Today, McClatchy DC Bureau put out a piece claiming Cohen’s cell phone put him in Prague at the time of the alleged meeting between him and Russian officials. Their headline — Cell signal puts Cohen outside Prague around time of purported Russian meeting — states this as a matter of fact, yet the article itself paints a different picture.
A lot of people are claiming this is “fake news,” and I think that’s the wrong claim to make. I think it’s equally wrong to claim this is true. Let’s look at what we actually know from this article and how we know it:
A mobile phone traced to President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen briefly sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, leaving an electronic record to support claims that Cohen met secretly there with Russian officials, four people with knowledge of the matter say.
Four people spoke with McClatchy on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of information shared by their foreign intelligence connections. Each obtained their information independently from foreign intelligence connections.
We literally know nothing about the sources: where they work, what their seniority is, whether they’ve been given permission from their superiors to divulge this information, how they came by the information, what ulterior motives they may have. Nothing.
This is nothing new. In March of 2009, months into the Obama presidency, Public Editor Clark Hoyt of NYT wrote of how the Times “continues to fall down in living up to” its policy on anonymous sources. In 2015, The Atlantic described NYT and FOX reporting on anonymous Pentagon official who gave false information about a US airstrike on an Afghan hospital:
The very weakest case for withholding a source’s name is when 1) powerful officials 2) with a clear incentive to lie 3) use anonymity to spread a self-serving narrative 4) without accountability 5) on a matter of great consequence. All those conditions are met here. The anonymous officials in this particular case may have tried to be truthful; and even self-serving narratives are sometimes accurate.
But this one was false.
Glenn Greenwald has been a long time critic of the overuse and abuse of anonymous sources by so-called journalists, who trade their pledge of confidentiality for access to government officials and others in positions of power. Most recently, he called out his former employer The Guardian for its story on a Manafort-Assange meeting based on anonymous sources, which went viral and was picked up by many other outlets, but has not been corroborated by any other journalist despite their best efforts, and has been denied by Ecuadorian embassy officials.
In all cases, but particularly in the context of the Trump-Russia collusion story and the Mueller investigation, those who want to see Trump and his inner circle brought to justice should be the most adamant about expecting and demanding more from journalists and editors. At best, this story is later confirmed in an official capacity by the Mueller team and used in support of a criminal prosecution, in which case this article did nothing other than to ruffle the feathers of Trump defenders and boost the spirits of his detractors. But at worst, if this story is not confirmed, then Trump and his supporters get to use this as another claim of “fake news.” It doesn’t matter if 99 times out of 100 they’re wrong when they claim that, the one percent of time they’re right will be used to discredit the entire profession of journalism, and it terms of persuasion, it will be effective.
Maybe even more importantly, though, going forward, every person who wants their government officials to be held accountable should oppose journalism that relies on unnamed sources unnecessarily. At it’s best, it can be used to protect a source from retaliation within their organization, but all too often, it’s used to provide cover and deniability for the government or agencies thereof to disseminate their views. If a government wants to provide its view to the public, it should have the courage to put the name of the official on it, journalists should have the fortitude to demand it, and we the public should have the self-respect to accept nothing less.