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.)

NEXT: A.M. Links: Clinton Leads Trump by 5 Points in New Poll, Samsung Ending Production of Galaxy Note 7, Gary Johnson Blasts U.S. Foreign Policy

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  1. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I’d be chortling about it too…

    And hoping to get in on some of that Foundation scratch, too.

  2. Maybe if Hillary wasn’t a crook with so much to hide, Russia wouldn’t be able to manipulate the election? Or maybe if the media would have ever done its fucking job rather than acting as an arm of the Hillary campaign, all of this shit would have come out to the public long ago depriving Russia of the ability to manipulate our elections.

    1. Indeed. Besides, hiding information is manipulating the election, as is telling outright lies. Every time Hillary opens her mouth she’s manipulating the election.

    2. Sorry, not buying the Russians are against Hillary at all. Why would they oppose someone who willingly signed off on the sale of a quarter of the country’s uranium supply to them? And all they had to do was kick her a few hundred grand for a speech.

      1. Sorry Bill, but whether Russia is for or against Hillary was not my point. The point is that even if you think they are, that still doesn’t mean what these idiots think it does.

  3. When has the media ever gotten anything right? Seriously, I can’t remember.

    Also: “Wilkes-Barre” 😉

    1. Heh. Fixed.

  4. Hillary is up by 5 points. How is Russia manipulating anything?

    1. That’s exactly what they want you to think.

    2. She would be up by 50 if only it wasn’t for the evil Russians. And keeping a video of Trump on ice for months only to release it when told to by the Hillary campaign is not manipulative at all. That is just good journalism.

  5. Kurt Eichenwald thinks he’s important and influential. Ha.

    1. Didn’t Newsweek sell for a dollar not too long ago? I went to the dentist last month and even the waiting room there didn’t have Newsweek or Time and the other weekly newsmagazines anymore. If doctor’s offices don’t carry these magazines anymore, I am at a loss to figure out who is buying or reading them.

      1. A few years ago the joke going around was Newsweek was going to come out with a special edition for adults.

    2. Didn’t he run a death camp in Germany a while back?

  6. But a reporter shouldn’t claim to have proven something he hasn’t.

    A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

    And more fool anyone who thinks they don’t know this and use it.

    1. Yes. That is why reporters are usually gracious about doing corrections. They are happy to say “oops my bad” after telling some appalling lie because they know the damage has already been done.

  7. That BuzzFeed link is hilarious – who knew Twitter was full of counter-espionage investigators? What a bunch of fools.

  8. The Russians are (allegedly) releasing stuff we want to hide from the American public. Cry me a motherfucking river.

    1. Manipulating an election is releasing this that isn’t true but voters will think is true. Releasing the truth is not manipulating anything.

    2. That’s the most priceless part about all of this. Heaven forbid the American public actually learn the truth about the people running for office. Besides, why the Hell would the Russians want to cause the failure of someone who’s already been bought & paid for, considering they’d have more leverage over herself than Trump?

    3. And just think, four short years ago, Romney was getting mocked by these same toolboxes for pushing a 1980s foreign policy.

      A few weeks ago, Obama was on 60 Minutes or some other show talking about how the Russians are constantly trying to hack into our systems. What’s left unsaid is that we do the exact same shit, but when it’s done to the DNC and its neocon enablers it’s some nefarious conspiracy between Putin and Trump.

    4. Exactly. Much as WaPo was manipulating the election by waiting until a WikiLeaks dump to release the news of NBC’s “found” footage.

  9. It’s weird how Russia is now the Democrats’ favorite boogieman, when it used to be a beacon of light for them. I know that it’s not the “USSR” anymore but has it really changed in any substantial way?

    1. And I thought only Joseph McCarthy believed in vast conspiracies directed by Moscow.

  10. Now the Kochtopus is attacking Europe!??

  11. My goodness. Looks like the Reason writers may have finally come to a very belated realization that the mainstream media is a DemOp propaganda organization trying to drag Hillary across the finish line.

    Let’s hope this realization blossoms into an understanding that following the DemOp lead makes Reason a propaganda organization, etc., as well.

    By all means, criticize Trump. But do it honestly. You don’t need to republish lies and distortions to do so, you know.

    And you might do a little digging into the more recent email dumps on the DNC. They are chock full of goodness about how fundamentally corrupt the DNC is. Illegal coordination with PACs, unethical coordination with one campaign over another, multiple instances of government offices and agencies being bent to the benefit of the DNC. Its all there. Do a little reporting on it, please?

    1. Maybe they will figure out that as good as repeating that propaganda against Trump makes them feel, doing so props up the same propaganda machine that keeps Libertarian ideas from getting a fair hearing.

      An honest Libertarian organization would be as brutally critical of the media as they are of the Police. Reason gets the police part right but rarely goes after the media. Reason made a huge mistake when it decided it was a good idea to hire 20 something journalists to do its writing and editing. Journalists are never going to view their own field with the kind of skepticism necessary. Would reason hire cops who some day hoped to get another job in law enforcement to cover criminal justice issues? That is what they are doing with their media criticism and it generally doesn’t work out too well.

      1. We don’t often agree on everything, but I agree with this 100%. I wouldn’t hire a bunch of journalists if I ran Reason for very obvious reasons.

  12. The Trump tapes are horrible. But that Trump obtained Russian disinformation and recited it as fact is terrifying

    Didn’t someone write a piece fairly recently (within the last year) pointing out how “diaper-wetting hyperbole” has become the new norm in media circles?

    Everything is “terrifying” or “disgusting” or “vile” or “horrifying” or some other fluid-leaking adjective.

    Salon really sort of started it, but its now de rigeur in the progosphere, and slices of the MSM (e.g. the “PostEverything” Blog)

    Just for fun, i searched the WaPo for the term “Vile” (its funniest on Salon, because its almost always appears directly in the headline/strapline somewhere)…. and you will not be shocked by what subject *is* most frequently associated with it….

    1. What makes that statement both funny and infuriating is that anyone who reads Reason knows they don’t mean it. If Russia were putting out disinformation about US treatment of detainees or the circumstances around drone strikes, reason would gleefully repeat it as fact and certainly wouldn’t have any issue with Gary Johnson doing the same. If it later turned out not to be true it would illicit a shrug from reason or likely no reaction or retraction at all.

      So, they don’t care about disinformation seeping into the election. They are just pretending to for their own partisan purposes.

      1. The quote is from Eichenwald, and Jesse *is* mocking it.

        And this article probably qualifies as Reason “Defending Trump

        (*at least by to the standards of the morons who characterize ‘failing to swallow the stupidest commentary from the media’ as ‘Defending Trump’)

        You simply can’t read the news anymore without having your intelligence insulted 100 times before lunch. Not only aren’t people distancing themselves from the “BleachBit”-fact-check – people are still repeating it today, thinking that wilfully-ignorant-literalism is somehow ‘clever’.

        I don’t know why you’re busting on Reason for it – as they’re one of the very few at least calling it what it is on occasion. Like here, or in the scott piece linked above.

        1. well because it’s too little too late. Some of us were screaming about this when Suderman and Shikha were going on their fact-free jeremiads against Trump, based entirely on reporting from State organs like WaPo, back in the early days.

        2. I am busting reason on it because they have often been just as bad an offender as the rest of the media. Also, you SFed your link such that it went to a 404 page not found at reason. So I assumed it was reason who said that.

          I don’t see how the idiots “fact checking” the Bleachbit stuff is any worse than reason’s constantly pretending that Trump’s criticism of US libel law is the equivalent to Hillary’s pledge to overturn Citizens’ United, to name just one half truth Reason puts out.

  13. I wish someone would ask the Dems and their faithful lapdogs WHY the Russians would want to damage the Clintons.

    1. I think its a mistake to assume “The Russians” really have anything invested in the outcome of the election at all.

      They probably fuck with the US because… well, because of the “Why do Dogs lick their Balls?”-rule = because they CAN.

      And because the US routinely does it to everyone else, every day, all the time

      Somehow that’s never mentioned in all this pants-wetting about “Russian Hacking”. Apparently the goose/gander thing of cyberespionage isn’t given much consideration by editors.

      1. It’s a lot nicer than what the US did ? send an army into Russia to depose their government.

  14. Here’s an actual connect the dots you can play: Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, writes an aggressive, angry Tweetstorm about Russian hacks and “isn’t it suspicious” games about why Wikileaks isn’t going after Trump and lo and behold within MINUTES Eichenwald rushes this shit article to press.

    No more jokes about Pravda; we have a State Run Media now.

    1. We totally do. The wikileaks dump about the election is showing it beyond doubt…

      The mediator of a Presidential debate coordinated with the White House about what he would do. That is a state run media. And it is one of about a hundred examples of such that have come out over the last couple of months.

      1. So the Trump tape would be huge news that would normally be broken on a Monday morning, right? But it broke Friday afternoon? Why? Because that’s when the Wikileaks dump happened, of course!

        Reason could make big bucks being a truly outside media source, but alas, they relocated to DC.

  15. More connect the dots: the NYTimes hires Maggie Haberman out of Politico to do campaign coverage sometime in 2015. Guess who the Clinton camp was calling a “friendly journalist” who never fails to disappoint in 2015 while she was at Politico?

    Oh yes my friends:

    per Greenwald

  16. Hasn’t the latest release of Clinton emails shows that her campaign is coordinating with a SuperPAC? Where are the indictments?

    1. oh please indictments are for little people and Republicans, but per the DC Clubhouse, I repeat myself.

    2. Oh you’re still serious.

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