Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
the national interest

Columbia Journalism Review Had a Different Russiagate Story — and Spiked It

The curious editorial decisions of a journalism watchdog.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a long critique by Jeff Gerth of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Russia scandal. The CJR story worked backward from the conclusion that Donald Trump had been vindicated and used a parallel to the media’s coverage of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Its author argues that the suspicions about Trump’s affinity for Russia were seeded by Hillary Clinton — a theory that William Barr tried, and spectacularly failed, to prove. Proceeding from the premise that Trump had been smeared by the press, Gerth attacked the media’s coverage of the issue.

That Columbia Journalism Review has weighed in on the pro-Trump side of the Russia scandal — despite the collapse of Barr’s investigation — is a sign Trump and his allies continue to hold the momentum in pushing their message that the media made a huge error investigating the Russia scandal.

This is a triumph of spin. You could, if you were so inclined, paint a picture of the Watergate reporting as a liberal-media witch hunt. There were clear errors of reporting, hyperventilated expectations (that Richard Nixon would be proven to have ordered the break-in), and even credible allegations of unethical conduct by the press. The deep state was even involved! But in the broader scope of things, that conclusion would be silly. In the main, Nixon was guilty, and the media’s reporting was good.

The same can be said of the media’s coverage of the Russia scandal. Yes, some of the reporting, as you would expect of a sprawling investigation, was wrong. And some expectations of where the scandal would go from opinion journalists were wrong, too. (I speculated the Steele dossier would be proven mostly true, and that prediction turned out very wrong.) Still, the investigation produced extensive evidence of misconduct. The Russians secretly dangled a nine-figure payoff to Trump, whose campaign manager, who had previously worked to elect a pro-Russian candidate in another election, was working secretly with a Russian intelligence agent. The weight of this scandal would have forced a normal president to resign.

In the main, the broad suspicion of the investigation — that Trump’s pattern of oddly Russophilic statements might be explained by some hidden partnership — proved to be correct.

Columbia Journalism Review Commissioned, and Killed, a Very Different Russia Story

One especially striking thing about CJR’s decision to side with Trump is that CJR itself turns out to be implicated in a serious journalism scandal related to this very issue. CJR commissioned a story on The Nation’s coverage of Russia, which had been raising eyebrows for its slavishly pro-Putin line. The story, reported by Duncan Campbell, was damning. But CJR spiked the story. And all this happened while CJR was “involved in an ambitious and lucratively funded partnership between the CJR and The Nation,” according to Campbell.

Campbell has now published both the agreed-upon text of his original story, before CJR killed it, and an account of what happened with CJR. The first is devastating to The Nation (or, at least, to its coverage of Russia), and the second is devastating to CJR. While both are worth reading in full, I will summarize both pieces, which collectively form a powerful indictment of both publications.

Here is the basic story of what Campbell reported about the The Nation three years ago. All these facts come from a story that was edited and fact-checked by CJR:

During the Cold War, when communism split the western left, The Nation often took a pro-Moscow line. Its Moscow correspondent, Louis Fischer, had covered up Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians before eventually becoming disillusioned with communism and leaving the magazine. He was replaced by Walter Duranty, who had been fired from the New York Times after years of covering up Soviet atrocities.

But while the demise of communism cooled the left-wing impulse to defend Moscow, The Nation retained its pro-Russian stance. Stephen F. Cohen, the magazine’s in-house Russologist and husband of its former editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, had been invited to address the Russian elite by Gorbachev, and later received Russia’s “Order of Friendship” award from President Dmitry Medvedev.

Cohen’s commentary had a privileged place in the magazine, Campbell reported. His stories received little editing and often made hyperbolic, absurd, or outright false claims. To accuse Russia of hacking Democratic emails could mean “the necessity of actual war, conceivably nuclear war, against Russia.” He repeatedly likened investigations into Russian election interference to McCarthyism and warned they posed a high risk of triggering nuclear war.

By contrast, Robert Dreyfuss, a foreign-affairs expert for the magazine, was put on a tight leash when it came to Russia. “A few years earlier, after Dreyfuss had published a few pieces highly critical of Russia, Vanden Heuvel told him to stay off the subject,” reported Campbell. “It was an unusual request — she seldom communicated directly with writers handled by other editors — and Cohen had exerted influence over the decision.” Several years later, after staff complaints about Russia coverage, he began writing a weekly column about Trump and Russia.

The nadir occurred when Vanden Heuvel commissioned a story calling the DNC hack an “inside job.” The author, Patrick Lawrence, had praised Cohen and insisted Russia could not have hacked DNC emails, and later publicly endorsed the theory that Seth Rich had been murdered. The report was transparently kooky. Campbell reported that “the two most senior editors who were shown Lawrence’s copy before publication — executive editor Richard Kim, who has since left, and managing editor Roane Carey — both advised against running it.” But “‘Katrina was fast-tracking,’ according to a staff member present at the time.” The story created an uproar among Nation staff.

In a statement, The Nation responded to what it called Campbell’s “patently false” coverage that “rehashes an old controversy from six years ago and ignores our recent reporting on Russia, discounting the many voices and perspectives we’ve published over the years.” Campbell told me he stands by his reporting.

Why Didn’t CJR Publish This?

Campbell’s reporting on The Nation was detailed and highly incriminating. His account of his dealings with Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, is worse.

Here is what Campbell reports happened to his story at CJR:

Pope continuously sent Campbell directives to soften the tone of his reporting. After the story had been edited, Campbell wrote, Pope demanded it be cut by 1,000 words, “mainly to remove material about the errors in The Nation article” but also to remove passages “showing how, from 2014 onwards, Vanden Heuvel had hired a series of pro-Russian correspondents after they had praised her husband,” said Cohen.

Campbell complied with those directives, and his piece was completely edited and fact-checked. But the next month, Pope pulled the story again, demanding even more extensive revisions.

“He wanted slashing cuts, new changes, and more deletions,” reported Campbell. “The heart of the report — close to 20 percent — was struck out, removing what remained of the section describing how Vanden Heuvel had blundered by rushing the ‘leak’ theory article to press.” Pope also removed “the passage describing how Cohen and Vanden Heuvel had traveled to Moscow in 2009 to receive Russia’s Order of Friendship award” and “references to Vanden Heuvel then appearing on Russian outlet RT.”

The next day, Pope decided to kill the story altogether, explaining that he no longer saw it as newsworthy.

While he was doing all this, Campbell reported, Pope personally wrote six stories for The Nation, making that magazine a significant platform for his own journalistic work and giving him a strong professional incentive to stay in its good graces. CJR had also undertaken a partnership with The Nation to cover the climate crisis, and the two institutions jointly raised $1 million for the project.

In the version of the story that ultimately was set to run, Pope did add a disclosure noting his writing for The Nation and the joint climate project. But the disclosure did not give readers a hint of the large financial stake the two institutions shared. And more importantly, disclosing an editor’s conflict of interest hardly resolves the problem when the editor weakens and then kills a story in service of that very conflict.

These two episodes have become more relevant given Pope’s decision to run a high-profile story about the Russia investigation that takes a pro-Trump premise. CJR is supposed to be a publication about journalistic practice and ethics. It had a story in its hands exposing bad journalism, but the subject of its story was its own partner.

There is a massive loophole in the norm of publishing disclosures of a conflict of interest: If the editor kills the story that is in conflict with his interests, he doesn’t have to disclose anything.

CJR’s Questionable Coverage Choices

In that light, it is worth considering CJR’s decision to instead publish a story depicting the media’s reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia as a debacle.

The Nation may not be anywhere near as important or as influential as organs like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but its role as a left-wing validator of Trump’s position gave it inordinate influence on this issue. And the failure of its Russia coverage is undeniable. The Nation based its analysis in Lawrence’s article on a premise that Russia was an innocent party being falsely accused of election interference, and the story it produced to support that claim was known by its own editors and staff to be flimsy and a subversion of its normal policies. Campbell’s reporting revealed a real scandal, and Pope’s decision to sit on that reporting is another scandal.

I don’t think Pope killed Campbell’s reporting entirely, or even mostly, because he was motivated by financial or career interests. I think he simply agrees with Gerth that the media treated Trump very unfairly. I would speculate that he hired Campbell to report on The Nation because the subject was raising eyebrows within journalism, and he expected Campbell, who had worked with and written for the publication’s longtime editor, Victor Navasky, to produce a sympathetic account. This would explain why Pope kept pushing Campbell to remove the most damning evidence from his story, delaying the process, and then citing the delay as the reason not to publish it. But this is purely a guess and may be wrong. For his part, Pope has responded to Campbell’s claims, saying that his characterization of what happened “isn’t remotely accurate,” adding, “a mutual interest in climate coverage is not what prevented Campbell’s piece from running in CJR. It was rather due to his own failure to produce, on time, a story that worked for publication.”

But having read Campbell’s two accounts, the theory that Pope published Gerth’s story simply because he cares so much about good and ethical journalism can be ruled out.

Correction: This story has been updated to the correct the number of articles that Kyle Pope published for The Nation and to clarify that the magazine has since published repeatedly on Russian interference in the 2016 election. It has been further updated to include both Pope and The Nation’s comments on Campbell’s reporting.

Columbia Journalism Review Spiked Different Russiagate Story