On October 31, 2016, the New York Times reported that the FBI had been pursuing “a widening investigation” into Russia’s role in the election for much of the summer. The agency had reportedly tracked Donald Trump’s close aides, scrutinized hackings into Democrats, and chased other leads but, so far, found nothing suspicious. After raising the specter of an FBI investigation in the first paragraph, the story proceeded to shoot it down in the next.
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
The Times story, in other words, had disclosed previously unknown details of an FBI investigation and then effectively exonerated Trump of wrongdoing in the first two paragraphs of the story. Though Times editors argue otherwise, that’s the way the author of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier—former MI6 agent Christopher Steele—read it, according to recently released testimony from the dossier’s creator, Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson. Here’s what Simpson told the Judiciary Committee last August about Steele.
“Chris severed his relationship with the FBI out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI and there was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on. So he stopped dealing with them.”
Of course, now we know differently. The FBI investigation into Trump was serious, deepening, and ongoing. In fact, less than two months from publication of that Times story, we learned investigators had concluded that Russia had indeed intervened to help Trump win the election.
Steele had arrived at a similar estimation through his own research, according to Simpson. Steele worried Trump was a counter-intelligence risk subject to blackmail by the Russians, and he had met with the FBI in September 2016 in an effort to warn them. The FBI found his concerns “credible,” Simpson added, because they comported with other intelligence the agency had obtained.
But that errant Times story upended the information sharing because, after reading it, Steele was no longer certain he understood the full scope of what was happening, Simpson testified. “In a situation like that, the smart thing to do is stand down,” Simpson told the Judiciary Committee.
The Times headline—a decision usually made by editors, not reporters—said it all: “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
The story was part of what is emerging as a systemic breakdown at the paper during the 2016 election in which Times reporters repeatedly obsessed over Clinton scandals while giving Trump scandals a much lighter touch. To be fair, that description applies to many mainstream reporters covering the 2016 election. A recent review of 2016 coverage found that among mainstream outlets, reporting on Clinton-related email scandals (i.e. her private server and DNC/Podesta hacks) “accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.”
But the Times‘ bias really stood out precisely because of pieces like the Trump exoneration story that ran just several days before the election. On the other end of the Times‘ bias spectrum was a Clinton “scandal” story in July 2015 claiming that the Justice Department had been asked to open a “criminal investigation” into her handling of sensitive government material. Only an hour later, the Times changed the lede to read that the “criminal investigation” wasn’t into Clinton herself but rather whether government information “was mishandled” more generally. Finally, three days and two eye-popping corrections later, it wasn’t even a “criminal” investigation anymore—it was just “an investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled.”
That’s the spectrum: On one hand, the Justice Department had been asked to open a criminal investigation into Clinton (only, not true); and on the other, the FBI is investigating Trump (true), but there’s really nothing to see here.
Unfortunately, neither of these stories were a blip on the radar; they were emblematic of reporting that consistently targeted Clinton like a dog with a bone while treating Trump like a fascinating footnote in history. That reporting prioritized both scandal and strategy (i.e. the horse race) over policy, and it rained down harder on Clinton who had the toxic misfortune of being a woman running as a serious candidate who had an extensive political history to rehash. Both Trump and Clinton were polemic in their own right, but somehow Clinton drew far more scrutiny than Trump did.
The Fusion GPS testimony about the Times‘ Trump exoneration story has now added one more data point to the harm done by a body of work riddled with misguided, factually incorrect and sometimes irresponsible reporting. The story doesn’t just look bad in retrospect. Even in the context of the moment, it stood out precisely because other outlets were just beginning to tease out strains of the Trump-Russia ties. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple writes:
During this pre-election period, both Slate and Mother Jones had published stories suggesting bona fide connections.
And importantly, James Comey was under increasing pressure for publicly announcing that the FBI was reviewing a new round of Hillary Clinton’s emails while disclosing nothing about investigations into Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia that were beginning to surface in outlets like NBC News.
The Trump exoneration piece was a perfect buffer to that criticism and even took repeated swipes at “angry” Clinton supporters that had the effect of diminishing that criticism. After the first two paragraphs of the Times story effectively cleared Trump, the third read:
Hillary Clinton’s supporters, angry over what they regard as a lack of scrutiny of Mr. Trump by law enforcement officials, pushed for these investigations. In recent days they have also demanded that James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., discuss them publicly, as he did last week when he announced that a new batch of emails possibly connected to Mrs. Clinton had been discovered.
Clearer: The FBI investigation was a witch hunt pushed by Clinton supporters. And now, of all things, they are demanding James Comey apply the same standard to Trump as he has to Clinton. What a crock.
The Times has repeatedly defended the story. Again, Erik Wemple:
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, told the Erik Wemple Blog earlier this month: “It is fair to say we know a lot more now about what the government knew about Russian meddling than we did before the election. We would have cast that story differently but it was never meant to give the Trump campaign a clean bill of health. It reflected the FBI’s skepticism, which was made public after the campaign. And which was all we could report at that moment. By the way, the question of whether there was collusion remains the subject of the investigation.” Another top New York Times official told this blog that the key paragraph of the story — about how there was a serious investigation that hadn’t yet found evidence linking Team Trump to “Russia’s election operations” — “pretty much stands up” to this day.
There is some truth to their specific assertions about that particular story—it reported an FBI investigation into Trump-Russia ties that was, as yet, inconclusive. That much is true.
But as always, when reporters rely on anonymous sources like those used in the article, it is their obligation to both be extra cautious and also appropriately contextualize the sourcing so readers have the proper tools with which to weigh the reporting’s veracity. The first three paragraphs of that critically timed pre-election story—which provided the framework for the piece—failed to give readers those tools and went the extra step of casting doubt on the FBI investigation as little more than grousing by Clinton supporters.
The piece reflects an overall bias—a consistent lean against Clinton—that ran through much of the Times reporting, as documented by the Columbia Journalism Review. To be sure, no reporter and no outlet gets every story right. That’s an impossible standard—we are all prone to human error. What a good journalist and a respectable outlet hopes is that they can look back on their body of work over the course of reporting out a major story or an event and conclude that, overall, they got it right. Overall, they did their readers the service of arming them with the critical issues and facts they needed to make well-informed decisions. Or, in the phrasing of the unnamed Times official above—the body of reporting “stands up.”
The further away we get from 2016, the less that appears to be true, particularly in the case of the Times‘ presidential election coverage. Something was rotten in that newsroom and, yes, that contributed to a stilted national political environment for which we are now paying a very steep price.