(FAIR) Washington – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Fox News, 1/3/17) again denied that the leaked e-mails he published during the election came from Russia—an assertion contradicted by many anonymous US intelligence officials. “We can say, we have said repeatedly over the last two months, that our source is not the Russian government, and it is not a state party,” Assange told Sean Hannity.
It is perfectly reasonable for the media and the public to be skeptical of Assange’s claims, just as they should be of the anonymous intelligence officials who say otherwise. How can we know what the truth is, absent any evidence? This is an especially pressing question since the release of a declassified Intelligence Community Assessment on the matter (1/6/17) which, as released to the public, is big in bold assessments but lacking in forensic evidence. “The message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us,’” as the New York Times observed (1/6/17).
But thanks to the Washington Post’s dutiful commitment to verifying facts through its “Fact Checker” column, the mystery should be over. Assange’s claim that there no connection between Russia and the leaked documents were put through the Post’s rigorous factchecking criteria (1/5/17) and subjected to its penetrating “Pinocchio Test” scale, earning a damning “three Pinocchio” grade. This, according to the Post’s methodology, means that Assange’s assertion contains “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.
So now that one of the most cherished institutions in American journalism has checked this “fact,” we can all be assured in the knowledge that Assange is wrong and Russia is responsible for the hack, right? After all, the word fact does not—or should not—allow for much ambiguity.
The problem, however, is that the Post’s “Fact Checker” column is often not in the business of checking facts (FAIR, 9/6/12), but instead offers its own judgements and opinions under the imprimatur of factchecking.
At best, the Post provides a counter version of what the truth might be, “contesting one interpretation of the facts with [its] own interpretation,” as Clive Cook once wrote (Atlantic, 9/3/12) in a critique of the column. “An interpretation is an opinion—not a fact,” Cook wrote. “When a fact is wrong, it’s not some number of Pinocchios, it’s just wrong.”
The column’s editor, Glenn Kessler, claims to be “revealing the truth behind the rhetoric,” but “Fact Checker” is really just another op-ed section.
Unproven and Irrelevant ‘Evidence’
The article on Assange, written by the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee, is a glaring example of this. In more than 1,600 words of “factchecking,” not a single sentence disproves—or, for that matter, proves—the accuracy of Assange’s statement.
Fact Checker’s first method is to connect the statement to Donald Trump’s Twitter account, where the president-elect mentioned Assange’s denial. “As seen in Trump’s tweet, this exchange was ultimately interpreted as Assange saying the ‘Russians did not give him the info,’” Lee wrote. But one didn’t need Trump’s tweet to make this acknowledgement: Assange’s claim that Wikileaks’ “source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party” is straightforward enough, and follows a much more detailed account of who gave the emails to WikiLeaks by a WikiLeaks associate that Fact Checker simply ignores. (See below.)
It’s newsworthy that Trump, who has a long record of deception, is amplifying Assange’s denial—and has accordingly been covered by the Post (1/4/17) and virtually every other major outlet—but worthless to meet Fact Checker’s burden to prove that the claim is false.
The next claim is also irrelevant: “We will stipulate that governments regularly spy on each other, and the United States also gathers intelligence on governments such as Russia,” Lee writes. “The difference here is that intelligence operations allegedly led to the release of information to the public, via WikiLeaks and media coverage.” Indeed, journalists have rightly been criticized for failing to acknowledge the United States role in “interfering” with elections—and not merely by “releasing information to the public” (although that has been one method), but also with violent coups on numerous occasions (CBS News, 9/11/00; Slate, 4/14/16).
But, again, the purpose of this article is to examine if what Assange said was factual, and this effort to acknowledge US covert operations—while also distancing them from Russia’s alleged ones—does nothing to this end. If anything, the distinction weakens the argument, because it acknowledges that to date Russia is only “alleged” to have been responsible for WikiLeaks’ release of leaked e-mails. By Oxford’s definition, the word “allegation” means “a public statement that is made without giving proof.”
Another unconvincing point of emphasis was that Assange was telling a falsehood because he made his claim “without providing any evidence in the interview or in response to our inquiry.” It is unclear what kind of proof the paper would hope to see, absent Assange outing a source, which the Post itself refuses to do (5/31/05), even when its source is a US official making false claims.
This specific logic about a lack of evidence is also rich in irony, since it could be used to dismiss most of the anonymous intelligence sources the Post has used in its flurry of articles about the Russian hack—two of which (11/24/16; 12/31/16) have already had to be retracted or significantly “clarified,” due to what one might call “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” If one applied the same standards to the Post’s own reporting on the Russian hack, the paper would fail Fact Checker’s Pinocchio test.
The article also questions the claims of a hacker named Guccifer 2.0, who presented himself on Twitter as a Romanian hacker responsible for the hack. How this debunks Assange’s claim is hard to understand. Even if one accepts the claims—still based more on US intelligence assertions than on public evidence (Democracy Now, 1/5/17)—that the Russians hacked into the DNC, that does not prove that Guccifer 2.0 was part of that operation, or that he had any connection to WikiLeaks. As Lee notes (emphasis added), “independent analysts suspected that Guccifer 2.0 was linked to the Russian groups that hacked the DNC,” though they “did not have hard evidence because the documents were posted anonymously.” The article is filled with this kind of inconclusive language, such as “some experts believe,” and “independent analysts suspected.”
Even proving that Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian hacker would still fall short of proving he was the WikiLeaks source. As noted, the Post completely ignores that Craig Murray, a WikiLeaks associate and former British diplomat, denied that Russia was involved; said the emails were leaked, not hacked; and provided by internal “whistleblowers” who had legal access to the emails (Daily Mail, 12/14/16).
“Regardless of whether the Russians hacked into the DNC, the documents WikiLeaks published did not come from that,” Murray said. Of course, the paper should not simply take Murray—or anyone else—at their word. (See Empty Wheel—12/15/16—for a critical analysis of Murray’s account.) But it is rather one-sided to ignore these statements entirely, while amplifying so many other unproven allegations against WikiLeaks. This, though, is the approach Fact Checker chose to take.
‘All In’ on Russian Hacking Story
The Assange “factcheck” is part of the Washington Post’s relentless coverage of the Russian hacking allegation. The Post has gone “all in” on these Russian hacking allegations with an odd certitude and a scary deference to intelligence officials (FAIR.org, 1/4/17). The paper’s editor, Marty Baron, even retweeted (which he does very selectively) the paper’s article (11/24/16) that amplified a McCarthyite blacklist from an anonymous group of “researchers” (FAIR.org, 12/1/16). Despite the editor’s note added to the story, the tweet remains, with no mention of the article’s flaws.
The latest Fact Checker article is particularly worrisome because 1) it demonstrates that the paper’s understanding of what qualifies as a “fact” is extremely dubious, and 2) it comes at a time when the outlet is as militant as ever in advancing a narrative—which may or may not be true—that will increase tensions between two nuclear powers with an ugly history.
Given the recent history of media failings covering intelligence and national security prior to the war in Iraq (Washington Post, 8/24/04; FAIR Action Alert, 3/19/07), it is important that outlets undertaking to “check the facts” also undertake to use facts, and not merely innuendo and allegations, to do so.
Michael Corcoran is a journalist based in Boston. He has written for the Boston Globe, The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Extra!, NACLA Report on the Americas and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @mcorcoran3. This post originally ran on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting