Accuracy in Media

Members of the mainstream media may have become unwitting partners in an effort by the government to ensnare those who leak classified information.

The latest incident came Friday when CNN, followed closely by MSNBC and CBS, spread an explosive but false story that turned on a detail all three claimed to have confirmed with multiple sources.

CNN reported Friday at about 11 a.m. that Wikileaks had offered the emails it had obtained from the Democratic National Committee to the Trump campaign before it made them public. The news agencies reported they had obtained an email, dated Sept. 4, from someone they identified as Michael J. Erickson that offered Donald Trump, Jr., a decryption key and access to the DNC emails.

Mainstream media reported that this proved the Trump campaign was colluding with Russians by accepting information directly from them to use against Hillary Clinton.

Asha Rangappa, a legal and national security analyst for CNN, was practically giddy in a segment shortly after the news broke.

“So to make it easy to understand … This email would be as if someone contacted you and told you they had robbed a bank and gave you the location of the storage locker where they had stashed the money and gave you the combination for the lock on the door,” Rangappa said. “So, even if he never responded to that email, from an investigative standpoint, I would say why didn’t he call the FBI. This is knowledge of potential stolen information. … knowledge of a crime that could have happened … hacking … and this is standing alone … this is problematic.”

Only exchanging information on politicians is not illegal, and bank robbery is. The date of the email was incorrect. It was actually sent Sept. 14, after Wikileaks itself had made the emails public. The writer was calling Trump Jr.’s attention to widely and publicly available information and offering a way to help access that.

Later that day, the Washington Post reported CNN had gotten the date wrong on the email. The media was slow to respond – Manu Raju, the CNN congressional correspondent who broke the story, waited several hours to concede he was wrong, and even then insisted he had confirmed it with “multiple sources.”

Others with large Twitter followings, such as Rep. Ted Lieu of California, Jim Comey pal Benjamin Wittes, and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo either never confirmed the error or waited hours or even days to do so.  

CBS and MSNBC also said they had confirmed the same detail with multiple sources, which raised a “glaring, obvious and critical question” for Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept: “How did ‘multiple sources’ all misread the date on this document, in exactly the same way, and toward the same end, and then feed this false information to CNN?

“It is, of course, completely plausible that one source might innocently misread a date on a document. But how is it remotely plausible that multiple sources [emphasis theirs] could all innocently and in good faith misread the date in exactly the same way, all to cause to be disseminated a blockbuster revelation about Trump/Russia/Wikileaks collusion?”

In the case of CNN, Raju admitted he never actually saw the email but merely had its contents read to him over the phone.

Some have speculated the outlets all got the same detail wrong in the same way because they were part of a counterespionage investigation by the Justice Department or perhaps others. Law enforcement, under this theory, is planting incorrect information to track down who reports it and how they learned of it in an effort to catch the leakers.

“It has been [our] contention for several weeks that a counterintelligence sting operation has been going on within the IC community,” wrote Sundance at Conservative Treehouse. “False trails of information, seeded by ‘White Hat’ investigators, intended to be captured by ‘Black Hat’ leakers – and delivered to their usurping allies in media. The stories are fake, the leaks are real.” 

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