Outlets that refuse to correct documented falsehoods have no valid claim to credibility.
Last week, we published documents that definitively debunked and disproved a claim that numerous media outlets had circulated and affirmed for years: that Edward Snowden lied about where he was during his first 11 days in Hong Kong. Contrary to the fable these outlets dispensed to their readers — that Snowden did not check in to the Mira Hotel on May 21 as he claimed but only did so on June 1, 11 days later — these new documents, obtained from the Mira, prove that Snowden arrived there exactly when he always said, rendering their published stories factually false. Many of these stories had even claimed that anonymous U.S. investigators were unable to find hotel or credit card records for Snowden during these 11 days — exactly the records we just published.
The same day our story was published, the New York Times reporter Charlie Savage — who had previously spent weeks documenting that this claim about Snowden never had any journalistic basis to begin with — confirmed the authenticity of the new documents. As Savage wrote: “The documents show [Snowden] stayed in both the Icon and then, starting on May 21st, the Mira, under his own name, using his own credit cards. So there is no mystery gap, and the credit card records obviously were readily available to American investigators all along.”
The concocted discrepancy was significant because these media outlets — and many commentators citing their false story — used it to strongly suggest that Snowden, during these “Missing 11 Days,” was doing something nefarious: such as meeting his Russian or Chinese handlers. Numerous outlets uncritically aired this false claim, including the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News, Business Insider, Slate, Interpreter Magazine, and Folha de S.Paulo (Brazil’s largest newspaper).
A WSJ op-ed writer, Edward Jay Epstein, released a book in February featuring this fraud as a linchpin in his innuendo that Snowden was a Russian spy, which he then aired on a Lawfare podcast with Benjamin Wittes. This fable was also adopted by several former intelligence community employees now embedded in the pundit class — such as former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden and NSA employee John Schindler — as well as cable personalities such as MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid. Both Yahoo News and Slate used this falsehood as part of their accusation that Oliver Stone’s film about Snowden was misleading.
Even the best and most careful journalists get things wrong sometimes. But the minimal requirement for journalistic credibility and integrity is acknowledging and fixing mistakes. When the debate over Fake News first emerged, advocates of the term insisted that it was this attribute — a willingness to admit and correct errors — that distinguishes credible news outlets that sometimes err from fakes and frauds.
Yet in this case, only one of the media outlets that published what is now a significant and documented falsehood — Brazil’s Folha — has even acknowledged these new documents. In Folha’s case, they did so lamely and grudgingly: Rather than add an editor’s note or correction to their original story by reporter Igor Gielow (which still stands uncorrected), they published a short news article about these new hotel documents, which merely noted that I claim that these new documents “resolve a mystery” about Snowden. The Folha article also neglects to note that they were one of the outlets originally publishing the false story. But at least they said something.
That stands in stark contrast to all the U.S. outlets that published this falsehood and yet, 10 days later, have said literally nothing, continuing to allow what they now know is a factually false story to remain online uncorrected. They have simply refused even to address or acknowledge this new evidence. That includes the newspaper that first printed this falsehood and then re-published it most frequently — the Wall Street Journal — but also outlets such as Business Insider, Yahoo News, and Slate, as well as Hayden, Reid, and most amazingly, Edward Jay Epstein, whose book aggressively features this fraud.
That journalists and editors at these outlets are well aware of these new documents proving the falsehood of their stories is beyond question. Beyond Charlie Savage, many of the nation’s most respected national security and surveillance journalists noted — in widely shared tweets — that these new documents prove the original stories to be false:
Snowden himself repeatedly re-tweeted those to his 3 million followers. And along with Savage, I repeatedly and specifically directed tweets at the editors of these publications responsible for the false stories, asking why no correction or retraction had been made:
The reporter who wrote the false stories for both Yahoo News and Business Insider, Michael B. Kelley, responded when pushed on Twitter by, first, trying to imply the documents might be forgeries, then deleting those tweets and instead telling Savage: “Glad that got sorted with docs.” Yet the outlets that printed Kelley’s false claims have left them standing uncorrected.
What could possibly excuse this behavior? It’s bad enough that they all printed significant claims that — as Savage documented — never had any journalistic basis in the first place. That’s journalistic recklessness. But now they know their stories are false and have left them standing without comment. That’s deliberate deceit, journalistic fraud.
There has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the last several months about why Fake News has proliferated and why Trump views waging war on the media as a winning strategy. The reason for both is clear: Trust in established media institutions has collapsed. Yet for all the concern expressed about these trends, there is very little effort expended to examine the media’s own role in this collapse of trust.
As these sorts of incidents demonstrate, they clearly bear a significant share of the blame. Why should institutions as insular and unaccountable as these have any valid claim to credibility?
If you publish serious claims without any basis that mislead readers, and then refuse to acknowledge new evidence that disproves your original claims — all because you dislike the people you originally smeared with falsehoods too much to correct your error or because you hope the embarrassment will disappear faster if just you ignore it — why should anyone view you as being different than Macedonian teenagers or “alt-right” conspiracy sites? What are the cognizable differences?
A vibrant and powerful fact-checking media is supposed to be one of the great safeguards against demagoguing authoritarians and assaults on democratic institutions. That only works if they earn the trust that they need to fulfill that function.
UPDATE: Slate has now corrected its false claim by adding this note to the bottom of its original article:
Business Insider has now done the same to one of its articles making this false claim, adding this note at the top: