Eat Me, MSNBC
Reviewing the last six years at the network that claims now to be concerned with integrity and accuracy:
I’m going to be interviewed on MSNBC today by Mehdi Hasan, the author of a book called Win Every Argument. I’m looking forward to it as one would a root canal or a rectal.
I accepted the invitation because it would have been wrong to refuse, on the off chance he was planning a good-faith discussion. If you’re reading this, things have gone another way.
I last appeared on MSNBC six years ago, on January 13, 2017, to talk with Chris Hayes and of all people Malcolm Nance, about the then-burgeoning Trump-Russia scandal.
The Trump-Russia story was white-hot and still in its infancy. That same day, news leaked from Israel that Americans warned the Mossad not to share information with the incoming administration, because Russia had “leverages of pressure” on Trump. Asked by Chris about the scandal generally, I made what I thought was a boring-but-true observation, that we in the media didn’t “have any hard evidence” of a conspiracy, just not a lot to go on. This was the TV equivalent of a shrug.
Nance jumped on this in a way I remember feeling was unexpected and oddly personal. “Matt’s a journalist. I’m an intelligence officer,” he snapped. “There is no such thing as coincidence in my world.” Chris jumped in to note reporters have different standards, and I agreed, saying, “We haven’t seen anything that allows us to say unequivocally that x and y happened last year.”
“Unequivocally” seemed to trigger Nance. With regard to the DNC hack, he said, “That evidence is unequivocal. It’s on the Internet.” As for “these links possibly with the Trump team,” he proclaimed, “You’re probably never going to see the CIA’s report.” Nance went on to answer “no” to a question from Chris about whether leaks “were coming from the intelligence community,” Chris wrapped up with a sensible suggestion that we all not rely on a parade of “leaks and counter-leaks,” and the segment was done.
To this day I get hit probably a hundred times a day with the question, “What happened to you, man?” What happened? That segment happened, but to MSNBC, not me.
That exchange between Nance and me was symbolic of a choice the network faced. They could either keep doing what reporters had done since the beginning of time, confining themselves to saying things they could prove. Or, they could adopt a new approach, in which you can say anything is true or confirmed, so long as a politician or intelligence official told you it was.
We know how that worked out. I was never invited back, nor for a long time was any other traditionally skeptical reporter, while Nance — one of the most careless spewers of provable errors ever to appear on a major American news network — became one of the Peacock’s most familiar faces.
I don’t know Malcolm and don’t mean to get nasty about this, but: even before that January 2017 broadcast, he had an extraordinary record, one that should have scared away any retraction-averse producer. On August 20th, he went on with Joy Reid and said the Green Party’s Jill Stein “has a show on Russia Today.” This wasn’t true, as Stein quickly pointed out, but MSNBC refused to acknowledge the error. Media watchdog FAIR repeatedly asked for a correction, as did friend Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, but they refused to budge.
This may not seem a big deal, but at the time it was still weird and something of a pioneering move for a major news organization to just refuse to fix a clear error.
Nance went on to make a lot more, some I would classify as important. A tweet of his in late 2016 was a major source for the pre-election misconception that the Wikileaks-leaked emails of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta were “riddled with forgeries” and “#blackpropaganda.” He would regularly make all sorts of claims without evidence, like that the K.G.B. had “been surveilling Donald Trump since 1977,” and that “little” comes from Trump’s mouth that isn’t “carefully planned to benefit the Russian Republic,” and all sorts of other nonsense.
I was quiet until he said Glenn “shows his true colors as an agent of Trump and Moscow,” “reports in to his masters in Russia,” and is “deep in the Kremlin pocket.” This was outrageous. I was shocked MSNBC didn’t fire him on the spot. Still, I voiced objections in a measured way I hoped might get through, either to Nance or to someone at the network. “I’ve been on the air with Malcolm Nance and he seemed like a nice guy,” I tweeted, “but this awful practice of calling people traitors and foreign agents based on no evidence has really gotten out of hand.”
Nance’s response was “Ok, you’ve convinced me. You need to be blocked. #Bye.” He remained a regular guest on the network, which didn’t cool on booking him until the Russia story fell apart with the release of the Mueller report the next year.
The Nance situation was symbolic of what happened at the network from the beginning of Trump’s term, really beginning in early 2017. It went from being a place where you had to be at least in the ballpark of demonstrably true to being a place where the factual standard was, “Whatever dogshit drops out of the mouth of any hack or spook.”
Moreover the network didn’t just re-report this stuff, it became the favored launching pad for all the most blatant blue-Anon disinformation, like California congressman Adam Schiff saying he had “more than circumstantial” evidence of collusion, or former Obama defense official Evelyn Farkas suggesting the Trump administration would try to destroy evidence if they “found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians.” Farkas later testified under oath that she “didn’t know anything” about collusion.
You’ll read about this (and see it, in an extraordinary video mashup our own Matt Orfalea prepared for a larger story series coming out in the next weeks), but we found MSNBC mentioned Hamilton 68, the infamous “dashboard” of accounts supposedly linked to “Russian influence activities” outed as a fraud in the Twitter Files, over 100 times in a period between the summer of 2017 and November of 2019.
One of those instances came in a typical MSNBC broadcast from that time, on January 19, 2018. It featured a quartet of security-state goblins — former Bush official Nicolle Wallace, Langley-sniffing Ken Dilanian, former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, and ex-CIA official Evan McMullin — gang-botching a story about the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag:
Note how many things they get wrong in this segment. Vance says there’s nothing to accusations of FISA abuse later proven by Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (“A lot of hullabaloo about nothing at the end of the day”). The CIA’s McMullin touts the Steele Dossier (“Much of it has been validated”). Dilanian rushes at the end to squeeze in the Hamilton hoax (“This release…is the top hashtag among Russian bots and trolls, according to Hamilton 68”).
It’s extremely rare that a journalist who’s actually trying to avoid mistakes makes even one factual mistake as big as falling for the Hamilton hoax or the Steele Dossier, or dismissing the Nunes memo. These people managed all three at once. If I’d made even one error of that magnitude early in my career, I wouldn’t have had a career. This kind of thing was basically constant for years, when MSNBC was the staging ground for many lunatic conspiracy theories involving Trump, Russia, and their delicacy item, the Dossier.
As I was leaving the set of my last appearance on All In six years ago, Rachel was getting ready to go on and re-frame how the network did news. My shrugging take was that if journalists didn’t have confirmation, they couldn’t report. Rachel argued the opposite, that official silence meant you could assume things:
I mean, had the FBI looked into what was in that dossier and found that it was all patently false, they could tell us that now, right? I mean, the dossier has now been publicly released. If the FBI looked into it and they found it was all trash, there’s no reason they can’t tell us that now. They’re not telling us that now. They’re not saying that. They’re not saying anything.
As we later found out, among other things via Jeff Gerth’s gigantic piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, the FBI said nothing about many stories it knew to be wrong, including the influential New York Times exposé, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” The possibility that officials can lie to us in this way — leaking, asking that attribution be limited to uncheckable “sources familiar with the matter,” then saying nothing as stories start taking water — is exactly why we don’t stick our necks out for such people.
From that period in early 2017 through the crushing release of the Mueller report — forcing Rachel to cut a trout-fishing vacation in Tennessee short to stammer out, eyes welling with emotion, “This is the start of something, not the end of something” — I do not believe even one person expressing skepticism of the Trump-Russia story came on the channel. That streak ended with poor Chris’s post-Mueller bummer-cast with Michael Isikoff and David Corn, on March 25, 2019.
This video should be shown to every J-school student as a “Scared Straight” exercise. In it Yahoo!’s Isikoff, the first prominent journalist to quote Christopher Steele, said of his dossier, “It was endorsed multiple times on this network, people saying, It’s more and more proving to be true. And it wasn’t.”
The directors cut away as Hayes started nodding with energy. As blood visibly drained from the face of Isikoff’s unrepentant toad-faced co-author David Corn, the veteran reporter went on to add — you can almost hear MSNBC producers think-screaming, “Stop! Stop!” — that Mueller’s report “undercuts almost everything that was in the dossier”:
After this the network doubled down, seemingly hiring as contributors every unemployed prosecutor or natsec official they could find, especially from failed Russiagate probes. They’d already spent on names like ex-CIA head John O. Brennan, former assistant FBI counterintelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi, House Intel Director of Investigations and future congressman Dan Goldman (who met Adam Schiff in an MSNBC green room), and federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner. Now, they added cadaverous Mueller sidekick Andrew Weissmann and, astonishingly, Weissmann’s deputy, the fired FBI lawyer Lisa Page. They also began bringing in Page’s lover, fellow FBI firee Peter Strzok, as a commentator.
America became familiar with Page and Strzok after their texts — referring to the Trump-Russia investigation as an “insurance policy,” and ripping “sandernistas,” among other things — became public. These were living monuments to press excesses of the Trump era. As Gerth wrote, Strzok quietly reported to bosses after the Times’s “repeated contacts” story came out, saying, “We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.” Strzok in other words was exactly the kind of person to whom Rachel might have been referring when she rhapsodized about FBI “not saying anything” to dissuade us from believing errors.
Page on April 10, 2017 got a text from Strzok, saying he wanted to talk to her “about [a] media leak strategy with DOJ.” This was a day before a Washington Post story that cited “law enforcement and other U.S. officials” in saying the secret FISA court found probable cause to believe former Trump aide Carter Page (no relation) was an “agent of a foreign power.” Whoever leaked this was sabotaging not just the Post, but every downstream media org picking up the story, because the story at its roots was wrong: Carter Page was not an “agent of a foreign power,” as the FISA court had been misled, by Steele and the FBI. MSNBC was one of the first outlets to regurgitate this thing.
When sources lie to you, you should be mad. At minimum, you should be ripping their names out of your Rolodex (or modern equivalent). MSNBC did the opposite, hiring seemingly everyone who’d helped them down this reputation-tarnishing path.
MSNBC bet everything on its switch in 2017, and though it paid handsomely at first — in spring of 2017 they became the first cable network in two decades to unseat Fox for the #1 spot, with Rachel owning the top-rated non-sports program on cable — the collapse of the Mueller investigation triggered a long, frankly earned, post-trout-fishing slide. No doubt the indictment of Donald Trump will reanimate things, but prior to that it was grim, as Fox was beating CNN and MSNBC combined by the end of January. The ratings picture for March showed that MSNBC’s top show was The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, rated 11th, followed by The Beat With Ari Melber at 16th.
After all this, after throwing away all their standards, clowning themselves with years of wrong stories, doling out rice bowls to the procession of spooks who now clog their airwaves, and watching as their ratings predictably collapsed, now they want to give me a hard time. Not because I got anything wrong, but because they don’t like my opinions, or where things like the Twitter Files reports came from. After the first thread, Mehdi was one of 27 media figures to complain in virtually identical language: “Imagine volunteering to do PR work for the world’s richest man.”
I laughed about that, but couldn’t believe the reaction after Twitter Files #6, showing how Twitter communicated with the FBI and DHS through a “partner support channel,” and in response to state requests actioned accounts on both sides of the political aisle for harmless jokes. Mehdi’s take wasn’t that this information was wrong, or not newsworthy, but that it shouldn’t have been published because Elon Musk put Keith Olbermann in timeout for a day, or something. “Even Bari Weiss called him out, but Taibbi seems to want to tweet through it,” Mehdi tweeted.
If it sounds like my beef with MSNBC is personal, by now it is. Take the Twitter Files. When first presented with the opportunity to do that story, my first reaction was to be extremely excited, as any reporter would be, including anyone at MSNBC. In the next second however I was terrified, because I care about my job, and knew there would be a million eyes on this thing and a long way down if I got anything wrong. If you’ve ever wondered why I look 100 years old at 53 it’s because I embrace this part of the process. Audiences have a right to demand reporters lie awake nights in panic, and every good one I’ve ever met does.
But people who used to be my friends at MSNBC embraced a different model, leading to one of the biggest train wrecks in the history of our business. Now they have the stones to point at me with this “What happened to you?” routine. It’s rare that the following words are justified on every level, but really, MSNBC: Fuck you.
Correction: It is John O. Brennan, not John O’Brennan.