Consuming Journalism: Shoddy work at the Huffington Post

On 12 July 2017 (“06:28 pm ET”), the Huffington Post published an article by Mollie Reilly with the headline “Report Says U.S. Intelligence Agencies Heard Russian Officials Discussing Trump Team in 2015.” There are a lot of things wrong with the article. President Trump’s line about Fake News is wrong, irresponsible, and petty, but there is plenty of bad reporting out there.

The Huffington Post article refers mainly to a Wall Street Journal article by Shane Harris titled “Russian Officials Overheard Discussing Trump Associates Before Campaign Began.” The Wall Street Journal published the Shane Harris article at “4:12 p.m. ET” and an updated version at “9:26 p.m. ET”.

The problem with the Huffington Post article starts immediately, in the headline, with the reference to the “Trump Team”. Use of the term Team implies that it is a defined entity. However, in this context, would it be possible to define that Team and set bounds and names to it? It also implies that Russian officials were discussing the Trump campaign.

The 4:12 p.m. Wall Street Journal article opens with the following paragraph. (I have lost access to the rest of the 4:12 p.m. text following the update. I didn’t hit copy fast enough.)

July 12, 2017 4:12 p.m. ET

“WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence agencies starting in the spring of 2015 detected conversations in which Russian government officials discussed associates of Donald Trump, several months before he declared his candidacy for president, according to current and former U.S. officials.”

The 9:26 p.m. ET Wall Street Journal article opens with the following paragraph:

“WASHINGTON—Investigators are re-examining conversations detected by U.S. intelligence agencies in spring 2015 that captured Russian government officials discussing associates of Donald Trump, according to current and former U.S. officials, a move prompted by revelations that the president’s eldest son met with a Russian lawyer last year.”

The 9:26 p.m ET Wall Street Journal article then goes on to explain the following (bold emphasis added by me for clarity):

“The intelligence gathering wasn’t aimed at Mr. Trump or people in his circle, and it isn’t clear which Trump advisers or associates the Russians referred to, or whether they had any connection to his presidential aspirations.”

In the Huffington Post article, the caption beneath the headline indicates that “the report comes one day after Donald Trump Jr. released emails detailing plans for his meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer.” This implies that there was an official report prepared. Based on my understanding of the Wall Street Journal article, unnamed current and former officials claim that unnamed investigators have decided to revisit the information contained in 2015 surveillance reports/reporting because of the recent revelations of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer.

According to the Huffington Post article, the Wall Street Journal report (I’d call it an article) characterized the conversations and the circumstances in the following manner:

“…the conversations were picked up by intelligence officials who routinely monitor communications (including phone calls and emails) between people believed to be involved in Russian spying on the U.S. While WSJ’s sources did not say which associates were mentioned, they noted that the conversations included references to meetings between Trump’s allies and Russian officials held outside the U.S.”

However, the 9:26 p.m. ET Wall Street Journal article does not use the words spying or allies. Here’s how it’s described in the Wall Street Journal article:

“In some cases, the Russians in the overheard conversations talked about meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers, these people said.

Russian officials are routinely monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and it wouldn’t be unusual for them to discuss people who have business interests in Russia.”

You might argue that “Russians spying on the U.S.” is implied, and you’d have a point. But the U.S. also monitors Russians and other foreigners who are not spying on the U.S. My point is that the author has made some questionable and possibly misleading changes to the terms and wording in the Wall Street Journal article.

I’ll close this out with one of the worst examples of vague, nebulous wording that frequently shows up in articles but could mean anything or nothing:

“The FBI is also reportedly looking at Carter Page, a onetime foreign policy adviser to the campaign, as well as Trump political adviser Roger Stone.”

Note: As I mentioned, I did not copy the 4:12 p.m. ET Wall Street Journal article fast enough. Given the Huffington Post’s 06:28 pm ET timestamp, I assume that the author was referring to the 4:12 p.m. ET version. If it turns out that some of the things I have criticized as bad choices were based on different wording used in the original Wall Street Journal article, I’ll correct it here and state that I was wrong. But the Huffington Post should consider updating its article regardless.

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