Journalists must remember the George Carlin Rule

By Kent R. Kroeger (August 30, 2018)

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Two recent news reports have again raised serious doubts about the veracity and integrity of past reporting surrounding the Hillary Clinton email controversy and its over-reliance on government sources.

First, in an August 23rd RealClearInvestigations story, Paul Sperry reported that the FBI’s examination hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s unsecured laptop may not have been as complete as originally suggested by FBI Director James Comey.

Sperry writes:

In fact, a technical glitch prevented FBI technicians from accurately comparing the new emails with the old emails. Only 3,077 of the 694,000 emails were directly reviewed for classified or incriminating information. Three FBI officials completed that work in a single 12-hour spurt the day before Comey again cleared Clinton of criminal charges.

“Most of the emails were never examined, even though they made up potentially 10 times the evidence” of what was reviewed in the original year-long case that Comey closed in July 2016, said a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Yet even the “extremely narrow” search that was finally conducted, after more than a month of delay, uncovered more classified material sent and/or received by Clinton through her unauthorized basement server, the official said. Contradicting Comey’s testimony, this included highly sensitive information dealing with Israel and the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. The former secretary of state, however, was never confronted with the sensitive new information and it was never analyzed for damage to national security.

The second news story was broken by The Daily Caller’s Richard Pollock on August 27th, in which he reported that “a Chinese-owned company operating in the Washington, D.C., area hacked Hillary Clinton’s private server throughout her term as secretary of state and obtained nearly all her emails, two sources briefed on the matter told The Daily Caller News Foundation.”

According to Pollock’s anonymous sources, who were briefed on the intelligence finding, the Chinese firm was a cover for a Chinese intelligence operation which “obtained Clinton’s emails in real time as she sent and received communications and documents through her personal server.”

Keep in mind, Pollock’s evidence is no more concrete than the evidence Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe provided when it indicted various Russian intelligence operatives for hacking the emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. In both cases, the public is expected to accept the honesty and accuracy of evidence that cannot be independently scrutinized.

While the details provided in both cases appear plausible, even likely, independently verifiable documentation is conveniently withheld. “Trust us, we’re the government.”

Between the Weiner laptop revelations and the alleged Chinese hacker news stories, from a journalism perspective, the latter seems far more serious should the story prove to be even partially accurate.

It is understandable that the press didn’t have enough time before Election Day to verify FBI sources’ Nov. 6th claim that the “thousands of new emails were mostly personal and duplicates of what had already been seen.”

As for the alleged Chinese hacker story, it is baffling that the news media took over three years (!) to produce a substantive follow-up to a New York Times July 2015 story that Department of State Inspector General Steven A. Linick and then-Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) I. Charles McCullough III asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether classified information on Clinton’s private servers was compromised.

It can’t be emphasized enough, any conclusions drawn from a news story dependent on anonymous government sources, current or former, must be tentative. But The Daily Caller’s alleged Chinese hacker story is no more dependent on anonymous sources than most Trump-Russia collusion stories over the past two years.

National Public Radio runs a headline on the alleged Chinese hacker story like this — Trump Says Without Evidence That China Hacked Clinton Email Server — but gives us this headline for an even weaker-sourced CNN story on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s possible testimony regarding President Trump’s prior knowledge of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting — Cohen Contradicts Denials Of Trump Tower Meeting By President’s Team.

While the core conclusion of The Daily Caller story has yet to be invalidated, the assertions of CNN’s Cohen story have been contradicted by Cohen’s own lawyer, Lanny Davis, who was the source of CNN’s original story.

“Attorney for Michael Cohen keeps changing his story on Trump Tower meeting,” cries CNN’s Jim Sciutto.

Sorry, Jim, it should be in your job description to confirm the veracity of your sources. You don’t get to cry “Foul!” after you run the story.

As for the rest of the national news media, we continue to get a nightly diet of “Russia, Russia, Russia” stories from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others, but nary a peep about the possibility that Hillary Clinton was feeding our nation’s diplomatic secrets to Chinese intelligence on a real-time basis.

And we wonder why the average American doesn’t trust the news media.

The New York Times response to The Daily Caller story is even more disingenuous— China Denies Trump’s Claim It Hacked Clinton’s Emails, reads The Times’ August 28th headline. Really? That is The Times’ response to The Daily Caller story? They thought maybe the Chinese government might fess up to spying on Clinton to a Times reporter?

Instead of showing such disrespect for its competition, The New York Times should be talking to the ICIG that, according to Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, found an “anomaly on Hillary Clinton’s emails going through their private server, and when they had done the forensic analysis, they found that her emails, every single one except four, over 30,000, were going to an address that was not on the distribution list.” Based on the ICIG analysis, the unauthorized source was a ‘foreign entity.’

Do we believe Louie Gohmert? Not in isolation we shouldn’t. Instead, we must first invoke the George Carlin Rule: If all we possess is the word of a U.S. House member, that’s as worthless as an Adam Schiff press availability. We should require actual evidence we can see, touch, and examine. But, at the same time, the suggestion that Chinese hackers would know how to exploit a private server and email system is entirely plausible and can’t be dismissed out of hand.

One would think The New York Times, having had its own servers penetrated by Chinese hackers in 2013, might be more sensitive to the possible compromise of Clinton’s email server by the same foreign actor.

Yet, it should be obvious why The Times hasn’t and won’t lead such an inquiry. Based on the recent surge in The Times overall readership and profitability during the Trump-Russia collusion panic, do you think its readers would want to know if Clinton’s private server may have seriously jeopardized national security? The Times would likely lose readership if its readers were told as much.

From the vantage point of commercial news organizations striving to maximize audiences and profits, the current news media obsession with the Trump-Russia collusion story is understandable. And while I tend to agree with journalist Glenn Greenwald’s assessment that the Russian meddling in 2016 was “not especially untoward,” the U.S. has done as much in other countries’ elections, I still don’t trust a single word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth or anyone associated with him. In other words, it has never been more urgent to invoke the Carlin Rule.

So, given the profit motive and the persistent untrustworthiness of the Trump administration, it is hard to judge too harshly those journalists today pushing the Trump-Russia narrative. Its just too good for business.

Perhaps I’m too forgiving.

My better angels would like to think there is an alternative universe out there somewhere. A place where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and Rachel Maddow has spent the last two years hammering on “China, China, China” and how they may possess lèsuo (勒索) — the Chinese word for kompromat — on President Clinton. In such a world, I still wouldn’t respect Maddow’s journalistic standards, but at least I would respect her consistency.

Journalists would be well-advised to internalize the Carlin Rule

Good journalism is hard. When done well, it goes beyond merely parroting the words of government or official sources and finds that relevant but reluctant source, silenced by fear, status or ambition, who nudges the journalist closer to the truth.

Good journalism requires a tenacious level of objectivity, a learned skill humans don’t naturally possess. When honest with ourselves, we realize objectivity potentially opens up some of our most deeply held beliefs to scrutiny and validation. Thus, in practice, objectivity is often so painful it is subconsciously avoided.

But journalists are supposed to fight that ingrained bias. They are supposed to counter their own selfish instincts and fragile egos with aspirations of bias free reporting.

That is not easy to do — and on some level impossible. So we should not be surprised (or overly judgmental) when sometimes journalists get crucial elements of a story wrong, particularly early in a story’s life cycle — history’s ‘first rough draft’ as journalist Alan Barth once wrote.

But sometimes that first draft is not just off-the-mark, but seriously flawed and capable of doing lasting damage.

The New York Times, Judith Miller, and the Search for Saddam’s WMDs

The run-up to the 2003 Iraq War precipitated what some consider the nadir of modern American journalism. In early 2002, as the U.S. continued its occupation of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration had another regime change war plan in the works — the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

U.S. and U.K. intelligence briefing books, declassified in 2010, suggested the decision to invade Iraq occurred as early as March 2002. According to a Downing Street briefing on March 8, 2002, British intelligence had already concluded the “U.S. administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change.”

National Security Archive Senior Fellow John Prados and journalist Christopher Ames, who have extensively researched the declassified U.S. and U.K. documents, concluded that “the Bush administration sought to avoid the emergence of opposition to its actions by means of secrecy and deception, holding the war plan as a “compartmented concept,” restricting information even from allies like the United Kingdom, and pretending that no war plans were being reviewed by the president.”

“President Bush and his senior advisers were so intent on pursuing their project for war, the documents show, that they refused to be deterred by early and repeated refusals of cooperation from regional allies like Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; or from traditional allies such as France and Germany,” wrote Prados and Ames.

Which is why The New York Times’ reporting on the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War was critical and so damaging when it failed to rigorously question the Bush administration’s assertions and justifications for a regime change war in Iraq.

In 2002, Judith Miller was a rising star at The Times, having just shared a Pulitzer Prize with other Times staff reporters for their coverage of global terrorism before and after the September 11 attacks. A graduate of Barnard College and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Miller was a bright reporter with a TV-friendly face, an increasingly important characteristic among ambitious print reporters who were appearing with more regularity on cable TV news programs.

Miller, however, had one deep and critical flaw: she didn’t understand what it meant to be a journalist (regrettably, she was — and is — not alone in that respect). In a scathing article in The New York Review of Books critiquing the reporting on the Iraq War, Michael Massing quotes Miller’s own words on what she felt the job of being a reporter entailed:

…Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.

Her reporting problems on Iraq started with a September 7, 2002 story (co-authored with Michael Gordon) on the reported interception of aluminum tubes headed to Iraq, in which she quoted unnamed “American officials” and “American intelligence experts” who claimed the tubes were intended to be used in centrifuges for the enrichment of weapons-grade nuclear material.

An independent CIA analysis in October 2002 would contend the tubes’ “diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard” to be used for centrifuges; instead, they were most likely intended for use in artillery. However, attempts by David Albright, a former weapons inspector who directed the Institute for Science and International Security who had read the CIA analysis, to convince Miller to correct The Times’ reporting on the “tubes” were rebuffed.

Miller’s reporting on Iraq didn’t improve after that. An April 2003 Miller-penned story, based on hearsay evidence quoting an Iraqi scientist claiming Iraq had kept biological and chemical weapons right up to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, became a headline story throughout the U.S. news media.

But, again, other U.S. intelligence reports contradicted Miller’s reporting.

Among Miller’s sources on other Iraq WMD stories was Ahmed Chalabi, the U.S. government’s (and CIA’s) initial pick to replace Saddam Hussein. Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, who would make up a large proportion of Miller’s sources on Iraqi WMDs, had one thing in common: their agenda was to replace the Saddam Hussein regime.

When the Bush administration ended its ties to Chalabi in May 2004, in part due to his dishonest behavior, The Times had to admit much of its reporting on the Iraq War used Chalabi and his associates as sources, even when the veracity of their information was questionable.

Oddly enough, I’ve often defended Judith Miller and her reporting on Iraq. I still contend that she was more a victim of a U.S. government-led manipulation effort aimed at American journalists than a perpetrator of a deliberate fraud. She should have known better. She should have been more inquisitive and doubtful regrading the information being fed to her. At the time, the pressures on reporters at a national news outlet to stick to a management-approved narrative are significant.

Judith Miller and The New York Times didn’t lead the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they just made it easier for the Bush administration to sell the idea to the American people.

The New York Times’ solutions to minimize bad reporting are still relevant

The Iraq War reporting debacle still resonates throughout The Times’ newsroom. Miller’s career has all but ended, except for a few of her stories appearing on Newsmax now and then. Even Times reporters less culpable on the Iraq reporting, like James Risen, have moved on.

At the corporate level, The Times expressed regrets over their paper’s reporting and even implemented editorial and policy changes in the newsroom. In that regard, I highly recommend reading Daniel Okrent’s full article, “Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?”.

In the meantime, here is an abbreviated list of his suggestions for how The Times and all news organizations can avoid the mistakes made during the Iraq War:

(1) The hunger for scoops creates an incentive to publish too soon and without the proper quality controls. News organizations must enforce editorial quality controls, even if it means delaying publication.

(2) Wartime reporting increases the pressure for scoops and exclusives, making it important to increase, not relax, quality control procedures.

(3) The Front-page Syndrome encourages reporters to imbue stories with the “sounds of trumpets.” Instead, news organizations need to give more respect to “on the one hand, on the other hand” stories that offer balance and perspective, but may lack the urgency and drama of more one-sided, assertive stories.

(4) Military-sourced stories are seductive and exciting to write. They are too often biased. Yes, even quotes from military officers with stars on their shoulder cannot be uncritically accepted.

(5) Surprising stories — Okrent calls it hit-and-run journalism — are too frequently published without the requisite editorial controls. Unexpected news, if anything, requires more curiosity on reporters’ part.

(6) “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” writes Okrent. While sometimes necessary, anonymous sources are too often “coddled” by reporters who want to keep them providing information. But anonymity allows sources more latitude to stretch the truth — even lie. Reporters need to be more diligent and assertive in getting sources to go “on the record.”

(7) And, finally, end-run editing, where reporters in often remote locations are able to abbreviate normal editing procedures, needs to end. In the internet age, physical distance is no excuse for short-circuiting editorial standards.

And I would add one more suggestion to Okrent’s list: Don’t believe anything the government tells you. Or anyone else for that matter.

(8) Question everything.

Had these suggestions been implemented in the coverage of the Trump-Russia collusion story, it would have helped news organizations avoid the rash of false reporting and out-right deception that has contaminated too much of the reporting so far.

If the national news outlets want to rebuild the public’s trust in their reporting, it is imperative Okrent’s suggestions are systematically implemented in newsrooms again.

Someday, the Trump-Russia story will be history…

It is doubtful senior management at CNN or MSNBC or The New York Times are too concerned about the public’s overall trust in the news media. Not at this moment at least.

The major news outlets are experiencing record audience growth and profits. Perhaps the public’s low overall trust in the news media does not reflect their trust towards their preferred news outlets?

That may be true in the short-run, but what will happen to audience and readership numbers when the Trump-Russia story goes away? And it will go away…someday.

What will happen if the final outcome of the Mueller probe is inconclusive or is reduced to indicting Trump campaign operatives on only “process crimes” and not any conspiracy charges? The news media, in that case, will have to answer a lot of questions about their journalistic standards and methods.

The corporate news media has effectively exploited anti-Trump passions for short-term gain, but its rank journalistic standards in that pursuit may be doing permanent long-term damage to the Fourth Estate.

-K.R.K.

I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at: kroeger98@yahoo.com)

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