Charlie Savage Plays with His Magic Time Machine To Avoid Doing Journalism
Charlie Savage just did something astonishing in the name of press freedom. He said that the truth doesn’t matter now, in 2021, because he reported a different truth eleven years ago.
He took issue with my headline to this piece, noting that he was obfuscating the facts about the Julian Assange prosecution so as to shoehorn it into a story about actual journalists.
Charlie made several obfuscations or clear errors in that piece:
- He didn’t explain (as he hasn’t, to misleading effect, in past stories on Assange) the nature of the 2nd superseding indictment and the way it added to the most problematic first superseding one
- He said the 2019 superseding indictment (again, he was silent about the 2020 superseding indictment) raised the “specter of prosecuting reporters;” this line is how Charlie shoehorned Assange into a story about actual journalists
- He claimed that the decision to charge Assange for “his journalistic-style acts” arose from the change in Administrations, Obama to Trump (and specifically to Bill Barr), not the evidence DOJ had obtained about Assange’s actions over time
Charlie presented all this as actual journalism about the Assange prosecution, but along the way, he made claims that were either inflammatory and inexact — a veritable specter haunting journalism — or, worse, what I believe to be false statements, false statements that parrot the propaganda that Wikileaks is spreading to obscure the facts.
The “specter” comment, I take to be a figure of speech, melodramatic and cynical, but mostly rhetorical.
The silence about the 2020 superseding indictment is a habit I have called Charlie on before, but one that is an error of omission, rather than of fact.
It’s this passage that I objected to at length:
But the specter of prosecuting reporters returned in 2019, when the department under Attorney General William P. Barr expanded a hacking conspiracy indictment of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, to treat his journalistic-style acts of soliciting and publishing classified information as crimes.
Obama-era officials had weighed charging Mr. Assange for publishing leaked military and diplomatic files, but worried about establishing a precedent that could damage mainstream news outlets that sometimes publish government secrets, like The Times. The Trump administration, however, was undeterred by that prospect.
As presented, this passage made several claims:
- “Obama-era officials” had considered charging Assange for publishing activities, but “Obama-era officials” did not do so because it might damage “mainstream news outlets” like the NYT
- The reason that the Trump administration was willing to charge Assange for publishing was because they were “undeterred” from the prospect of doing damage to the NYT
- DOJ under Billy Barr expanded a hacking conspiracy “to treat his journalistic-style acts of soliciting and publishing classified information as crimes”
I believe the last claim is largely factual but misleading, as if the operative issue were Barr’s involvement or as if Barr deliberately treated Assange’s “journalistic-style acts” — as distinct from that of actual journalists — as a crime. There may be evidence that Barr specifically had it in for WikiLeaks or that Barr (as distinct from Trump’s other Attorneys General) treated Assange as he did out of the same contempt with which he treated actual journalists. There may be evidence that Barr — whose tenure as AG exhibited great respect for some of the journalists he had known since his first term as AG — was trying to burn down journalism, as an institution. But Charlie provides no evidence of that, nor has anyone else I know. (Indeed, Charlie’s larger argument presents evidence that Barr’s attacks on journalism, including subpoenas that may or may not have been obtained under Barr in defiance of guidelines adopted under Eric Holder, may only differ from Obama’s in their political tilt.)
Of course, one of the worst things that the Trump Administration did to a journalist, obtaining years of Ali Watkins’ email records, happened under Jeff Sessions, not Barr.
The first and second claims together set up a clear contrast. Obama-era officials — and by context, this means the entirety of the Obama Administration — did not prosecute Assange for publication because of what became known — based off a description that DOJ’s spox Matthew Miller gave publicly in 2013 — as the NYT problem, the risk that prosecuting WikiLeaks would endanger NYT. But the Trump Administration was willing to charge Assange for publication because they didn’t think the risk that such charges posed to the NYT were all that grave or damaging or important.
There’s no way to understand these two points except as a contrast of Administrations, to suggest that Obama’s Administration — which was epically shitty on leak investigations — wouldn’t do what the Trump Administration did do. It further involves treating the Department of Justice as an organization entirely subject to the whims of a President and an Attorney General, rather than as the enormous bureaucracy full of career professionals who guard their independence jealously, who even did so, with varying degrees of success, in the face of Barr’s unprecedented politicization of the department.
It’s certainly possible that’s true. It’s possible that Evan Perez and three other CNN journalists who reported in 2017 that what actually changed pertained to Snowden simply made that report up out of thin air. It’s certainly possible that under a President who attempted to shut down the Russian hacking investigation to protect Assange even after his CIA Director declared war on Assange, who almost blew up the investigation into Joshua Schulte, who entertained pardoning Assange in 2016, in 2017, in 2018, and in 2020, at the same time viewed the Assange prosecution as a unique opportunity to set up future prosecutions of journalists. It’s certainly possible that Billy Barr, who sabotaged the Mike Flynn and Roger Stone prosecutions to serve Trump’s interests, went rogue on the Assange case.
But given the abundant evidence that this prosecution happened in spite of Trump’s feelings about WikiLeaks rather than because of them, you would need to do actual reporting to make that claim.
And, as noted, I asked Charlie whether he had done the reporting to sustain that claim before I wrote the post…
… just as I — months earlier — asked Charlie why he was falsely claiming Assange was charged in 2018 rather than within a day of a Russian exfiltration attempt in 2017, something that probably has far more to do with why DOJ charged Assange when and how they did than who was Attorney General at the time.
After his bullshit attempt to explain that date error away, Charlie removed the date, though without notice of correction, must less credit to me for having to fact check the NYT.
Anyway, Charlie apparently didn’t read the post when I first wrote it, but instead only read it yesterday when I excused Icelandic journalists for making the same error — attributing the decision to prosecute Assange to Billy Barr’s animus rather than newly discovered evidence — that Charlie had earlier made. And Charlie went off on a typically thin-skinned tirade. He accused me (the person who keeps having to correct his errors) of being confused. He claimed that the thrust of my piece — that he was misrepresenting the facts about Assange — was “false.” He claimed the charges against and extradition of Assange was a precedent not already set by Minh Quang Pham’s extradition and prosecution. He accused me of not grasping that this was a First Amendment argument and not the journalism argument he had shoehorned it into. He suggested my insistence on accurate reporting about the CFAA overt acts against Assange (including the significance of Edward Snowden to them) was a “hobbyhorse,” and that I only insisted on accurate reporting on the topic in an effort to, “us[e] something [Charlie] said as a peg to artificially sex it up (dumb NYT!) even though it doesn’t actually fit.” He then made a comment that still treats the prosecution of Assange as binary — the original indictment on a single CFAA charge or the first superseding indictment that added the dangerous Espionage Act charges — rather than tertiary, the second superseding indictment that, at least per Vanessa Baraitser, clearly distinguished what Assange did from what journalists do.
That’s when things went absolutely haywire. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Charlie Savage said that his repeated claim that the charges against Assange arose from a change in Administration rather than a changed understanding of Assange did not rely on what Miller said, because he had “been writing since 2010 about deliberations inside DOJ re wanting to charge Assange/WL,” linking to this story.
That is, Charlie presented as a defense to my complaint that he was misrepresenting what happened in 2016 and 2017 by pointing to reporting he did in 2010, which — I pointed out — is actually before 2013 and so useless in offering a better reason to cling to that 2013 detail rather than rely on more recent reporting. Because DOJ did not have the same understanding of WikiLeaks in 2010 as they got after Julian Assange played a key role in a Russian intelligence operation against the United States, obtained files from a CIA SysAdmin after explicitly calling on CIA SysAdmins to steal such things (in a speech invoking Snowden), attempted to extort the US with those CIA files, and then implicitly threatened the President’s son with them, Charlie Savage says, it’s okay to misrepresent what happened in 2016 and 2017. Charlie’s reporting in 2010 excuses his refusal to do reporting in 2021.
Given his snotty condescension, it seems clear that Charlie hasn’t considered that, better than most journalists in the United States, I understand the grave risks of what DOJ did with Assange. I’ve thought about it in a visceral way that a recipient of official leaks backed by an entire legal department probably can’t even fathom. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying to understand — and write accurately about — what DOJ claims to be doing with Assange. Indeed, as someone whose career has intersected with WikiLeaks far more closely than Charlie’s has and as someone who knows what people very close to Assange claim to believe, I feel I have an obligation to try to unpack what really happened and what the real legal implications of it are, not least because that’s the only way to assess where DOJ is telling the truth and whether they’re simply making shit up to take out Assange. DOJ is acting ruthlessly. But at the same time, at least one person very close to Assange told me explicitly she wanted me to misrepresent the truth in his defense, and WikiLeaks has been telling outrageous lies in Assange’s defense with little pushback by people like Charlie because, I guess, he thinks he’s defending journalism.
As I understand it, the entire point of journalism is to try to write the truth, rather than obfuscate it in an attempt to protect an institution called journalism. It does no good to the institution — either its integrity or the ability to demonstrate the risks of the Assange prosecution — to blame it all on Billy Barr rather than explore how and why DOJ’s institutional approach to Assange has changed over time.
>>As I understand it, the entire point of journalism is to try to write the truth, rather than obfuscate it in an attempt to protect an institution called journalism. It does no good to the institution — either its integrity or the ability to demonstrate the risks of the Assange prosecution — to blame it all on Billy Barr rather than explore how and why DOJ’s institutional approach to Assange has changed over time<<
New technology always changes the explicit meaning of previous prevailing concepts. For one ordinary example (from among millions), "to call" meant something entirely different before the invention and ubiquity of the telephone. Now it almost exclusively means using the telephone. Once a verb, "call" has also become a noun.
Most of us, (me too) want meanings to remain static. But language is not static.
When I say I "dialed" a number, I don't mean I used a rotary phone; I mean I intended to contact a person or entity with a "smart" device. People use (or misuse, abuse) these metastasizing linguistic changes to promote an ideology.
For instance, technology can alter perceptions of people and events. Recall a "drunk' Nancy Pelosi created by slowing a clip of her speaking; watch any political operative "frame" a television clip by carefully selecting the people in the background of a televised speech.
I'm a boomer. When we boomers were children, we assumed journalism was what newspapers (and TV) did impartially, honestly, and without significant manipulation.
This is no longer the case; one need only listen to FOX, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange/Wikileaks or Donald Trump to realize journalism no longer informs — impartially, honestly, and without significant manipulation. Now journalism shamelessly promotes advocates, distorts, and manipulates.
Unless civilization collapses in a way that moots our latest technology, we now live in a world where old truths expand, contract. change, or just vanist so as to create new realities. (cf: Susskind/Rove "reality based community").
I don't approve, but so what? Mr. Trump, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Putin don't need my approval. Worse, they likely want my disapproval.
So what is journalism now? I don't know. But actual journalism lives in a hospice these days — visited only by relatives and old friends who might attend the funeral.
Surely they'll send flowers. Right?
“So what is journalism now? I don’t know. But actual journalism lives in a hospice these days — …”
Whoa, scroll back up.
The last place I’d be rehearsing an epitaph of journalism is immediately following one of the fiercest examples (which itself invokes a whole body of moments, some excruciating, all vibrantly alive).
I think you need to untangle “journalism” from “media”. [Or, in a lol-pivot from EW’s links to Savage, “journalism-like activities” / activities evoking the appearance of journalism.]
I entirely agree with you about EW.
However the money and the power doesn’t care about truth anymore (if it ever mattered at all). Technology has rendered truth fungible, negotiable, variable and absurd. Did you not live through the last 5 years?
As we lurch from tragedy to imminent catastrophe; from climate disaster to mass gun murders, from coup to a legal system modeled on the Inquisition, the money and power of this country cannot even manage to restrain the most corrupt political faction since … well, since ever.
Imagine, for instance, Jeff Bezos backing a candidate promising to tax Amazon or Bloomberg funding pro-Palestinian journalism. Will Murdoch’s kids have a change of heart and turn FOX into what Turner’s CNN used to be? Will Putin decide he doesn’t really want to restore the Russian empire? Is Xi Jinping going to declare China a democracy? Will Republicans convene a truth caucus — a serious one I mean?
If you have a more optimistic vision, please share it. Truly, I could use it.
[Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use the same username each time you comment so that community members get to know you. This is your second user name; you’ve posted here more frequently as “milton wiltmellow.” Pick a name and stick with it. Thanks. /~Rayne]
This is the second time I’ve seen your request. The first time you referred to a second request which caused me to return to this thread.
I apologize for any confusion I’ve caused you or others.
I will try to remember to use “milton wiltmellow” rather than just “wiltmellow” in the future.
Keep up the good fight, EW. The trouble with lazy / hack journos like Charlie Savage (and Maggie Haberman, MoDo, Richard Cohen and Judy, etc.) is that their egos get in the way of truth (plus they might lose “access” to sources that will lie to them anyhow). Journalism as an institution can handle the truth. Otherwise we’ll get a world full of Chuck Todds (at best) or Tucker Carlsons (worse) and the news will be like Pravda in the Soviet Union. No one there believed it either.
I think the access piece is the critical one — the formal demands of journalism have become so weirdly focused on specific sources that reporters and editors simply cannot imagine stories without the input of a certain set of people.
As the recent movie Little Women pointed out, a 19th Century romance novel had to end with a wedding. DC reporting has to reflect the input of certain sources and the requisite citing to back it up.
Take away the wedding or the phone calls to the obligatory sources and the editor simply cannot conceive of publishing, and the longest lasting writers internalize these rules to the point where it is simply an article of faith.
Charlie seems bent on defending Charlie and New York Times Journalism, different altogether than journalism. But nice to know you have enough stature that he feels compelled to do it. But he will need more than an appeal to authority – “I’m the NYT and you’re not,” and “I’ve been doing this longer than you have, sweety.” It might be more effective were he to use counter journalism rather than propaganda.
And any claim of “I’ve been doing this longer than you have, sweety” would be yet another mistaken claim by Savage. Per their respective wikis, while Savage was an intern working on the local town paper, Marcy was diving deep in the weeds of the feuilleton, “a literary-journalistic essay” often self-published because it would offend the PTB should it come from a more traditional source.
A Pulitzer from 2007 is not a permanent get out of journalism free card.
The stir caused by the Pulitzer Committee rejecting for the second year running all nominees for the editorial cartoons award is nice, well, illustration of what the Pulitzer Prize is.
It’s a country club system where awards are either for members of the club, or an admission ticket to the club. Former winner Brett Stephens (there’s a sign of how degraded the prize is) has openly bragged about the blackballing he and others do, in classic club fashion. Judith Miller played by club rule to win a Pulitzer, then rode that status to its extreme logical end with her WMD advocacy on behalf of ultimate club member Dick Cheney — and it was cartoons lampooning Cheney back during the WMD debacle which led the Washington Post to drop editorial cartoonist Ken Fisher, who was one of the blackballed finalists this year.
The Pulitzer self dealing and log rolling is about as embarrassing as the White House press corps’ annual dinners, and need a complete rethinking.
The Pulitzer is the same as the Oscars or the Emmys etc. etc. etc., just professional masturbation. Our celebrity besotted culture worships at the Altar of the Kardashians. It was ever thus, probably.
Having helped a candidate apply for a Pulitzer along with other journalistic awards I have to say you don’t know what you’re talking about and neither does BobCon.
earlofhuntingdon at 1:20 p.m. has it right; there’s far too much really excellent reporting every year deserving recognition for any journalist to ever think they’re entitled by past success.
Peggy Noonan, Bret Stephens, Thomas Friedman (three times!), Michael Ramirez (twice!), Judith Miller, NY Times staff for coverage of Russian interference in 2016 (?!!?!)….
I think this captures Charlie Savage’s snotty dismissive “I HAZ PULITZER” attitude exactly right.
“only Pulitzer winners expect the world to bow to the prize’s prestige and think owning one indemnifies them against criticism. Others believe that it should be rolled into their name like a knighthood or a doctorate.”
Bret Stephens has in fact threatened to blackball people he thinks have crossed him, and he’s gone to great lengths to do so, and barely missed being a juror. Do they reward good work? Sure. But their heart is still as crooked as Joseph Pulitzer’s heart once was.
Really? That’s it? Thanks for proving you really know dick-all about the Pulitzer Prizes when you can point to those handful and ignore the overwhelming body of work recognized like this smattering from the last handful of years:
I’m sure much of this reporting means absolutely nothing to you in spite of the fact that some of it affected what has been written here at this site, and in spite of the fact that some of these folks set standards for the rest of journalists — like David Fahrentold’s transparent reporting shared on Twitter.
What you fail to understand is that Pulitzers are award for reporting not just based on caliber of work or impact, BUT WHETHER IT WAS SUBMITTED FOR CONSIDERATION. Every one of these had a detailed submission which needed to be filled out and a fee paid. There’s reporting out there which may have been worthy but the outlet couldn’t afford the time and money needed to prepare a submission. When some people win it may be for a lack of other solid or better candidates for consideration and the level of the work which had been submitted still deserves recognition if it had social impact.
And when you whine about the lack of a prize awarded in your pet category, ask yourself if it’s at all possible if enough submissions were filed.
A fundamental problem with a lot of journalists — reporters and editors — is the degree to which they outsource analysis to sources, and then allow that imported framework to guide the fact gathering process.
There is rarely any independent understanding of issues, and the degree to which the feedback loop creates and then covers for the same errors over and over becomes increasingly obvious to outsiders but harder and harder for insiders to envision.
It’s the same mindset of prosecutors who fight to uphold convictions even in the face of overwhelming evidence from DNA tests. Once they have committed to a narrative supplied by an informant, they become incapable of weighing any other view of the case. As a result, contradictory evidence becomes further proof (in their minds) that the original narrative was right all along.
A piece of the problem is that a lot of the day to day work of journalism isn’t highly analytical, and the filtering process for advancement to top reporter or editor doesn’t put nearly enough weight on analytical ability.
The shortcut of borrowing a source’s framework often works fine on small scale reporting like covering funding for a new bridge. But when the shortcut scales up to talking about infrastructure policy in America, or 1A issues in the NY Times, the shocking lack of analytical ability is exposed like rusty rebar.
I suspect Charlie recoils from covering the unfolding evidence thoroughly and accurately, because he cannot bear the possibility that he may have been mistaken about Assange’s intent with Wikileaks way back when.
A crucial character trait that journalists (like scientists) must have is to be able to change their views in light of new evidence. I have respected Savage’s work in the past. I hope he comes to terms with the complexity of the Assange case and gets on the right side of the facts. I would hate to see him go the way of Greenwald or Taibbi (albeit over a different, or at least narrower, set of facts).
Charlie seems to think that a superceding indictment is not important enough to get in the way of a good storyline. And, yet, once issued, it becomes the governing indictment. Charlier seems to be putting his cart in front of his hobbyhorse.
Savage’s use of “journalistic-style acts” tells us that he sees the problem, but can’t acknowledge it because that would require a climb-down from his long-held position. It also would cause the First Amendment narrative to evaporate. Maybe the question to him should be: what, exactly, is the difference between “journalism” and a “journalistic-style act”.
maybe the difference aligns with “truth” and “truthiness.”
Journalism is one of the few professions that do not require a ‘license’ to operate.
So protection is based entirely on the act of expressing evidence and opinions PUBLICLY.
Privately trading information (whether true or false), especially for ‘favors’ is not expression.
So using the title Journalist to protect info trading is like using a bodega as a front for a drug-selling operation, and saying you’re a small-business owner . . .
Would I be correct in extending your analogy thusly: Labeling yourself a New York Times journalist and trading info within that purview lets you say you’re the owner of a pharmaceutical company?
After nodding towards Vanity Fair’s new Gavin McInness’ puff piece, it strikes me as being the process for how a punk rock vegan goes from getting the symbol for female tattooed on his back to creating an alt-right army of insurrectionists is essentially the same how a prize winning journalist transforms into this Savage.
In their 20’s, they came to slay the dragon; in their 50’s-60’s, they’re going out as the dragon.
Reporting in the land of sloppy,
hacks produce their photocopy,
Some are lazy, others stroppy,
busking news from a media jalopy.
No wall flower or social shrinker
gains access to the nod or winker,
where red pretends it’s much pinker,
with its hook, line, and sinker.
Like worm charming in Sopchoppy,
grunts are dancing in this sock hoppy,
Up and up, then flip floppy,
as if doped up from some poppy.
They won’t confess they wear a blinker,
and succumb to their inner stinker,
But in the end, here’s the clinker:
Marcy points out the sloppy thinker.
OT a little, just some questions….
Now that Assange’s past actions are coming under scrutiny and as it gets discussed around our household; the untimely death of one Gena Mason comes up as my girlfriend went to high school with her. I certainly was not aware of Gena Mason or her role at wiki-leaks, but she was a bright star and one that Mr. Assange may have let in and then?????
Prolific writer for Assange as well as traveling companion that stopped writing on Dec 28, 2012, stopped tweeting in February 2013 and then dead of “breast cancer*” in England on June 28, 2013. *Rumored breast cancer but she was apparently in a mental institution in England prior to her death. Maybe nothing but still weird.
Here is a listing of her work for the organization.
I’d call this OT* but am not entirely sure it is, broadly speaking: at the stroke of eight (20:00h), the NSA issued Tucker Carlson a non-target tweet (now _that’s_ what we call some “media” activity) in response to his statements yesterday.
*Admittedly Takep’s (as he’s known on Russian state tv) or his employer’s oeuvre could rule-in completely unrelated (to Assange, Snowden, etc.) foreign-target correspondents. Or, as others have outlined the options, he could have been hacked instead. Etc.
“You’re a millionaire funded by billionaires, and that’s why you’re not talking about these issues.” –Dutch Historian Rutger Bregman to Cucker Tarlson