Accuracy in Media

So anxious was The Guardian to drive a stake through the Donald Trump presidency that it ran a story on Tuesday that now appears not to be provable and perhaps not true at all.

The story on the front of the Guardian claimed Paul Manafort, who was briefly Trump’s campaign manager during the summer of 2016, held secret talks with Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, in the Ecuadoran embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and in the spring of 2016, shortly before he went to work for Trump.

The Guardian admitted it does not know why Manafort went to see Assange, but a few months after an alleged meeting in March 2016, “Wikileaks released a stash of Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers.” This is contested. WikiLeaks offered a reward for information in the death of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee who was shot near his DC home in the summer of 2016.

CNN jumped in promptly.

“Hugely significant,” Shan Wu, CNN legal analyst, said after Piper Harlow introduced the segment. “This really could be one of the two missing links to show interference and knowledge of the Russian involvement. This could certainly explain the focus we’ve been seeing on [Trump friend Roger] Stone because he could be the other direct link there.”

Soon after the story appeared, Wikileaks tweeted: “Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation. @Wikileaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.”

It included a link to the story as originally published, with a headline that read: “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy” and a subhead: “Exclusive: Trump ally met WikiLeaks founder months before emails hacked by Russia were published.”

Not long after the Wikileaks tweet, corrections to the story began to appear on the Guardian website. The headline was changed to say, “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say,” an attempt to distance itself from the claims.

It inserted a new third paragraph of the story that says Manafort denied the claim. “I have never met Julian Assange or anyone connected to him,” Manafort said in his statement. “I have never been contacted by anyone connected to WikiLeaks, either directly or indirectly. I have never reached out to Assange or WikiLeaks on any matter.”

In the next paragraph, it inserted the phrase “would have” in one sentence and ‘apparent’ in another, so it read, “It is unclear why Manafort would have wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last apparent meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and cold interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigation alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Later, it inserted the phrase “might have” into a sentence so that it read, “Why Manafort might have sought out Assange in 2013 is unclear. During this period the veteran consultant was involved in black operations against Yanukovych’s chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, …”

By Wednesday morning, even Trump haters such as Prett Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York whom the president fired shortly after taking office, and Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institute, close friend of James Comey whose Lawfare blog regularly attacks the president, were expressing doubt.

“I’d like to see some corroboration of this,” Bharara said. “Because of the way this is sourced, color me a little skeptical,” Wittes said.

But Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair was unwilling to let it go. The edits did “hedge certain bits of language, but they did not significantly alter any of the core assertions in the reporting,” he wrote. Moreover, the article “contained some key details with a level of specificity that would seem to hint at a high level of confidence in sourcing.”

The authors apparently knew Manafort’s visit lasted 40 minutes and he was casually dressed in a light-colored shirt.

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