Wednesday, March 23, 2022
Annals Of Bunco: Skeptical Questions About Jeffrey Goldberg's 'Suckers & Losers' Story That 'The Atlantic' Just Can't Seem To Answer
To: Anna Bross, Director of Communications, The Atlantic.
Fr: William McGowan, Coloring The News blog
Re: Jeffrey Goldberg’s Suckers & Losers Story 9/20
Date: March 23, 2022
As I’ve explained several times over the last year, I’m working on a book—my fourth—about intellectual dishonesty and repression in the time of Trump and Woke. (Working title at the moment is The Captive Mind as per Czeslaw Milosz or maybe Battle Not With Monsters from Nietzsche.) Part of the book is about “Resistance Journalism” and the collapse of norms and standards in the media during campaign 2020. As you may have noticed, we are still digging our way out of that wreckage. Case in point, the NYT’s admission last week that the emails on Hunter Biden’s laptop were authentic, not anything close to Russian disinformation. Likewise revelations about Kamala Harris’ experience and competence as well as Biden’s mental fitness.
But many in the media resist accountability, still unready to acknowledge how far off the rails the press went in order to drive Trump from the White House.
Along these lines, I’m looking pretty closely at Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg’s Suckers and Losers piece from early September, 2020, and would really like answers to the questions I have been posing to you at regular intervals for more than a year now, but which you and others at the Atlantic I’ve reached out to---Don Peck, David Frum, Jim Fallows and Nicholas Thompson--- have refused to engage. Again: For more than a year now.
The follow up reporting that Goldberg said would be forthcoming over 18 months ago has not materialized. I’m getting the feeling that Goldberg’s piece is not nearly as sturdy as he insisted when it first dropped. In fact, after much triangulated reading and re-reporting, I can’t dismiss that the piece may in fact be a “Deep State” dirty trick that Goldberg got suckered by, or that it might be a fabrication---a good-old, whole-cloth hoax. As the hacks on Fleet street used to say back in the day, “Make it early. Make it short. And if you have to make it up.”
So once again I’d ask you have a look my inquiries and come back with some kind of response. My questions are:
1/ A few days after the piece dropped, Goldberg said he would have more reporting in the coming days to bolster the story; CNN characterized him as saying what we’d seen so far was just “the tip of the iceberg.” Addressing his reliance on four anonymous sources to make the claims he did about Trump’s reluctance to go to a World War I American military cemetery while in France, Goldberg told Jim Sciutto that he would be “continuing to make the effort to move this material directly on to the record.”
So, what happened to that reportorial effort to expose the rest of the iceberg by getting the unnamed sources to forgo their anonymity? (In fact, instead of an iceberg, there has been even less than a warm bucket of spit.) Why didn’t Goldberg have any luck in moving his sources onto the record as he assured us they would? And why was he so confident those anonymous sources were going to come forward; had they agreed to do so before and then pulled out after the piece came out, perhaps dismayed by the way the Atlantic seemed to have coordinated the publication of the piece with post-Labor Day Biden campaign schedule? Did Goldberg get out too far over his skis on this point, panicked maybe by the pressure that skeptics of the piece put on him? (I’m pretty sure I saw flop-sweat when Goldberg was on CNN’s Reliable Sources w Brian Stelter.)
2/ Goldberg’s piece maintained that Trump didn’t go to the military cemetery in France because he had contempt for the dead soldiers there and that the excuse he gave that the weather was too inclement to fly in a helicopter to the cemetery was a cover for not wanting to drive the 1.5+ hours each way it would take there, which might get his high-maintenance hairdo wet. On one cable interview, Goldberg added that Marine pilots were actually miffed at Trump blaming the weather, taking it as a slight to their flying skills.
Within days it was learned that the Navy had in fact determined that bad weather had made it too risky to fly and that documentation of that determination was sought and received in a 2018 FOIA request by Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold, which Leopold had posted on Leopold’s Twitter account, which was not referenced in Goldberg’s story. This documentation would seem to have splintered a major plank of Goldberg’s story. And also raised more doubts about his heavy reliance on anonymous sources when more objective documentary evidence was not too hard to find.
So why was there never a correction to the story, or at least an editorial clarification noting what the Navy said about the weather in France at the time and the decision to forego flying that day? Why did your fact checkers decide to go with what the anonymous sources said about the decision not to fly over what the Navy told Jason Leopold in 2018, presuming the fact checkers were aware of that FOIA request? What’s with this concealment? (Apologies for the trope.)
3/ The piece says that Goldberg’s relied on “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day.” It distinctly does not say these people were actually on the line for these discussions and accurately heard what was being discussed first hand, perhaps by themselves or by others in the chain of command. This suggests to me that the sources of information about that phone call might have been from the national security personnel who routinely monitor presidential phone calls, either when the president is speaking with foreign leaders in the Oval office or when the president is travelling overseas. It also suggests that the “first-hand knowledge” of the substance of the discussions might have been distorted in the re-telling, as in a game of phone tag, either innocently or intentionally.
Could what Goldberg’s sources said was “first-hand knowledge” of the discussion actually have been something other than “first-hand?” Did the Atlantic make any effort to determine whether what Goldberg heard was actually “from the horse’s’ mouth?”
4/ Alex Marlow, editor of Breitbart and author of the NYT best-seller Breaking The News: Exposing the Media’s Hidden Deals and Secret Corruption. (Threshold Editions, May 2021) says the strongest reason for doubting the Goldberg story is the numerous for-the-record denials from various Trump aides who were on the trip and would have been in direct position to know because they were in the room when discussions were being conducted between the President’s entourage in France and the Secret Service in Washington. (pp 43-48) Why were these sources not contacted for the original piece? And why were their subsequent denials to other publications not noted in any follow up reporting once those denials were noted? Not all of the deniers were still working for Trump or even in his good graces at the point Goldberg published his piece, it should be noted. John Bolton, for example, had left the White House in a highly agitated, irritable state and had published a very negative book about Trump and his experience as National Security Director. Bolton said he never spoke to anyone from the Atlantic and certainly did not hear anything that Goldberg reports. Did you reach out to these Trump aides and officials and were rebuffed? Or did you not reach out?
5/ I noticed that Goldberg interviewed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman shortly after the Suckers and Losers piece, posting that interview on September 14th. Can’t help but ask: Was Vindman a source or did he help Goldberg locate a source, courtesy of the network of national security aides Vindman was part of before the Ukraine/Impeachment imbroglio and his subsequent retirement earlier this year? Was there any involvement from Eric Ciaramella, the CIA analyst who was te actual whistleblower on the Trump’s Ukraine impeachment phone call with whom Vindman colluded? Did Goldberg have any role in securing Vindman a visiting fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House this last year for his PhD?
6/ Did Goldberg’s much-derided and debunked New Yorker piece about Saddam’s fictitious WMD program and Saddam’s equally fictitious ties to Al Qaeda (The Great Terror, March 25, 2002) cast a shadow over the fact checking process for the Suckers and Losers piece? Many of Goldberg’s sources on that effort---anonymous sources as well as sources who allowed themselves to be named---quite obviously lied to Goldberg, and inputs from intelligence sources--- American, German and Israeli---were unreliable. Were there a lot of “on author” notations on the Atlantic manuscript as a New Yorker fact checker told me there was on that 2002 WMD piece, meaning that the magazine had no documentation and had to rely on Goldberg’s word and that word alone? Are any of those fact checkers still working at the Atlantic?
7/ Could you comment on the account of Suckers and Losers in Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump, a book that was published in May of last year(2021) by former Atlantic writer Edward-Isaac Dovere who is now at CNN? (see pp 415-416) If you’ll recall, a day or so after the Suckers and Losers piece dropped, Dovere put a question to Biden at a press conference about it---the lead question in fact. What did Biden think about the story and what it said about Trump’s “soul,” Dovere wanted to know. So at that point in time, at the very beginning of the campaign’s final, post-Labor Day leg, I think it’s safe to assume that Dovere had no problem with the credibility of the piece.
But the way that Dovere’s book is worded in relation to the Goldberg piece leaves the impression that the author lost a bit of confidence in it since the time Goldberg’s piece dropped and the time the book went to the printer. (Note, again, that Dovere left the Atlantic and is now at CNN) It’s as if he’s trying to distance himself from it, that he developed the sense that it is tainted. Dovere doesn’t even mention the Goldberg piece by its title, instead referring to it as “an article in the Atlantic.” And his description of the text lacks detail, as if a fact-checker or a lawyer went through it and took out anything that could not be corroborated or verified independently. Anybody at the Atlantic notice this? Anyone from outside the magazine reviewing Dovere’s book or writing about it for publicity call in about this?
8/ I have not done any kind of rigorous analysis of the frequency of Goldberg’s television appearances since Suckers & Losers but you as the magazine’s publicist probably have that information at the ready. Has the publicly-aired doubts about this article’s credibility and veracity led any TV bookers to bar or cancel Goldberg in places where he might have otherwise been invited?
9/ Goldberg’s story implies that Trump was less than patriotic---and that on that trip to France at least, he put his complicated hairdo first instead of valorizing honorably dead American soldiers.
But is Goldberg the appropriate person to cast aspersions here about patriotism given his own complicated relationship to American patriotism? Many saw Goldberg’s erroneous WMD story as an example of “Israel First” journalism practiced by many neocons in the run-up to the Iraq Invasion: Which makes him an ironic defender of the honor of American troops, almost 5000 of whom perished in Iraq.
Could you help me understand why Goldberg was never held to account for that 2002 WMD story---neither by the New Yorker or by the Atlantic--- despite the WMD story representing one of the most salient journalistic blunders of all time?
Also, why Goldberg himself has never explained his reportorial failures here, and why he has been abusive and mean whenever he’s been pressed about it, most notably by the German war correspondent Carolin Emcke, author of Echoes of Violence? It might be relevant here to know whether Goldberg still a dual US-Israeli citizen or has he given up the Israeli passport as he told Paul Starobin of the Washingtonian he was about to do in 2013? And how did one of the most important magazines in America come to have someone as its editor-in-chief who has served in Israel’s military but not that of the United States?
10/ From April 6 to April 8th the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic will jointly host a conference called “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy.” The gathering is being described as “a groundbreaking three-day event exploring the organized spread of disinformation and strategies to respond to it.” The conference will bring together “a top-tier group of experts, policymakers, journalists and politicians to analyze this important phenomenon.” Among the participants are former President Barack Obama ( who will be interviewed by Goldberg), David Axelrod (who heads the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago) and Joan Donovan (of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy). Joining them will be New York Times tech columnist Kara Swisher, former Times media critic Ben Smith, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum and Chris Krebs, former DHS cyber security director for elections.
Explaining the basis for the conference, Axelrod said that disinformation and conspiracy theories “have become weapons with which to foment mistrust in our institutions, sow division and even political violence.” According to Goldberg: “Disinformation causes a great deal of stress on otherwise functioning democracies, and The Atlantic’s preoccupation, for 165 years, has been the state of American democracy, and the state of the democratic idea worldwide,” said Goldberg.
Th Atlantic has been an keen-eyed sentry on the disinformation watch all through the Trump years. But it has also been a victim of disinformation, its susceptibilities to it on display in the overzealous way its own "top-tier" scribes have gone about reporting on it. It dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop story, gave credence to the Russia Collusion hoax, was credulous about the Christopher Steele dossier at that hoax’s core and advanced Franklin Foer's completely bullshit Alpha Bank story which was planted by attorneys & operatives for Hillary Clinton's campaign-----including the hiring of Foer--- after the bogus story ran. It also pretended not to notice when its stories on these subjects came a cropper ---and that that Special Prosecutor John Durham is putting together a pretty good case against the Democratic National committee and its lawyers for lying to the FBI and to the CIA in order to get the government to surveil the Trump campaign in 2016.
Will there be a panel on the Atlantic’s own dysfunctional experience with disinformation, the Deep State dirty tricks it has been a part of and the erosion of its own journalistic credibility this has caused? If so, might you think about calling that panel “Suckers & Losers?”