Have we ever been less sure about the truth of an urgent news story?
Three days into the "Russian dossier" scandal, which history will remember by a far more colorful name, we still have no clue what we're dealing with. We're either learning the outlines of the most extraordinary compromise to date of an incoming American president by a foreign power, or we're watching an unparalleled libel and media overreach.
The tale was first made public by David Corn at Mother Jones a week before the presidential election. Corn's October 31st article was entitled, "A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump."
Corn, with whom I spoke Wednesday, had documents back in October containing explosive accusations of Trump sex romps and other serious blackmailable behavior. But he chose not to publish them, because he couldn't confirm those details.
Corn says now he was also concerned that running the documents might lead to damage to/outing of some sources. (Hang on to that thought.)
Corn ultimately focused on the elements he could confirm: that a dossier asserting that Russians had a file of compromising information on Trump had been prepared by a veteran intelligence source, one with enough standing in Washington that the FBI chose to investigate the claims.
There are some who would quibble even with printing that much. But in the context of this election season, which saw awesome publishing excesses on all sides, Corn showed restraint.
"Even Donald Trump deserves journalistic fairness. Not that he would grant the same to anyone else," Corn explains, noting the president-elect's enthusiasm in pushing unverified stories like the birther lunacy.
This Tuesday, Corn's story was blown up to massive dimensions. First, CNN did a version of the story that really just updated Corn's reporting, explaining that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and Obama on the dossier's existence. They left out the smarmy details, however.
The CNN story seemed to spur clickbait king BuzzFeed into action. The site's editor, Ben Smith, issued a perhaps unprecedented product disclaimer along with an explosive piece, which finally published the documents Corn and CNN had held back.
In a letter to colleagues he later shared on Twitter, Smith all but showed readers the 10-foot pole he was deploying to try to keep the allegations at a distance, even as he nudged them into public.
"As we noted in our story, there is serious reason to doubt the allegations," he wrote, referring to a series of errors in the dossier that raised questions overall about its factual basis.
But Smith repeated what BuzzFeed’s Ken Bensinger, Miriam Elder and Mark Schoofs said in the story: "Americans can make up their own minds about [the] allegations." BuzzFeed put them all out there, Smith said, because that "reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."
Smith's move was questioned almost immediately by traditional media critics like Erik Wemple of the Washington Post (a paper that has dabbled in questionable material of its own during this political season) and the Poynter Institute. Both wondered at the precedent of publishing material you not only don't know to be true, but actively know to be wrong in places.
But by the time those criticisms ran, it didn't matter. The story had by then ping-ponged back into legacy media, gaining more momentum.
The New York Times was now running "Trump Received Unsubstantiated Report That Russia Had Damaging Information About Him." This tale included a summary of the dossier's contents, including allegations of the existence of a "sex tape."
By Tuesday evening, Trump himself appeared to answer the story on Twitter. "FAKE NEWS," he wrote. "TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!"
BuzzFeed quickly highlighted Trump's apparent denial, which completed the snowball effect – a big story rolled into a bigger one by the addition of denials and more miles traveled through the news cycle.
These tricks and machinations give this story the appearance of fake news even if it turns out not to be. The slipshod way that all of this has been whipped up into media frenzy may end up undermining a more sober effort to get to the truth of the situation.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal ran a story Wednesday identifying by name the ex-spy who was the source of the story, seeming to confirm Corn's concerns on that score. The paper used a highly unusual attribution, citing "sources familiar with the matter," which could mean just about anything.
The BuzzFeed dump came on the heels of last week's release of a head-scratching "declassified report" from the U.S. intelligence community on Russian hacking. This confusing document also made bold assessments based on little to no obvious evidence.
In addition to asserting that Russia had been behind the hack of the DNC emails – a highly specific claim that at least seems to be backed by some evidence, and buttressed by private analyses – the CIA, NSA and FBI also concluded that the hacking campaign was ordered by Vladimir Putin with the specific aim of aiding Donald Trump.
But the report said almost nothing about how the agencies came to these conclusions. See the deconstruction by Masha Gessen, certainly no friend of either Putin or Trump, if you care to see how much of a bulochka ne s chem (nothingburger) the intelligence agencies' efforts in this direction were.
I had to stop reading at one point when I realized that broadcasts by the state media outlet Russia Today about "anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health" were seriously being offered up as evidence of anti-American conspiracy.
An incredible seven of the report's 25 pages concern RT's reporting choices. As Gessen notes, two more pages are blank, while "four are decorative, one contains an explanation of terms, one a table of contents, and seven are a previously published unclassified report," making overall for a very thin gruel.
The report also unironically listed quotes in support of Trump by extremist loon Vladimir Zhirinovsky as evidence of the attitudes of the Russian state.
I've met Zhirinovsky. He's the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of Russian nationalism. He once told me Russia would invade Boston (I had told him I was from Boston) and re-seize Alaska.
Nobody who knows anything about Russia would include Zhirinovsky's ravings as evidence of anything. Assuming the intelligence agencies also know this, we have to wonder what the hell is going on.
The secret services either know far more than they're letting on, or they're using all this fluff and nonsense to try to sell the public on a conspiracy story they themselves can't quite prove. Either possibility is crazy to contemplate.
Nothing in the behavior of officials like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper or FBI chief James Comey has offered any clarity to the situation. Both appear determined keep taking the fork in the road all the way to inauguration.
Comey, who infamously alerted the public to the existence of an investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails 11 days before the election, spent the day of the BuzzFeed disclosures insisting before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he couldn't "confirm or deny a pending investigation."
And Clapper Wednesday night sent a groveling apologia to Trump essentially washing his hands of the BuzzFeed documents, explaining that they were "not an intelligence community product."
Nonetheless Clapper didn't exactly defuse the situation when he told Trump the intelligence community "has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable." The DNI seemed at once to be trying to reassure Trump (who immediately, and characteristically, misreported that Clapper had denounced the kompromat tales as a "false and fictitious report") while also leaving open the possibility that the president-elect was still guilty.
These wishy-washy statements come even as news leaks steadily accumulate asserting the intelligence community's supposed confidence that a Trump-Putin plot did indeed take place.
Comey's demurrals notwithstanding, it's now known that the Justice Department before the election repeatedly sought secret FISA warrants to investigate two Russian banks and a series of Trump associates.
We now know they got the warrant to investigate the Russian banks in October. As a result, there's suddenly quite justifiable outrage that Comey decided to reveal details of his Clinton email investigation and not news of this other inquiry right before the election.
But the more immediate problem is, why is Comey still holding back now? What is he waiting for?
Meanwhile, Ynet in Israel is reporting that Israeli intelligence officials are deciding not to share intelligence with the incoming Trump administration. The report indicates they came to this conclusion after a recent meeting with American intelligence officials, who told them the Russians have "leverages of pressure" to use against Trump.
This is an extraordinary story. If our intelligence community really believes this, then playtime is over.
No more Clapper-style hedging or waffling. If Israel gets to hear why they think Trump is compromised, how is the American public not also so entitled?
But if all they have are unverifiable rumors, they can't do this, not even to Donald Trump.
The only solution is an immediate unveiling of all the facts and an urgent public investigation. A half-assed whispering campaign a week and a half from a Trump presidency, with BuzzFeed at the center of the action, isn't going to cut it. We need to know what the likes of Clapper and Comey know, and we need it all now, before it's too late.
Watch moments from Donald Trump's first press conference since election.