline structures the perception of the piece. Even if the rest of the piece had been accurate, a grossly misleading headline is a serious mistake.
- The story, while more nuanced, is unambiguously incorrect, unless you think Comey is lying. The story concludes that “[l]aw enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.” This conclusion was simply false, and it’s not a minor error.
- It’s one thing to get completely snowed by the pro-Trump faction of the FBI when the first releases were happening and nobody could have any clear idea what was going on. By the end of October, it was blindingly obvious that the leaks were intended to help Trump/hurt Clinton. The leaks were timed to help Trump — for example, landing just before the DNC and a half hour after the Access Hollywood tape was released — and framed in ways to make them look as unfavorable to Clinton as possible, even when the underlying material did not actually support the spin. At the very minimum, the very clear implications of how Wikileaks was acting dictates holding your fire rather than rushing the spin of some agents into the paper of record and treating it as fact.
- On a related point, at least at the time it was published the alternative explanation is raising an irrelevant distinction. How were they trying to “disrupt the election” if not by electing Trump, or at the very minimum increasing the chances that Trump would win? In theory, they could be disrupting the election by leaking damaging information about both sides, but…they weren’t. Even if the facts supported with the conclusion — which they didn’t — it’s pointless hairsplitting, reminiscent of the Assange/Greenwald theory that it doesn’t count as supporting Trump if you support Trump based on a zero-dimensional Hungry Hungry Hippos theory that more right-wing presidents will produce more left-wing results because of the veto power Article I gives Uncle Sams on stilts over all legislative enactments and actions of the executive and judicial branches.
As Wemple concludes:
Yet the Times’s decision to take its sources’ word for Russia’s motivation was, as we’ve written before, risible. And now, according to Comey, just plain wrong.
Amy Chozick, to her considerable credit, is at least trying to open a discussion into how reporters handled the WikiLeaks material. Baquet seems strongly committed to the doctrine of Editorial Infallibility.