Dear Jeff Gerth: Peter Strzok Is Not a Media Critic

I really hope that after this and one more post on CJR’s series performing “Russiagate,” I’ll be done for good. CJR is not going to correct, much less retract, a piece that makes clear errors and relies on an undisclosed Russian intelligence product. So all that’s left is to describe what CJR might have done — as editor Kyle Pope has said was his goal — to say something new about the journalism on the Russian investigation, which I’ll do in a follow-up.

But Jeff Gerth said something in last week’s Zoom conference that revealed a(nother) serious cognitive problem with his project. [Since CJR did not record the event, Dan Froomkin downloaded the closed captions to provide an approximation, which I’ve posted here.] When invited to address any question that the moderator, Berkeley School of Journalism Dean, Geeta Anand, had not asked, Gerth addressed why he (claimed to) focus so closely on the NYT.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:21
Well, I wanted to address a question that I’ve been asked quite a bit that didn’t come up here, which is why I focused so much on the New York Times.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:34
And so my answer to that question is threefold.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:39
One. It’s the most influential. No widely read news outlet.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:46
Certainly in America, perhaps in the World number 2. It’s the only news organization whose coverage of the Trump Russia matter was repeatedly criticized by the FBI in internal documents that later became public.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:11
And obviously, if other news organizations have been criticized by the FBI in documents, I would have reported on that as well.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:20
But the New York Times stood out. That regard. So that’s a second reason.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:26
And the third reason is, that the times provided a valuable window into their editorial and repertory decision making by allowing a filmmaker into the newsroom for a year and a half, and then you know the fruits of it became a 4 part series that aired in 2

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:50
1,018, and so that offered invaluable.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:57
Raw material for any journalist. Looking at at this story, and a lot of the documentarians work feature.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:05:09
The stories that I was interested in, as well as the stories that the FBI was internally being quite critical of, as well.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:05:19
So those those are the the main reasons why there’s so much in the piece about the New York Times. [my emphasis]

Now, as I have shown, Gerth actually didn’t focus on the NYT. His main villains — those who chased the Steele dossier — published elsewhere. And he ignored almost all of NYT’s Pulitzer winning coverage of Russia. He ignored a September 2016 story revealing how often Julian Assange’s Wikileaks releases served Russia’s political interests. He ignored a December 2016 epic that described the Russian hack-and-leak from the DNC perspective, one that completely debunks Gerth’s claims that the hack-and-leak had limited impact on Hillary’s campaign. He ignored other 2016 Pulitzer-winning stories — on Russia hunting down its enemies in other countriesRussia’s use of disinformationthe elite hackers Russia was recruiting, and Russia’s cultivation of the far right — that show the framework with which NYT’s editors came to their 2017 coverage. He ignored a 2017 report on the Russian contacts that Jared Kushner omitted from his application for clearance. He ignored a 2017 report that Trump knew Mike Flynn had been an unregistered agent for Turkey before Trump appointed him to be National Security Adviser. He may or may not have ignored a 2017 story on how Trump bragged to Sergey Lavrov that he fired Jim Comey to end the Russian investigation, but if he mentioned it, he ignored the Comey part, which undermined Gerth’s own wildly generous interpretation of Trump’s related comments to Lester Holt. Gerth included two (one, two) of three stories on the June 9 meeting, but not the one revealing that Trump had drafted Don Jr’s false statement about the meeting. That’s particularly problematic given that Gerth’s treatment of an interview NYT did with Trump (the only story linked in this paragraph that wasn’t part of NYT’s two Pulitzer winning packages) focused on the dossier and not the discussion Trump had with Putin about the topic he used for his cover story about the June 9 meeting.

This would have been a very different series had Gerth really focused on the NYT, as he claims to think he did.

But something Gerth said really surprised me. A key to his purported reason to (claim to) focus on the NYT is that, he describes, the FBI “criticized” NYT’s coverage. NYT was, “the only news organization whose coverage of the Trump Russia matter was repeatedly criticized by the FBI in internal documents that later became public,” Gerth said. The documentary The Fourth Estate focused on, “the stories that the FBI was internally being quite critical of,” Gerth claimed.

He even asserted that the NYT was the only outlet on whose coverage the FBI was closely focused. “If other news organizations have been criticized by the FBI in documents, I would have reported on that as well.” That claim would be quite a shock to Andy McCabe, whose focus on the WSJ coverage of the Clinton Foundation showed up in two DOJ IG Reports and provided the bogus excuse for his firing. And if Gerth had covered the Mike Flynn case with any level of attention, he would also know that the FBI launched an investigation into some of Sara Carter’s inaccurate reporting, which had been fed to her by Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Barbara Ledeen. Bizarrely, in his coverage of the dossier, Gerth made no mention of the sustained FBI discussions of the September 2016 Michael Isikoff story based on Christopher Steele’s reporting, even though they appear in the DOJ IG Report on the Carter Page FISAs; he discussed the Isikoff story at length, but not the FBI effort to confirm whether Steele or Glenn Simpson was Isikoff’s source.

Gerth doesn’t even account for all the discussions of news coverage in Peter Strzok’s texts, though one such text appears to be one of the two instances of “criticism” of the NYT he speaks of.

My own coverage of Strzok’s sustained attention to such stories — as well as Mueller’s attempts to track how investigative subjects worked the press, including Konstantin Kilimnik — is what made Gerth’s claims so confusing to me.

It led me to suspect Gerth totally misunderstood the purpose of Strzok’s annotation, and thereby saw it as something different than the attempts to stave off clear errors in Devlin Barrett or Sara Carter’s reporting, the woefully belated effort to attribute the Yahoo reporting, to say nothing of efforts to learn how Roger Stone and Kilimnik were planting false stories as part of their attempts to cover their tracks.

The FBI has no business in doing press criticism (though it does attempt to correct dangerously incorrect reporting). It does, however, have reason to track classified or investigative leaks and public claims made by subjects of their investigation. Which is what the reams full of records on Strzok’s work show him doing.

In my own coverage of the Strzok annotation on which Gerth hangs most of his claim of FBI criticism of the NYT, I surmised that it arose out of his focus on leaks. Some of it clearly seems to reflect concern that the NSA might be not be turning over everything it had found. And Strzok’s observation that the NYT falsely believed an investigation into Stone had already been opened may have come in handy nine months later, when they learned from Ann Donaldson that Richard Burr had provided Don McGahn that same false information just weeks later. Indeed, the identification of a common false belief shared by the NYT and SSCI’s Chair might explain why DOJ refused to share the most sensitive details of the Russian investigation with the committee.

I asked Strzok why he had done the annotation. He explained: “Critique played no role — nobody’s got time for that. My purpose was to figure out who’s talking and whether they had info they weren’t sharing with us and/or whether they were leaking to shape the public political narrative.”

In other words, it was perfectly consistent with all the other known efforts by the FBI to track public reports on ongoing investigations. It was an effort to understand what partners and subjects of the investigation were sharing with reliable journalists. And while the annotation shows two clearly incorrect beliefs on the part of the NYT — that an investigation into Stone had already been opened and that the FBI specifically already had call record returns on Trump’s associates — many of the other observations could have multiple explanations, including that the NYT learned of ties, later confirmed, between Trump’s people and Russian spooks before the FBI did. If that’s the explanation, NYT should be lauded, not criticized.

Those stories in which NYT was so far ahead of the FBI are absolutely ripe for review. I don’t fault Gerth’s focus on them; I fault his silence and at times misrepresentation about the rest of NYT’s coverage. But if you’re going to look at those four stories (one, two. threefour) alleging many ties between Trump and Russia — if you’re going to imagine you’re anchoring an entire 23,000 word piece on the NYT based on the FBI attention to several of those stories — you need, first, to understand what you’re looking at.

Gerth imagined he was looking at the FBI doing media criticism. In a sense, he may have been right. What distinguishes Strzok’s apparent effort to understand an outlier NYT story from Gerth’s attempt to understand the Russia coverage is that Strzok had a better handle on the known facts and he tried to understand why reports deviated from those known facts.

Gerth, over and over, simply imposed his own conclusions onto the things that he saw.


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

22 replies
  1. David F. Snyder says:

    Jumping to conclusions. “It’s our evolution bug” (h/t World Party).

    This post makes a good case study of the difference between professional investigation and sloppy sleuthing (aka, hackistry).

    • John Paul Jones says:

      It’s kind of a reflection phenomenon. Gerth looks at Strzok’s work and assumes he is doing the same thing he himself is doing: media critique. Once he’s in that mindset, he (thinks he) sees that Strzok is nowhere near as good at it as he is. In other words, he sees versions of himself and his own activity everywhere he looks, except — he’s way better at it than they are. You could call it confirmation bias, but that seems too weak a term for what he’s actually doing.

      Personally I think Gerth began with a wrongly framed question, to wit: did Trump have any legitimate reason to dislike the press coverage he got? A lot in his articles seems to go back to that as being his ground zero question.

  2. ccinmfd says:

    Echoing D. Synder’s comment and only adding that how sad it is when “sloppy sleuthing” and “Columbia Journalism Review” are linked. Thank you, Marcy.

  3. Spank Flaps says:

    The Trumps, Guiliani and Stone have to keep denying RussiaGate, because anyone who rats on Putin tends to fall out of a window, or get Novichok’d.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Oh, the poor sods intent on creating variations on Empty…., in order to denigrate a reporter whose facts they cannot contradict. EW must sometimes feel like a dentist, poking at rotten teeth, who frequently has to ask, “Does that hurt?” And just as frequently hears yelps blaming the dentist for why their mouths are so full of holes.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      Ouch, that really touched a nerve. But most of those with the really rotten head/mouth won’t want to sit in Dr. Wheeler’s chair….

      • LeeNLP941 says:

        It would do them good to sit in Dr. Wheeler’s chair, though. Better a little pain this side of hell than that side.

  5. BobBobCon says:

    “Gerth, over and over, simply imposed his own conclusions onto the things that he saw.”

    I think that’s because Gerth wasn’t reporting, he was hired to perform the role of a reporter.

    He was handed a package and his job was to go through the motions of interviews and citing documents necessary to check off the boxes of journalism and use his name and credentials to lend an air of authority.

    You see this all the time in entertainment journalism. A publicist will pitch a story to an editor about a star’s rehab, offering access to the star and a curated batch of sources, photos, etc. The journalist who is assigned may even go through the motions of reporting, but since everyone is primed to offer the same story of fall and redemption, the prepackaged documents and photos fit the predetermined narrative, and the journalist knows his editor has already signed off on the story, why dig any more than needed to formally fill the role?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Apparently, CJR was hired for the same purpose, along with Gerth. I wonder what Katrina vanden Heuvel thinks of all this.

      • BobBobCon says:

        It’s flat out nuts that CJR would hire a guy whose reporting on Wen Ho Lee was so messed up that the judge ended apologizing to Lee and Gerth’s bosses had to pay Lee. His Whitewater reporting was also a disaster.

        He’s not a real reporter, and his history is used in case studies in journalism schools as cautionary tales. So how did Pope end up with him? The story is weirdly elusive. There’s a great argument for digging into the problems with 2016 election coverage, but this is so far from a competent job that it risks tarnishing the credibilty of CJR itself. Who is behind this?

  6. RipNoLonger says:

    “I asked Strzok why he had done the annotation. He explained: “Critique played no role — nobody’s got time for that. My purpose was to figure out who’s talking and whether they had info they weren’t sharing with us and/or whether they were leaking to shape the public political narrative.”

    This is perfect. This is how most real work is done. Others want to parse the texts and the facts in ways that suit their purposes – and report these parses in bites to feed the “audience.”

    Recently we have been rewarded a few times with how Murdoch and his minions view their “audience”. With disdain. Same, I’m sure for tfg (what’shisname?) and same for all of the billionaire class that are stealing pennies-per-dollar from transactions, stealing all personal information (PII, PHI). Getting carried away – the jacket beckons.

  7. timbozone says:

    Thanks for being critically incisive, an incisiveness that encourages us all to be better in our reading and do better all around.

    I sincerely hope that Columbia Journalism Review won’t be upping it’s mediocrity game beyond this. The reporting here, the discussion about it will hopefully lead to clearer heads all around. Personal bias that negatively effects journalistic endeavors (and many others) is something to be acutely aware of. It’s too bad that Gerth’s efforts have become such a case study. The rubberstamping by ‘big names’ over at CJR appear to be masquerading as wise editorial decisiveness. The problem is that being decisive is not the same as being incisive.

    Do I regret my “strong” comment the other day? I’m still mulling it over. Perhaps the patterns of mediocrity aren’t as extreme as I imagine. On the other hand, it’s clear that where Russia and its boosters within the US are concerned, it is maybe better to be overly imaginative rather than being caught off guard further. What I will say is that your critique of today definitely should warn us all to try for clear thinking…which begins internally.

  8. Troutwaxer says:

    Is anyone giving Razzie-style awards from poor journalism? If not, maybe the Emptywheel org should take up this role!

  9. Daniel Dosen says:

    I know you’re ramping down coverage of this CJR article – but here’s something I wish you’d take a look at. Even CJR’s own content contradicts the Gerth article:

    “Nonetheless, the act of bringing together our daily doses of media criticism paints a clear picture of an industry whose basic practices and rhythms have conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines. ”

    By Jon Allsop and Pete Vernon

    How does the CJR editor reconcile this with the Gerth article?

    • bmaz says:

      You do not know much, this site is not “ramping down” anything. Also not ramping up bullshit. CJR has still been garbage on this subject.

  10. Kick the Darkness says:

    I was reading the closed caption commentary for the “review panel” or whatever you’d call if with Gerth, Pope and the two deans. I guess I find it all interesting as a professional culture issue. Two things I thought I’d ask about.

    First, Cobb say Pope gave him a draft of the Gerth piece for what might be called an informal review. Is there really no firewall between the publication and the journalism school? That seems problematic. Or at least in what I’m familiar with there’s a harder line between the editor and the academic side when publications are run this way. Kind of for this very reason. During the panel Cobb is clearly trying to finesse things as best he can. You can imagine him squirming thinking “I’ve got Katrina’s friends on boards that float the Scholarship Fund but all these emails coming in telling me we screwed this up”.

    The second thing is Pope says the genesis of the piece was basically because he and Gerth knew each other from way back and since journalism is such a small world they’d been keeping in touch and kicking the ideas around. When you are in a profession it does get smaller, you get to know people, personalities and relationships matter, etc. But this sounds possibly like a pampered blue blood sub-culture to journalism-a bubble basically. Would that be accurate? If so, that in and of itself could be a media critique for Gerth to focus on.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      “…pampered blue blood subculture”? Slightly harsh but (based on personal knowledge of individuals involved) not off the mark completely. One problem with liberals who grew up rich is that our life-and-death, eat-or-not issues are abstractions for them. Arguing points. They want to help, but they conceptualize these things as dehumanized nouns like “poverty” and “election fraud” instead of supplying and explicating examples, the core of good journalism like EW.

      • Kick the Darkness says:

        Circling back around. My apologies if there was some offense. I was trying to capture a situation where professional achievement derives from pedigree. Not to impugn anybodies politics is that’s how it came across. Like my kid and I were watching a MLS soccer match recently. One team had the son of a previous US men’s national team coach. The other team had the son of the current US men’s national team coach. And my kid goes “what are the odds”.

        I looked up and Gerth came out of Northwestern. Did marketing before journalism. Pope out of UT Austin. So, whatever, the genesis of Gerth’s piece, what I meant by a “blue blooded” professional circle isn’t it. But I still think how such a hot mess came out of what purports to be the pinnacle of the profession is the real story.

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