A new four-part investigation for the Columbia Journalism Review by Jeff Gertz examines the role of the media in pushing the “Russiagate” narrative that dominated headlines during the Trump administration. Doubts about the veracity of claims of Russian interference from the FBI and even the CIA were repeatedly ignored and pushed aside by mainstream media outlets in their push to hold the narrative together. Jeff Gertz joins The Chris Hedges Report for a deep dive into the role of the Hillary Clinton campaign and individual press outlets in the media show we’ve come to know as “Russiagate.”
Jeff Gertz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked as a New York Times reporter for three decades. He spent the last two years investigating the Russiagate claims in preparation for his four-part piece in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Studio: David Hebden, Adam Coley
Post-Production: David Hebden
Chris Hedges: Walter Lippmann, in his book Liberty in the News, warned that, “When journalists arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciousness what should be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.” Perhaps no other quote sums up the debacle known as Russiagate, the hundreds if not thousands of stories and news reports that falsely painted the Trump administration as a tool of Russia and Vladimir Putin. The flawed reporting is an example of the steep erosion of journalistic ethics and standards, as well as a lack of transparency and honesty on the part of the press. The Trump-Russia reporting has contributed to the steep decline of trust in the media and the bifurcation of the press into antagonistic tribes, neither of which are concerned with the truth, but intent on catering to a particular demographic.
The nation’s most reputable news organizations, as the investigative reporter Jeff Gerth points out, were guilty of egregious lapses. The New York Times, for example, in January, 2018, ignored a publicly available document showing that the FBI’s lead investigator didn’t think, after 10 months of inquiry into possible Trump-Russia ties, that there was much there. “This omission,” Gerth notes, “disserved Times readers.” The lie of omission is still a lie, and to put it bluntly, in its eagerness to discredit Trump, the lie of omission, combined with reliance on sources that peddled fictions designed to cater to Trump haters, as well as a failure to seek out those being attacked, dominated the mainstream media landscape for four years of the Trump presidency.
Hiding behind the wall of anonymous sources frequently identified as “people or person familiar with” – The Times used it over a thousand times in stories involving Trump and Russia between October, 2016 and the end of the Trump presidency – Any rumor or smear was picked up in the news cycle, with a source essentially unidentified and the information unverified. A routine, Gerth notes, soon took shape in the Trump-Russia saga. “First,” he writes, “a federal agency like the CIA or FBI secretly briefs Congress. Then, Democrats or Republicans selectively leak snippets that bolster their narrative. Finally, the story comes out using fake attribution.”
The typical reader or viewer is clueless. This erosion has seen trust in the press plummet, with 86% of Americans saying they find press reports biased. US media has the lowest credibility, 26%, among 46 nations, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Stunningly, the decline has been accompanied by a lack of self-criticism and introspection by journalists and press organizations that, month after month, year after year, hyped a lie. To date, none of these press outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Mother Jones have provided a post-mortem look at their coverage.
Jeff Gerth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who worked at The New York Times from 1976 until 2005, spent the last two years writing an exhaustive look at the systematic failure of the press during the Trump-Russia story, authoring a four-part series of 24,000 words that has been published by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Joining me to discuss his investigation is Jeff Gerth. Jeff, the reports that Trump was, in essence, a Russian asset, it began with the so-called Steele dossier. This was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Can you explain what this dossier was, and can you explain why it had, long after it had been discredited by the FBI, such an influence in the press?
Jeff Gerth: Sure. Thanks for having me, Chris. The dossier was actually a combination of reports that started in June of 2016 and lasted until a few weeks before the election, although there was actually another one that came out after the election in the fall, and they were compiled by former MI6 British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, who in had been hired by Fusion GPS, a research firm in Washington, who in turn had been retained by a law firm. Then, it was Perkins Coie. Mark Elias was the lead lawyer, and he in turn had two clients, the Clinton Campaign and the DNC, who were paying for this. And as you see by my description, that had a series of layers, so that the connection between the ultimate work and the ultimate people who were paying for it was diffuse.
As I said, the report started in late June of 2016, and the very first report, all of which were based on human sources. In other words, there weren’t any real documents underlying the dossier. It was just a bunch of human sources who turned out to be secondhand, thirdhand, gossip, et cetera. And the dossier became known to reporters in Washington during the campaign, mostly by the summer, and then more aggressively by September of 2016.
The very first dossier report in June alleged that there had been a conspiracy dating back five years between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. It just said it flatly. Now, it turned out, ultimately, that the supposed source of that was non-existent and it had been fabricated. But that was the ultimate, penultimate allegation that there was a long-running conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin.
Now, I should say that the way that the press handled the dossier was schizophrenic. And by that I mean that before the election, the press was, for the most part, cautious, and was unable to confirm much of anything in the dossier, and so they really stayed away from it, except for a couple of exceptions.
One exception was Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo, who dropped the report in September of 2016 that was based on the dossier, involving a low-level volunteer advisor to the Trump campaign named Carter Page, who did have some contacts in Russia and did business there.
And then, the second utilization of the dossier came just a few days before the election, when David Corn and Mother Jones wrote a piece more broadly about the dossier, not naming Steele, but describing him as a Western intelligence official, or former Western intelligence official, I can’t remember now.
And so, before the election, the press didn’t bite too much on the dossier, even though people spent a lot of time and money trying to chase it down and see if they could verify it. And I think one of the reasons for the reticence was that the press wasn’t taking Trump seriously. As we know, most of the media as well as most of the country didn’t think he was going to win. So, I think that was a strong factor in why people didn’t really push it as much as they did after the election. Once Trump was elected, and even before he took office, the dossier then propelled itself front and center into the public conscious and dialogue, starting with the briefing of President-elect Trump on Jan. 6, 2017 at his Trump Tower in New York, where James Comey took him aside and disclosed the existence of the dossier and the most salacious allegation in it.
And within a couple of days, the fact of the briefing came out in CNN, and within hours after that, Buzzfeed published the copy of the dossier it had in total, all of it, posted it on the internet. So, once that happened, the dossier then was front and center in the debate and in the consciousness.
And to be honest with you, it is the only document I’m aware of that actually states that Trump conspired with the Kremlin. If you read the FBI documents carefully, including the electronic communication that opened up the investigation at the end of July, 2016, it never states that there was a conspiracy. It just says, we’re looking into possible links between Trump advisors and various Russian officials. So the dossier, whatever you want to think of it, it was the only document in the public domain that specifically alleged that there was a conspiracy, as I said, a five-year running conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin.
Chris Hedges: The FBI discredited it pretty quickly, but that didn’t dissuade the press from continuing to use it as an authentic source.
Jeff Gerth: No, but that’s because the press wasn’t aware that it had been discredited. The press continued, starting with the CNN report in January of 2017 and continuing for many months, the press continued to tout the credibility, not only of its author, Christopher Steele, but of the contents of the dossier. Even though, within weeks of receiving the dossier, the FBI offered Steele up to $1 million if he could corroborate it, and he couldn’t, and he didn’t get the money. In fact, after the David Corn piece came out, the FBI figured out within hours that Steele had been the source for his story, and he was terminated as a confidential informant.
Chris Hedges: You note in the article, ironically, that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump, who began her campaign facing scrutiny over ties with Russia, and this included a lucrative speech in Moscow by Bill Clinton, and Russia-related donations to the Clinton Family Foundation, as well as Russia-friendly initiatives by the Obama administration when she was secretary of state. In retrospect, I’m wondering if there were greater known ties between Clinton and Moscow than Trump and Moscow?
Jeff Gerth: Well, that’s a hard question to quantify with an answer. There were ties in both camps, if you will. You’ve stated some of the ties in the Clinton camp. On the Trump side, Trump had done a Miss Universe pageant there in, I think it was 2013, had made some money, had always wanted but never succeeded in getting some sort of property or hotel or something in Moscow. Clearly, some of his condominiums and properties in the United States were purchased by Russian oligarchs or people tied to Russia, though they also buy condominiums from almost anybody because it’s a good way to launder money and not be subject to a lot of scrutiny.
So, I think it’s hard to add up the total on each side and say who had more and who had less. But I think the point of what I wrote about the Clinton thing was that when she announced that she was running for office, actually just around the time that Trump did, there was an internal poll done by her campaign, and they found that the most negative thing in voters’ minds was her own Russian ties, mostly stemming from the fact that The Times, a couple of weeks earlier, had done a collaboration with Peter Schweitzer, who’s a conservative author who did a book about the Clinton empire, if you will, and some of the ties to Russia, which you just mentioned.
So, it’s ironic that when Trump declared and Hillary declared, she was the one in the public eye who had the Russia image hanging over her. And in fact, again, as I point out in the article, in Trump’s speech, which was his usual rambling speech, when he announced his presidency, he actually mentioned Russia a couple of times in a speech in a very aggressive way, about how they were a threat and a problem, and that we needed more nuclear weapons to deal with Putin, and not one media picked up on his remarks about Russia because nobody was paying attention to Trump, certainly, and Russia at that point in time.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about Fusion GPS. It played a very outsized role in pedaling these fictions about Trump and Russia. What was it and how did it work?
Jeff Gerth: Well, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a research investigative firm based in Washington. I know, and many other journalists know the two founders, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch , they both worked at The Wall Street Journal many years ago. And their forte, and I would say from my own interactions with them, I’d say this is their strong suit, they’re very good at digging up records in the public domain, whether it’s court records or business records. And they specialize in that, and there’s been quite a bit of confusion in the media – And I point this out in my piece – Conflating two different research assignments they had related to Trump.
The first research assignment… They’ve done some political research over the years, sometimes known as opposition research. And the first assignment they got was in the fall of 2015 when the Washington Free Beacon, which is a conservative online media outlet, hired them to dig up some dirt on Trump. And at that point, they did what they are very good at doing. They dug up a lot of business records and financial records and court records, and laid out some of his business dealings in Russia, or dealings with Russians, as I mentioned earlier.
But that assignment ended in the spring of 2016 when the Free Beacon, they were anti-Trump, but conservative, that maybe Cruz or somebody else was their Republican of choice, and once it became clear that Trump was going to be the nominee, their relationship ended. And it was a few weeks later that Fusion’s relationship with Mark Elias and the funding from the DNC and the Hillary campaign was created. And that in turn led Simpson that traveled to London, I believe it was in late May of 2016, to meet Steele at Heathrow Airport, where they had lunch and created the relationship and the arrangement that led to the dossier.
And as I point out in my piece, the assignment for Fusion at that point changed. Under the arrangement with the Free Beacon, it had been a document collection operation, something that they’re very good at. But then with the retention of Steele, it became a human intelligence gathering operation, and that didn’t turn out as well as the document and research operation that they had done earlier.
Chris Hedges: So there were a series of incidents that were interpreted by the press as signaling or even proving relationships between Trump and Moscow. One of them was the hacking into the Democratic National Committee. This was a purported hack by a Romanian hacker, a Guccifer 2.0, and that data was eventually published, the DNC dossier on Clinton. I’m wondering if you can talk about those hacks and the influence they had on the media in pushing this narrative.
Jeff Gerth: I think they played an important role. Because remember, again, when the DNC hack was first reported, it would’ve been, I believe, either late May or June of 2016. And by then, Trump was the clear nominee, winner of the primary. And so, the media, which initially didn’t take him very seriously, now realized that he was to be taken seriously, and therefore anything that came out was treated as important, and this was an important exhibit, if you will, in the Russia-Trump narrative.
And I should point out that while there’s been an indictment of a number of Russian officials for the DNC hack, the case never went forward prosecutorial-wise because the Russians didn’t come here to contest that case, and so it remains an allegation, but it hasn’t been proven. But it certainly played an important role in the summer and fall of 2016, and going forward after the Mueller investigation came on board, and they’re the ones who produced the indictment involving the DNC hack. And then there’s also John Podesta, who was the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. His emails got hacked into. Again, that would’ve taken place in the spring of 2016, but they didn’t surface until October, in the month before the election.
Chris Hedges: I found this a fascinating point, which I didn’t know, or wasn’t aware of, and that is this charge that Trump had gutted the GOP’s anti-Russian stance on Ukraine, and the party platform, as you write that, was completely incorrect, but it was picked up and repeated by the president. In fact, of course, they had tightened, called for tightening of sanctions on Russia in the party platform. But that was just picked up and then amplified. You quote Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist, citing the watering down of the platform, calling Trump the Siberian candidate. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, labeled Trump a de facto agent of Putin. It’s the most basic, I mean, it’s not that hard to read the party platform, but it is just one of many examples of how anything that could be used to hammer Trump was seized upon, whether it was true or not.
Jeff Gerth: Yeah, the platform issue was, again, a prominent exhibit for the people who felt there was some nefarious relationship, and the reporting that went on to try and document it or check it out was not terribly deep at the time. To some extent, you can probably blame the Trump campaign, which wasn’t the most well organized operation around, but it was really a small debate involving one delegate wanting to push it, and other people… And again, Trump had nothing to do with this. He wouldn’t have a clue what was going on with the platform, and it was down in the bowels of the campaign somewhere that it was being sorted out.
And it continues. In fact, some people to this day still think that’s a big deal and a big exhibit in trying to show that Trump is in bed with the Russians. And one of the few reporters who raised some questions about it, one of the more well-qualified reporters, Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who’s extremely critical of Putin, wrote a book extremely critical of him. They wrote in The New York Review of Books, a pretty strong takedown at the time, and then later, several months later again. But they were pretty much ignored and pretty much in the minority at that point.
Chris Hedges: So this whole, all these attacks on Trump brought millions of new digital subscribers to The New York Times, massively increased Rachel Maddow’s viewership. I’m wondering how much this increase in readers and viewers to you influenced and perhaps distorted the coverage. And then, Jeff, you could talk a little bit, as you’re doing the piece about the Showtime documentary, The Fourth Estate, where you have The New York Times filming itself hammering together Trump-Russia stories that were false.
Jeff Gerth: Yeah, well, this is something I actually first wrote about for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2017. I did a couple of stories about the evolving business model of The Times, and you can apply this to numerous other media organizations as well, and that is that the old time model in the newspaper business had relied a lot on print subscribers and advertisers as the main source of revenue. And that began to evolve, and the digital subscribers became more and more important. And as I point out in the piece, I think maybe 5 million more subscribers came to The Times during the Trump presidency, digital subscribers.
And they tend to be a different demographic. Your print subscriber is older. It’s much more expensive. I mean, today, I think it costs $1300 bucks or something to get the print newspaper. It’s only a couple hundred bucks for the digital version. And as I point out in the piece, The Times does a survey of its new subscribers, why did you just sign up to The New York Times? And early in the Trump presidency, what they were hearing almost unanimously was, go get Trump.
And therefore, I think you see sort of a feedback loop that develops, in which the readers are expecting X, and the paper, to keep the readers and subscribers happy, delivers X. And if the paper wrote something that might be seen as supportive of Trump or not sufficiently critical of Trump, people would drop their subscription, or they’d go on social media and complain about it.
So, I think what’s happened, and you alluded to it in your introduction about the way media audiences have become more siloed and self-reinforcing, so that the audience and the news outlet are more and more in sync, and it makes for a one-sided journalism. And so, that’s something that’s really accelerated over the last five or 10 years, and I think Trump certainly was an important accelerant to that process.
Chris Hedges: Well, The New York Times and The Washington Post share Pulitzer Prize prizes for this reporting. I want to talk a little bit about the response. David Corn, who wrote many stories essentially attempting to validate the connections between Trump and Russia, wrote a response to you in Mother Jones, “Columbia Journalism Review’s Big Fail”. He writes, he insists, this is a quote, “Vladimir Putin attacked the 2016 election in part to help Trump win, and Trump in his aides aided and abetted this assault on American democracy by denying such an attack was happening. Trump provided cover for a foreign adversary subscriber subverting a US election.”
I’m stunned. I mean, what frightens me is, it’s frightening enough that for the entire Trump presidency, they perpetuated this fiction, but what’s even more frightening is that there’s no serious self-criticism or self-examination, and just, this quote from David Corn, I think, shows it.
Jeff Gerth: Well, I’d like to actually take that quote and show what I think the problem is. To be quite frank, it’s a form of McCarthyism. And if you take the logic that’s inherent in the quote, you would then have to say that the career CIA analysts, who themselves questioned the assessment that came out in 2017 that Putin had wanted to help Trump get elected, they dissented and disagreed with that, which Trump ultimately did as well.
So, if disagreeing with the assessment means that you’re aiding and abetting and assault on democracy and providing cover for Putin, then a lot of people are guilty of that, including even Mike Rogers, Admiral Mike Rogers, who was head of the NSA, who didn’t endorse as strongly as the CIA did that same assessment in January of 2017. So, if you don’t take the strongest view against Putin and raise questions about it, you’re assumed to be in bed with Putin. It’s a guilt by association that harks back to some pretty dark days in America in the 1950s.
I don’t think, I’m not going to say much more about it, but I also will point out that when the intelligence community assessment came out in the first week of January of 2017 and Trump was first asked about it at a press conference, he didn’t deny it. He actually – And this is in my piece – He said, yeah, I think the Russians did it. Now, what he eventually took issue with was whether it was done to help him get elected, as opposed to the normal meddling and chaos that the Russians have done for decades tracing back to the Soviet Union, both in the United States and many other countries around the world. And of course, the United States does some of that as well.
So, the thing I want to say here is that the line of thinking in that sentence that you read me is a reflection of an attitude that most people hoped had disappeared from America with the collapse of McCarthyism.
Chris Hedges: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Jeff Gerth. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.