In the wake of special prosecutor Robert Mueller's troll farm indictment, a bizarre series of events took place involving the New York Times and Facebook.
The indictment had barely hit the presses before Facebook Ads exec Rob Goldman decided to tweet a few things.
Goldman seemed peeved that his company, and in particular his department, was being described all over the world as an instrument of war, used against America in a "new Pearl Harbor." He didn't see it that way.
"I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal," he wrote, noting that he had seen "all of the Russian ads."
Goldman went on to note that the majority of the ads came after the election, and castigated the press for not giving that detail proper due. "We shared that fact," he wrote, "but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn't align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election."
Goldman also pointed out that a classic example of the Russian campaign involved efforts to bring out both anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim protesters to the same rally.
When I saw Goldman's tweets, I knew he'd be in a metaphorical logging camp by mid-week (especially after our Idiot-in-Chief re-tweeted him; a “Tump” endorsement automatically arouses rage across the social media spectrum). What I didn’t see coming was an entire New York Times article devoted to debunking the opinions of a guy on Twitter.
Goldman is the kind of person we should be encouraging to offer information. He's an insider who's in a unique position to assess the scale of the troll farm campaign, having seen a gazillion other political ads pass through his site. If Goldman's takes needed press attention at all, the usual method would have been to just mention them within the framework of a larger story about Mueller's indictment.
But the Times, in the person of Sheera Frankel, felt it necessary to completely sanitize every one of Goldman's heretical opinions in the form of a fact-check. They went through all of his tweets, one through eight, deconstructing each.
According to the paper, the only time Goldman was ever unequivocally right was when he said the Russian campaign was ongoing and that Facebook was taking measures to stop it. Every other opinion he had was either flawed or required “context.”
An example was the bit about the Islamic/anti-Islamic rally. Frankel dinged Goldman for not pointing out that the purpose of this activity was, reportedly, to link Hillary Clinton to pro-Islamic sentiment.
"According to the indictment secured by Mr. Mueller," she added, "there were many other examples of Russian operatives using Facebook and Instagram to organize pro-Trump rallies."
Frankel might equally have noted that at least some of the propaganda the Russians disbursed was anti-Trump, including the hyping of anti-Trump rallies in Charlotte in New York after the election. But it's easy to see how she missed that. After all, Mueller stuck those narrative-upsetting facts in item 57 of his indictment, the last lines in his “political advertisements” section.
As to the Russians' motives being to merely sow division, Frankel simply said, "Not according to the indictment." She pointed to the fact that "the grand jury indictment secured by Mr. Mueller asserts that the goal of Russian operatives was to influence the 2016 election."
Wired, in its coverage of Goldman's heresy, agreed with Frankel. They noted that in offering his civilian take on the matter, Goldman had "violated one of the most important principles for people studying the Mueller investigation: No one knows exactly where it's going, or what he's got."
This perspective makes it an article of faith to trust that Mueller has something more than what he's shown. Wired went so far as to describe Goldman's tweets as a "sin."
This story has become a kind of media religion, and when Goldman was forced to apologize a day later, it was for the twin #Russiagate-era heresies of a) giving Trump a talking point, and b) suggesting that St. Mueller was punching above his evidence.
Skepticism of any kind has become verboten, which is a problem for reporters because it's our job to be skeptical. Politico's poor Blake Hounshell wrote a piece called "Confessions of a Russiagate Skeptic" this week and got thrashed for it in the usual quarters. Jeet Heer blasted him for forgetting that same first principle of Mueller-coverage that Wired cited: "Mueller is ongoing."
But Hounshell's take was measured and his description of the troll farm story wasn't wrong, just uncertain. He wrote that the latest indictments prove #Russiagate is "definitely a somethingburger. But what kind of somethingburger is it?"
Who the hell knows? Like an iceberg, most of this story still seems to be hidden from public view.
This is what's made me nervous about #Russiagate from the very beginning, i.e. that reporters have been asked continually to accept major assumptions on faith, when a) the visible facts suggest a wide range of possibilities, and b) the authorities have not exactly been beacons of rectitude in their dealings with reporters, either historically or in this particular case.
In #Russiagate, official and quasi-official sources have been all over the place in their dealings with the press. There is a long list of screw-ups and retractions and even a few outright disasters, like BuzzFeed's publication of Christopher Steele's dossier, which has put the company in serious legal trouble.
BuzzFeed was crazy to run material whose veracity even they said at the time they couldn't vouch for. They've now been forced to sue the Democratic National Committee in search of what amounts to verification of their own sources' information (good luck with that). They've also hired a former FBI heavy to travel the world in search of verification of the Steele material, the work they probably should have done before publishing.
Another example of sources putting reporters in a barrel is the New York Times story from Valentine's Day of last year, in which four "current and former American officials" said the Trump campaign had "repeated contacts with Russian intelligence."
In June, Comey in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing disputed that story, saying that, "in the main, it was not true." How'd you like to be the Times reporters owning that Valentine's Day byline now?
In another example, on March 5th of last year, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press definitively that if there had been a request for a FISA warrant on any member of the Trump campaign, he a) absolutely would have known about it, and b) could absolutely state that there hadn’t been one.
"I can deny it," he said.
I thought that interview was weird at the time, but it seems even weirder now that we know for a fact that Clapper was either wrong or lying. There definitely was at least one FISA warrant, on Page, issued in October of 2016.
When I asked a congressional source about Clapper's statement, the gist of the answer was that the authorities have to be careful about what they release to the public, so as not to alert investigative targets to their intentions.
Even if that's true (and if it isn't, it means something very bizarre took place within the intelligence agencies over that FISA business), if I'm Chuck Todd, I'm pissed beyond belief. Our job in the press is to get things right, not to provide forums for prosecuting Donald Trump. Even if you're personally sympathetic to the idea of the investigation, you can't let sources lie to you, or play games with the truth for political reasons.
The reason reporters should be scared to death of this story is that #Russiagate is an incredibly complicated affair involving two sets of fierce combatants who both have compelling political reasons to conflate the key question of whether or not there was collusion.
Trump in his reflexively narcissistic way seems determined to downplay the Russian "problem" so long as he can't be tied to it, while the Democrats seem at times to be bootstrapping a counterintelligence probe into a political investigation of Trump they may legitimately believe will bear fruit.
It's a giant land mine of a story that could go either way. Mueller could leak the pee tape tomorrow, or we could be sitting here two years from now talking about a money laundering indictment that has nothing to do with Russia, or, who knows, the president might even turn out to be innocent (in this matter), at which point we'd have to start asking some questions about what this was all about.
We just don't know, and I know a lot of reporters from the start found the whole matter confusing, unsure of what it means. A few are even beginning to say so publicly. That we've resorted to denouncing people for saying so, or for offering alternative opinions, just shows how out of control this whole thing has gotten.