“Hacking” then and now

In 2004, Emmy Award-winning CBS News producer Mary Mapes set out to report a story that would hobble George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection and lend a helping hand to Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. She had been working on the story on and off for years, longer than Ahab had been in search of Moby Dick. When a mentally deranged “source” finally produced a set of fabricated documents that had mysteriously appeared to support the story over which she had been salivating, Mapes wrote it up for Dan Rather and the midweek edition of 60 Minutes. They titled the story “For the Record,” as though it constituted little more than a disinterested historical footnote, and rushed it to air on September 8, 2004. Thus Rathergate.

Rathergate represents a true instance of fake news. It is one of the greatest journalistic frauds of all time. To borrow the term that has come into vogue in connection with the past election, in Rathergate CBS News sought to “hack” the 2004 presidential election based on fabricated documents.

The presidential election of this past November was supposedly “hacked” by the Russians. It was part of a story line that led to the sacking of General Flynn as National Security advisor. The story seems to have moved under the surface for the time being.

In connection with his larger argument about the moribund state of American journalism — do read the whole thing — Lee Smith asks: “Who’s going to break the story proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the president of the United States is so deeply connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the White House has become a Muscovite colony in all but name?” Smith answers his own question: “Time to use some common sense—it’s not going to happen, there is no story.”

At The Nation, Russia expert Stephen Cohen provides a useful if argumentative summary of the story:

The crux of the allegations against Trump was, and remains, that Putin ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the dissemination of stolen e-mails through WikiLeaks in order to undermine the Clinton campaign and put Trump in the White House. A summary of these “facts” was presented in a declassified report released by the “intelligence community” and widely discussed in January. Though it quickly became axiomatic proof for Trump’s political and media enemies, almost nothing in the report is persuasive. About half are “assessments” based on surmised motivations, not factual evidence of an actual Kremlin operation on Trump’s behalf. The other half is standard whining about the Kremlin-funded television network RT, which is at worst an above-average “propaganda” outlet. Moreover, a number of American cyber-experts insist that Russian state hackers would have left no fingerprints, as US intelligence officials claim they had. Indeed, the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity believes that the DNC documents were not hacked but rather leaked by an insider. If so, this had nothing to do with Russia. (The CIA and the FBI were “highly confident” about the report’s findings, but the National Security Agency, which alone has the capacity to fully monitor e-mails, was only “moderately confident.”) Still more, at his final presidential press conference, Barack Obama referred to the DNC scandal as a leak and said he didn’t know WikiLeaks’ exact role in the scandal—this despite the allegations by his own intelligence agencies. Nor is it clear that Putin so favored the erratic Trump that he would have taken such a risk. Judging from debates in Kremlin-connected Russian newspapers, there was serious doubt as to which US candidate might be best—or least bad—for Russia.

Cohen has been deemed a Putin apologist, so take what he says with a grain of salt. As has frequently been noted, however, the alleged “hacking” of the 2016 election occurred by the release of mildly interesting but inarguably authentic emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. If it’s not real journalism, it’s not the fake news perpetrated by CBS in 2004.


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