By Tom Kuntz
What a difference a year makes. With the announcement of the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes set for next Monday, last year’s award to the New York Times and Washington Post for Trump-Russia coverage is already looking like a crumpled first draft of history lofting in a high arc to the dustbin. It’s eclipsed by the double-whammy of the Special Counsel’s finding of no collusion with the Kremlin and Attorney General William Barr’s disclosure this week that he’ll investigate spying by federal authorities on the Trump campaign.
Eclipsed and how. But the deep flaws in this honored coverage, instrumental in pushing the collusion narrative, shouldn’t be overlooked just because it’s been overtaken by events, or many journalists would prefer to move on, or because President Trump calls it “fake news.” The flaws reveal broader problems in reporting this continuing story and journalism in general.
The prize went jointly to the two publications for 10 articles apiece reporting on Trump-Russia developments throughout most of 2017, the chaotic first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Their heavy investment in shaping and advancing the collusion story is telegraphed by some of the headlines alone. Imagine them with exclamation points and they could easily have appeared in the sensational sheets published by Joseph Pulitzer himself: Sessions Spoke Twice to Russian Envoy! (Washington Post); Emails Disclose Trump Son’s Glee at Russian Offer! (New York Times); Trump Reveals Secret Intelligence to Russians! (Post).
This work is not comparable to earlier Pulitzer scandals that still haunt the Times and Post. But in a way, a lot of it is worse. The Walter Duranty and Janet Cooke embarrassments mainly involved individual fraud or malpractice – outlier transgressions. The articles at issue now generally reflect abuse of a widely accepted but problematic practice that the profession is unlikely to abandon: anonymous sourcing.
Anonymous sources are a necessary evil. They often allow journalists to report information they could not gather otherwise. But because their identities are shielded from readers who have no independent means of assessing their credibility or motivations, news organizations must vet these sources rigorously and convey that they are not being used at the expense of a faithful presentation of facts.
In the case of much of the Pulitzer-winning Trump-Russia work, anonymous sources were used with insufficient skepticism and a lack of caveats in the service of a credulous and disingenuous journalism of innuendo. The journalistic failures these articles reflect would be problematic even if Special Counsel Robert Mueller had made a case for collusion. His findings just make them all the more obvious.
In the main, the honored, mostly multi-bylined articles are sourced to “current and former officials,” “people with knowledge of …” or similar formulations. Sometimes a specific number of sources is given, but with few exceptions there is little insight into who these people were beyond the adjectives “senior” or “foreign” to describe officials here and there.
Rereading the stories, I searched mostly in vain for answers to these questions: Which government departments did the sources work for? What were their motivations? Were any of them seeking to deflect attention from their own failure to prevent Russian meddling in the 2016 election? How many were current and how many former (i.e. Obama administration) officials? Were any of them connected to former high-ranking officials who publicly – and profitably — turned against Trump? (Men such as James Comey of the FBI, John Brennan of the CIA and James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence.) For that matter, were those high-profile men also serving as anonymous sources? And – a problem little discussed in journalism – could the same people have been sources for multiple stories, creating a distorted, snowballing impression of major wrongdoing?
Just as important, apart from White House denials of allegations, I usually searched in vain for voices both inside and outside the government who dissented from the dark interpretations that were offered.
The work’s shortcomings become clear in Pulitzer-winning articles on two members of Team Trump: two published by the Post at the beginning of 2017 on the president’s first national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn; and one published by the Times at the end of the year on campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
Both men pleaded guilty, under pressure, to so-called process crimes of lying to investigators – not for conspiring with Russians.
The Posts’ two February 2017 articles on Flynn, totaling more than 3,300 words, read, then as now, as though the paper were drawing a bead on a treason story for the ages. They quote anonymous sources (“current and former U.S. officials,” “some senior U.S. officials”) inviting the worst possible interpretations from Flynn’s contacts with Russians and his misstatements about them.
A central premise of the stories – that acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates felt the 1799 Logan Act was a good reason to raise alarms about Flynn – should have provided a strong tipoff that the sources might have been politically driven. Democratic Party partisans had long had the knives out for the maverick ex-general, whom President Obama had forced to resign as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. But that context is missing as the Post presents at length, with grave seriousness and little skepticism, deep official suspicion seemingly of Flynn’s every recent move. He’s flouting the Logan Act! That the Logan Act is a moldering, never-used statute against private diplomacy routinely honored in the breach – and almost certainly not applicable to members of an incoming administration — is referred to only as a challenge to be overcome in nailing the guy.
A similar lack of skepticism drove much of the Trump-Russia coverage, in which the president’s allies were cast as nefarious operatives and the president’s enemies as high-minded protectors of the nation. This mindset led the Post, Times, and other outlets to push the collusion narrative while ignoring or downplaying unprecedented scandals that led to the removal or demotion of top officials at the Justice Department and FBI who led the Russia investigation.
Emailed with an interview request, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron sent back a stock defense of the Post’s Trump-Russia work through a spokesperson (full text here). “Our reporting never presupposed what the special counsel would conclude with regard to obstruction of justice or an actual conspiracy with the Russians,” the statement reads. The Times, where I worked for a long time, did not respond to emailed interview requests.
Doubling Down on Collusion
One might chalk up the failures of the Flynn coverage as a one-off in the fast-moving early days of the Trump administration – before major questions had emerged. But, as doubts grew about the papers’ coverage – and what their anonymous sources were telling them - the Post and Times just doubled down on the collusion narrative. This is another peril of using anonymous sources, especially for a major ongoing story: Reporters can come to identify with and feel they are working with those sources. Now, unless the reporters betray sources they have promised to protect, or the sources release them from their pacts of confidentiality, the Times and Post will be hard-pressed to explain how and why they misrepresented a story of historic import.
With such misrepresentation in mind, consider the brand-new origin story for the Trump-Russia probe that the Times broke on Dec. 31, 2017 – coincidentally the publication cutoff date for 2018 Pulitzer consideration.
The timing is key for another, more important reason. Until then, it was widely believed that the main impetus behind the Trump-Russia probe had been the so-called Steele dossier – a series of memos supposedly from a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, that suggested Trump was in cahoots with the Kremlin. The FBI had used it to secure a warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Revelations in late October that the Clinton campaign had funded the dossier, whose main claims had never been verified, raised new questions about the probe. Cue the new origin story, starring George Papadopoulos. Right at this time of doubt, “four current and former American and foreign officials” were suddenly telling the Times that the collusion probe was sparked not by the dossier, but by the loose lips of the junior Trump campaign foreign affairs adviser, during “a night of heavy drinking” in London with a senior Australian diplomat.
Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, in May 2016 that Russia, as the Times put it, “had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” And in the next paragraph the Times article connected that to her missing emails.
But the powers of deduction at the paper went only so far – and in only one direction. The Times reporters’ email insight did not prompt them to raise in their story the issue of Hillary Clinton’s illegal use of a private server. If the government believed Russia or other foreign countries had access to Clinton’s unsecured emails while she served as secretary of state, why didn’t the Times story address whether the “political dirt on Hillary Clinton” compromised national security or opened her up to blackmail? Similarly, the “dirt” revelation did not lead the paper to question FBI’s Director Comey’s public exoneration of Clinton in July 2016 over the email affair.
Instead, the Times article left the very strong impression that the man who supposedly tipped off Papadopoulos about the emails, the Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud, was working for the Russians – even though his ties to Western intelligence were well-known. Cryptically, the Times suggested that Downer might have been “fishing” for information from Papadopoulos, without asking why, or for whom. It also did not report that Downer had long ties to the Clinton Foundation.
These details were important then and remain so now, not least because Attorney General Barr is looking into federal authorities’ spying on the Trump campaign and because Papadopoulos suggests he was set up by the FBI. Whatever the truth, the point is that the newspaper’s coverage demonstrated little interest in pursuing legitimate avenues of inquiry that conflicted with the collusion narrative.
Clinton’s insecure email server also does not merit a mention in another honored article: the Post’s 8,000-word ticktock, “Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault,” a largely sympathetic piece with spy-potboiler overtones sourced to Obama aides on a legacy-cleanup mission. Despite all the space granted to this lengthy takeout with mega-graphics, there was evidently no room for a mention of the possible cues for anti-American mischief that Vladimir Putin might have picked up from Secretary Clinton’s mistranslated “reset” button; Obama’s assurance into an open mic to President Dmitri Medvedev of post-reelection “flexibility” on missile defense; Obama’s belittling of Mitt Romney’s warning of the Russian threat in a presidential debate; or Russia’s land grabs on the Obama administration’s watch.
The prize-winning articles appeared at a time when both publications, only recently flirting with extinction in the digital age, were enjoying anti-Trump surges in online clicks, subscriptions, and circulation. In the runup to the 2016 election the Times’s newsroom, not opinion, editors — that is, people who would oversee Trump-Russia coverage — had given premier front-page display to its media columnist articulating a rationale for anti-Trump media bias. In this charged atmosphere, and no doubt with an eye to posterity, the Times let cameras follow its journalists into their work spaces and personal lives in real time for a brand-extending documentary series on left-leaning Showtime.
In its announcement, the Pulitzer Board praised the papers, probably Washington’s biggest recipients of unauthorized government leaks, for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.” I asked Dana Canedy, the Pulitzer Prize administrator, how the board knew enough about the unnamed sources and the relentlessness of the work to say this, and she said it concluded this from the work itself, and the papers’ prize applications.
But if anything was “deeply” demonstrated, it was the deeply embedded Washington Post and New York Times DNA on last year’s Pulitzer Board, a third of whose 18 members were current or former Times or Post journalists. In addition, two board members, ex-Timesman Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica and Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune, head nonprofit newsrooms that share coverage with the Times and the Post.
Canedy, a Times alumnus, declined to comment on its deliberations for this prize, but she said that as a general rule board members who presently work for an outfit with submissions under prize consideration have to recuse themselves. Presumably, that meant recusals from the National Reporting deliberations by Pulitzer board Chairman Eugene Robinson, an ardent anti-Trump Post columnist, and member Gail Collins, an ardent anti-Trump columnist for the Times. Canedy says she remains a party to final prize decisions as part of her present job.
Still, The Federalist this week noted numerous coincidences of Pulitzers going to news organizations with journalists on the board. Whether the apparent conflicts are benign or problematic, news organizations risk coming off as clubby, back-scratching pots alleging that the kettle has the world’s darkest hue when exposing self-dealing in corporate, government or even industry prize-awarding contexts.
That’s a long way of coming around to what the board ultimately did, after jurors got through with their evaluations of entries: jointly award the National Reporting prize, making not one, but two news powerhouses happy. “The New York Times entry, submitted in this category, was moved into contention by the Board and then jointly awarded the Prize,” it said in its announcement.
And the rest, as they say, was history. Until the special counsel delivered his report.
Tom Kuntz is the editor of RealClearInvestigations. He helped edit the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize submissions in several years of his 28-year tenure as an editor at the paper ending in 2016. RealClearInvestigations, which aims to fill gaps in Trump-Russia coverage, also relies on anonymous sources.
Used with permission.