I called attention last week to a CNN story in which chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto reported that the United States chose to extract a highly-placed Kremlin spy due to concerns that "President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence," which included a May 2017 meeting with Vladimir Putin. That would have been a major scoop, but the Washington Post and the New York Times followed with their own stories and neither confirmed the most incendiary part of Sciutto's reporting. In their telling, the decision to extract the spy was firmly made before Trump was even president, and solely in response to media speculation about a U.S. source close to Putin.
CNN chief media reporter Brian Stelter's original reaction in his newsletter was to say only that the Trump-Putin part was the "key graf" and that, "The NYT added additional details in this Monday evening story… And so did WaPo." That struck me as odd; surely the responsible thing to do would be to inform readers that the "additional details" were that the CNN story's "key graf" was wrong?
Recent Stories in Politics
On Sunday, Stelter got another chance to tackle the issue when he invited Sciutto on his show Reliable Sources to discuss his story. And boy, did he blow it. Right off the bat, here's how he framed the issue:
STELTER: Jim, one of the most explosive parts of your report had said the following. You said, a person directly involved in the discussions said the removal of the Russian spy was driven in part by concerns that Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy. Now, that is shocking. And many pro-Trump allies and commentators tried to tear down that reporting and say it might not be true. Do you stand by that reporting now about a week later?
The New York Times and the Washington Post said that might not be true! Framing this simply as a matter of CNN versus Trump supporters is clearly a play to those who usually defend the press from the president's attacks. But it isn't the president calling CNN "fake news" this time around. It's (ahem) reliable sources at other outlets.
Sciutto acknowledged the CIA's claim that the decision to extract was based solely on media speculation, but said that explanation "seemed not just too simple to us, but to half a dozen current and former intelligence officials that I ran it by." Perhaps Sciutto and his sources are right, but he never mentions that reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post seemed to find that explanation pretty darn believable. CNN's media criticism show has thus far avoided discussing that (ahem, ahem) reliable news sources disagree with its reporting.
Instead, the panel primarily discussed the separate issue of CNN withholding details about the spy that outlets like NBC News chose to report. Sciutto later returned to the criticism from "conservative media."
SCIUTTO: I think, you know, folks will often have the impression, you'll get this, you know, in some—particularly the conservative media coverage afterwards, that, oh, Jim Sciutto was spoon-fed this story by this person or that, or this administration or that… But, first of all, as you know as well as me, that's a fundamental misunderstanding of how reporting happens. You know, no one's ever walked up to a door with a piece of paper and said, here's your story, right? I mean, this is—you gather information, you test it, you speak to a number of people, you make editorial judgments on what you believe and what you don't believe, right? And when you have conflicting accounts, as you did here, you present those conflicting accounts and then you test them.
This obfuscates the actual issue. Yes, "conservative media" engaged in speculation about former Obama administration official Jim Sciutto's source in the intelligence community, but only because two major newspapers directly contradicted that source. No one is denying Sciutto made "editorial judgments on what you believe and what you don't believe"—they're pointing out that four other reporters made the exact opposite decision. The media discussion on CNN's media criticism show still has not mentioned the major media controversy!
Finally, finally, Stelter throws to CNN contributor Susan Glasser, who is the first to allude to the actual issue here. "The New York Times account of this is different than CNN's account." But, she asks, "Can they both be true?"
GLASSER: The New York Times reported that in late 2016, an initial decision was made by the CIA to think about exfiltrating, bringing out this agent. And then only later, that the agent refused, and only later, as Jim reported, did this actually occur. To me, those are both very significant reporting revelations that seemed to not be in dispute. So, what are the things that aren't in dispute, as you, the editor, or the reader are trying to understand? I think this is a big story.
This badly misstates the underlying facts. The Times did not report that the CIA made a decision "to think about" extraction in 2016—that was CNN's Sciutto. The Times reported that the CIA decided to extract the spy, solely due to media speculation, in 2016; the agency failed to follow through after the spy rebuffed the request. Sciutto also reported that it was the Trump-Putin incident that "prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions." The Times instead reported that "the C.I.A. pressed again months later after more media inquiries," and that "the news reporting in the spring and summer of 2017 convinced United States government officials that they had to update and revive their extraction plan" (emphasis mine).
The answer to "Can they both be true?" is a pretty firm, "No." But Glasser has thrown a lifeline, so Stelter and Sciutto jump on it. "The prior consideration of exfiltrating this source was also in our story," Sciutto agrees. "So, there is no conflict there." This avoids discussing where there is a conflict, which is only, you know, the central thrust of Sciutto's story.
"It's a conference of troubling reality that there's this spin machine that's very powerful these days, but the facts in your story and the Times and the Post, a lot of them pretty much all line up," Stelter agreed. Saying that "a lot of" the facts "pretty much line up" is, of course, a tacit admission that there are facts that don't line up. Stelter again refuses to acknowledge that those are the "key" facts of the story.
And then they cut to commercial. Stelter has successfully done an entire segment on people criticizing CNN without once giving an honest accounting of what those criticisms were or the major discrepancies in its reporting that led to said criticism. Those looking for (ahem, ahem, ahem) reliable sources are once again forced to look elsewhere.