Friday was one of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, with countless pundits, commentators and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.
The spectacle began on Friday morning at 11:00 am EST, when the Most Trusted Name in News™ spent 12 straight minutes on air flamboyantly hyping an exclusive bombshell report that seemed to prove that WikiLeaks, last September, had secretly offered the Trump campaign, even Donald Trump himself, special access to the DNC emails before they were published on the internet. As CNN sees the world, this would prove collusion between the Trump family and WikiLeaks and, more importantly, between Trump and Russia, since the U.S. intelligence community regards WikiLeaks as an “arm of Russian intelligence,” and therefore, so does the U.S. media.
This entire revelation was based on an email which CNN strongly implied it had exclusively obtained and had in its possession. The email was sent by someone named “Michael J. Erickson” – someone nobody had heard of previously and whom CNN could not identify – to Donald Trump, Jr., offering a decryption key and access to DNC emails that WikiLeaks had “uploaded.” The email was a smoking gun, in CNN’s extremely excited mind, because it was dated September 4 – ten days before WikiLeaks began promoting access to those emails online – and thus proved that the Trump family was being offered special, unique access to the DNC archive: likely by WikiLeaks and the Kremlin.
It’s impossible to convey with words what a spectacularly devastating scoop CNN believed it had, so it’s necessary to watch it for yourself to see the tone of excitement, breathlessness and gravity the network conveyed as they clearly believed they were delivering a near-fatal blow on the Trump/Russia collusion story:
There was just one small problem with this story: it was fundamentally false, in the most embarrassing way possible. Hours after CNN broadcast its story – and then hyped it over and over and over – the Washington Post reported that CNN got the key fact of the story wrong.
The email was not dated September 4, as CNN claimed, but rather September 14 – which means it was sent after WikiLeaks had already published access to the DNC emails online. Thus, rather than offering some sort of special access to Trump, “Michael J. Erickson” was simply some random person from the public encouraging the Trump family to look at the publicly available DNC emails that WikiLeaks – as everyone by then already knew – had publicly promoted. In other words, the email was the exact opposite of what CNN presented it as being.
How did CNN end up aggressively hyping such a spectacularly false story? They refuse to say. Many hours after their story got exposed as false, the journalist who originally presented it, Congressional reporter Manu Raju, finally posted a tweet noting the correction. CNN’s PR Department then claimed that “multiple sources” had provided CNN with the false date. And Raju went on CNN, in muted tones, to note the correction, explicitly claiming that “two sources” had each given him the false date on the email, while also making clear that CNN did not ever even see the email, but only had sources describe its purported contents:
All of this prompts the glaring, obvious, and critical question – one which CNN refuses to address: how did “multiple sources” all misread the date on this document, in exactly the same way, and toward the same end, and then feed this false information to CNN?
It is, of course, completely plausible that one source might innocently misread a date on a document. But how is it remotely plausible that multiple sources could all innocently and in good faith misread the date in exactly the same way, all to cause to be disseminated a blockbuster revelation about Trump/Russia/WikiLeaks collusion? This is the critical question that CNN simply refuses to answer. In other words, CNN refuses to provide the most minimal transparency to enable the public to understand what happened here.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER SO MUCH? For so many significant reasons:
To begin with, it’s hard to overstate how fast, far and wide this false story traveled. Democratic Party pundits, operatives and journalists with huge social media platforms predictably jumped on the story immediately, announcing that it proved collusion between Trump and Russia (through WikiLeaks). One tweet from Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu, claiming that this proved evidence of criminal collusion, was re-tweeted thousands and thousands of times in just a few hours (Lieu quietly deleted the tweet after I noted its falsity, and long after it went very viral, without ever telling his followers that the CNN story, and therefore his accusation, had been debunked).
Brookings’ Benjamin Wittes, whose star has risen as he has promoted himself as a friend of former FBI Director Jim Comey, not only promoted the CNN story in the morning, but did so with the word “Boom” – which he uses to signal that a major blow has been delivered to Trump on the Russia story – along with a gif of a cannon being detonated:
Incredibly, to this very moment – almost 24 hours after CNN’s story was debunked – Wittes has never noted to his more than 200,000 followers that the story he so excitedly promoted turned out to be utterly false, even though he returned to Twitter long after the story was debunked to tweet about other matters. He just left his false and inflammatory claims uncorrected.
Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall believed the story was so significant that he used an image of an atomic bomb detonating at the top of his article discussing its implications, an article he tweeted to his roughly 250,000 followers. Only at night was an editor’s note finally added noting that the whole thing was false.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how many people were deceived – filled with false news and propaganda – by the CNN story. But thanks to Democratic-loyal journalists and operatives who decree every Trump/Russia claim to be true without seeing any evidence, it’s certainly safe to say that many hundreds of thousands of people, almost certainly millions, were exposed to these false claims.
Surely anyone who has any minimal concerns about journalistic accuracy – which would presumably include all the people who have spent the last year lamenting Fake News, propaganda, Twitter bots and the like – would demand an accounting as to how a major U.S. media outlet ended up filling so many people’s brains with totally false news. That alone should prompt demands from CNN for an explanation about what happened here. No Russian Facebook ad or Twitter bot could possibly have anywhere near the impact as this CNN story had when it comes to deceiving people with blatantly inaccurate information.
Second, the “multiple sources” who fed CNN this false information did not confine themselves to that network. They were apparently very busy eagerly spreading the false information to as many media outlets as they could find. In the middle of the day, CBS News claimed that it had independently “confirmed” CNN’s story about the email, and published its own breathless article discussing the grave implications of this discovered collusion.
Most embarrassing of all was what MSNBC did. You just have to watch this report from its “intelligence and national security correspondent” Ken Dilanian to believe it. Like CBS, Dilanian also claimed that he independently “confirmed” the false CNN report from “two sources with direct knowledge of this.” Dilanian, whose career in the U.S. media continues to flourish the more he is exposed as someone who faithfully parrots what the CIA tells him to say (since that is one of the most coveted and valued attributes in US journalism), spent three minutes mixing evidence-free CIA claims as fact with totally false assertions about what his multiple “sources with direct knowledge” told him about all this. Please watch this – again, not just the content but the tenor and tone of how they “report” – as it is Baghdad-Bob-level embarrassing:
Think about what this means. It means that at least two – and possibly more – sources, which these media outlets all assessed as credible in terms of having access to sensitive information, all fed the same false information to multiple news outlets at the same time. For multiple reasons, the probability is very high that these sources were Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee (or their high-level staff members), which is the committee that obtained access to Trump Jr.’s emails, although it’s certainly possible that it’s someone else. We won’t know until these news outlets deign to report this crucial information to the public: which “multiple sources” acted jointly to disseminate incredibly inflammatory, false information to the nation’s largest news outlets?
Just last week, the Washington Post decided – to great applause (including mine) – to expose a source to whom they had promised anonymity and off-the-record protections because they discovered that she was purposely feeding them false information as part of a scheme by Project Veritas to discredit the Post. It’s a well established principle of journalism – one that is rarely followed when it comes to powerful people in DC – that journalists should expose, rather than protect and conceal, sources who purposely feed them false information to be disseminated to the public.