BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago, CNN announced that it had come across the story that could finally blow the Trump Russia collusion story wide open.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: CNN has exclusive new details about a message sent in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign, offering access to hacked WikiLeaks documents.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This email on September 4th, 2016 was sent to Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr. and others in the Trump organization.
BOB GARFIELD: Get that? According to CNN, a man emailed Donald Trump, Jr. offering access to hacked WikiLeaks documents on September 4th, which is important because that’s 9 days before the documents were publicly posted online on September 13th. This seemed to be the smoking gun of a conspiracy.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: 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.
BOB GARFIELD: The story quickly spread, with CBS News saying that it had confirmed the date of the email with its own source, and outlets like MSNBC fanned its flames, as well. And no wonder. If the question was, what did the Trump people know and when did they know it, this story said September 4th, again, 9 days before the leak, except, as the Washington Post discovered, the email wasn’t sent on September 4th but September 14th, the day after the leak. No forewarning, no evidence of complicity, no nothin’.
To commentator Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of The Intercept, the episode is, itself, a smoking gun, of media in such a frenzy to get the goods on Donald Trump that we will violate basic principles of journalism and fulfill the worst suspicions of a public constantly told we are the enemy.
GLENN GREENWALD: There are two aspects of this. One is that this is just the latest in a very long line of serious mistakes, making the Trump-Russia connection as inflammatory as possible, only to fall apart upon minimal scrutiny. The second thing is the lack of accountability.
BOB GARFIELD: CNN and others corrected their story or apologized for it but with very little fanfare.
GLENN GREENWALD: If you look at the way in which they presented [LAUGHS] the story when they thought that they had what you correctly described as what would have been a smoking gun, they were acting as though it was the biggest revelation since Watergate.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A CNN exclusive, a newly-discovered email shows an effort to give the Trump campaign hacked documents form WikiLeaks. Did the President know?
GLENN GREENWALD: And then when they had to go and correct the story, it was very muted.
WOLF BLITZER: We now learned that this email was on September 14th, so that is 10 days later than what we originally reported earlier today, and it appears to have changed the understanding of this story.
GLENN GREENWALD: No explanation at all as to how they got this story so gravely wrong, which means they’re refusing to provide the kind of accountability and transparency that media outlets routinely demand of others.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece on this subject, you had a pretty interesting idea. It is another journalistic principle that says that when a reporter strikes an anonymity deal with a source, if the source turns out to be lying the deal is null and void because the information transaction was based on fraud. And we saw an example of it in the Project Veritas story that the Washington Post did, where these right-wingers were trying to sting the Post into printing a fake story and when the Post realized what was happening they turned the tables on the stingers and used their names, faces and so forth to say what had happened. You suggest that CNN do the very same thing with its source on the WikiLeaks story. Does that pertain, really, in this instance?
GLENN GREENWALD: I'm having a very hard time envisioning how it is that what CNN itself calls “multiple sources” with access to this email all misread the same date in the same way, absent a deliberate intention of having CNN misreport the story to the public, in which case CNN has the duty to expose who these people are or CNN ought to explain to the public, no, it wasn’t deliberate, it was in good faith and here's what actually happened.
Part of the interesting issue, people cheered the Washington Post when they exposed the source who was deceiving them because she was sort of this nobody in Washington that had no power and never fed any news outlets any stories, whereas the people that CNN are protecting, for right or for wrong, are very powerful people who feed them stories often and probably will again in the future. And I think that's one of the dynamics at play here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I would say that the media as a group, most supported by some great reporting, do believe that there was and is something rotten in Trump Tower, which is not the same thing as bias. It’s judgment based on a lot of gathering evidence. Just to be clear, you don't have a beef with journalists journalizing their asses off, right?
GLENN GREENWALD: I'm all in favor of journalists being highly adversarial to those who wield political power, but you can't be so eager to bring down people in power that you throw journalistic standard and caution to the wind because that is when you become unreliable activists, rather than journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: And now you mentioned that the list of bad stories is growing, Can you give me some examples of stories that appeared to be blockbusters which fizzled out very quickly?
GLENN GREENWALD: In the week before the story that we’re talking about, ABC ended up suspending its star reporter, Brian Ross, because he had reported inaccurately that Donald Trump had told Michael Flynn, while Trump was a candidate, to make contact with the Russians and, as it turned out, that instruction was given when Trump had already won the election. Similarly, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal both had to retract stories saying that Robert Mueller had issued a subpoena to Deutsche Bank for the personal banking records of Donald Trump, which would have been a huge story, as well. That turned out to be false. The Washington Post reported that the Russians had hacked into the American electric grid in order to threaten heat for Americans during the winter. That turned out to be totally false.
There's been a lot of examples like that that I think have really damaged the credibility of the media and created this opening for Trump to try and discredit journalism generally by calling the American media “fake news.”
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that, by and large, the newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post and the Associated Press and USA Today on the real estate stuff and WallStreet Journal, and so forth, have been pretty scrupulous and haven't had to walk back many stories, whereas cable -- news and the broadcast networks are frequently in that position. Do you see a significant difference in journalistic success when it comes to the Trump Russia story?
GLENN GREENWALD: I would quibble a little bit with the premise of the question, only in that I think some of the most serious retractions have come from the Washington Post early on. But I do agree, certainly, that the overwhelming majority of the retractions and the false stories and the spreading of misinformation come from cable news outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox. And I think a major reason for that is the business model. Unlike the Washington Post and The New York Times which have readers that kind of span the ideological spectrum, cable outlets have audiences that expect a certain agenda to be advanced; that's the reason they're watching. And I think that leads to an abandonment of journalistic accuracy because that serves the business model more than adhering to journalistic standards. And I consider that to be a huge problem, given the prominence of cable news today.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s one thing when politicians throw red meat to the base, it's another thing when nominal news organizations are doing the same thing.
GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, there’s one thing we have to address, and that is the “Glenn Greenwald” question. You’ve spent a good part of the year lashing out at the media for the very stories that we've discussed, and there is some speculation that you, yourself, have skewed your view to accommodate your general skepticism on the story. I just want to be clear. Your anger in this particular case is not about the essence of that story but merely in the errors that have been made and the lack of accountability for them that we've seen over the last number of months.
GLENN GREENWALD: Precisely. My view has never been that Putin wouldn't do anything like this, that Russia didn't interfere in our politics. My view has been very simple, which is that as journalists and as citizens, we ought to have learned the lesson by now that we need to see evidence when it comes to inflammatory claims by the government about other governments. Donald Trump has, obviously, launched a sustained campaign to really destroy the credibility of journalism because he doesn't want a check of a free press on him. The reason he perceives that to be a potent attack is because confidence and faith in the American media has, in fact, collapsed, and journalists are very good at expressing anger and indignation that the president would dare attack journalists as fake news and would attack a free press, but they're very bad at asking, why is it that confidence and faith on the part of the public has collapsed in American journalism?
BOB GARFIELD: Glenn, thank you very much.
GLENN GREENWALD: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
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BOB GARFIELD: Glenn Greenwald is a cofounding editor of The Intercept. We contacted CNN, MSNBC and CBS. CNN and CBS did not respond and MSNBC declined to comment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, fighting fire with fire is all well and good, until you get burned yourself.