The Media Today

Was the Times right to ‘out’ the Ukraine whistleblower?

September 27, 2019

Yesterday morning, the whistleblower complaint that sparked the Ukraine scandal—and pushed House Democrats to launch a formal impeachment inquiry—was made available to the public. The whistleblower described a phone call in which Donald Trump pressed Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, to investigate Joe Biden and his son. That much we knew about. The complaint also alleged that White House officials moved quickly to “lock down” all records related to the call. That was news. The whistleblower then played a central role, in absentia, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing with Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. In questioning Maguire about Ukraine, Committee Democrats portrayed the whistleblower as a concerned patriot; Republicans called the whistleblower an anti-Trump hack acting in bad faith. (There’s little evidence for the latter, but why let facts get in the way of a convenient narrative?)

Through all of that, we had no idea who the whistleblower was. We still don’t, but we’re now closer, thanks to the New York Times. In an article published yesterday afternoon, a team of Times journalists identified “him” (not “them”) as an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency working for a time at the White House and now back at the CIA. High up in the story, the Times quoted Andrew Bakaj, an attorney for the whistleblower, calling the paper’s decision to publish identifying details “deeply concerning and reckless.” Readers also saw remarks from Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, justifying the decision. “The president and some of his supporters have attacked the credibility of the whistle-blower,” Baquet said. “We wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible.”

Related: How I missed the Ukraine story

Not all readers were grateful. Hours earlier, the LA Times, also racing for a scoop, obtained chilling audio of Trump suggesting that anyone who exposes his administration’s secrets should be punished by execution. For impeachment fans following along at home, things looked bad for their patriot hero, and anyone who talked to him. On social media, critics—including the Obama administration’s ethics chief and a plethora of national-security experts and journalists—lined up to savage the Times for irresponsible conduct. Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, told Task & Purpose that the Times had endangered not only the Ukraine whistleblower, but future whistleblowers as well; Eric Garland, an analyst and consultant, went as far as to call the paper a “national security risk.” Rival outlets declined to follow the Times’s lead; NBC News, for example, wrote in an article about the backlash to the Times that it would not repeat the details the paper reported “because the whistleblower is seeking anonymity.”

Yesterday evening, the picture shifted. The Times reported that the White House knew the whistleblower was a CIA officer before the paper published that fact. The idea that the paper had “outed” him to his bosses seemed suddenly to have been mistaken. As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted in his newsletter, the new information “takes some of the heat off the NYT, for sure.” The words “We also understand that the White House already knew he was a CIA officer” have been appended to Baquet’s quote in the Times’s story. (The timing seems murky, though, as that line is absent from the Reader Center version of his statement.) The case for publication looks stronger now than it did before that detail was shared. Other arguments against the paper’s decision—for example, that the whistleblower’s identity isn’t newsworthy—don’t add up.

The debate over what the Times published yesterday is nuanced and complicated—far more so than an outraged reaction on Twitter allows. By the end of the day, the hashtag #CancelNYT, now familiar, was trending. It seems likely that the uproar stemmed more from a general sense of rage at the Times, and less from genuine concern for the whistleblower’s wellbeing.

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Below, more on a scandal:

  • How it’s playing: Maria Bustillos, Ana Marie Cox, and Emily Tamkin—CJR’s public editors for MSNBC, The Washington Post, and CNN, respectively—weighed how those outlets have covered the unfolding Ukraine story. “My main critique of CNN is that the average person in this country—and even, I would imagine, the average person watching CNN—is not sitting around refreshing Twitter all day trying to follow what’s happening,” Tamkin says.
  • Solomon’s mines: In his complaint, the whistleblower cited multiple articles published by The Hill that seem to have informed Trump’s thinking on Ukraine. The pieces in question were written by John Solomon, the paper’s outgoing executive vice president; Solomon used to work as an investigative reporter at the Post, but his recent output “has been trailed by claims that it is biased and lacks rigor,” the Post’s Paul Farhi reports.
  • “Cold war”: Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman assesses how the Ukraine story has played at Fox News: the network’s opinionators have mostly stayed loyal to the president, but privately, even Sean Hannity has doubts about Trump’s conduct, telling friends that the whistleblower’s claims are “really bad.” Paul Ryan, now a board member at Fox, is encouraging the network to ditch Trump; one executive told Sherman, “Paul is embarrassed about Trump and now he has the power to do something about it.” (That presumes Ryan didn’t have such power when he was speaker of the House.)
  • Us-versus-them: Kevin Roose, a tech writer at the Times, says Democrats should ready themselves for the “internet impeachment.” If they want their argument to stick, “they will need to do a better job of controlling the online battleground, where partisan opportunists jockey to set the narrative in real time and undermine the opposing side.”
  • Missing the story: For CJR, Keith Gessen writes that he missed the Ukraine story when he was interviewing one of its key players—Kurt Volker, US special representative to the country—right as the events around Trump’s phone call were unfolding. “I was underprepared. I was naive. I asked about American policy and the Minsk accords and NATO expansion,” Gessen says. “Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the real work of this administration was taking place.”

Other notable stories:

  • Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has publicly addressed his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident columnist, at the country’s Istanbul consulate a year ago. In an interview with Martin Smith of Frontline, he conceded that “I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch,” but insisted he did not know about the operation in advance. The latter claim contradicts the conclusions of agencies in multiple countries, including the US.
  • Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan argues that it’s a waste of time for political reporters to get quotes from individual voters. “How do you get information that is pure, useless noise? Go talk to five people attending a politician’s speech. What will you learn from this? You will learn the opinions of five people,” Nolan writes. “If you want to get useful information about American voters, look at polls. A poll can tell you something real.”
  • Earlier this week, the Las Vegas Sun sued the Las Vegas Review-Journal on antitrust grounds. The former paper accuses the latter of working to terminate a joint operating agreement under which the Review-Journal publishes and distributes the Sun; ending the agreement would “effectively kill the Sun,” its lawyers argue. Last month, an editorial in the Review-Journal called the agreement a “relic” and the Sun’s reporting “stale.”
  • The planned merger between Gannett and GateHouse moved a step closer to completion after US antitrust regulators approved the deal, the companies say. The deal must now clear European regulators and win shareholder approval. The AP has more.
  • In the UK, the BBC ruled that Naga Munchetty, who hosts a morning show, violated its impartiality guidelines when she said that Trump’s tweets telling congresswomen of color to “go back” where they came from were “embedded in racism.” Staff at the BBC reacted furiously to their bosses’ rebuke of Munchetty; several pointed out that her white male co-host had asked her to share her experience of racism.
  • And Dagens ETC, a Swedish paper, said it will stop accepting ads for “fossil fuel-based goods and services.” The move could cost the paper a fifth of its advertising revenue, but Andreas Gustavsson, its editor in chief, writes, “We have to do this… Imagine this text accompanied by an ad for, say, cheap flights to the Maldives. It is just not feasible.”

ICYMI: “I had to rewind this to believe what I was hearing”: The media’s missteps in the Ukraine scandal

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.