By Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff
A January 2023 publication from the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) spawned the latest round of spin and shifting baselines from Russiagate apologists. Russiagate refers to the claims that Russia meddled in and influenced the outcome of the U.S. election in 2016, had direct connections to Donald Trump and his associates, and worked to help defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidency. A recent article from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, written by investigative reporter Jeff Gerth, utilized existing media reports, and “dozens of people at the center of the story—editors and reporters, Trump himself, and others in his orbit,” to conclude that the legacy news media inaccurately covered the connection between Russia and Donald J. Trump during his presidency. While this may be news to some diehard Democrats and their allies in the “liberal” press, the media’s reporting failures on the matter were not missed by all.
In addition to concluding Russiagate was a failure of the Fourth Estate, Gerth’s report reveals that rather than reckoning with their failures, many in the news media continue to avoid the topic altogether. Gerth explained that “my final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded.”
The authors of this article know firsthand how badly some outlets want to memory-hole media failures surrounding Russiagate. Just this year, we had an editor of a prominent online news site (where we have been published many times) refuse to publish one of our articles because it rightly pointed out, inconveniently, that journalists Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald were accurate on many aspects of the Russiagate narrative, despite other criticisms and attacks the corporate media and the left have heaped upon them.
One of the most egregious responses to the additional revelations published by CJR about the collapse of Russiagate came from Andrew Prokop of Vox. Prokop misused the concept of “revisionism” to claim that Russiagate “deniers” (whom he primarily identified as Gerth, Greenwald, and Taibbi) were spreading a “revisionist history” about the news media reports on Trump and Russia. To set up his faulty argument, Prokop had no choice but to admit that the “Trump as Manchurian candidate” theories, and “anything based on the Steele dossier (the opposition research report on Trump that engendered much of the Russiagate speculation),” “have not aged well,” especially the infamous “pee tape” – a story claiming that Russia was blackmailing Trump with a recording of sex workers urinating on Trump. However, from there the article is an exercise in projection, straw-person arguments, cherry-picking, and shooting the messengers. While Prokop rightfully acknowledges some reporting errors in the past, he engages in revisionism of his own while moving the goalposts on the overall claims regarding Russia, Trump, the 2016 election, and the aftermath.
Prokop creates a straw person argument by falsely claiming that critics ignore the origin of Russiagate so they can blame it all on Hillary Clinton. In fact, the very people Prokop refers to as “deniers” have confirmed the very same stories Prokop cites as the actual origin of Russigate: the social media posts from Russian sources, Trump’s personal attorney’s contacting the Russian government regarding a Trump Tower project in Moscow, and the Trump campaign’s decision to share publicly available polling data, as well as their interest in hacked Democratic emails and “dirt,” on then candidate Hillary Clinton.
In addition to misrepresenting Russiagate critics’ arguments, Prokop engages in an act of projection by accusing them of rewriting history. Citing a claim made by the U.S. Government in their indictment of individuals suspected of hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee’s [DNC] server, Prokop concludes that we know “the Russian government really did intervene in the 2016 election by hacking leading Democrats’ emails and having them leaked” to WikiLeaks. However, Prokop ignores a later declassified interview revealing that Crowdstrike, the American cybersecurity technology company that the government credits with proving that Russia hacked the DNC emails, admitted, under oath, to the House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that “we did not have concrete evidence that the data was exfiltrated (moved electronically) from the DNC [server].” Instead, all they had were “indicators.” Indeed, Crowdstrike reiterated this point on their website noting that they do not have “concrete evidence” that anyone “exfiltrated data and emails from the DNC network.” This indicates that any claim that Russia hacked the emails is in fact doubtful if not baseless according to the available evidence, and far from as certain as Prokop would lead readers to believe. Indeed, several scholars, including the two of us and others at the media watchdog Project Censored, have acknowledged that Russia did in fact interfere, but with little discernable impact.
Worse, Prokop’s inaccurate historical narrative assumes that the Russiagate nonsense stopped with the Steele Dossier and Manchurian candidate narratives in 2016, and any other questionable stories or narratives were responsibly introduced by the news media, but may have worked to create a misleading narrative. He explains this conclusion by noting “media coverage that is accurate and even arguably justified can create an unfair or misleading narrative, due less to the facts than to proportion, hype, tone, and implication.” This is the real attempt at revisionist history, from the legacy press and their apologists who keep spinning the story, and the root of a larger problem. Censoring those who challenged that narrative not for ideological reasons, but for journalistic ones.
First, media companies actively tried to censor authors criticizing Russiagate. Taibbi noted that there were attempts by Rolling Stone to stymie his Russian criticism. Indeed, Taibbi and Greenwald, both of whom had consistently appeared in major news media outlets, stopped being invited as guests once they questioned the Russiagate narrative. We even experienced this firsthand as in 2018, we had to fight to even raise legitimate questions about Russiagate for a writing project with one of our publishers. Among the liberal class, even asking basic questions about the evil Trump/Putin axis was akin to heresy (and just for the record, we oppose them both).
Second, while Prokop fairly mentions that some major media outlets debunked a few Russiagate stories, he ignores the litany of false or baseless stories the legacy news media propounded and perpetuated long after the election. These include, but are not limited to:
- Russia hacking a Vermont power plant;
- Russia putting a bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan
- Russia shifting election outcomes around the world;
- Trump was a Russian a asset since 1987;
- Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Report sought to communicate that there was a Trump-Russia connection without saying there was a Trump-Russia connection;
- “The walls were closing in on Trump”;
- RT hacked into and took over C-SPAN;
- PropOrNot identified hundreds of websites controlled by Russia;
- Trump Aide Anthony Scaramucci was Involved in a Russian hedge fund under U.S. Senate investigation;
- Russia attacked U.S. “Diplomats” at Cuban Embassy with Havana Syndrome;
- Trump had a secret internet server to communicate with a Russian bank;
- Former Trump presidential campaign chair Paul Manafort visited Julian Assange three times in the Ecuadorian Embassy;
- Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller possessed emails and interviews confirming that Trump directed his lawyer to lie to Congress;
- Donald Trump Jr. was offered advanced access to the WikiLeaks email archive;
- 17 U.S. intelligence agencies definitively concluded that 2016 cyberattacks derived from the “highest levels of the Kremlin”;
- Russia created the Hunter Biden laptop story as fake news.
Prokop’s analysis is problematic because it conflates journalism with legal inquiries. He justifies the continued Russiagate reporting by noting that there were suspicious statements, actions, and associations that hinted at a Trump-Russia connection (which we even wrote about in a previous book). Even if this is true, this demonstrates a grammar school level understanding of journalism. Legal officials may, and did, investigate the connection, but the press acted as if a connection was already known and they – along with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller – were just in the process of finding it. They did not find any prosecutable smoking gun, nor did they report on alterative motives or interpretations because they believed the Russiagate narrative so strongly that they tailored all reporting to confirm their bias that Russiagate was real.
Their fixation on the Russiagate narrative may have been motivated in part by careerism. Indeed, major Russiagaters like Nina Jankowicz received a prestigious position as the head of now defunct Department of Homeland Security Disinformation Governance Board and Rachel Maddow took home a $30 million contract mostly for spreading Russiaphobia, and turning Russiagate into a cottage industry at MSNBC.
Conversely, those who criticized (not denied, criticized) the Russigate narrative repeatedly experienced personal attacks to silence their reporting. For example, reports came out that Taibbi was a former drug user, misogynist, and a “conservative” (which WAPO used as a pejorative term). Prokop also engaged in ad hominem attacks to undermine the credibility of Gerth’s analysis for CJR by pointing out errors in his previous reporting. However, this fallacious attack does little to demonstrate any inaccuracy in Gerth’s current analysis or the topic at hand. We learn in Journalism 101 that news outlets make errors, but to gain credibility they own up to them, they do not revise history. This is why news outlets tell audiences about corrections, and so-called mainstream journalists such as Michael Isikoff admitted that media reports were less than accurate on Russiagate. That is how one builds credibility. The opposite approach would be to hide errors or biased reporting, like the Washington Post did when it stealthily removed its claims that Taibbi was a “conservative.”
More importantly, it is fallacious to assume that if a journalist makes one mistake, then everything they report is false. Prokop must know this firsthand as he claimed in 2015 that Trump’s candidacy would be good for Jeb Bush. Instead, Trump won the presidency, Bush gained no notable support from voters, and was forced to drop out of the race in February 2016. Prokop’s embarrassing miscalculation is no reason to discount everything he reports. Indeed, it illustrates that all reporting needs to be evaluated on its merits, not by attacking an author for some previous error. Good journalism does not need to keep changing or back-peddling claims to fit a pre-ordained conclusion, it just needs to follow the facts wherever they may lead. For Russiagate, maybe it’s time we relegate it to the dustbin of history, and stymie any reprise of such revisionist propaganda.