How Do Big Media Outlets So Often "Independently Confirm" Each Other's Falsehoods?
The Washington Post's media-spread error about Trump's Georgia call shows the deceitful playbook first invented to undermine Trump and promote Russiagate.
There were so many false reports circulated by the dominant corporate wing of the U.S. media as part of the five-year-long Russiagate hysteria that in January, 2019, I compiled what I called “The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Media Failures on the Trump-Russia Story.” The only difficult part of that article was choosing which among the many dozens of retractions, corrections and still-uncorrected factual falsehoods merited inclusion in the worst-ten list. So stiff was the competition that I was forced to omit many huge media Russiagate humiliations, and thus, to be fair to those who missed the cut, had to append a large “Dishonorable Mention” category at the end.
That the entire Russiagate storyline itself was a fraud and a farce is conclusively demonstrated by one decisive fact that can never be memory-holed: namely, the impetus for the scandal and subsequent investigation was the conspiracy theory that the Trump campaign had secretly and criminally conspired with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election, primarily hacking into the email inboxes of the DNC and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. And a grand total of zero Americans were accused (let alone convicted) of participating in that animating conspiracy.
The New York Times’ May, 2017 announcement of Robert Mueller as special counsel stated explicitly that his task was “to oversee the investigation into ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials” and specifically “investigate ‘any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.’”
The related secondary media-created conspiracy theory was that the Kremlin clandestinely controlled U.S. political institutions by virtue of sexual and financial blackmail held over President Trump, which they used to compel him to obediently obey their dictates. “I don’t know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, or financially” was the dark innuendo which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her media allies most loved to spout. “Prestige news” outlets created their own Q-Anon-level series of art designed to implant in Americans’ minds a slew of McCarthyite imagery showing the Kremlin (or an iconic Moscow cathedral they mistook for the Kremlin) having fully infiltrated Washington’s key institutions.
But that all came crashing down on their heads in April, 2019, when Mueller announced that he was closing his investigation without charging even a single American with the criminal conspiracy that launched the entire spectacle: criminally conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the election. Again: while Mueller — like so many Washington special counsels before him — ended up snaring some operatives in alleged process crimes committed after the investigation commenced (lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice) or unrelated crimes (Manafort’s financial sleaze), the 18-month aggressive, sprawling investigation resulted in exactly zero criminal charges on the core claim that Trump officials had criminally conspired with Russia.
If that were not sufficient to make every person who drowned the country in this crazed conspiracy theory feel enormous shame (and it should have been), the former FBI Director’s final Report explicitly stated that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election.” In many cases, the Report went even further than this “did not establish” formulation to state that there was no evidence of any kind found for many of the key media conspiracies (“The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation”; the “evidence does not establish that one campaign official’s efforts to dilute a portion of the Republican platform was undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia”; “the investigation did not establish that [Carter] Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election”). The Report also barely even dignified let alone confirmed the long-standing, utterly deranged Democratic/media conspiracy theory that the Kremlin had taken over U.S. policy through blackmail.
For a few weeks following the issuance of the Mueller report, Democrats and media figures gamely attempted to deny that it obliterated the conspiracy theories to which they had relentlessly subjected the country for the prior four years. How could they do otherwise? They staked their entire reputations and the trust of their audience on having this be true. To avoid their day of reckoning, they would hype ancillary events such as Paul Manafort’s conviction on unrelated financial crimes or Michael Flynn’s guilty plea for a minor and dubious charge (for which even Mueller recommended no prison time) or Roger Stone’s various process charges to insist that there was still a grain of truth to their multifaceted geopolitical fairy tale seemingly lifted straight from a Tom Clancy Cold War thriller about the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
But even they knew this was just a temporary survival strategy and that it was unsustainable for the long term. That the crux of the scandal all along was that key Trump allies if not the President himself would be indicted and imprisoned for having conspired with the Russians was too glaring to make people forget about it.
That was why former CIA Director John Brennan assured the MSNBC audience in March — just weeks before Mueller closed his investigation with no conspiracy crimes alleged — that it was impossible that the investigation could close without first indicting Trump’s children and other key White House aides on what Brennan correctly said was the whole point of the scandal from the start: “criminal conspiracy involving the Russians . . . . whether or not U.S. persons were actively collaborating, colluding, cooperating, involved in a conspiracy with them or not.” Brennan strongly insinuated that among those likely to be indicted for criminally conspiring with the Russians were those “from the Trump family.”
As we all know, literally none of that happened. Not only were Trump family members not indicted by Mueller on charges of “criminal conspiracy involving the Russians,” no Americans were. Brennan believed there was no way that the Mueller investigation could end without that happening because that was the whole point of the scandal from the start. To explain why it had not happened up to that point after eighteen months of investigation by Mueller’s subpoena-armed and very zealous team of prosecutors, Brennan invented a theory that they were waiting to do that as the final act because they knew they would be fired by Trump once it happened. But it never happened because Mueller found no evidence to prove that it did.
In other words, the conspiracy theory that the media pushed on Americans since before Trump’s inauguration — to the point where it drowned out most of U.S. politics and policy for years — proved to have no evidentiary foundation. And that is one reason I say that the sectors of the media pretending to be most distraught at the spread of “disinformation” by anonymous citizens on Facebook and 4Chan are, in fact, the most aggressive, prolific and destructive disseminators of that disinformation by far (nor was it uncredentialed YouTube hosts, Patreon podcasters or Substack writers who convinced Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons and was in an alliance with Al Qaeda but rather the editor-heavy prestige outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, NBC News and The Atlantic).
With the crux of the Russiagate conspiracy theory collapsed, U.S. media outlets began acknowledging — because they had to — that none of it was vindicated by Mueller’s report. To do so, they abruptly nullified a rule that had been in place since Mueller’s appointment: one may not speak ill of the former FBI Director because he is a patriotic man of the highest integrity and to malign him is to undermine the Brave Men and Women of the FBI Who Keep Us Safe. The only self-preservation tactic they could find to salvage their credibility was to turn on Mueller, quite viciously. Overnight, the storyline emerged: the conspiracy theory we pushed on you was correct all along, but Mueller was a coward and failed in his patriotic duty to say so.
While the hypocrisy of watching a media that for months demanded reverence for Mueller turn on a dime to accuse him of being a borderline-senile, unpatriotic coward was quite amazing, it was at least some progress toward acknowledging the undeniable reality that the media had collectively failed. Their dark conspiracies and predictions of doom were pipe dreams. They flooded the country with disinformation for years about all of this. And while they characteristically engaged in exactly zero self-reflection or self-critique — preferring to heap all the blame on Mueller instead for failing to find the evidence that is still out there of their cognitive derangements — it at least consecrated the fact that this scandal ended in humiliation for them.
When I created my top ten list of media Russiagate debacles, choosing the top ten was difficult but choosing the top spot was not. It is worth briefly revisiting that particular journalistic humiliation because of what it reveals about ongoing media behavior.
On the morning of December 8, 2017, CNN went on the air with one of the most cataclysmic and breathless scoops of the entire Russiagate saga. The network hauled out all of its most melodramatic graphics, music and host voice-tones to signify that this was it: the smoking gun, the ultimate bombshell, the final nail in the coffin, inescapable proof for their conspiracy theory. The big huge scoop notably came from its Congressional reporter Manu Raju (one of the favorite dumping grounds for false leaks by leading House Democrat Russiagate fanatics such as Rep. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell (D-CA)).
According to this historic CNN revelation, a stunning and incriminating email had been obtained by “congressional investigators,” and “multiple sources” conveyed its contents to CNN. This email proved, said CNN, that Donald Trump Jr. was given advance access to the archive of DNC and Podesta emails ultimately published by WikiLeaks on September 14, 2016. This earth-shattering email to Trump, Jr. was dated September 4 — ten days before WikiLeaks began publishing — and this, in the minds of CNN, proved somehow that the Trump campaign was in on the plot from the start.
Now, even if Trump had been shown the archive in advance by WikiLeaks or someone else, it would not have remotely proven that the Trump campaign was a participant in the plot, but let us not get detained on that hypothetical. The CNN story was treated by the entire liberal sector of the press as the most devastating and incriminating evidence yet produced to prove the truth of the Russiagate conspiracy theory, with one particularly loyal Democratic partisan-writer using an image of a nuclear explosion to convey its significance:
As it turns out, there was one small problem with the CNN story: it was completely and utterly false. The email to Trump, Jr. on which the entire bombshell was based was sent after WikiLeaks began publishing the archive, not before. And it was sent not by some super-secret inside source with the Kremlin or WikiLeaks, but by a random member of the public who, having read about the WikiLeaks publications in the newspaper, emailed Trump, Jr. to encourage him to take a look.
How “multiple sources” all got the date on the email wrong — mis-reading it as September 4 rather than the real date of the email: September 14 — was never explained by CNN. That is because corporate media outlets believe they owe the public no explanation or accountability for the massive errors they commit.
But what was most notable about this episode is that it was not just CNN which reported this fraudulent story. An hour or so after the network shook the political world with its graphics-and-music-shaped bombshell, other news networks — including MSNBC and CBS News — claimed that they had obtained what they called “independent confirmation” that the story was true.
All of these media outlets, reading Orwell as if it is an instruction manual, have now scrubbed most of the humiliating videos where they did this from the internet. But one can still watch here as NBC News’ national security reporter and long-time de facto CIA spokesman Ken Dilanian breathlessly tells an MSNBC host, who herself can barely maintain her composure, that he has spoken with “sources” who have provided independent confirmation of the CNN story, thus adding NBC News’ imprimatur to it. Shortly thereafter, CBS News did the same.
All of this prompted the obvious question: how could MSNBC and CBS News have both purported to “independently confirm” a CNN bombshell that was completely false? The reason this matters is because the term “independently confirm” significantly bolsters the credibility of the initial report because it makes it appear that other credible-to-some news organizations have conducted their own investigation and found more evidence that proves it is true. That is the purpose of the exercise: to bolster the credibility of the story in the minds of the public.
But what actually happens is as deceitful as it is obvious. When a news outlet such as NBC News claims to have “independently corroborated” a report from another corporate outlet, they often do not mean that they searched for and acquired corroborating evidence for it. What they mean is much more tawdry: they called, or were called by, the same anonymous sources that fed CNN the false story in the first place, and were fed the same false story. And just as CNN did — repeated what they were told (almost certainly by Democratic Congressional members and/or their staff) without independently investigating it, because they knew any anti-Trump story would please their partisan audience — NBC News pretended they had obtained “independent confirmation” when all they had done was speak to the same sources that fed CNN.
This episode is so worth recalling not only because it is one of the most stunning and pathetic media humiliations of the Trump era — though it is that — but also because the shoddy tactic that drove it is still in full use by the same media outlets. We just saw proof of that again with a major Washington Post “correction” — which should be called a retraction — of one of the most-discussed news stories of the last six months: the Post’s claims about what Trump said when he called a Georgia election official while he was still contesting the 2020 election results.
On January 9, The Washington Post published a story reporting that an anonymous source claimed that on December 23, Trump spoke by phone with Frances Watson, the chief investigator of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, and directed her that she must “find the fraud” and promised her she would be “a national hero” if she did so. The paper insisted that those were actual quotes of what Trump said. This time, it was CNN purporting to independently confirm the Post’s reporting, affirming that Trump said these words “according to a source with knowledge of the call.”
But late last week, The Wall Street Journal obtained a recording of that call, and those quotes attributed to Trump do not appear. As a result, The Washington Post — two months after its original story that predictably spread like wildfire throughout the entire media ecosystem — has appended a correction at the top of its original story. Politico’s Alex Thompson correctly pronounced these errors “real bad” because of how widely they spread and were endorsed by other major media outlets.
This is a different species of journalistic malpractice than mere journalistic falsehoods. As I detailed in February and again two weeks ago, the U.S. public was inundated for weeks with an utterly false yet horrifying story — that a barbaric pro-Trump mob had savagely murdered Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick by bashing his skull in with a fire extinguisher. That false tale about the only person said to have been killed at the January 6 riot other than pro-Trump supporters emanated from a New York Times report based on the claims of “two anonymous law enforcement officials.”
As it turns out, Sicknick’s autopsy revealed that he suffered no blunt trauma, and two men arrested this week were charged not with murder but assault and conspiracy to injure an officer: for using an unidentified gas. In reporting those arrests, even The New York Times acknowledged that “prosecutors stopped short of linking the attack to Officer Sicknick’s death the next day” because “both officers and rioters deployed spray, mace and other irritants during the attack” and “it remains unclear whether Officer Sicknick died because of his exposure to the spray.”
Many liberals defenders of these corporate media outlets insist that these major factual errors do not matter because the basic narrative — Trump and his supporters at the Capitol are bad people who did bad things — is still true. But these errors are enormous. That Trump, Jr. received that email from a random member of the public after WikiLeaks began publicly publishing documents transforms the story from smoking gun to irrelevant. That Trump did not utter the extremely incriminating quotes attributed to him in that call at least permits debate about whether he did anything wrong there and what his intent was (encouraging the official to find the fraud he genuinely believed was there or pressuring her to manufacture claims with threats and promises of reward). And there is, manifestly, a fundamental difference in both intent and morality between deliberately murdering someone by repeatedly bashing their skull in with a fire extinguisher and using a non-lethal crowd-control spray frequently used at protests even if it is ultimately proven that the spray is what caused Officer Sicknick’s death (which is why those two acts would carry vastly different punishments under the law).
But all of this highlights the real crisis in journalism, the reason public faith and trust in media institutions is in free fall. With liberal media outlets deliberately embracing a profit model of speaking overwhelmingly to partisan Democrats who use them as their primary source of news, there is zero cost to publishing false claims about people and groups hated by that liberal audience.
That audience does not care if these media outlets publish false stories as long as it is done for the Greater Good of harming their political enemies, and this ethos has contaminated newsrooms as well. Given human fallibility, reporting errors are normal and inevitable, but when they are all geared toward advancing one political agenda or faction and undermining the other, they cease to be errors and become a deliberate strategy or, at best, systemic recklessness.
But whatever else is true, it is vital to understand what news outlets mean when they claim they have “independently verified” the uncorroborated reports of other similar outlets. It means nothing of consequence. In many if not most cases — enough to make this formulation totally unreliable — it signifies nothing more than their willingness to serve as stenographers for the same anonymous political operatives who fed their competitors similar propaganda.