A GHOST is haunting American journalism—the specter of serial misreporting about events of major national import. In one instance after another, the media has over the past several decades not simply gotten it wrong, but presented the reverse of the truth. This dismaying pattern has recurred with metronomic regularity, starting with the leadup to the war in Iraq and culminating recently with Russiagate.
At first glance, the cases of Russiagate and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) might appear to have little in common. The first had its origins in a political operation championed by Hillary Clinton supporters, which turned into one of the most fateful episodes in a rich bipartisan history of American electoral shenanigans, as the American media credulously gobbled up the farrago of preposterous claims contained in a dossier concocted by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Some five years after the fact, the Steele dossier has become a serious embarrassment—“garbage,” as Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple put it—and is now unfolding as a story about bad actors, a cautionary tale about what can happen when the quest for political supremacy lurches into a pell-mell battle for victory at any cost. The second was an analytic estimate gone wrong, our nation’s biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. It is a narrative about government bureaucrats, working under intense pressure from a Republican White House, who became beguiled by unexamined assumptions and overly confident assertions.
The key to each of these cases is collective rather than individual failure—a widespread inability to determine where truth lay amid sensational claims, information gaps, and willful deception. Put bluntly, the very institutions that once served as bulwarks against error now advertised, amplified, and exploited fraudulent reports. Intelligence community leaders helped to legitimize rather than debunk the invented Steele Dossier. Consider the duplicitous Iraqi defector Curveball, whom German intelligence sources regarded with skepticism but American officials did not. His bogus accounts of Iraq’s biological weapons labs were at the heart of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s lamentable address to the United Nations Security Council. Professional standards that normally safeguard the integrity of journalism and intelligence work were cast overboard as so much useless ballast. The result was a Gadarene-like stampede of groupthink impervious—indeed, openly hostile—to skeptical questioning, that was injurious to American national security. Understanding the factors that combined to produce this phenomenon may help to mitigate our institutional susceptibility to a repetition of such errors.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. One of the key questions in these episodes is why journalists and government officials jumped so quickly to mistaken conclusions and resisted so fiercely any challenges to their judgments, despite the shaky basis for confidence. Why did intelligence analysts dismiss alternative hypotheses in the case of Iraq’s WMD, while describing their consensus judgment that Saddam Hussein was hiding large caches of such weapons as a “slam dunk?” Why did media organizations buy in so quickly to the far-fetched suggestion that Steele, banned from traveling to Russia, could make a few phone calls and uncover highly sensitive Kremlin secrets unavailable to the world’s best intelligence organizations?
Many are quick to blame Russiagate on political bias, and there is certainly something to that accusation. Investigations have uncovered texts, emails, and social media comments by career bureaucrats involved in the scandal that smacked of partisanship, and it is clear that many of our nation’s media figures cared more about subverting Donald Trump than they did about getting their facts straight.
But politics had little to do with the bipartisan rush to judgment on Iraq’s WMD or with concerns on both sides of the aisle about Trump’s dealings with Russia. It doesn’t explain why organizations with multiple layers of analytic and editorial review designed to weed out deception, factual errors, and weakly supported judgments were duped on a mass scale.
Psychologists have a term for the urge to render definitive judgment amidst ambiguity: “the need for closure.” Research shows that, to varying degrees, most people are distressed by uncertainty. In our efforts to avoid that distress, we often zero in quickly on a simple, emotionally satisfying explanation for a new development, and we resist information that might undermine our certainty. Those who question the basis for our decisiveness provoke deep hostility, even “cancelation.” Arie Kruglanski, the University of Maryland social psychologist who pioneered research into epistemic closure, has shown that this bias tends to grow stronger in times of emergency or crisis, such as in the aftermath of terrorist incidents.
For many Americans, Trump’s election in 2016 was almost as traumatic as the events of September 11, 2001. Both Democrats and a sizeable number of Republican traditionalists regarded his unorthodox views as beyond the pale. Media coverage of the campaign gave Trump almost no chance of victory, and it is surely no exaggeration to say that his upset triumph produced a sizeable post-election shock. Their surprise made both government officials and journalists particularly prone to early anchoring on a simple and easily grasped explanation, despite its shallow evidentiary foundation: that Trump and Vladimir Putin had conspired to steal the election. In other words, one of the most important factors in the cases of Russiagate and Iraq’s WMD was not politics, but fear.
INFORMATION OVERLOAD. This perception of crisis almost certainly reinforced the impact of a second factor in both episodes: a cacophony of information sources. Unlike in the past, when respected print and broadcast media organizations could take the time to render authoritative verdicts on what was factually accurate and what was not, social media means that vast numbers of individuals, with or without relevant expertise, can flood the digital sphere in real time with assertions, rumors, second- and third-hand accounts, and even conscious deception.
Social media reward those first to post about a new development, whether their sources of information are vetted or not. Postings that go viral are typically those that provoke strong emotional responses, such as outrage, rather than those that strive for balance, objectivity, and rigorous sourcing. Facebook and Twitter are called “social” media for a good reason—their users typically employ information sharing as a form of socializing. Postings that win approval from others are prized over postings that provide unwelcome truths. The struggle for attention and status in the 24/7 digital sphere punishes those who recognize the importance of carefully investigating competing hypotheses and resist the rush to judgment. Sorting fact from fiction under these circumstances is a formidable challenge.
One might imagine that in theory, an abundance of information sources would increase the likelihood that a diverse range of viewpoints would be considered and boost the chances of zeroing in on truth. In practice, the opposite tends to occur. Many people, including those in government and news organizations, are often overwhelmed by a flood of information. They seek refuge by forming echo-chambers of like-minded people resistant to diverse viewpoints, and they are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias, the tendency to see what we already believe when sorting through information sets. Intelligence analysts were operating in a comparatively smaller pre-Facebook information environment prior to the Iraq war, but even at that time they “simply disregarded evidence that did not support their hypotheses,” according to the Iraq WMD commission. This phenomenon played out on a massive scale during Russiagate.
REWRITING THE Rules. One of the temptations during times of crisis is to believe that the organizational procedures, methodological standards, and professional ethics that govern operations during normal times no longer apply. In the world of journalism, this belief contributed to what Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, has called resistance journalism: setting aside “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness” in order to produce “damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices.” Media critic Matt Taibbi has observed that “reporting the controversy”—documenting reactions to allegations rather than investigating the claims themselves—has always been a creative way for journalists to avoid traditional fact-checking rules. The difference during Russiagate, he says, is that news organizations celebrated, rather than condemned, such sleight of hand. They would have been wiser to resist the trend towards resistance journalism, a fancy term that was supposed to serve as license for bending the truth.
Rule-bending in the government took different forms. Leaks of classified information fueled much of the media’s coverage of the Iraq WMD issue. Leaks turned into a flood during Russiagate, when many government officials told reporters off the record that they considered themselves part of the anti-Trump “resistance,” and one even published an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times describing his opposition to the president. The FBI cited the meretricious Steele Dossier in an application to the FISA court authorizing unprecedented intelligence collection on a major presidential campaign. Ex-FBI director James Comey employed his own version of “reporting the controversy” to justify including the Steele Dossier in a special intelligence briefing for Trump in January 2017, explaining to the president-elect that the dossier’s still unpublished claims were the subject of important Washington cocktail gossip. The fact of his briefing was itself leaked almost immediately, making it fair game for publication and kicking off years of Steele-inspired allegations.