Journalists with the largest and most influential media outlets disseminated an outright and quite significant lie on Tuesday to hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, on Twitter. While some of them were shamed into acknowledging the falsity of their claim, many refused to, causing it to continue to spread up until this very moment. It is well worth examining how they function because this is how they deceive the public again and again, and it is why public trust in their pronouncements has justifiably plummeted.
The lie they told involved claims of Russian involvement in the procurement of Hunter Biden’s laptop. In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, The New York Post obtained that laptop and published a series of articles about the Biden family’s business dealings in Ukraine, China and elsewhere. In response, Twitter banned the posting of any links to that reporting and locked The Post out of its Twitter account for close to two weeks, while Facebook, through a long-time Democratic operative, announced that it would algorithmically suppress the reporting.
The excuse used by those social media companies for censoring this reporting was the same invoked by media outlets to justify their refusal to report the contents of these documents: namely, that the materials were “Russian disinformation.” That claim of “Russian disinformation” was concocted by a group of several dozen former CIA officials and other operatives of the intelligence community devoted to defeating Trump. Immediately after The Post published its first story about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine that traded on his influence with his father, these career spies and propagandists, led by Obama CIA Director and serial liar John Brennan, published a letter asserting that the appearance of these Biden documents “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
News outlets uncritically hyped this claim as fact even though these security state operatives themselves admitted: “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails…are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement — just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.” Even though this claim came from trained liars who, with uncharacteristic candor, acknowledged that they did not “have evidence” for their claim, media outlets uncritically ratified this assertion.
This was a topic I discussed extensively in October when I announced my resignation from The Intercept after senior editors — for the first time in seven years — violated the contractual prohibition on editorial interference in my journalism by demanding I significantly alter my reporting about these documents by removing the sections that reflected negatively on Biden. What I found particularly galling about their pretense that they have such high-level and rigorous editorial standards — standards they claimed, for the first time ever, that my article failed to meet — was that a mere week prior to their censorship of my article, they published an article by a different journalist which, at a media outlet we created with the explicit purpose of treating government claims with skepticism, instead treated the CIA’s claims of “Russian disinformation” as fact. Even worse, when they quoted the CIA’s letter, they omitted the part where even those intelligence agents acknowledged that they had no evidence for their assertion. From The Intercept on October 21:
Their latest falsehood once again involves Biden, Ukraine, and a laptop mysteriously discovered in a computer repair shop and passed to the New York Post, thanks to Trump crony Rudy Giuliani….. The U.S. intelligence community had previously warned the White House that Giuliani has been the target of a Russian intelligence operation to disseminate disinformation about Biden, and the FBI has been investigating whether the strange story about the Biden laptop is part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This week, a group of former intelligence officials issued a letter saying that the Giuliani laptop story has the classic trademarks of Russian disinformation.
Oh my, marvel at those extremely rigorous editorial standards: regurgitating serious accusations from ex-CIA operatives without bothering to note that they were unaccompanied by evidence and that even those agents admitted they had none. But, as they usually do these days, The Intercept had plenty of company in the corporate media.
That those materials were “Russian disinformation” became so reflexively accepted by the U.S. media that it became the principal excuse to ignore and even censor the reporting, and it also helpfully handed the Biden campaign an easy excuse to avoid answering any questions about what the documents revealed. “I think we need to be very, very clear that what he’s doing here is amplifying Russian misinformation,” said Biden Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield when asked about the prospect that Trump would raise the Biden emails at the debate. From the CIA’s lips to the mouths of corporate journalists into the hands of the Biden campaign.
As the U.S. media disseminated this “disinformation” tale, nobody — including the Bidens — has ever claimed let alone demonstrated that a single document was anything other than genuine — something that would be exceedingly easy to do if the documents were fraudulent. “The Biden team has rejected some of the claims made in the NY Post articles, but has not disputed the authenticity of the [laptop] files upon which they were based,” acknowledged The New York Times. Ample evidence corroborates that the documents are genuine.
As for the claims of Russian involvement in the laptop story, there was never any evidence for it: none. The CIA operatives who invented that storyline acknowledged that. The week that tale emerged, The New York Times reported that “no concrete evidence has emerged that the laptop contains Russian disinformation” and the paper said even the FBI has “acknowledged that it had not found any Russian disinformation on the laptop.” The Washington Post published an op-ed by Russia fanatic Thomas Rid who candidly pronounced: “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.” And the only time the U.S. Government has ever spoken on this question was when the Director of National Intelligence stated: “Hunter Biden’s laptop is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign.”
These documents raised important questions about the presidential frontrunner’s knowledge of or participation in his family members’ attempt to profit off of their association with him, questions implicating his integrity, ethics and honesty. Yet those documents were suppressed by a gigantic fraud, perpetrated by the CIA and their media allies, which claimed that the documents were forged and that they came from Russia.
That is the critical context for the lie spread yesterday by numerous mainstream journalists. On Tuesday morning, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified a short 12-page report entitled “Foreign Threats to the U.S. 2020 Elections.”
It reviewed the actions of numerous countries with regard to the 2020 election. The intelligence community claimed — without presenting any evidence whatsoever — that “Russian President Putin authorized…influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S.” The New York Times’ largely credulous article about this report contained this admission, one you would think (or, rather, hope) would matter to journalists: “The declassified report did not explain how the intelligence community had reached its conclusions about Russian operations during the 2020 election.”
Despite that glaring omission, media outlets predictably treated the evidence-free assertions from the security state as fact. “Vladimir Putin did it again,” trumpeted Mother Jones’ David Corn without an iota of skepticism. CNN’s Marshall Cohen actually said this:
The report confirms what was largely assumed, and barely hidden, last year: Trump and his allies publicly embraced Russia's disinformation campaign against Biden, met with Kremlin-tied figures who were part of the effort, and promoted their conspiracies https://t.co/Wjhss5U6Nk
— Marshall Cohen (@MarshallCohen) March 16, 2021
Think about that: to a CNN reporter, evidence-free assertions from the U.S. security state are tantamount to “confirmation.” That they really do think this way is nothing short of chilling. But that is the standard liberal media posture of harboring reverence for the U.S. intelligence community and treating its every utterance as Truth without the need for any corroborating evidence. It is one of their defining attributes.
But in this case, many of them went far beyond mere regurgitation of CIA claims. Well beyond it: here, they fabricated a claim that report also demonstrated that the Hunter Biden laptop materials were — as they claimed before the election — engineered by Russia. In reality, the report did not even mention the Hunter Biden laptop materials or allude to it, let alone claim that it was produced by the Kremlin, let alone supply evidence that it constituted “Russian disinformation.” But no matter: numerous journalists united to spread the false claim far and wide that the report confirmed this storyline.
The first journalist to publish the falsehood was Patrick Tucker, an editor at the journal Defense One. The tweet quickly went viral as liberals clicked “retweet” and “like” so fast that at least several of them likely suffered digital cartilage damage or at least a mild sprain:
The claim that this report corroborated Russian involvement in the Hunter laptop story picked up significant steam when MSNBC host Chris Hayes endorsed it to his 2.3 million followers:
From there, the claim was further spread by Hayes’ NBC News colleague Ben Collins, who — ironically — works in what the network calls the “disinformation unit,” combatting the spread of disinformation (by which Collins means tattling on 4Chan teenagers and Facebook boomers, while never challenging the lies of real power centers such as those from the intelligence community; those lies are ones he amplifies):
With this MSNBC host and the NBC disinformation agent on board, it was off to the races. Journalists from across the corporate media sphere spread this lie over and over. Here was CNN’s Asha Rangappa:
Perhaps the most embarrassing example was from S.V. Daté, the White House correspondent of HuffPost which, just last week, had dozens of its reporters laid off perhaps because, while they have numerous talented reporters, this is the sort of thing they routinely do, causing them to lose trust among the public. Daté did not just repeat the lie but used it to mock those who actually did the reporting on these documents (note that the section he underlined in red says nothing about the Hunter Biden documents, nor does it say anything about Russia other than it “amplified” various news stories):
Hey, New York Post and everyone else who got suckered into the ridiculous Hunter Biden Laptop story.
Take a bow. pic.twitter.com/H8mHZs1ij6
— S.V. Dáte (@svdate) March 16, 2021
As this false claim went massively viral, conservative journalists — and only they — began vocally objecting that the report made no mention whatsoever of the Hunter Biden laptop, let alone supplied proof for this claim. That is because, with a few noble exceptions (such as The Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple), liberal journalists at corporate outlets will eagerly endorse but never denounce or correct each other’s falsehoods. For that reason, if you confine yourself to the liberal corporate media bubble, and refuse to follow conservative journalists as well, you will be propagandized and deceived.
Hayes, to his credit, was one of the only journalists who helped spread this falsehood and then quickly retracted it. He first acknowledged that, upon reading the report, it did not appear that it actually made any reference to the Hunter laptop, and then announced he would delete his original tweet, conceding that the original claim was false. Note how the original false claims go mega-viral, while the tweets which subsequently acknowledge their falsity are seen by very few people:
With one of his earliest boosters having jumped ship, Tucker himself, the originator of this lie, first began backtracking while vowing he would never delete the tweet, only to then relent and delete it, acknowledging its falsity. Again compare the meager audience that learns of the backtracking and acknowledgment of falsity compared to the huge number exposed to the original false claim:
I've deleted a tweet that suggested that a recent ODNI report made explicit reference to the Hunter Biden laptop story. It makes reference to Andrii Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was trafficking information remarkably similar to what showed up in the Post report
— Patrick Tucker (@DefTechPat) March 16, 2021
Thanks to multiple journalists with large platforms spreading Tucker’s original false tweet, it received thousands upon thousands of likes and re-tweets. So, too, did the tweets of other journalists promoting that false claim, such as the one from HuffPost’s White House Correspondent, and this one from one of David Brock’s goons specifically claiming that the security state’s evidence-free report somehow proves that my pre-election reporting on it was wrong. Yet Tucker’s announcement that he was deleting his tweet on the ground that the report does not make “explicit reference to the Hunter Biden laptop story” has a grand total of three retweets.
Indeed, other than Hayes, it is difficult to find a journalist who acknowledged that what they spread was a lie. Both CNN’s Rangappa and NBC News’ Collins simply allowed the tweet to quietly disappear from their timeline when Tucker finally deleted his, saying nothing to the thousands or tens of thousands of people they misled. Meanwhile, the tweet from HuffPost’s Daté is still up a full twenty-four hours after the key journalists who spread this have acknowledged it was false.
Do you see how they behave? Take a look. Prior to the election, out of desperation to ensure that Biden won, they censored and maligned this reporting by mindlessly endorsing an assertion from life-long CIA operatives that never had any evidence: ignore these documents; they are Russian disinformation. They not only invoked that claim to justify ignoring the story but also to successfully agitate for its censorship by Twitter and Facebook. So they spent weeks spreading an utter lie in order to help the candidate that they favored win the election. Remember, these are journalists doing that.
Then, yesterday, the intelligence community issued a report that does not even purport to contain any evidence: just assertions. And they all jumped to treat it as gospel: no questioning of it, no skepticism, no demands to see evidence for it, not even any notation that no evidence was provided. They just instantly enshrined claims from the CIA and NSA as Truth. How can you possibly be a journalist with even minimal knowledge of what these agencies do and look in the mirror as you do this?
But so much worse, in this case, they just outright lied about what the report said — just fabricated assertions that the report did not even allude to, in order to declare their lies from last October to be vindicated. Even if this report had asserted that the Hunter Biden laptop materials were manufactured by the Kremlin, that would prove nothing. Evidence-free assertions from the U.S. intelligence community merit skepticism, not blind faith — especially from people calling themselves journalists.
But the report did not even claim that. And when some of them realized this, they did virtually nothing to rectify the severe disinformation they had spent the day spreading. These are the people who claim to be so profoundly opposed to conspiracy theories and devoted to combating “disinformation”; as usual, they are the ones who spread disinformation most recklessly and frequently.
The fact that the false tweet from HuffPost’s White House correspondent is still up is quite revealing, given that that outlet just had to lay off a significant portion of its staff. As newly arrived Substack writer Michael Tracey wrote in his first article on this platform (headlined: “Why Journalists Hate Substack”), journalists are very good at lamenting when their outlets are forced to lay off journalists but very poor at examining whether the content their outlet is producing may be part of why it is failing:
So when you see another round of layoffs, followed by another round of exasperated Twitter lamentation about how horrible the industry is, you have to wonder if these rituals ultimately function as an excuse for journalists to forgo any kind of real self-examination. For instance, why it is that the media organizations they inhabit always seem to be in a constant state of free-fall? Sure, there are economic factors at play that the journalists themselves cannot control. But it would seem to behoove these journalists to maybe spend a little bit less time complaining in the abstract about the depredations of “the industry”—as though they are its hapless, beleaguered casualties—and a little bit more time analyzing whether they have contributed to the indisputable reality that huge cross-sections of the public distrust and despise the media.
There are multiple potential explanations for this dynamic worth considering. Maybe it’s the tedious hyper-partisanship and weirdly outdated content aggregation tactics that much of the online media still employs. Maybe it’s the constant five-alarm-fire tone and incessant hyping of overblown threats that was characteristic of the Trump years. Maybe it’s some combination of all these and more—but you won’t see many axed journalists offering up any kind of critical introspection, because when the layoffs arrive it can never have anything to do with their own ideological myopia or other shortcomings.
Indeed, when anyone, including journalists, loses their job, it is lamentable. But when one witnesses behavior like what these journalists did yesterday, the only confounding part of the collapse of this part of the media industry is that it is not happening even more quickly and severely.