Conspiracy Theories

Newsweek Plays Connect-the-Dots with Putin, Trump, WikiLeaks

A would-be exposé fails to deliver the goods.


Did you hear the one about Newsweek proving that Russia's conspiring with WikiLeaks?

That's Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald promising a blockbuster and failing to deliver. At the time he sent that tweet, the article he was promoting looked like this. Later the article was updated significantly, changing the focus somewhat; it now looks like this. At neither point did it demonstrate that WikiLeaks has been "working w/ Putin."

F.W. Rose

What it shows is that some people misread an item in WikiLeaks' recent release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails. In the message in question, Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal (described by Eichenwald as "second only to George Soros at the center of conservative conspiracy theories") passed along one of Eichenwald's articles. The Russian news/propaganda outlet Sputnik then published a piece that mistook Eichenwald's words for Blumenthal's, declaring that Clinton's "top confidante" had said the Benghazi attack "was almost certainly preventable" and that criticizing Clinton for this failure "is legitimate." In the updated version of the article, Eichenwald highlights the fact that Donald Trump himself made the same mistake at a rally in Wilkes-Barre yesterday.

If that were all there is to the article, I wouldn't blame Eichenwald for writing it. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I'd be chortling about it too; if one of those people was the Republican presidential nominee, I'd be all over it. But I wouldn't claim that this proves WikiLeaks is an arm of Moscow—or, as Eichenwald puts it in the article, that it is "proof that this act of cyberwar is…being orchestrated by the Russians"—because that "proof" is obviously absent. Some Russians A reporter at a Russian-funded site misread an item in a WikiLeaks document dump. (*) That doesn't demonstrate that the Russians are behind WikiLeaks any more than it demonstrates that they're behind Newsweek.

The updated version of the article argues breathlessly that Trump must have gotten the story from Sputnik: "This false story was only reported by the Russian controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin's mouthpiece?…Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?" Well, it's certainly possible that someone on the Trump campaign found it in Sputnik. It's in English; it's online; it easily could've popped up in a Google News Alert. A campaign that cites stories from Infowars and the National Enquirer isn't likely to shy away from reading Sputnik too. But Eichenwald's claim that the tale "was only reported by the Russian controlled agency" is not in fact true. As BuzzFeed's Jon Passantino points out, the claim was already circulating in a viral tweet hours before Sputnik picked it up.

I realize that "Donald Trump relied on a dicey source and said something inaccurate" is kind of a dog-bites-man story these days. Russian puppetmasters are much more exciting. But a reporter shouldn't claim to have proven something he hasn't. Especially if the result is an article that moves from dismissively invoking "conservative conspiracy theories" to claiming, based on the thinnest reeds, to have exposed a vast Kremlin-directed conspiracy.

Postscript, 12:55 a.m.: Eichenwald has updated his article again, in a process that's starting to look like a textbook case of motivated reasoning. Here is one of the new passages:

Since Newsweek first broke the story online, some journalists have speculated that the misrepresentation of the email may have merely been an error by an overworked Russian news agency. However, according to a government official with direct knowledge of the American intelligence agencies' inquiry into the Russian hacking campaign, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, that theory is "absurd."

Why does he think it's absurd? Because Sputnik traffics in propaganda, and the unidentified official is sure that "no [Sputnick] article directly related to American politics would just be sloppily thrown into public view without careful consideration." Quoting a recent public letter about disinformation campaigns, Eichenwald argues that we're actually seeing "a well-known Russian playbook: First leak compelling and truthful information to gain credibility. The next step: release fake documents that look the same." And what about the viral tweet that had the false information before Sputnik ran with it? Eichenwald now acknowledges that it exists, but he adds that "it could have been distributed over social media as a step in the Russian effort to quote an altered email in Sputnik."

In other words, all he has is a bunch of speculation, and it's not even speculation that makes much sense. If the "Russian playbook" is to "release fake documents that look the same," that simply isn't what happened here. This isn't a fake document; it's a clumsy misdescription of a real document. And that sort of misdescription isn't some extraordinary event that requires an elaborate explanation. You see such errors fairly frequently during these document dives, because inevitably some of the people poking through the pile are sloppy readers. Isn't it easier just to figure that Sputnik screwed up?

In the original version of the article, Eichenwald himself seemed to be suggesting that Sputnik screwed up. He wrote that we found out about the plot because of Sputnik's "incompetence" and because the Russians were "really, really dumb." And that language is still in the article now, even as the piece also relies heavily on this anonymous official who thinks the idea of Sputnik making a mistake is "absurd." Which is it, Kurt?

While I'm at it: Even if we suppose that Eichenwald's Sputnik scenario is true, how would that support the idea that WikiLeaks is working with Putin? Why would Moscow go through this rigmarole if it could just fabricate a Blumenthal email and release it via WikiLeaks instead?

Sputnik, by the way, has taken down its report. Maybe, just maybe, they realized the story was inaccurate and killed it. I guess they could've added an improbable update instead that tried to convince everyone that they were right all along. But that's more of a Newsweek thing.

(* Correction: Turns out the now-former Sputnik writer who made the mistake is from Arizona, not Russia. To read his account of what happened, go here. Spoiler: He doesn't confess to any Kremlin conspiracies.)