Donald Trump’s ties to Russia is the biggest story of the 2016 election and perhaps the biggest political story since the Nixon administration Watergate scandal. But the major media were nowhere to be found when the Trump scandal was cracked wide open by a pop culture Web site.
BuzzFeed, the online “new media” pop culture outlet, was the first to publish a series of documents prepared by a retired British intelligence agent detailing explosive allegations about Trump’s deep involvement with Russia and the Kremlin’s efforts to blackmail him.
Right wing media and propaganda outlets immediately exploded with cries of “fake news,” led by none other than the President-elect himself.
“FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” Trump Tweeted (yes, in all caps) when the news broke.
If there is any doubt about why Trump tweets obsessively, the reason was made abundantly clear when the BuzzFeed story broke. It’s his way of controlling the national news media and defining the all-important news-cycle narrative. And, it was largely effective in this case.
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts.Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
INTELLIGENCE INSIDERS NOW CLAIM THE TRUMP DOSSIER IS "A COMPLETE FRAUD!" @OANN
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
Instead of focusing on the seriousness of the allegations, the major media focused on story lines set up by Trump and right wing media. The operative theme was the publication of “unverified fabrications.”
Major media outlets were quick to attack BuzzFeed for publishing the documents. Shockingly, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi even dismissed the BuzzFeed’s report as journalistic “overreaching.”
Even sadder, Watergate reporter Bob Woodward also trashed the story. He must have forgotten how his early Watergate reporting was equally vilified by the Nixon administration and dismissed by competitors.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and Politico among others were all quick to ape the right-wing propaganda line.
Instead of aggressively pursuing the story, they engaged in the usual self-flagellation over “objectivity” and “responsibility.”
The major media made clear that they are nothing like BuzzFeed, dismissing it as a pop-culture gossip site that didn’t measure up to their standards of “professional journalism.”
But the real media scandal was the fact that these documents were in the hands of reporters for months, and not one media outlet reported on them.
Give Mother Jones credit for at least raising the issue in a September news story. But it’s tepid reporting fell flat. So much for its much ballyhooed reputation for reporting without fear or favor.
Likewise, CNN crowed about “breaking” the story. It reported that a two-page synopsis of the documents had been included in classified materials presented earlier this month to Trump and to President Obama.
CNN’s report said that Trump was briefed on claims the Russians had compromising information on him–without reporting details.
The BuzzFeed story followed. After that, all hell broke loose.
Amid the media storm, CNN engaged in one of the most craven acts in the annals of journalism. The network bent over backwards to distance itself from BuzzFeed.
In the process, it sacrificed its own credibility on the alter of “responsible journalism,” cowing to the Trump-led, right-wing media mob.
Let’s face it, without BuzzFeed’s publication of the documents–in full–who knows if this story would have ever seen the light of day.
One of the only downsides to the Web site’s heroic effort was Editor Ben Smith’s failure to initially gut it out and stick with his convictions–and news judgement.
He initially back-peddled a bit on the story, playing into the hands of the right-wing media.
BuzzFeed’s other shortcoming was its failure to do a better job explaining the documents and providing more context, beyond saying they contained spelling errors, which is not all that unusual for raw intelligence data. That, of course, opened another loophole for the right wing media to exploit.
Of course, it’s one thing to scream “fake news.” To thoroughly discredit the documents, right wing media began attacking the author.
Initially, not much was known. Purportedly, he was a retired British MI6 agent. So, the right wing juggernaut simply began filling in the blanks. The author was branded a crank, a crackpot and a “fake” MI6 agent that nobody had ever heard of.
Comparisons were even made to the infamous “Hitler Diaries.” The notorious 60-volume journal, hailed as authentic, later proved to have been the work of petty criminal and known forger Konrad Kujau.
But this is where the right wing narrative broke down. In a race to expose, and likely hasten his disgrace, the agent, Christopher Steele, was publicly outed by The Wall Street Journal.
Shockingly, not one media outlet questioned the propriety of the Journal’s decision to out the agent.
The move was tantamount to naming of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame by conservative columnist Robert Novak, which mushroomed into a major scandal in 2003.
Steele’s identity was so sensitive, the British government issued what’s known as a “D-notice,” warning English news organizations not to identify him. Now Steele is said to be in hiding, fearful of the very real possibility of Russian retaliation.
Despite the clearly unethical betrayal of the intelligence agent’s identity, The Journal’s move had an unintended effect. It caused Trump’s right-wing narrative to implode.
Far from being a crank, crackpot or fake, Steele, 52, turned out to be the real deal.
He’s not only known to intelligence agencies, but highly regarded both here and in Britain for his expertise in Russia affairs. He was stationed in Russia in the 1990s but now runs a private intelligence company Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd.
The firm’s plush headquarters, in the pricey Belgravia neighborhood in central London, attest to the credibility of his work, according to London’s Daily Mail.
“I know him as a very competent, professional operator who left the secret service and is now operating his own private company,” Andrew Wood, Britain’s ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000, told the BBC.
“I do not think he would make things up. I don’t think he would, necessarily, always draw correct judgment, but that’s not the same thing,” he said.
James Nixey, the head of Russia and Eurasia programs at British think tank, Chatham House, told The Associated Press that parts of the Steele documents “read exactly as reports from the secret services.”
“Some of the practices which we know and which are confirmed to have happened during Soviet and post-Soviet times are reported in this dossier,” Nixey said.
Russia’s denials are not unusual. During the Cold War, the Kremlin “would outright deny something which is quite plainly true,” he added.
Of course, unless you read British newspapers, you might not know much about this new information. Major U.S. newspapers have been slow to follow up, if at all.
Yet, recent reports have been damning. Among some of the key developments, Trump’s alleged sex romps in Moscow and St. Petersburg were known to “multiple intelligence sources,” according to BBC reporter Paul Wood
“I saw the report, compiled by the former British intelligence officer, back in October,” Wood said. “He [Steele] is not, and this is the crucial thing, the only source for this,” he added.
Wood said he was told by a member of the U.S. intelligence community that “at least one East European intelligence service was aware ‘that the Russians had kompromat, or compromising, material on Mr. Trump,’”
There is “more than one tape, not just video, but audio as well, on more than one date, in more than one place, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg,” Wood said he was told.
Steele appears to have acted responsibly with the information he uncovered, even to the point of working without pay to tie up loose ends, according to British newspaper The Independent.
He forwarded it to the FBI and U.S. and British intelligence agencies, hoping they would pick up the investigation. He was appalled when the FBI failed to act on it this past summer, he said.
Steele’s Washington colleague, Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was equally horrified by the information they turned up. He also worked without pay at his own firm, FusionGPS in Washington, D.C.
Fusion GPS was the firm initially hired by Trump’s Republican opponents to conduct “opposition research” on the president-elect. In June 2016, Steele was hired to add his expertise. Democrats picked up the intelligence effort after Trump won the Republican primary in July, according to sources.
Meanwhile, Trump and the right-wing media have continued their disinformation campaign.
In one of his most recent Tweets, Trump misrepresented a statement from James Clapper, the outgoing U.S. director of national intelligence.
Clapper assured Trump that the leaks to CNN and other media outlets did not come from any of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies he oversees.
Significantly, however, he noted that U.S. agencies have “made no judgment on the reliability” of the information.
But Trump claimed otherwise.
“James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts.Too bad!” he Tweeted.
The right-wing media drumbeat has continued, but its credibility is rapidly dwindling. Whether the main stream media can regain its credibility remains to be seen.
As forBuzzFeed, Editor Smith, to his credit, did not apologize, disavow or take down the documents. To the contrary, he said in a CNN interview his organization was “proud” of its decision to publish the documents.
“We thought that it was important, when you have a blanket claim like he was compromised by Russian intelligence, to share the details,” Smith said. “I think we are trying to best inform our audience, to be true to our audience, to treat our audience with respect.”
With the information out in the open, the Trump administration, Congress the FBI and U.S. Intelligence agencies can now no longer sweep it under the rug. A full investigation is more likely.
The American people have a right to a full accounting of Russian influence in the election and the White House. No thanks to the mainstream media, they may get that chance to find out.
This is a breaking news story. Let us know your thoughts and be sure to follow Money & Power on Twitter for the latest developments.