As Einstein proved early in the 20th century, bullshit moves very fast. With that in mind, I wanted to flag a point about this Fox News report last night about an FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation. It’s already the centerpiece of Trump’s stump speech. The upshot of the report is that the FBI has a fairly advanced investigation of the Clinton Foundation, with lots of new information pouring in and that indictments are “likely.” This is needless to say pretty explosive information on the eve of a presidential election. But there are two pretty big problems with this story – both on Fox’s part and how the story was picked up and then distorted by The Hill and RCP.
First of all, last night I flagged this article in the WSJ which reported on infighting within the FBI and between FBI agents and the Department of Justice over whether there was anything substantial to investigate about The Clinton Foundation. I discuss a number of issues about the article and the underlying substance in this post from last night.
The key contention in that article – one basically backed up in other reports – is that the DOJ and top FBI officials haven’t let agents investigate the Clinton Foundation as much as they want to. Set aside for the moment whether that’s politicized smothering of a legitimate investigation or career professionals reining in out of control agents or ones who just have their teeth too hard into a nothingburger to let go. What seems agreed is that they really haven’t gotten much beyond looking at publicly available information like the Breitbart/Bannon-backed Clinton Cash.
If that’s right and no substantial investigation has happened yet, it’s quite unlikely whether anyone can know whether indictments are likely. Indeed, since prosecutors don’t think there’s any case there, it would seem that indictments are quite unlikely – whether that’s right or wrong. This doesn’t mean Baier did anything wrong journalistically. I think there’s just substantial reason to doubt the accuracy of the reporting. That goes to sourcing.
That’s where The Hill and RCP come in.
The RCP story says Fox had “FBI sources” and “two sources inside the FBI.” The Hill says “two sources within the FBI” gave the story to Fox. Since The Hill and RCP have text versions of the article, those are the ones which have spread more widely.
But that is clearly not what Bret Baier, the Foxer who reported the story, said. Both times he reported this on the air he used very specific language. Once he said: “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations into the Clinton emails and the Clinton Foundation.” Another time he said: “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of what’s going with these FBI investigations.” (emphasis added)
Some quick inside journo stuff. This may seem like a very fine distinction – sources inside the FBI versus sources with intimate knowledge of the investigation; it’s not. When you have information from FBI agents or people who are ‘in the FBI’ you say so. Baier clearly stuck to this precise formulation of ‘sources with intimate knowledge’ of the FBI’s investigation. That very likely means his sources are not in the FBI. If they were he would say so.
So RCP and The Hill took a story which is very, very likely to be sourced to people who not in the FBI and changed it to people who are in the FBI. That’s a problem.
When I first saw these reports I thought it was yet another example of Comey being out of control of his agency, more partisan-minded leaks to partisan news organizations. But it seems pretty clear that is not what happened. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, this is why the DOJ has clear guidelines about non-interference in elections. Those have been totally thrown out the window. The Fox report itself seems highly dubious – based on other reporting. But we can say definitely that The Hill and RCP aggregated and disseminated a version of the story with a false version of the sourcing.
Needless to say, with a story like this, sourcing is critical.