Did you hear the one about Newsweek proving that Russia’s conspiring with WikiLeaks?
Anyone who doubts wikileaks is working w/ Putin: read how my words falsely became those of a Clinton confidante. https://t.co/1d5qvU01Yi
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 10, 2016
That’s Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald promising a blockbuster and failing to deliver. At the time he sent that tweet, the article he was promoting looked like this. Later the article was updated significantly, changing the focus somewhat; it now looks like this. At neither point did it demonstrate that WikiLeaks has been “working w/ Putin.”
What it shows is that some people misread an item in WikiLeaks’ recent release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. In the message in question, Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal (described by Eichenwald as “second only to George Soros at the center of conservative conspiracy theories”) passed along one of Eichenwald’s articles. The Russian news/propaganda outlet Sputnik then published a piece that mistook Eichenwald’s words for Blumenthal’s, declaring that Clinton’s “top confidante” had said the Benghazi attack “was almost certainly preventable” and that criticizing Clinton for this failure “is legitimate.” In the updated version of the article, Eichenwald highlights the fact that Donald Trump himself made the same mistake at a rally in Wilkes-Barre yesterday.
If that were all there is to the article, I wouldn’t blame Eichenwald for writing it. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I’d be chortling about it too; if one of those people was the Republican presidential nominee, I’d be all over it. But I wouldn’t claim that this proves WikiLeaks is an arm of Moscow—or, as Eichenwald puts it in the article, that it is “proof that this act of cyberwar is…being orchestrated by the Russians”—because that “proof” is obviously absent. Some Russians misread an item in a WikiLeaks document dump. That doesn’t demonstrate that they’re behind WikiLeaks any more than it demonstrates that they’re behind Newsweek.
The updated version of the article argues breathlessly that Trump must have gotten the story from Sputnik: “This false story was only reported by the Russian controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin’s mouthpiece?…Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?” Well, it’s certainly possible that someone on the Trump campaign found it in Sputnik. It’s in English; it’s online; it easily could’ve popped up in a Google News Alert. A campaign that cites stories from Infowars and the National Enquirer isn’t likely to shy away from reading Sputnik too. But Eichenwald’s claim that the tale “was only reported by the Russian controlled agency” is not in fact true. As BuzzFeed‘s Jon Passantino points out, the claim was already circulating in a viral tweet hours before Sputnik picked it up.
I realize that “Donald Trump relied on a dicey source and said something inaccurate” is kind of a dog-bites-man story these days. Russian puppetmasters are much more exciting. But a reporter shouldn’t claim to have proven something he hasn’t. Especially if the result is an article that moves from dismissively invoking “conservative conspiracy theories” to claiming, based on the thinnest reeds, to have exposed a vast Kremlin-directed conspiracy.