Did the media botch the Russia story? A conversation with Matt Taibbi.

      Comments Off on Did the media botch the Russia story? A conversation with Matt Taibbi.
US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, Finland.

“In purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.”

“In purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.”

That’s how Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi described the media’s coverage of the Trump-Russia story to me in a wide-ranging interview this week. I reached out to him shortly after he published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Hate Inc., which excoriated the press for the way it handled allegations that Trump was colluding with Russia during the 2016 election.

According to Taibbi, the news that Robert Mueller won’t be issuing any further indictments, along with the revelation that he found no compelling evidence for collusion, amounts to “a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”

But is that fair? Did the press, in fact, blow this story?

I confess to having mixed feelings on the subject. First, we haven’t seen the full Mueller report yet, so it’s premature to draw definitive conclusions. At the same time, the collusion question seems to have been decided, and given how deeply entrenched that narrative has been for the last two years, it’s fair to wonder if the press dropped the ball.

This is partly why I reached out to Taibbi. I think he goes too far when he claims that the media’s coverage of the WMD story before the Iraq War was “a pimple compared to Russiagate,” but I asked him to lay out his case anyway.

Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.


Sean Illing

Why do you think the media botched the Trump-Russia story?

Matt Taibbi

Well, I think with Trump we had to be especially careful as a press corps. My worry, from the start, is that we would get out over our skis factually with him, which would play right into his hands. He made the press the enemy, and built much of his campaign on that dynamic, and so there was always this potential for overreach.

But with this story, what happened really quickly is that everybody committed to a narrative and they didn’t examine or test the core hypotheses. A lot of this had to do with BuzzFeed’s release of the Steele dossier, which impacted a lot of reporters whether they realized it or not. They believed this underlying story that Trump had been cultivated as an asset or just as a useful idiot for the Russians, but certainly at that point (January 2017) none of this had been corroborated by any actual reporting.

But the reporting became increasingly maniacal and alarmist. I recognized right away that if these allegations turned out not to be true, it was going to devastate our profession, and it looks like they aren’t.

Sean Illing

I want to be as specific as possible here so readers know what you’re talking about and who you’re criticizing. What are some egregious examples of reporting or commentary that stand out to you?

Matt Taibbi

Cable news was notably egregious. Rachel Maddow went all in, devoting an extraordinary amount of time to this story, constantly holding up all these glossy photos of shady Russians night after night, with wild graphics and dramatic monologues. It was all about pushing this web of connections and this concept of connecting the dots became a thing that infected the entire of audience of blue state America.

But this is a particularly bad kind of reporting. If the dots have to be mentally connected in the heads of your audience, then you haven’t connected them factually in your piece. And so we were using a trick to dance around normal journalistic procedures.

Take Jonathan Chait’s 2018 cover story for New York magazine. Chait says, “Has Trump been an agent for Russia since 1987?” And the dots that he puts out there are that Trump talked to a Soviet official in 1986 when they visited America, when Gorbachev visited, and then Trump later visited the Soviet Union in 1987. And essentially, the thrust of the article is, “We want you to take those little data bits and draw the conclusion that Donald Trump was recruited a Russian agent during that period.”

You can’t do that. That’s not the way this job works.

Sean Illing

I think a distinction that’s largely lost in your piece is the difference between cable news pundits and actual investigative journalists, who did a ton of fine work in the last couple of years. The failures of the former shouldn’t be used to delegitimize the efforts the latter, right?

Matt Taibbi

That’s a fair point, although I wasn’t terribly impressed by the work of the latter. I’ve heard the argument that cable news overreached but, for the most part, journalists did an excellent job. I don’t buy it. There was this core idea that Trump was somehow a compromised entity who had repeatedly been in contact with Russian intelligence, and it was accepted almost unconditionally by all of the leading papers of record.

Sean Illing

Give me an example.

Matt Taibbi

One of the worst stories I recall was one in The New York Times in February of 2017 that said Trump had “Repeated contacts with Russian intelligence.” And it’s sourced to “four current and former American officials,” but they don’t characterize what the contexts were, if they were witting or unwitting? What were these “contacts” exactly?

That story drove a lot of headlines for a long time and later turned out to be not true. James Comey testified that that story wasn’t true, and rather than correct it, the Times just let it sit there. And that happened dozens of times in this period, where a story would fall apart, or an essential part of the story would come under some scrutiny, and rather than rework the story, they just let it hang out there.

And I thought that was a major problem.

Sean Illing

I worry that someone might read your piece and walk away with the impression that there was no “there” there, that this whole story was just a ruse. But you and I both know that’s not true. The press revealed a tremendous amount of corruption over the course of this story. [My Vox colleague Andrew Prokop recently catalogued all the things we do know from reporting and the Mueller investigation.]

Matt Taibbi

I’d push back a little on that. One of the central tenets of this whole thing was that our country was under attack by this mighty adversary that’s all-seeing and all-knowing, and they’re screwing up elections in Europe, and they have unmatched cyber capabilities, and they’re doing all these consequential things. And that narrative went completely unchallenged, to the point where Congress was able to convince all the major internet platforms to completely change the way they do business.

If a star chamber of experts decide that a website has what they call coordinated inauthentic activity, they just remove it now in the name of national security. I don’t doubt at all the need for some kind of regulation here, but I do worry that the general hysteria whipped up around this story has been used to justify some pretty scary authoritarian measures, and perhaps even worse measures in the future.

Sean Illing

I honestly don’t know much about those policies, so I can’t speak to it. But I want to hold on the point I just made about corruption. I’ll just point to one part of your piece in which you suggest the story about Russia hacking the DNC was shoddy or at least based on questionable information from intelligence agencies.

But Mueller did indict 12 GRU agents and charged with them these crimes, so this seems like one of the cases in which the media got it right, and it points pretty clearly to the fact that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election.

Matt Taibbi

Even in that story there were a couple of important things that the media didn’t report. I don’t want to speak for Adrian Chen, the New Yorker reporter who broke the Internet Research Agency story, but here’s what I saw when I read it.

The indictments of the Russians, which first of all aren’t proof, they’re just allegations, they very specifically didn’t make a connection between the Internet Research Agency and the Russian government, so that piece of it was not really reported all that well. It quickly became, “The Russians attacked us.”

Well, what does “The Russians” mean? Is it anybody in Russia? Is it necessarily a Russian government operation? Perhaps. Probably. We don’t know for sure. It could be, absolutely, but I don’t think that’s been established. And I think there were some other issues with that story as well. When Mueller prosecuted all those people, one of the really fascinating things that happened with this is case is that nobody expected any of them to go to trial, and yet one of the defendants actually showed up in court.

And Mueller was so taken aback by this that he asked for a continuance to the judge and claimed that he wasn’t ready to prosecute, even though he had just filed the indictment, and the judge didn’t allow it. And so that suggested that Mueller never expected to have to actually substantiate all those charges. So it could be true. It could definitely all be true, but I don’t think it’s iron clad. I don’t think it’s been nailed down. It’s just a theory.

Sean Illing

Right, but I think you’re actually referring to a separate case here. The case involving the Internet Research Agency is separate from the DNC hacking case, which involved the indictment of GRU officers who are obviously connected to the Russian government.

Matt Taibbi

It’s always been about the collusion case for me. So on the Russian interference front, I always basically just stipulated that it was true, especially since I was told early on by Senate investigators, including some who had questions about the rest of the story, that it seemed “solid.”

But if you’re putting a gun to my head and asking me two years later to offer an opinion on something I’ve gone out of my way to not talk about, there are indications even that part of the story is a little murky. The IRA and GRU indictments seem very detailed, yes, but indictments aren’t proof. On the IRA business, as others apart from me have noted, even that very detailed indictment didn’t assert a link to the Russian government — they don’t have that part of the case even in the charging document.

There are other things. A lot of people assume all Russians are somehow connected and all part of the same vast intelligence Plot To Undermine Our Democracy. Take Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met with Don Jr., who is consistently represented as “Kremlin-linked” and is believed to be a spy by basically every American reporter I’ve met. I have a different take on her. Among other things, I had the misfortune once to meet someone connected with her “Prevezon” company (this was in Washington) and like Masha Gessen of the New Yorker, I’m more likely to think these people are small-time scam artists of a type that’s depressingly familiar in a Russia.

I similarly had the misfortune to have to sit through the same Prevezon adoption spiel Don Jr. claims he heard. So while it doesn’t change the fact that Don Jr., the Spaulding Smails of the White House, was willing to meet with a Russian offering dirt on Hillary, it’s not a slam dunk to me that she’s a Russian agent. She’s connected to goonish figures from the Moscow Oblast, the equivalent of the Staten Island Borough President’s office maybe.

Then again, maybe the FSB would send blundering dopes for this kind of work, who knows? But I don’t think it’s an accident that people with experience living in Russia find this narrative unconvincing.

Sean Illing

On a purely procedural level, I don’t know what the media is supposed to do. The fact that Russia almost certainly interfered in the election, that Trump himself publicly encouraged Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, that multiple people in Trump’s orbit had ties to Russian money, that Trump fired the director of the FBI because of the investigation into his own campaign, and that Trump was acting precisely like someone in the grips of Russian influence (i.e. siding with Putin over his own intelligence agencies).

How do we cover all that fairly?

Matt Taibbi

I know what you mean, but I guess the first thing we have to do is look at the totality of the entire situation and not just a piece of it. And I wrote this in one of my early columns. This was such an incredibly serious story, and the allegations being thrown around were so explicit, like the Times story I mentioned earlier saying Trump had “repeated” contact with Russian intelligence. Or any of the other stories that implied Trump was compromised.

Given the seriousness of all this, given the fact that there was this idea floating in the mainstream that Trump was literally a spy, we absolutely had a responsibility to go down that alley and check it out, but we also had to think about the other possibility, which is, what if it’s untrue? Well, if it’s untrue, where the hell is this coming from and why? And what was the purpose and what was the motive of the people who wanted us to think this? And we completely abdicated our responsibility in terms of the second half of that equation.

Sean Illing

Do you worry at all that the recriminations in the media right now, especially before we’ve seen the actual report, will be used to delegitimize justifiable scrutiny of Trump later?

Matt Taibbi

I don’t understand this notion about “making the press gun shy.” What journalist feels gun shy about a story he or she believes is important? This is all backwards. If you think there was an improper relationship between Trump and the Russian government, go and prove it out, and then publish it. The reason there’s all this criticism now is because so many implications and insinuations were made ahead of the proof.

There are a million things to write about, if Donald Trump is your focus. One of the reasons I was never terribly interested in Trump’s personal dealings is because I thought he was a symptom, not a cause, of a larger political movement. This was obvious during the campaign. There was tremendous anger out there, on both sides of the aisle. If you were paying attention to Trump the candidate, he did what all good con artists do — he read his mark.

If the final report has damaging details in it, nobody would be surprised, I don’t think. But the central question of whether or not Trump conspired with a foreign country to fix the election seems to have been decided. If there are other details in there that are nasty but not criminal, sure, let’s talk about it, but frankly I just don’t find it all that interesting. Who needs more reasons not to vote for the guy? That question was settled for me a long time ago. He’s already got so many personal scandals out there that eclipse by miles anything we’ve ever seen in a presidential candidate.

The focus of this probe was to see if it went to another level, and it seems the probe has found it didn’t.

Sean Illing

A lot of people simply did not want to believe that Trump was a legitimate president, that someone this vulgar and this dishonest could win a presidential election. And I think that disbelief and the emotional devastation of his election colored a lot of our judgments.

Matt Taibbi

Absolutely. Look, almost every pundit failed to see what was happening during the presidential election. No one thought this guy would win. It was almost a 100 percent consensus in the industry. Nobody even accepted it as an idea that he could possibly win, and a lot of that had to do with the insularity of the media. We just weren’t talking to voters enough.

Then when he became president, the instantaneous decision was to declare his presidency illegitimate and foreign-aided. That doesn’t mean all of these stories were made up, of course, but I think there was a deep need to make sense of it all, to somehow not recognize the result. So a lot of people wanted to cancel it out. But that’s not what the press is supposed to do. That’t not our job.

I was watching Chris Matthews yesterday, and he was basically saying now that collusion is off the table, we’re just going to have win the election, as though that’s the first time that thought ever occurred to him. That should’ve been the thought on day one. How do we correct the fact that so many people chose Donald Trump as president? And not, how do we get him out of office prematurely?

Sean Illing

Cable news is not representative of the entire media, but point taken. I do want to push back strongly on one point you made in the piece that I think is just way off the mark. You write that the media’s failure to debunk the Bush administration’s WMD claims about Iraq was “a pimple compared to Russiagate.”

Before I object to that, lay out your case.

Matt Taibbi

First of all, the full consequences of this haven’t played out yet, whereas the consequences of the Iraq War were immediate and tragic. But we’ve already seen a bit of unprecedented movement towards censorship of the internet, which is at least an indirect consequence of Russiagate. I suspect there will be an increasing urge to reignite Cold War tensions and take an aggressive posture in places like Syria and Ukraine, which could end very badly.

But I don’t want to overlook the real world consequences of the WMD debacle, which costs hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Unless this results in a nuclear war with Russia, we’re not going to see anything comparable to that. But in terms of the scale of the journalistic problem, this far outstrips it, because Russiagate fundamentally changed the attitudes of people everywhere, and not just people in flyover country, who were duped into thinking that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and aided terrorists.

During the Iraq War period, what we really saw was virtually the entire press jump on board together to get behind this war effort. What we saw this time around, however, was a total cleaving of the media landscape, where half the media completely denied the Russia story, and the other half completely jumped into it with both feet. And on that half, in the blue state, northeast corridor, no dissent was allowed.

So now, because so much of this story turned out to be false, after thousands and thousands of stories both on TV and in the print media, it’s convinced everybody that the press is basically political. And look, that was already true of Fox News and The Daily Caller, and all those right-wing outlets, but now it’s happened 100 percent on the left. And we’ve completely lost the trust of a huge chunk of the nation.

Is the cost of that higher than the Iraq War? Certainly not in terms of the loss of life — that’s obvious. But in purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.

Sean Illing

But the scale of the mistakes don’t even seem remotely similar to me. As you say, the WMD fabrication led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars wasted, and on top of all that it exploded an entire region. I just don’t think the costs of the Russiagate fiasco are comparable to that.

I take your point about the loss of trust in the media, though I wonder if this story is as consequential as you suggest. The media was already in a process of fragmentation, and it was already highly politicized. My sense is that trust in the media has been on a gradual decline since the 1970s. But yeah, this obviously doesn’t help.

Matt Taibbi

I have to reiterate that we haven’t seen the end yet when it comes to a political response this, which has uniformly been authoritarian. There are groups like the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and Hamilton 68, the Atlantic Council, and New Knowledge, and I worry that they’ll advance the idea that the Russian threat is so pervasive that we need to sacrifice a few civil liberties here and there in order to protect ourselves.

And so, there’s this fledgling movement toward authoritarianism that’s in place, that’s going to revolve around the idea of we have to protect ourselves from the Russian threat, and that hasn’t played itself out yet. I would just caution that we have to wait and see what’s going to happen there.

Sean Illing

I suppose I’m not as worried as you about that, but perhaps I should be. I want to stay on this thread about the media, though. I think you’re 100 percent right to say that the media fell for the WMD case and helped create the very feedback loop that justified the war in the first place. And in the Russiagate story, too, there’s been a weird romance between deep state figures like John Brennan (former head of the CIA) or James Clapper and the liberal press, and that seems disastrous in the long run.

Matt Taibbi

In a weird way, we’ve revived the idea that the people that we should revere as heroes are the guardians of the state who are in the shadows and sometimes you have to break a few rules to prevent something terrible from happening, like the election of a foreign aided candidate like Donald Trump.

And this is how people who would’ve described themselves as liberals a couple of years ago are worshiping at the altar of people like Brennan, and Clapper, and even Robert Mueller himself. I think that’s incredibly dangerous. It’s as though we’ve forgotten we’re supposed to be skeptical of these people, and not simply buy whatever they’re selling.

Sean Illing

I agree, which is obviously what happened in the run up to the Iraq War. I still think the Russia story is different in crucial respects. The WMD story was an abject lie, and reporters were chasing phantoms. But in the Russia story, there were actual disturbing facts and evidence of corruption and the administration continually lied about those facts. That’s a significant difference. And again, we’ve only seen a couple of sentences quoted from the Mueller report. We have no idea what other revelations are in there. I’m not speculating as to what they might be, but it seems prudent to suspend total judgment.

Matt Taibbi

Of course. But going back to what you just said, what are we talking about here in terms of the “disturbing facts” or “evidence of corruption”? Just give me an example so I know what we’re talking about.

Sean Illing

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was reaching out to a Russian oligarch to offer inside information on the campaign while working for Trump. I’d call that corrupt.

Matt Taibbi

Yes, that was actually the story that I thought had the most legs. There were two parts of it that I thought sounded the most sinister, and knowing what we know about Trump, were the most fraught with negative possibility.

The first one was Manafort’s relationship to Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of a pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and the fact that Manafort was deeply in debt to powerful Russian figures. It certainly appeared that Manafort might have been pressing Trump to take certain policy positions to pay that debt.

Sean Illing

There’s also the fact that Trump was directing negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow while he was campaigning for president, and apparently lied about it.

Matt Taibbi

But the deal never happened, and no evidence ever surfaced that there was, in fact, a deal. And so even if I had suspicions on that score, and I did, I could never have reported that story until I found it. And I actually did make some calls to see what was kicking around, but nobody had anything.

Sean Illing

I think Trump lying about the negotiations is news unto itself, but we can move on. Before we wrap up, I want to ask another big picture question about the state of media.

The commercialization of the press, the drive to be first, to get more clicks, to push more content. This is a problem that touches literally every media organization in the country. Cable networks like MSNBC and CNN saw a huge spike in ratings and profits thanks to Trump and the infinite promise of the Mueller investigation. This is a deep, structural issue for the media right now. And I don’t think anyone has the answer to it.

Matt Taibbi

Can you imagine the horror right now in the network planning rooms? This is the greatest story that has ever existed for the news media business. And you can’t separate that out from the coverage, because the financial incentive to keep hammering this home was tremendous.

I mean, this was the greatest reality show in history. It had everything. It had sex, it had cloak and dagger intrigue, it had the shadowy British spy [Christopher Steele], it had obscure meetings on remote islands. And it had the added advantage of being able to tell audiences, “You can’t turn us off, because this thing could blow up any minute. That bombshell could be coming at any time, so keep tuning in.”

The story made a ton of money and I honestly think we need go over all of it from scratch and look closely at what went wrong.