Fake news: Two case studies

I was asked by our local chapter of the Cardozo Society — an affinity group of Jewish lawyers of which I am a member — to speak over lunch as a counterpart to ABA Foundation Fellow and historian Victoria Saker Woeste on the subject of fake news at the society’s October 8 continuing legal education program. Ms. Woeste was the featured speaker. Her theme was that the term “fake news” is anti-Semitic in origin and that President Trump’s use of it, knowingly or not, is wrongful. Her talk expanded on her Washington Post column (accessible via Outline here) making this argument.

Following her presentation I noted that the theme of “fake news” had originally been introduced after the election by Democrats who used it to describe stories representing Russian interference in the election. The term was used as a gibe against Trump, I noted, and he had simply appropriated it and made it his own. I reviewed two case studies in fake news that are familiar to Power Line readers, Rathergate and the smearing of Cleta Mitchell. I passed out materials accompanying my talk that documented the smearing of Cleta Mitchell, the calling out of the smear by the Wall Street Journal and Cleta’s email correspondence with the perpetrators at McClatchy News (embedded at the bottom). Though there is nothing new here, I thought some readers might find my remarks of interest as the song remains the same:

As a Trump supporter fighting in the trenches every day against what the president calls fake news, I think we are suffocating in it. I couldn’t disagree more with the thesis that what we have here is a veiled exercise in anti-Semitism. I come at the issue from a different angle.

For purposes of historical context, I would propose that the problem of fake news goes back to the birth of the press in the United States. See, for example, Eric Burns’s brilliant popular history of the press in the founding era, Infamous Scribblers.

In the nineteenth century newspapers were frankly partisan. Newspapers gave one-sided versions of the news. The progressive era superimposed the idea of professionalism and impartiality over the reporting function of the newspaper, but I think what we have seen for a long time now is something like a reversion to the norm in the press. We have a partisan press in all but name with a pretense to fairness or objectivity. The pretense to fairness compounds the problem of fake news and accounts for the antipathy a lot of us feel toward it. It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

Trump isn’t Hitler. The whole Trump is Hitler thing is a tired trope recycled by the left from the days of Ronald Reagan and then George W. Bush. They weren’t Hitler either.

Drawing on my own experience I want briefly to present two case studies in fake news and fabricated documents.

Case Study 1: Rathergate

My first case study is the episode known as Rathergate. It represents one of the great journalistic frauds of our time. It is a case study in the fabrication of fake news and partisan bias. The Rathergate scandal erupted from a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment rushed to air on the evening of September 8, 2004, in time to influence the approaching presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry, as it was clearly intended to do. The segment consisted of two parts that didn’t quite fit together except in their antipathy to Bush.

In the first part, based on an interview with the vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee, Rather essentially claimed that political influence had been brought to bear to secure Bush’s admission to the Texas Air National Guard as an interceptor jet pilot in 1968. In the second part, based on documents supposedly from the “personal file” of Bush’s commanding officer, Rather reported that Bush had defied an order to take a physical necessary to maintain his flight status and, among other things, thus failed to discharge his military obligations. The segment was produced and written by Mary Mapes.

In researching the story, Mapes had interviewed witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Texas Air National Guard’s personnel needs. She was told that they needed pilots at the time and that no influence would have been necessary to secure Bush’s admission. The documents on which Rather based the second segment proved to be fabricated on Microsoft Word in the computer era, not typewritten in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer or anyone else. The content and format of the documents also betrayed their fabrication. The story began to fall apart within a few hours of its broadcast. On September 20, 12 days after the broadcast, Rather extended an apology “personally and directly” to viewers for his inability to authenticate the documents.

To investigate what happened, CBS commissioned a panel chaired by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Lou Boccardi. Released in January 2005, the report provides evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire segment was false and/or fraudulent from beginning to end.

Mapes was promptly fired as were three other executives with responsibility for the story. Rather stepped down from the CBS Evening News in March 2005 and was let go from the network the following year.

Writing about the 60 Minutes segment on the morning after the broadcast on Power Line, I posted a brief item linking to the 60 Minutes story and the PDF copies of the documents that CBS had made available with the online version of the story. Thinking there might be something more to be said about it than what 60 Minutes had reported, I called my post “The 61st Minute” and published it on Power Line at 7:51 a.m.

Together with my colleague John Hinderaker, I updated the post with additional information provided by readers and fellow bloggers through the early afternoon. By noon, anyone following along online could see that the 60 Minutes segment had been based on fabricated documents and falsehoods. The 60 Minutes segment, reported with great earnestness by Rather, had been produced by knaves or fools, or both.

Rather and Mapes nevertheless persuaded CBS News to stick with the story for nearly two weeks before Rather rendered his on-air apology. In his 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken — that’s the title he gave it; it should have been Rather Full of It — Rather reveals that he didn’t mean it. Both he and Mapes stand behind the story and the authenticity of the documents.

Mapes too wrote a memoir standing by the story (Truth and Duty, published in late 2005). In 2015 Hollywood made a film out of Mapes’s memoir — starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. They called the film Truth, purporting to tell the Rathergate story from the inside.

Despite Mapes’s responsibility for perpetrating a shocking journalistic fraud, the film portrays Mapes as a heroic figure. Mapes not only gets a stellar actress to play her, she is portrayed as a martyr to the First Amendment and a victim of corporate cowardice. By contrast, the film portrays the attorneys who supported the work of Thornburg and Boccardi as cartoon villains. The events depicted in the film had happened only 10 years before, but the ignorance of the reviewers who took the film at face value demonstrated that the truth behind Truth was as obscure as ancient Greek history.

When President Trump refers to fake news, he has in mind something like the cast of characters and the insane bias that brought us Rathergate.

Case study 2: The smearing of Cleta Mitchell

The state of the art has evolved. I take as my second case study the smearing of Cleta Mitchell earlier this year by McClatchy News. I think it opens a window onto the Russia hoax in which we have been embroiled for the past two years. When I refer to the Russia hoax, I mean the proposition that the Trump campaign worked with organs of the Russian government to support Trump’s election as president. I have a package of documents, CLE style for this case study.

The Russia hoax is a product of the Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. They worked through Glenn Simpson and his opposition research firm Fusion GPS. Since the campaign Simpson and Fusion GPS have continued to retail the Russia hoax with the financial support of a Democratic outfit called the Penn Quarter Group, run by former Dianne Feinstein staffer Dan Jones.

Fusion GPS is a firm that does opposition research for hire. Glenn Simpson is the former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who is a principal and co-founder of the firm. Simpson’s work for the Clinton campaign and the DNC took place with funds laundered by the Perkins Coie law firm — a cutout that was to guard against the disclosure of the source of the work. We weren’t supposed to know. Simpson hired former British intelligence official Christopher Steele to lend him a hand with his Russian sources. We weren’t supposed to know.

Simpson and Fusion GPS have continued to peddle the Russia hoax to Congress and the media. They planted the March 15 McClatchy news story by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon on the prominent Washington attorney Cleta Mitchell. Cleta is a partner at the Washington office of Foley & Lardner and an expert in campaign finance law. The McClatchy article is the first item in my package: “Lawyer who worked for NRA said to have had concerns about group’s Russia ties.”

The McClatchy story related that unnamed congressional investigators were looking into Cleta’s alleged concerns about the National Rifle Association’s funneling of funds to the Trump campaign. The only problem with the story is that Cleta had no such concerns and the NRA did not funnel Russian funds to the Trump campaign. Other than that, perfect.

On September 1 the Wall Street Journal published an editorial decrying the wrong done to Cleta in connection with the Russia investigation(s). The Journal editorial is “Anatomy of a Fusion Smear.” It immediately follows the McClatchy story in my documents package.

I know and respect Cleta. She is an incredibly straightforward person, and not just by the standards of the legal profession. Having read the Journal’s September 1 editorial, I wrote Cleta to ask if she had anything she wanted to add to it. Oh, yes. Indeed she did. My email and her response are in the package as well.

Cleta forwarded a copy of her email correspondence with McClatchy reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon before and after their publication of the story retailing Simpson’s smear. I pasted it into a single document. These emails make up the bulk of the documents in my package. If you have the interest, you can read them and come to your own conclusion about the smear. I included just about all of them because I think you you can see with your own eyes that Stone and Gordon had nothing to back up the substance of their smear. I think the email messages make out the essential falsity of the McClatchy story.

The smear was planted with McClatchy by Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson in his accustomed style. Kim Strassel first called out Simpson and McClatchy in her March 22 Potomac Watch/WSJ column. She updated her argument in the September 30 Wall Street Journal editorial that I have put in my documents package immediately following the McClatchy story. The editorial traces the smear of Cleta to Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS.

Cleta also forwarded a copy of the April 24 letter from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to her this past April. In the letter the committee requested records of her contacts with specified Russian and Russian entities. Cleta responded to the committee by letter dated May 8, 2018. That letter is the last two pages of my package. In her letter Cleta wrote: “I have nothing whatsoever to say on this topic other than it is a lie, completely fabricated and concocted by Glenn Simpson & Co. You should be pursuing them for perjury and for making false statements to congressional investigators.”

Recall that the so-called Steele Dossier at the heart of the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign was commissioned by Glenn Simpson and GPS Fusion for the Clinton campaign. The Steele Dossier consists of 30-plus pages of memos prepared by Christopher Steele for Simpson and Fusion GPS that relate the story of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Steele’s purported sources include Russian intelligence officers and officials of the Putin government. It is hard to take the Steele memos at face value. If they are what they purport to be, one would be a fool to believe that they are anything but Russian disinformation.

This is the point: the smearing of Cleta Mitchell by Glenn Simpson via McClatchy News replicates in small the techniques that Simpson used to conjure the Russia hoax and roil the United States over the past two years. The Fusion smear follows a template with four hallmarks in the news stories that disseminate it:

• The story is based on two vaguely described anonymous sources. In the McClatchy story by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon smearing Cleta they appear as sources “who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.” By the way, that is a lie too.

• The story reports that some government authority is investigating something. The fact that the something has been planted by Fusion GPS with the government authority is kept from the reader.

• The story is pegged to an investigation that is itself vaguely described.

• The story supports the merits of the Steele/Trump dossier or some other Fusion conspiracy theory.

My thesis is that this is Glenn Simpson’s world and we’re all just living in it. It is the world of fake news. The smearing of Cleta Mitchell is a sidebar to the Russia hoax. She is just collateral damage. And Simpson is still on the case. Former Dianne Feinstein staffer Dan Jones raised $50 million to fund the work of Fusion GPS after the 2016 election. The mission continues unabated.

Cleta Mitchell-McClatchy Em… by on Scribd

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