Five Weeks After The Guardian’s Viral Blockbuster Assange-Manafort Scoop, No Evidence Has Emerged — Just Stonewalling

The U.S. media is very adept at being outraged when they’re denounced as “fake news.” They should think more about why that attack resonates for so many.

Five weeks ago, The Guardian published one of the most extraordinary and significant bombshells in the now two-plus-year-old Trump-Russia saga. “Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and visited around the time he joined Trump’s campaign,” claimed reporter and best-selling “Collusion” author Luke Harding, Dan Collyns, and a very sketchy third person whose name was bizarrely scrubbed from The Guardian’s byline for its online version but appeared in the print version: Fernando Villavicencio, described by the Washington Post, discussing this mysterious discrepancy, as “an Ecuadoran journalist and activist.”

Guardian online edition, left; Guardian print edition, right.

That the Guardian story would be seen as an earth-shattering revelation — one that would bring massive amounts of traffic, attention, glory, and revenue to the paper — was obvious. And that’s precisely how it was treated, as it instantly ricocheted around the media ecosystem with predictable viral speed: “The ultimate Whoa If True. It’s … [the] ballgame if true,” pronounced MSNBC’s Chris Hayes who, unlike many media figures reacting to the story, sounded some skepticism: “The sourcing on this is a bit thin, or at least obscured.”

But Hayes’s cable news colleague Ari Melber opened his MSNBC show that night excitedly touting The Guardian’s scoop, while meticulously connecting all the new inflammatory dots it uncovered, asking one guest: “How does this bombshell impact the collusion part of the probe”?

From the start, the massive holes in The Guardian’s blockbuster were glaring. As I noted on the day the story published, analysts from across the political spectrum — including those quite hostile to Assange — expressed serious doubts about the article’s sourcing, internal logic, self-evidently dubious assertions, and overall veracity, even as many media figures uncritically trumpeted it.

In particular:

  • How could it be that Manafort, of all people, snuck into one of the most monitored, surveilled, videoed, and photographed buildings on the planet on three separate occasions without any of that ostensibly “smoking gun” visual evidence having emerged, including in The Guardian’s own story?
  • Why would The Guardian publish a story of this magnitude without first requiring that its Ecuadoran intelligence sources provide them with such photographic or video evidence to publish it or at least review prior to publication?
  • How could it be that Manafort’s name never appeared in any of the embassy entrance logs even though, as The Guardian itself admitted, “visitors normally register with embassy security guards and show their passports”?
  • What was the bizarre, sensationalistic reference to “Russians” that The Guardian included in its article but never bothered to explain (“separate internal document written by Ecuador’s Senain intelligence agency and seen by The Guardian lists ‘Paul Manaford [sic]’ as one of several well-known guests. It also mentions ‘Russians'”).

Five weeks later, all of these questions remain unanswered. That’s because The Guardian — which likes to pride itself on flamboyantly demanding transparency and accountability from everyone else — has refused to provide any of its own.

In lieu of addressing the increasingly embarrassing scandal, The Guardian’s top editors and reporters on this story have practically gone into hiding, ignoring all requests for comment and referring journalists to a corporate PR official who provides a statement that is as vague and bureaucratic as it is non-responsive. It’s easier to get a substantive comment from the National Security Agency than from The Guardian on this story.

The Guardian’s stonewalling appears even more unjustified given the affirmative attacks on the truth of its central claims. The former consul and first secretary at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Fidel Narváez, said emphatically in an interview with the British outlet The Canary that The Guardian story was “a fake” and provided that outlet with a formal complaint to the paper, in which he said at least one other story from the same Ecuadorian intelligence sources was also fabricated.

The Guardian’s refusal to address any of the very serious questions raised by its own article persisted even after one of the world’s largest newspapers, the Washington Post, published a major story on the paper’s debacle, noting: “One week after publication, the Guardian’s bombshell looks as though it could be a dud.”

The Post’s media reporter Paul Farhi joined the other critics of The Guardian’s story in documenting the multiple gaping holes in its reporting, including the bizarrely disappearing and highly sketchy third reporter, the fact that “no other news organization has been able to corroborate the Guardian’s reporting to substantiate its central claim of a meeting,” that the paper began almost immediately tweaking the language of its story to soften its certainty (a practice highly unusual for a story of this significance, where responsible editors would ensure that every word was accurate before publishing it), that “the story doesn’t specify the date of the alleged meeting,” that “no photos or video of Manafort entering the embassy have emerged,” and that “the Guardian is silent about whether its reporters saw any such photographic evidence.”

The Guardian’s typically public and outspoken editor-in-chief Kath Viner has all but disappeared since the story was published on November 27. Since then, she stopped tweeting entirely except to commemorate the November 30 death of a Guardian columnist. Harding has also tweeted just once since then. And both have ignored these questions submitted by The Intercept, as well as similar inquiries from other reporters:

None of this is an aberration. Quite the contrary, it has become par for the Trump-Russia course. One major story after the next falls apart, and there is no accountability, reckoning, or transparency (neither CNN nor MSNBC, for instance, have to date bothered to explain how they both “independently confirmed” the totally false story that Donald Trump, Jr. was offered advanced access to the WikiLeaks email archive, all based on false claims about the date of an email to him from a random member of the public).

Nor is it atypical for The Guardian when it comes to its institutionally blinding contempt for Assange: During the election, the paper was forced to retract its viral report from political reporter Ben Jacobs, who decided to assert, without any whiff of basis, that Assange has a “long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.”

The U.S media has become very adept at outrage rituals whenever they are denounced as “fake news.” They should spend some time trying to become as skilled in figuring out why such attacks resonate for so many.

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