In a bombshell report, on 17 January BuzzFeed claimed Donald Trump had told his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the specifics of the 'Trump Tower Moscow' project — a felony, and indeed an impeachable one.
However, in an unprecedented move, the very next day special counsel Robert Mueller broke with his 20-month-long convention of not commenting on news reports relating to his investigation by announcing the story wasn't true. Moreover, he was critical of BuzzFeed's failure to contact his representatives and ask for verification on the story before publication.
History of Fabulism
Not long after Mueller's denial, more critical voices began scrutinizing the report. Many noted Jason Leopold — one of the reporters on the story — had previously been involved in another epic 'fake news' fiasco at BuzzFeed relating to Russia. In November 2017, he authored a story which claimed the FBI was investigating records indicating in August 2016 the Russian Foreign Ministry sent US$30,000 to its embassy in Washington for "election financing".
A shock story evidently written for maximum 'clickbait' value, Leopold — almost certainly consciously — opted to bury the fact the payments related to Russia's own elections in September 2016, in which expatriate Russians were permitted to vote in their adopted home countries. As of January 2019, the article hasn't been removed from web, although a qualifier has been added to its introductory paragraph.
Don’t let the Special Counsel’s office issuing an unprecedented denial of a major story — that my network spent all day hyping — get you away from the central question: how many lines can I draw on my Trump-Russia conspiracy whiteboard? https://t.co/EJs7ATH4Ea— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 19, 2019
Others expressed shock Leopold was still employed by any media outlet at all, for as Colombia Journalism Review documented back in 2006, his lengthy career has been typified by controversy, ignominy and dishonesty.
For instance, in August 2002 Leopold wrote an article for Salon claiming then-Secretary of the Army and former Enron vice chair Thomas White knew more about the company's infamously questionable accounting practices than he'd admitted up to that time. The key piece of evidence for the allegation was an internal Enron email that was apparently leaked to Leopold by an anonymous source — but after he was unable to produce a copy when asked by his editor, and it was revealed he'd plagiarised portions of the piece from the Financial Times, it was pulled from the website.
.@Isikoff: "There were red flags about the BuzzFeed story from the get-go." Notes it was inconsistent with Cohen's guilty plea when he said he made false statements about Trump Tower to Congress to be "consistent" with Trump, not at his direction. pic.twitter.com/tgDg6SNPpG— David Rutz (@DavidRutz) January 19, 2019
In a perversely ironic twist, in 2005 Leopold's memoir (Off the Record), in which he pledged to come clean about all the "lying, cheating and backstabbing" he'd engaged in over the course of his journalistic career and set the 'record' straight on his various ignominious departures from media organisations (including the Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones), was dumped by planned publisher Rowman & Littlefield just before it went to press after one of the book's sources threatened to sue.
Leopold had claimed the source in question, Steven Maviglio — spokesperson for then-California Governor Gray Davis — had told him he "might have broken the law by investing in energy companies using inside information", which was apparently totally untrue.
Reflexively joining an uninformed mob going after teenagers mere hours after falling for BuzzFeed's evidence-free (and false!) Trump-Russia story takes real critical thinking prowess. Congrats to those of you who had this twofer!— Mollie (@MZHemingway) January 21, 2019
The next year, Leopold again landed in hot water when he published a story for Truthout claiming Karl Rove "told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials," he was due to be indicted in the Valerie Plame scandal. In the piece, he said multiple anonymous sources had confirmed Rove's indictment "was imminent" — mere days later prosecutors confirmed Rove would not face charges. Despite this, Truthout chief Marc Ash stood by the story despite a lack of corroboration elsewhere and furious denials from all named in the story for some time.
Intriguingly, there were shades of Ash's response in BuzzFeed's reaction to Mueller's denials — namely, the outlet stood by the story, not only refusing to retract it, but "reconfirming" it — and editor-in-chief Ben Smith vehemently defended his decision to publish in a much-ridiculed interview on CNN, claiming the reporting would be "borne out" by future disclosures.
We at The Post also had riffs on the story our reporters hadn't confirmed. One noted Fox downplayed it; another said it "if true, looks to be the most damning to date for Trump." The industry needs to think deeply on how to cover others' reporting we can't confirm independently. https://t.co/afzG5B8LAP— Matt Zapotosky (@mattzap) January 19, 2019
Other outlets have chosen to retract and/or correct their reporting on the story — although, journalist Doug Henwood has noted while New York Times covered the report on the front page of its print edition, its correction was buried on page 11 the next day.
Despite BuzzFeed's defence of the story, it's likely to go down as yet another utterly embarrassing mainstream media 'RussiaGate' failure in a very long line — stories which have briefly generated borderline-hysteria on social media and cable news, but been proven to be utterly without foundation in short order. Here are some of the most notorious.
Manafort Meeting Never Was
On 27 November 2018, The Guardian published a seismic exclusive report authored by Luke Harding that claimed Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chair and now-convicted felon, met with WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on three separate occasions.
The story stretched believability to breaking point — Manafort somehow managed to enter and exit the Embassy without being photographed, filmed or even noticed, and left no record of his presence in the building's visitor log — and was based entirely on anonymous sources.
WikiLeaks immediately issued a vehement denial, declaring the story to be completely "fabricated" and noting the paper had given them virtually no time to respond prior to publication. Within hours, the organisation had set up a legal fund seeking donations in order to sue The Guardian for libel, and were calling for the resignation of Editor Katherine Viner. The paper responded by softening the report's wording significantly, making clear it was based entirely on unverifiable allegations from anonymous sources, rather than anything even approaching actual evidence.
In less than a day, what Harding and Viner had evidently hoped would be the journalistic scoop of the year was shaping up to be the biggest disaster in news reporting since Germany's Stern magazine published ‘The Hitler Diaries' in 1983, a disaster that could severely — and enduringly — damage the reputation of The Guardian and land the paper in significant legal hot water. Despite this, the story was uncritically regurgitated by news outlets the world over. As of January 21, neither Harding nor Viner has retracted or apologized for the piece.
Dates Mixed Up
On 9 December 2017, CNN claimed Donald Trump Jr. was offered advanced access to the notorious DNC and Podesta email troves by WikiLeaks — a smoking gun proving the Trump campaign had colluded with WikiLeaks to undermine Hillary Clinton. The story was then backed up by MSNBC, with intelligence and national security reporter Ken Dilanian breathlessly claiming to have "independent confirmation" of the story.
It would be mere hours before the incendiary story would be completely shredded by reality. In truth, Trump Jr. had been apprised of the email dumps' existence by a member of the public 10 days after their release. The assorted anonymous sources who'd confirmed the story to both networks had evidently all got their dates mixed up, or indeed were lying — or didn't even exist perhaps, as both networks' refusal to name their sources may imply.
The pair's determination to cover up their colossal journalistic failure doesn't end there — both have deleted every trace of the story from their official websites and YouTube channels, and attempts by individual users to upload their own copies invariably result in copyright claims and deletion.
Just Ain't Crickets
In another major disaster for MSNBC — and its star reporter Dilanian — in September 2018, the network repeatedly claimed Russia was the primary suspect in "mysterious" attacks giving US diplomatic staff in Cuba "brain injuries".
"Sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the government workers…[they are] so sophisticated the Americans don't even fully understand it," Dilanian said.
Subsequent reports claimed CIA intercepts of Russian communications backed up the conclusion the Kremlin was directing the dastardly brain damaging blasts. Such was the ferocity of the reporting — and the seriousness of the allegations — Republican Senator Cory Gardner appeared on the network to say Russia should now be classified a "terror state".
MSNBC carried on with their microwave weapon crusade despite academics casting significant doubt on their analysis — it would not be until January 2019 the story would be totally debunked, when two scientists — Alexander Stubbs of Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the UK's University of Lincoln — published a study based on recordings of the sounds embassy personnel complained of hearing, and blamed for their "brain damage", revealing the ‘microwave weapons' to in fact be…Caribbean crickets during mating season.