Jeff Gerth’s investigation for The Columbia Journalism Review exposes the dark heart of the news media’s coverage of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News
In the autumn of 1973, Jack Anderson, the wonderful iconoclast of the Washington press corps, published a syndicated column revealing that a Hearst Newspapers reporter had spied on Democratic presidential candidates in the service of Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign.
At the time of Anderson’s column, Seymour Frieden was a Hearst correspondent in London. Anderson also reported, not quite in passing, but nearly, that Frieden tacitly acknowledged working for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Anderson’s column was as a pebble tossed in a pond. The ripples grew, if slowly at first.
William Colby, the C.I.A.’s recently named director, responded with a standard agency maneuver: When news is going to break against you, disclose the minimum, bury the rest, and maintain control of what we now call “the narrative.”
Colby “leaked” to a Washington Star–News reporter named Oswald Johnston. The paper fronted Johnston’s piece on Nov. 30, 1973. “The Central Intelligence Agency,” it began, “has some three dozen American journalists working abroad on its payroll as undercover informants, some of them full-time agents, the Star–News has learned.”
Johnston followed this four-square lead just as Colby had wished. “Colby is understood to have ordered the termination of this handful of journalist-agents,” he wrote further down in his report, adding — and this is the truly delightful part — “on the full realization that C.I.A. employment of reporters in a nation which prides itself on an independent press is a subject fraught with controversy.”
Johnston broke a big story. Johnston was a patsy. This was the agency’s “tradecraft” in action.
As it had after Anderson’s column came out, the rest of the press let Johnston’s revelations sink without further investigation. Nobody in the mainstream press wrote anything about them. But Colby’s gambit was on the way to failing, as was the press’s see-no-evil pose.
A year after the Johnston piece appeared, Stuart Loory, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent and then a journalism professor at The Ohio State University, published a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review that stands as the first extensive exploration of relations between the C.I.A. and the press.
Another year later the Church Committee, named for Frank Church, the Idaho senator who chaired it, convened. Suddenly the C.I.A. found itself where it never wanted to be: in the public eye, visible.
By the time all this was over, Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, had mapped the full extent of the C.I.A.’s penetration of the press in a notable piece Rolling Stone published in 1977. By his count, Oswald Johnston’s “three dozen American journalists” came to more than 400.
Jeff Gerth’s Media Investigation
I am prompted to recount these events by the four-part series Jeff Gerth, an investigative journalist of excellent reputation, published last week. Over 24,000 words and in exceptional detail, Gerth exposed more or less all of American media’s utterly craven complicity in manufacturing out of sheer nothing all the nonsense about Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia as he ran against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
At last. Finally.
Let me put it this way. Jeff Gerth is the Stuart Loory of our time, a remover of lids under which we find reeking cess, under which we find journalists and editors knowingly, knowingly, knowingly lying, omitting, disinforming, fabricating, and covering up — all in the service of assisting Clinton by smearing her opponent even as Clinton and her husband were ass deep in their obscured and multiple complicities with various Russians.
As Glenn Greenwald remarked in a lengthy “System Update” segment reviewing the Gerth series, however much contempt you may have for the corruptions of the American press, you are not contemptuous enough.
For a long while I have held to the thought that the day may come when the American press and broadcasters would have some kind of come-to-Jesus awakening and begin a new and excellent era as a freestanding pole of power.
Gerth’s series persuades me that this is no longer a realistic expectation. Russiagate deformed the function of media, and media’s understanding of its function, beyond repair. Over the past seven years mainstream American media have come to see — embrace, indeed — their task as the conveyance of official propaganda.
We must not be so surprised or shocked. This is what happens to empires in their declining phases.
Gerth, who must be somewhere either side of 80 now and is retired, had a stumbly start in journalism. In his early days he wrote for Penthouse and other such publications and at one point got into some libel trouble that ended with an apology on his part. It was not until he worked with the great-and-still-at-it Sy Hersh that he found his feet in the Great Craft. A 30–year career at The New York Times followed, during which he proved himself again and again as a digger, a finder, an exposer, altogether a truth-teller.
We must be grateful Gerth got off his sofa or off the golf course to report and write these four pieces, an undertaking CJR tells us extended over a year and a half. The entire series is headlined “Looking back on the coverage of Trump” and can be read here. CJR’s editors have graciously published it without a paywall.
Nation on Edge
I love Gerth’s opener, in part because I so well remember the moment. He starts in July 2019, when the vaunted special investigation into Trump’s alleged doings with Russia was about to conclude. This was headed by Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a record of unprofessional conduct all his own. The nation seemed to be on the edge of its seat. Impeachment, indictments, trials, imprisonment — it was all going to ensue once the report was made public.
Nothing of the kind occurred, of course. Mueller came up empty-handed, though you wouldn’t have known this given the extent to which the media instantly set about blurring the report’s conclusions such that readers and viewers innocent of their rampant corruption could hardly tell what had been found and concluded.
Gerth quotes the Times’ since-retired executive editor when the news broke: “‘Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it,’ is how Dean Baquet… described the moment his paper’s readers realized Mueller was not going to pursue Trump’s ouster.” Gerth continues, “Baquet, speaking to his colleagues in a town hall meeting soon after the testimony concluded, acknowledged the Times had been caught ‘a little tiny bit flat-footed’ by the outcome of Mueller’s investigation.”
The “tiny bit flat-footed” comment is what I recall, as it was publicized. So weak-minded, as those at the top of the Times, with exceptions, have proven themselves down the years to be. So telling of how unconscious they are of themselves and what they are doing. So revealing of the paper’s eternal inability ever to acknowledge it gets anything of consequence wrong.
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But it is the “Mueller is not going to do it” that introduces us to where Gerth is going. Think about the implications of this locution, the profound, ugly subtext. As Gerth puts it, he is investigating “an undeclared war between an entrenched media and a new kind of disruptive presidency.” In this war Mueller let the troops down.
I do not know why Gerth chose to characterize the media circus of the Trump years as undeclared. Go back to the coverage of such amateur reporters as Maggie Haberman, a nepotistic hire at the Times who wouldn’t know the principle of objectivity if she bumped into it on the street. Haberman thought nothing of resorting to base ridicule of a sitting president, playground stuff.
Remember the July 2016 piece by Jim Rutenberg, the Times’ media correspondent at the time? The paper fronted it under the headline, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” “Let’s face it,” Rutenberg wrote. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy.”
Open Media War
There was, in short, nothing undeclared in the media’s war against Trump the candidate and Trump the 45th president. “The damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on,” Gerth writes. There is no room for wonder in this. I read now that public trust in American media, now at 26 percent, is the lowest by far in the industrial world. No wonder there, either.
Undeclared or otherwise, it is media’s war not only against a president but against democratic process, America’s public institutions, American law, and public discourse altogether — the dark heart of all the Russiagate years — that makes the core of all Gerth’s pages.
It began with the generals, who were alarmed by Trump’s foreign policy platform and stood very visibly against it — open letters in the Times, speeches at the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, and so on — all this in the name of national security.
When Democratic Party email was pilfered in mid–2016, party leaders made common cause with the national security state and set in motion the Russiagate garbage to cover up the profound embarrassments found in the mail.
By then the Obama administration, its Justice Department, “the intelligence community,” the F.B.I., and dreadful liars on Capitol Hill such as Rep. Adam Schiff, the Hollywood Democrat, had taken up active roles in the ruse.
Deep state, anyone? By any useful definition, this is how far it extends. It is as broad as it is deep.
The press and broadcasters were the third leg of this unsightly stool. And again, no cause for wonder: Have they not long and faithfully served the just-named interests?
This structure of corruption and lawlessness was plain in real time, so to say, to those among us paying close attention. The value of Gerth’s work is twofold, in my view. It lays a good deal of this out in a publication that could hardly occupy a more mainstream position in America’s media constellation. And it reveals a great deal of the quite beyond-belief-filth and duplicity of those in the press who filled thousands of pages of newsprint and thousands of hours of air time with said garbage.
Apart from the collapse of the Mueller investigation, among the other key events on which Gerth focuses is the wholly fabricated Steele Dossier and how those in the media made use of it. I consume this stuff as a professional — taking perverse delight, I confess, in reading about the disgraces of liberal journalists the way human beings are commonly fascinated by gory disasters. But let me quickly add this is fun for the whole family. There is something for everybody in it.
There is the outstandingly fun case of Franklin Foer, who was writing for Slate back when the Steele Dossier was put across as the absolutely authentic, smoking-gun document that would damn Trump, decisively and forever. We now know the Dossier was entirely nonsense, commissioned by the Hillary Clinton campaign and developed by former hacks with close ties to it.
And here we find in Gerth’s pages that our Franklin was sending his reports on the Dossier to the Clinton campaign for vetting before Slate published them, which it did after Foer had confirmed he had it right — no, wrong — to the Clintonites’ satisfaction.
See what I mean by disgraceful? See what I mean by craven? See what I mean by rubbish?
Gerth’s report on his investigations is dense with this kind of thing. The important take-home here concerns intent. All those guilty of poisoning the public sphere during the Russiagate years did so wittingly.
The corrupt were fully aware of their corruptions.
The caker in the Foer case is what happened to this punk after everything he wrote about the Dossier proved false. Banished, demoted, disgraced? Absolutely not. He is now a staff writer at The Atlantic, wherein one found nearly as many Russiagate lies as in the Times, the other major dailies and on the network newscasts. By the look of things it would have been more but for the fact The Atlantic comes out monthly.
I wrote earlier that Gerth exposed “more or less all” of the Russiagate rot, and later “a great deal” of it. I mean to suggest there is a missing piece.
Gerth went after the all the media coverage fabricating Trump’s nonexistent ties to the Kremlin. But he left untouched the fabrication that served as the foundation of the Russiagate edifice. This was the now-disproven contention that it was Russians who broke into the Democratic Party’s email servers in mid–2016 and pilfered mail that was eventually made public via WikiLeaks.
It was the former intelligence analysts and technologists of Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity who first exposed this harvest of fallacies. Working with other forensic specialists, VIPS demonstrated in late 2016 that it was technically impossible for Russians or anyone else to compromise the Democrats’ computer systems. It was logically an inside job executed by someone with direct access to the servers — a leak, not a hack.
Consortium News published these findings, as it had many previous VIPS documents. I subsequently wrote a lengthy column on them, published in The Nation in August 2017.
List of Liars
These findings were significantly supported when it was later revealed that CrowdStrike, the infamous cybersecurity firm working for the Democrats, had lied when it claimed to possess evidence of Russia’s complicity: It never had any. This was under oath, and what a difference an oath can make. Adam Schiff had lied when he claimed to have possessed or seen such evidence. James Comey lied. Susan Rice lied. Evelyn Farkas lied.
This list of liars is long. But no mainstream media ever reported the Senate testimonies when these were made public in May 2020 — Schiff having successfully blocked them for three years. And no one cares to touch this question even now.
The exceptions here are third-raters such as David Corn, the Mother Jones correspondent, whose wild over-investments in the Russiagate fables leaves them now insisting on what has been open-and-shut disproven.
Let us not omit this matter from our understanding of the Russiagate years, even if a sound report such as Gerth’s does.
Gerth’s immense investigation is a milestone in the Stuart Loory line. But we are ill-advised to anticipate any kind of great mea culpa or radical turn back to principle among American media.
Gerth being who he is and his methods being his methods, he asked 60 journalists with unclean hands for comment. A minority of them responded; none accepted his or her culpability. No major publication or broadcaster Gerth approached would reply to his questions during his reporting. It was “no comment” straight down the line. Franklin Foer, indeed, had no comment.
It is likely to be the same, then, as it was after Loory published in CJR 49 years ago. We must anticipate either silence or a very great deal of fog and blur, just as it was after Loory and Carl Bernstein published.
Here I must offer a caution of sorts, prompted by something that has already been said in response to the Gerth pieces. After Loory published and in the course of Bernstein’s reporting, there was a great deal of elision and denial to the effect that others were guilty but not we.
If I read the ground accurately, it is publications claiming “progressive” status that are most likely to get into this game.
I am moved to note this by a Tweet Katrina vanden Heuvel, now The Nation’s editorial director and its editor during the Russiagate years, published in response to the CJR report. In it vanden Heuvel, quoting a remark Bob Woodward made, “urges newsrooms to ‘walk down painful road of introspection’ & review failures with Russia-collusion.”
In @CJR Bob Woodward tells Jeff Gerth the Russia probe "wasn't handled well" & accuses mainstream press of having "cheated" public out of truth. Urges newsrooms to "walk down painful road of introspection" & review failures with Russia-collusion stories. https://t.co/21M6Y65wSb
— Katrina vandenHeuvel (@KatrinaNation) February 1, 2023
I take great exception to this remark. I find it deeply offensive. And it is precisely a case of the duplicity and hypocrisy of which I have just warned.
When I published the aforementioned column on the VIPS findings in August 2017, it caused an extraordinary frenzy in mainstream Democratic circles, notably in The Nation’s newsroom, which was and remains staffed with true-believing Russiagaters, liberal Russophobes, one more strident than the next.
In response to the column, a group of these people launched a juvenile but nonetheless savage attack on the column’s author. Vanden Heuvel, having read and approved the column, set this herd loose, and a scene out of Lord of the Flies ensued.
They demanded that I answer 36 ridiculous charges to the effect I made up facts, fabricated sources out of thin air and had altogether committed fraud as — but of course — a creature of the Kremlin. So far as I know they demanded the column be retracted and I fired.
These people, behaving as if they were Dominican inquisitors, were never identified to me. I nonetheless answered their queries in a lengthy memo, via vanden Heuvel, as the queries were conveyed to me, setting aside the single most preposterous breach of ordinary professional behavior I have ever known.
Six months later, when the Klieg lights were off, I was indeed fired. I do not know what pressures were exerted on vanden Heuvel, or from whence they came. As to the newsroom, the tail wags the dog at The Nation, now as then.
I note this chronology of events not as a matter of ill will or to air private animosities. I have made it clear in encounters with vanden Heuvel subsequent to my firing that I bear none of either. It is true that in my view Russiagate has turned The Nation into a jar of baby food, but hardly am I alone in this, a strictly professional judgment.
What is at issue is far more important, and mine merely an illustrative case.
If we are going to get beyond the press mess the Russiagate frenzies engendered, nobody gets out the side door. Everybody is called upon to accept what he or she, editor or reporter, did. Vanden Heuvel should heed her own urgings, to put this point another way.
Full acknowledgment is the basis of the project. Without this, there is little chance our media will avoid repeating the corruptions of the past seven years. They will have learned nothing, as they learned nothing back in Stuart Loory’s day. As earlier noted, I conclude now this will almost certainly prove to be the case once again.
I dedicate this column to the estimable Ray McGovern, whose integrity in all matters to do with Russiagate has been a service to all of us.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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