Columbia Journalism Review–and Now Columbia School of Journalism–Have a Russian Intelligence Problem

On Tuesday, Columbia Journalism Review quietly staged the Zoom conference intended to address the many problems with Jeff Gerth’s series on “Russiagate” [sic], which I wrote about in a long series. After they rescheduled the original date because of an illness, they did not alert those who had previously signed up, meaning a number of people missed it. Nor did they record the event. It had the feel of a formality designed to claim they had listened, without actually doing so.

Nothing demonstrates the inadequacy of the event so well as the fact that no one — not moderator and Berkeley School of Journalism Dean Geeta Anand, not Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb, and not CJR Editor Kyle Pope — addressed the fact that Jeff Gerth had cited an unreliable Russian intelligence product as part of his attack on Hillary Clinton without informing readers he had done so.

I described that he had done so in this post, but I’m going to try to simplify this still further in hopes Columbia will understand how inexcusable this is — how badly this violates every tenet of ethical journalism.

As part of his description of Hillary’s response to being victimized in a hack-and-leak campaign, Gerth described that Clinton approved a plan to vilify Trump by making Russian interference itself a scandal.

The disclosures, while not helpful to Clinton, energized the promotion of the Russia narrative to the media by her aides and Fusion investigators. On July 24, Robby Mook, Hillary’s campaign manager, told CNN and ABC that Trump himself had “changed the platform” to become “more pro-Russian” and that the hack and dump “was done by the Russians for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” according to unnamed “experts.”

Still, the campaign’s effort “did not succeed,” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri would write in the Washington Post the next year. So, on July 26, the campaign allegedly upped the ante. Behind the scenes, Clinton was said to have approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services,” according to notes, declassified in 2020, of a briefing CIA director John Brennan gave President Obama a few days later. [my emphasis]

The claim is a central part of Gerth’s narrative, which adopts many of the theories John Durham floated in his two failed prosecutions, suggesting that the press’ concerns about Trump and Russia stemmed exclusively from efforts — the dossier and the Alfa Bank anomaly — generated by Hillary, and not by Carter Page’s weird behavior in Moscow, Paul Manafort’s ties to oligarchs with ties to Russia, or all the lies Trump’s people told in 2017 about their own ties to Russia.

The claim is a central part of Jeff Gerth’s narrative, and it is based on a Russian intelligence product of uncertain reliability.

These are the notes of Brennan’s briefing to Obama. Here, though not in an earlier part of this section, Gerth quotes directly from the notes (though Gerth cuts the words “alleged approval”).

This is the letter John Ratcliffe wrote to Lindsey Graham about the briefing before he declassified the notes themselves. The letter quotes the notes and unlike Gerth, he does not cut the words, “alleged approval,” so there can be no doubt that that’s what Ratcliffe was addressing. Ratcliffe’s letter explicitly says that the Intelligence Community “does not know the accuracy of the allegation” or whether it was “exaggeration or fabrication.”

  • In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.
  • According to his handwritten notes, former Central Intelligence Agency Director Brennan subsequently briefed President Obama and other senior national security officials on the intelligence, including the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”

It’s bad enough that Gerth takes out the use of “alleged” included in the notes itself and in Ratcliffe’s description of the report.

But it is inexcusable that Gerth does not tell readers this claim comes from a Russian intelligence report, one that even John Ratcliffe warned might not be reliable, might even be a fabrication! Gerth describes that “Clinton was said” to have formulated this plan, without telling readers that Russian spooks were the ones who said it. He simply adopts the accusation made by Russian spies without notice he had done so.

Before writing this up, I asked Kyle Pope about this twice, first in my general list of questions, then in a specific follow-up.

Finally, you did not answer this question.

Do you believe your treatment of the John Brennan briefing should have revealed the briefing was based on a Russian intelligence document? Do you believe you should have noted the John Ratcliffe warning that, “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication”? Is there a reason you’re certain the date was July 26 when it’s not clear whether it says 26 or 28?

Is it your view that CJR owes its readers neither notice that it is relying on a Russian intelligence report for its interpretations about Hillary Clinton’s motives nor reveal that the IC would not vouch for the accuracy of that report?

I got no answer. Since Tuesday’s event, I’ve since asked for comment from Dean Cobb, who provided no response, as well as Dean Anand (whose assistant said she may get back to me later).

Jeff Gerth, and through him, CJR, and through CJR, the Columbia Journalism School apparently believe it is sound journalism, in a piece that demands greater transparency from others commenting on sloppy reporting about Russia’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, to quote from a description of a Russian intelligence report that may have been part of that campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, without disclosing that he was doing so.

There are unretracted clear errors throughout Gerth’s piece that also went unremarked in Tuesday’s event; rather than explaining why those errors remain uncorrected in a piece complaining about the errors of others, Gerth twice claimed his was a, “very factual chronological story” with no pushback. When I asked about them before doing my piece, Pope dismissed those errors as merely a matter of opinion.

But about this undisclosed use of a Russian intelligence product that could be a fabrication, there is no dispute. It’s right there in the warning Ratcliffe gave before he released the notes. “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” But that didn’t stop Gerth from using it. He used it anyway, with no disclosure about who made this allegation or the IC warning about its uncertain reliability.

And Columbia University’s journalism establishment stubbornly stands by that non-disclosure.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

Columbia Journalism Review–and Now Columbia School of Journalism–Have a Russian Intelligence Problem

Dear Jeff Gerth: Peter Strzok Is Not a Media Critic

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

31 replies
  1. Doctor My Eyes says:

    The following comment comes from an extremely low information place, but I’m trying to get my head around how to think about this. It seems the point above, to just focus on one example, has been truly and irrefutably made. So I have to wonder, is this simply corruption? Is one compromised or ideologically blind individual being protected in order to protect the brand? Is this mere politics attempting to protect the image of the GOP in general? Is this just another example of society falling apart and no one can think straight any more? I know no one here can answer these questions with certainty, but I’m wondering what guesses the well-informed make to explain this egregious, even shameful, conduct.

    • BobBobCon says:

      My guess is that someone has been pitching Gerth and a package of “research” to a number of outlets, and CJR and Pope are the ones who bit.

      Carolyn Ryan at the Times bit on the package behind “Clinton Cash” and it was deeply embarassing — she desperately wanted Uranium One to be a scandal, only for it to turn out to be a damp squib.

      I’m sure Pope will insist this was ground up research, but the game was given away by the fact that Gerth got not one but two interviews with Trump to come up with the flimsy claim that Trump became disillusioned with the press because of coverage of the Steele dossier. This was all set up in advance. That’s Gerth’s MO, and everything after was just shaping Gerth’s package to fit the formal definition of journalism, just not the factual or ethical requirements.

  2. Robi_08APR2023_1358h says:

    It appears they are too joined to major media siding with Russia by using their product. I think it’s corporate backed. All that matters is the bottom line and how best to monetize everything. I hope there will be an end to these lapses in judgement and allegiances, and resetting.
    Thank you

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  3. Yogarhythms says:

    Thank you and Rayne and BMAZ and all commenters for sustaining this thriving ecology of thought. “CJR …Columbia School of Journalism” are suffering gravely. Dr Wheeler repeatedly pointed out evidentiary errors published by CJR.
    I’m a licensed healthcare provider and often use evidence based medical protocols. When evidence is discovered to be false notification is published and nationwide healthcare is updated. More commonly a holiday celebrations featuring recipes if discovered to be erroneous are broadly corrected and enjoyed. There are institutional inertial power dynamics at play for CJR and University that have prevented a response to Dr Wheeler’s queries let alone a retraction and correction issued. Good luck journalism students with faculty/administrators handcuffed by their own allegiance be right evidence be damned.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Good to know that CJR’s Kyle Pope sees no distinction between fact and opinion. Or is that his application to become deputy editor of the NYT? The elite really do hate being called to account for the sins of which they accuse others.

  5. DrFunguy says:

    Incompetence or corruption?
    It’s so hard to tell these days. But in either case the bureaucracy hunkers down in full cover your ass mode.
    Thank you Marcy for bringing the receipts!

  6. Peterr says:

    Gerth describes that “Clinton was said” to have formulated this plan, without telling readers that Russian spooks were the ones who said it.

    CSJ ought to know that the passive voice is a sign of poor journalism at best, and deliberate misdirection and deception at worst. Given what Marcy has shown in multiple posts, I’d say it is the latter rather than the former in Gerth’s case.

    Gotta start to wonder what they are teaching at CSJ these days.

  7. Vinnie Gambone says:

    ” A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself.”
    Joseph Pulitzer

    Inscribed on the gateway to the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City.

    The Deans, maybe they enter the back way?

  8. VinnieGambone says:

    “institutional inertial power dynamics..” Wow. Sounds terrible. Enema? Laxative? Something ? Because Gerth is full of it.

  9. Kick the Darkness says:

    I’m not a journalist but one thing I do know is that, like any dean anywhere, the #1 job for the dean at Columbia School of Journalism will be to bring in money. At a hoary institution like Columbia that likely means keeping a set of deep pocket donors happy. Deans come and deans go. Depending on how the money flows, they unfortunately may decide their best option is to say as little as necessary and just leave well enough alone.

    Google says Columbia School of Journalism has 38 full time faculty for what is effectively a small enrollment (albeit very pricey) graduate school. Probably a nice gig.

    • Rugger_9 says:

      It always circles back to the money and the powerful. In almost all cases the moneyed interests (like editors in most cases) are going to be conservative and know that money flows from the plutocrats who like them. So, they engage in moral relativism with minimal disgust since (giving many benefits of the doubt) they figure that if the institution survives it can correct the wrong. Eventually.

      OT but related in the pay-to-play world, it seems Justice Thomas’ explanation already had holes when he put it out. I have to wonder just how bad it is when this is the best he could come up with to justify his being on the take. After all, other actual journalists have identified many (around ten or so) cases backed by Crow that did get to SCOTUS and Thomas voted for his pal every time. So, the claim that there were ‘no cases pending’ doesn’t hold water.

      We have a SCOTUS clique that is profoundly compromised and/or for sale. In addition to Thomas we have Kavanaugh and his vanishing debts as a certain quid pro quo lever. I think Gorsuch and ACB also might owe something to the moneymen. As noted by then-Senator Franken, the ruling that Gorsuch barfed out demanding that a trucker risk his life in a blizzard to meet corporate goals went far beyond ideology, and in his case the family history of corruption would warrant some more interest. His mother spent time in jail for Reagan administration peccadillos. Amy Coney Barrett is harder to figure out now, but she jumped over other GOP women to land in SCOTUS (Janice Rogers comes to mind) and if we need to learn one thing about GOP actions, they are rarely accidental.

      • SonofaWW2Marine says:

        It may not be the best idea to cast aspersions on someone because their parent went to jail. That approaches what the Constitution names, and bans, as “Corruption of Blood.” It’s particularly ill-timed at Easter, when “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” Matthew 27:25, was used for centuries to support all manner of crimes, including the Shoah.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Sorry not sorry. Harlan has bullied those without his unearned advantages via gentler means, if you consider full court press support of right-wing politics gentle. These guys should be compared to neither Christ nor the Jews persecuted in His name. They are oppressors for whom the rest of us are at best tools.

  10. Doctor My Eyes says:

    Just home from a concert with a whimsical modern piece in which aphorisms found in a Georg Lichtenberg scrapbook were set rather whimsically to music for soprano and string bass by Gyorgy Kurtag. The following aphorism made me think of our Columbia friends:

    He was not even ashamed of himself “ex officio”.

    This makes me think of the fresh warnings back when our slide into authoritarianism started becoming more obvious. People who have seen how it happens insisted, “Your institutions will not save you.”

    • David F. Snyder says:

      The institutions are the means whereby authoritarianism takes hold, often as not.

      The fascists will use our institutions against us.
      Examples over the past 2-3 days:

      * The Texas governor says he’ll overturn a juried murder conviction, evidence unseen.

      * The Church of Christofascism Trump appointee targeting women and the FDA.

      * The 0 to 60 expulsion of elected officials trying to get their voice heard

      * The thumbing of noses at the SPJ code of conduct by WaPo, CJR, NYT …

      The three branches and the fourth estate. They’ve been thorough in this buildup.

  11. timbozone says:

    Ugh. So, basically, the CSJ has possibly become an arm of Russian intelligence misinformation. Good to know I guess. Why they won’t clean up their act is hard to fathom. I hope there’s a national security letter or three investigating that place. It’s not good journalism on its face.

    • emptywheel says:

      That’s definitely too strong.

      Jeff Gerth is wildly out of his depth and regurgitating people who ARE a part of RU disinformation efforts. The rest is likely an editing problem.

      • timbozone says:

        More likely incompetence then. Fair enough. But incompetence that Russia may certainly be encouraging.

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