"Close enough" counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but not reporting.
Bear with us. This story is a bit convoluted, but the short of it is this: The New York Times in June printed a falsehood whose roots can be traced back directly to Hillary Clinton's failed 2016 campaign. Though it was a small thing, it was still incorrect. The Times eventually printed a correction.
President Trump noted this week that the paper printed a correction, and he did this as he downplayed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Now the Times is accusing the president of trying to distract from real issues, which is a bit bold considering they're the ones who screwed up part of the story in the first place.
On Thursday, the president took issue specifically with the claim that all 17 intelligence agencies share this conclusion.
"I said, ‘Boy, that's a lot.' Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right?" the president said during a press conference. "It turned out to be three or four — it wasn't 17 — and many of your compatriots had to change their reporting, and they had to apologize, and they had to correct."
Trump is not wrong, but this requires further explanation.
On Oct. 7, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a joint statement claiming Russia had directed cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Though the ODNI speaks on behalf of the entire intelligence community, it never stated explicitly that each branch had come to the same hacking conclusion.
Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign seized on the October statement, asserting unequivocally that all 17 agencies agreed Russia had interfered in the election. As a person who covered the Clinton campaign at the time, I can attest personally that they repeated this specific charge as often as possible.
Clinton herself asserted during a presidential debate in Las Vegas in October that, "17 intelligence agencies … have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyber-attacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin."
Several months later, on Jan. 6, the ODNI published a second assessment. This one stated Russia not only spearheaded the cyber-attacks, but that it did so with the explicit purpose of aiding Trump's election efforts.
As in October, the ODNI did not say the Jan. 6 assessment was the conclusion of all 17 agencies.
In fact, former DNI chief James Clapper stated explicitly during his congressional testimony on May 8 that the January conclusion was the work of three intelligence agencies acting "under the aegis" of his office.
Nevertheless, both the Associated Press and the New York Times claimed in June that all 17 agencies shared the Jan. 6 conclusion. The Times reported this in a June 25 article authored by Maggie Haberman. The AP, for its part, reported on June 2, June 26 and June 29 that all the branches shared the Jan. 6 assessment.
The AP and the Times covered the new assessment exactly as they covered the Oct. 7 statement, meaning they repeated the 17 branches line without verifying whether it was actually true.
Both newsrooms have corrected their June stories, because someone must have realized they were still parroting a line left over from Clinton's 2016 campaign.
That's what Trump meant when he (correctly) noted Thursday that the press had been throwing around a dubious number. However, he was wrong to suggest the U.S. intelligence community has been vague regarding whether they think Russia interfered. They've definitely been clear about that.
That said, it is a bit rich to see the Times respond to Trump's press conference this week with a defense that amounts to little more than "close enough."
The paper published an article Thursday, titled "Trump Misleads on Russian Meddling: Why 17 Intelligence Agencies Don't Need to Agree," arguing it's a potato–potahto situation to quibble over whether the Jan. 6 hacking assessment was the conclusion of all 17 agencies. The Times reporter responsible for the June 25 correction also suggested her mistake was negligible:
The important thing, they seem to argue, is that the U.S. intelligence community believes Russia interfered in the election. Whether that's the assessment of three or 17 agencies is beside the point.
Well, yes. The investigation of Russia's alleged meddling is important. However, a little humility would do the Times well. Tut-tutting Trump for pointing out they got something wrong is not a great look, especially as it seems Haberman and her editors were on autopilot when they slipped a dusty Clinton campaign talking point into a story involving the Jan. 6 assessment.
The important thing is Congress' investigation of the election, and the Times' June 25 report got it mostly right. But "Mostly right, but sometimes we just repeat whatever Democratic campaigns say" doesn't quite have the same ring as "All the news that's fit to print."