There’s something odd about the explanation The New York Times offered for standing by a blockbuster report that former FBI Director James Comey characterized as “almost entirely wrong” in testimony before Congress Thursday.
“Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton asked Comey during the hearing. “Yes,” Comey replied. And at another point in the hearing, he said of the report, “in the main it was not true.”
The paper of record reported Feb. 14 that U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted repeated communications between the Trump campaign and senior Russian intelligence officials in the year leading up to the election, based on accounts from four former and current U.S. officials. The news firmly planted the as yet totally unsubstantiated narrative that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election in his favor.
Despite Comey’s strongly worded statements, The NYT announced Friday it had completed a review of the facts and would stand by the report in its entirety. The three reporters behind the story offered a dubiously reasoned explanation as to why in a separate piece that includes an odd admission about the review process — no one was able to get in touch with the original sources.
“The original sources could not immediately be reached after Mr. Comey’s remarks, but in the months since the article was published, they have indicated that they believed the account was solid,” the reporters wrote.
The admission does a great deal to strip the “examination” that was conducted of any weight with critical readers looking for good reasons to trust an anonymously sourced report over the word of a former FBI director under oath. If the reporters were unable to go back and talk to their sources, what exactly was reviewed here?
“The New York Times published an examination of Mr. Comey’s statements today, which reviews our previous coverage and found no evidence that any prior reporting was inaccurate,” the statement from the paper said. “In fact, subsequent reporting by The Times and other media outlets has verified our reporting as the story makes clear.”
It’s no wonder the review — which appears to have consisted of little more than rereading the report — didn’t turn up any evidence the facts were wrong. That’s to be expected if all four of the people it was sourced to are unreachable. And of course in order to swallow this “no evidence” line, readers would have to discount as “evidence” the sworn testimony of a guy who was running the intelligence agency heading up the Russia investigation when this was reported.
The other reasons TheNYT offers for standing by the story — a deliberately obtuse reading of Comey’s statements and more anonymously sourced reports — are also insufficient.
“Comey did not say exactly what he believed was incorrect about the article,” the reporters write in their explanation, speculating he was referring to how the paper described the Russians involved or possibly the form of evidence collected by intelligence officials. It’s true Comey didn’t specify exactly what was wrong. But did he have to?
He clearly and repeatedly stated the story is almost entirely false. He also said that when the news broke, he was so troubled that he actually double checked with the intelligence community to make sure he wasn’t missing something. It seems unlikely a dispute over what is technically a Russian intelligence official or how the evidence was gathered would prompt such a response.
TheNYT also leans heavily on other reports the paper says corroborate and confirm their report, such as a May report from Reuters that the Trump campaign had at least 18 undisclosed contacts with Russian officials or people tied to the Kremlin. But these too are based on anonymous sources. The Reuters report could hardly be more vague in its description of the sources as an unidentified number of “current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges.”
Another story TheNYT points to for corroboration of their report is an April scoop from two of the same NYT reporters that is based on just one anonymous source identified as a “government official.”
Taken together, here’s what TheNYT defense of their February report really boils down to: We reread the story, other anonymous reports confirmed our reporting, and the former FBI director who has a reputation as a paragon of integrity in Washington is either misinformed or a liar.
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