With last week’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s partially redacted report on the investigation into Russia’s election interference efforts and possible obstruction of justice, American media outlets that broke the news pertaining to the investigation have been largely vindicated.
But the most telling media misses — the ones that the Mueller report’s finding have blown to pieces — were stories and theories put forward by writers and outlets that exhausted their credibility by downplaying the questions addressed in the report, or who spun their own conspiracy theories in defense of the president.
There were some legitimate reporting efforts on Mueller’s investigations that missed the mark. BuzzFeed wrote incorrectly that President Donald Trump told his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress for him, and an ABC report claimed incorrectly that former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn said Trump had directly ordered him to contact Russian officials before the election.
But those who attempted to downplay Russian interference efforts have even more egg on their face following the release of the redacted Mueller report. Some of those are individuals like Matt Taibbi, who just a few weeks ago claimed that the media’s coverage of the the Mueller investigations was somehow on par with media coverage of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction circa 2002-03.
Debunked stories can be found anywhere from The Nation to Trump’s favorite propaganda outlet, Fox News.
The Nation’s descent into whataboutism and conspiracy mongering has been perhaps one of the hardest stumbles in media over the past few years. Last year, one of its contributing editors began cross-posting his Nation writings in Russian propaganda outlets. A year before, its editor-in-chief appeared on RT. While The Nation obsesses over so-called “Russiagate” coverage elsewhere, the publication’s leadership has opted time and again over the past few years to ignore the signs of Russian meddling in 2016.
The damage The Nation’s Russia-related coverage did to the magazine’s reputation became so concerning that in 2017 a group of Nation writers wrote a letter to then-Editor-in-Chief Katrina vanden Heuvel calling out the magazine’s editorial decisions. As they wrote:
As longtime associates of The Nation, we are deeply concerned that by making these editorial emphases and by likening calls for investigations into the Russia connection to ‘red baiting,’ the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions. We have noted, too, with dismay, that Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter and other far-right adversaries have taken comfort in the writings of other Nation writers on the current crisis.
The letter came after The Nation’s decision to publish one of the most notorious stories of the past few years, which pushed the conspiracy that the Russian hacking operations against the Democratic National Committee may never have happened, and that the release of the Democratic emails was actually due to an internal leak.
After criticism about the story rolled in, The Nation appended a column-length editor’s note from vanden Heuvel, saying the magazine was simply extending their “long history of seeking alternative views and taking unpopular stances” by presenting the conspiracy theory as worthy of coverage. The piece, however, remains largely unchanged. In response to the release of the Mueller report on Thursday, the story’s author offered no introspection on Twitter, calling for followers to “pay no attention.”
“The Nation plans to continue its wide-ranging coverage and analysis of Russiagate,” vanden Heuvel told ThinkProgress via email. Vanden Heuvel did not reply to questions about whether she would continue appearing on RT, as she did just a few months ago.
For much of Trump’s first year in office, Fox News pushed the same notion as The Nation: that the Democratic hack had been, in reality, an internal leak. Few voices hammered the idea as hard as Sean Hannity, who implicated 27-year-old former DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was killed in 2016 in an apparent botched robbery. Hannity claimed Rich’s death could have been part of a larger conspiracy — especially if Rich was part of a supposed “leak.” Other Republicans, like former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), also claimed the leak was actually an “inside job,” and former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich also fanned the flames of conspiracy surrounding Rich’s death.
And it wasn’t only politicos or pro-Trump outlets. Well-known podcaster Joe Rogan claimed in 2018 that Rich was “murdered after he leaked information to Wikileaks.”
Turns out Joe Rogan is a Seth Rich truther. https://t.co/50ApKNwo2G
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) February 15, 2018
The Mueller report and years of investigations make clear that Rich had nothing to do with any kind of internal leak, and that the documents were in reality stolen by Russian hacking units who disseminated the documents to Wikileaks and others. One of the sections of the Mueller report is explicitly titled “GRU Hacking Directed at the Clinton Campaign,” and the report firmly reasserts what the intelligence community and reporters have concluded: it was clearly Russia behind the hack.
Fox News eventually retracted the story, but not Hannity; as he later said, “I retracted nothing.” (Rich’s parents sued Fox News for emotional distress, but the lawsuit was dismissed last August.) Other outlets that pushed the narrative were also later forced to back-pedal, such as right-wing publications such as the Washington Times and conspiracy sites like InfoWars. But outlets like Breitbart have left their posts pushing the conspiracy unchanged.
Even in the midst of Russia’s ongoing interference campaign, Wikileaks floated the idea that Rich may have secretly been their source for the DNC documents, rather than the Russian operatives. In one infamous tweet, Wikileaks wrote they had a $20,000 reward for “information leading to the conviction for the murder” of Rich. Julian Assange, the since-arrested founder of Wikileaks, followed the tweet in August 2016 by saying that Rich was “potentially connected to our publication.” Assange even told former Rohrabacher that he had “physical proof” that Wikileaks hadn’t received the stolen emails from Russian hackers.
As the Mueller report notes, Assange’s statements “implied falsely that [Rich] had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”
There are, of course, any number of other outlets and individuals who’ve seen their reputations either ossify as partisan platforms, like The Daily Caller, or implode outright, like Glenn Greenwald, thanks to the investigations surrounding Russian interference in 2016. Greenwald has recently made a habit of appearing on, of all things, Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Rather than criticize Carlson for his rank nativism — and for his continued inspiration of white nationalists — Greenwald’s chummy appearances have centered around their mutual condemnation of the investigation into Russian interference, which Greenwald continues to downplay.
I spent today reading the Mueller report. This is not a fair summation of it. https://t.co/SzvAPgewJM
— Gabriel Snyder (@gabrielsnyder) April 18, 2019
It’s unclear why Greenwald continues to align himself with xenophobes like Carlson, although Greenwald recently claimed (without any evidence) on Carlson’s show that he was banned from MSNBC. Regardless, given how much came to light after the Thursday release of the Mueller report — and how much, thanks to investigative journalists across the country, we already knew about Russian interference and links between Russian officials and the Trump campaign — it’s clear that much of the media should be applauded for its due diligence, and that those who missed the forest for the trees should take a step back and wonder where they went wrong.