Promoting Excellence In Journalism?

Two weeks ago I sent to the Columbia Journalism Review a rebuttal to a defense written by the magazine’s managing editor Vanessa Gezari of Buzzfeed’s decision to post the so-called Steele dossier, the collection of un-vetted memos making lurid allegations about Donald Trump. The magazine accepted the submission but a fortnight on the editors still have not posted my response. So I have decide to post it here. I think the arguments I make are important in the debate underway among journalists about how we should be covering Trump. Please see another post of mine on this issue here.

Anyway here is a link to Vanessa Gezari’s article.

And here is my response:

Vanessa Gezari’s arguments supporting Buzzfeed’s publication of the questionable dossier on Donald Trump strike me as Jesuitical and they are a sad reflection of where we are as a profession these days. I find it troubling that they should be mounted by the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, which markets itself as “Encouraging excellence in journalism.”

I don’t see how CJR’s managing editor is promoting excellence in jo,urnalism by endorsing the publication of material of this huge scope that was not verified and that those who posted it apparently harbored doubts about as to its veracity.

Gezari seems to be arguing — in fact is — that it is okay to take a punt to see what happens, to see if any leads are generated — even if people are smeared as a result.

By that standard we should all shove up stuff on the internet to see what works or doesn’t, even if we have major doubts about the veracity of what we have just posted, just to see what gives. I sense underpinning her piece is a belief that the allegations must largely be true about Trump.

When something looks too good, it might well be the case that it is! In short, it might not be true. And as journalists we have a responsibility to try to get as close to the truth as possible, before we decide to publish.

Gezari argues: “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?” No, they didn’t, but it was Wikileaks — not a bona fide news organization — that published the material. Once in the public realm, news outlets had no choice but follow the story.

Gezari seems to think that media outlets were just sitting on the dossier. Many weren’t. They were working to try to prove the allegations or to knock them down. Yes, that takes time — as she notes investigations can take months and sometimes years. Although in this case I doubt it would have taken years. Premature publication has screwed up quite a lot of journalists who have been working on the dossier and complicated efforts to get the backstory on the dossier.

The dossier is full of contradictions and basic factual errors — as I noted in an opinion article for The Hill and as Andrei Soldatov did in a piece for the Guardian. Perversely, the Guardian chose to headline Andrei’s article a tad misleadingly, “The leaked Trump-Russia dossier rings frighteningly true.” In fact, he was casting grave doubts about the material.

Some errors in the dossier are so basic that they cast huge doubt on the skills of Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent responsible for preparing the memos. Let me give you a few instances. The misspelling of “Alpha” for “Alfa” in reference to one the most important banks in Russia. The wrong FSB department when it comes to eavesdropping or cyber investigations. The naming of an official as having been tasked to deal with the U.S. election who was actually tasked with the Russian elections and, anyway, moved from Vladimir Putin’s office to the State Duma in October.
Why didn’t Steele notice these errors? Why didn’t Buzzfeed? Or if they did, whey did they carry on and post the document in its entirety?

And then we have unexplained and troubling contradictions, such as the material on Trump’s business deals in Russia, or rather the lack of them. In one memo it is stated: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”

But in another memo we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”

So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed, or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up.

Such factual errors and contradictions should have stopped Buzzfeed from posting the dossier. They did discourage others.

But then the media world seems to be divided into three groups now.

One group comprises those who hate Trump so much, they can and will believe anything of him. They have relatives on the other side of the aisle — those who hate Hillary Clinton so much they can and will believe anything of her — even that she has been overseeing a human trafficking operation! Then we have the group whose members love Trump and so won’t believe anything bad about him, even when verified.

And then there are the poor sane souls in the middle, who might love or hate Trump, or even be indifferent to him, but who hold fast to professional standards and try to base their articles on facts.

Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Democrats Win the Summer But Will They Win The Election?

Normal Rules No Longer Apply?

The always thoughtful David Brooks has a chilling column in the New York Times today questioning whether a convention win will translate into a November win for the Democrats at the polls. At first glance, maybe it will.

He argues that Donald Trump has — if unintentionally — stumbled on an ingenious way to to allow the Democrats to save themselves: by “abandoning the great patriotic themes that used to fire up the GOP… he’s allowed the Democrats to seize that ground.”

“Trump has abandoned the deep and pervasive optimism that has always energized the American nation,” he says. He adds: “Democrats have often been ambivalent about that ardent nationalistic voice, but this week they were happy to accept Trump’s unintentional gift.”

But he fears that although “the Democratic speakers hit doubles, triples and home runs… the normal rules may no longer apply.”

He adds: “It could be in that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots and that humility and gentleness are simply surrendering to the butchers of ISIS. If that’s the case then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man of the future.”

Paul Krugman — also in the NYT today — poses the question, “Who Loves America?” And makes this telling observation: “If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country — you care only about your tribe.”

Trump and Russia

Having myself written this week for The Hill about Trump and Russia, I think this point from Krugman is thought-provoking: “Mr. Trump’s willingness to cast aside our nation’s hard-earned reputation as a reliable ally is remarkable. So is the odd specificity of his support for Mr. Putin’s priorities, which is in stark contrast with the vagueness of everything else he has said about policy. And he has offered only evasive non-answers to questions about his business ties to Putin-linked oligarchs.”

The Trump-Russia links are fascinating. As I pointed out earlier this week, if those business ties and financial dealings, as well as the relationships some of his advisers have had with Kremlin-run entities and allies, had been ones pursued by Clinton or her advisers, American Conservatives would be in uproar and hurling the national-security card.

Does that mean I think Trump is a recruited Russian agent? No, there is no basis for making such an allegation. But the question remains — and Trump and his advisers have not answered it — how much do those ties and connections go to shape and mould his foreign-policy thinking, or their’s, when it comes to Russia? Is Trump being reflexively a business deal-maker and playing nice now to Putin in the hopes that post-election, if he fails to win the presidency, he will be rewarded with the kind of deals in Russia that have so far eluded him?

There is something truly shocking, even tawdry, observing national-security Republicans remaining mainly silent on all of this.

On a side-note, it is curious to see Wikileaks and Edward Snowden fall out over the right approach to leaks with the NSA whistleblower condemning in a Tweet Wikileaks “hostility to even modest curation.” Predictably, Wikileaks has accused Snowden of pandering to the Democrats.

Of course, Wikileaks never panders to anyone, does it? The Wikileaks site is full of embarrassing Russian data disclosures, isn’t it?

 

 

Assad Says It Enough; Maybe The West Should Believe Him

Bashar al-Assad sent sent a telegram Thursday to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to thank Moscow for its military support and vowed to accept nothing less than outright victory. Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory.”

He noted in his cable that Aleppo has become like Stalingrad, promising that “despite the brutality and cruelty of the enemy, and the great sacrifices and pains, our cities, towns, people and army will not be satisfied until they defeat the enemy and achieve victory.

Now Assad has said this before — namely, that he is aiming for complete victory. So why does the West still persist trying to negotiate a political transition?

Assad sent the telegram hours before government warplanes fired four missiles at a refugee camp 10km from the the border with Turkey, killing at least 30 and wounding dozens.

You can read my full news report on this at VOA here.

An Improbable Week

As the cliche has it — truth is the first casualty of war.

And this week officials in Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC appeared determined to prove the saying true.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed Tuesday a remarkable victory over Islamic State militants — despite the fact that 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes have been targeting anti-Assad rebels of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Army of Conquest. IS had lost “most” of its ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment in Russian airstrikes, the Defense Ministry baldly bragged Tuesday. So 86 claimed Russian airstrikes on IS the previous 48 hours — plus a few the previous two weeks — managed to achieve what 7000 US-led coalition airstrikes had failed to do!

Just putting aside how improbable that sounds, it doesn’t square with field actions of ISIS to the north-east of Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes have assisted the terror group to capture from Syrian rebels a chunk of important real estate. Nor does it square with what anti-IS activists inside Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor tell me. Yes, damage is being done to ISIS by coalition and Russia airstrikes but the group is hardly on the ropes yet and won’t be until they are challenged on the ground by a serious force.

And that leads into the second great improbable of the week — this time coming from Washington. Namely that a US air-drop this week of 45 tonnes of ammunition in northern Syria did not go to the Kurds’ YPG forces. A Pentagon spokesman insisted Thursday that the US military was confident the supplies got to the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition. Earlier, another Pentagon official, Peter Cook, had admitted to reporters that some of the ammunition might have ended up with other groups, including the Kurds.

The Pentagon’s “correction” neither squares what the YPG/PYD is saying — including their leader Salih Muslim — nor does it make any sense, if, as US officials have said, they are pushing the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition to march towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, encircle and isolate it. The YPG is the dominant force in that grouping, able to field 25,000 or so fighters. The Syrian Arab Coalition can field according to Washington 5000 fighters and is basically a YPG catspaw.

And if you want to know what a dubious group the Syrian Arab Coalition is, read my report here.

The last great improbable of the week came from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who offered one of the most unlikely pairings ever when he suggested on Thursday that ISIS and the PKK, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, may have both had a hand in last weekend’s suicide bombing in Ankara, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

Among those detained, he said on TRT television, are “people linked to the PKK and linked to ISIS,” he said.

Of Broken Promises and Barrel Bombs and Two Brave Syrian Boys

Kilis, Turkey

My afternoon was graced by 13-year-old Ahmed and ten-year-old Nizar, a pair of courageous Syrian boys, who were torn to pieces by barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo and Homs. Ahmed is now paralyzed from the chest down: he has only recently started to use his hands and arms, but the rest of his fractured body will be forever useless. When he arrived in Turkey he was angry and inconsolable but thanks to the compassion and expertise of Syrian refugee doctors, he is now engaging and plays games on a tablet. He flashed me a thumbs up. Nizar lost his right arm; his left is in poor shape with bright scarlet wounds and holes where you can see the tendons. He helps the adult patients in the field hospital where both boys are recuperating. He is bright and open and affectionate and does not complain, I was told. What is the future for these boys? I read today an article that mixes half-truths and nonsense by Robert Fisk, who distorts the war in Syria to bash America. He says there are no good guys in this conflict so best to leave alone and let Assad remain. I hear Donald Trump say send all Syrians back to Syria because they are jihadists. But Ahmed and Nizar are the good guys; the Syrian doctors trying to help them are the good guys, and the Syrians who four years ago protested repression and asked for a modicum of freedom are the good guys. What they have got in return for their request for dignity are barrel bombs and broken bodies, blasted fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, Daesh, Cruise missiles from Russia, and broken promises from the West.

No End In Sight for Syria

In the immediate wake of the Iran nuclear deal there was a flurry of diplomacy involving Washington, Moscow and Tehran with talk that the time might be right to hammer out an agreement to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war. But with renewed commitments from Iran and Russia to shore up President Bashar al-Assad there seems no end in sight for the ruinous war of attrition that has left an estimated 240,000 people dead.

No one is budging their hard-held positions inside or outside Syria, despite the recognition by most parties involved that defeating the extremists of the Islamic State should be among the highest priorities — and that is unlikely to happen while the civil war rages.

For the West the mounting refugee crisis roiling Europe has added urgency to the search for some kind of resolution to the barbaric conflict.

Read my full VOA dispatch here.

Russian Banks Funding Agitation In Eastern Ukraine

Kiev

If yesterday’s Geneva deal aimed at “de-escalating” the Ukraine crisis fails, Russia’s top banks might be the target of the next round of Western sanctions.

This from my radio dispatch last night for VOA:

“As Western powers consider introducing further sanctions against Russia, Ukraine’s government says it has evidence that four Russian banks are involved in funding pro-Russian separatist agitation in eastern Ukraine and is urging Western politicians to sanction them.”

You can read the full Web piece here.

Can The Ukrainian Military Hold The Line?

Kiev

From my Daily Beast dispatch yesterday:

“Kiev officials admit they need to move fast to extinguish the growing pro-Russian insurrection in the country’s east but initial offers of reform, including greater decentralization of powers, are having no effect. The decision to dispatch the army is backfiring badly with soldiers expressing their unhappiness with being deployed against civilians, whether or not they are being egged on by Moscow, and supervised and trained by Russian advisors.”