The Hill Goes Easy On John Solomon In Review Of Ukraine Disinfo Columns

Former columnist for The Hill John Solomon. (Photo by Gerald Martineau/Washington Post/Getty Images)
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February 19, 2020 11:50 a.m.
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The Hill held back from squarely addressing the actions of its former columnist John Solomon in a long-awaited review released Wednesday morning, declining to address factual inaccuracies in Solomon’s 2019 series on Ukraine.

Instead, the D.C.-based news website turned its gaze towards an arguably less consequential aspect of the fourteen columns that Solomon published last year: the way the articles blurred the distinction between opinion writing and news writing.

The Hill launched a review of Solomon’s columns in November 2019, as the House conducted an impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations that would substantiate the allegations in Solomon’s columns.

Those allegations, which suggest that Joe Biden abused his position as vice president to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating a company where his son Hunter Biden served on the board, were never substantiated, and were consistently contradicted at the time by on-the-record witnesses and publicly available information. Solomon relied on dubious sources to make his claims, virtually all of whom had obvious conflicts of interests.

The Hill addressed aspects of this in its review, noting that Solomon, who left the website in October 2019, “failed to identify important details about key Ukrainian sources, including the fact that they had been indicted or were under investigation. In other cases, the sources were his own attorneys.”

But broadly, the review focuses less on Solomon’s misrepresentations — and his use of his own attorney Victoria Toensing as a “source” — and goes instead towards the extent to which he cloaked his role as a columnist in that of an investigative reporter.

The Hill cited numerous instances and ways in which Solomon’s Ukraine columns had the effect of “blurring the distinction between news and opinion for some readers,” including the length of the articles and that they “contained what could be viewed or was identified by him as original reporting.”

The review concluded that “Solomon’s Ukraine columns represented a departure from The Hill’s standard opinion content because they attempted to blend opinion and investigative, ‘original reporting’ material. The Hill will avoid such blending of reporting and opinion columns going forward.”

The two concrete changes that The Hill committed to making at the end of its review both concern the distinction between opinion and news. One is that the website will “consider and adopt changes in presentation to differentiate opinion and news more substantially than the current methods,” while the other laid out a vague commitment that the outlet will consider codifying its standards into a “formal set of guidelines.”

That’s not to deny that opinion and news is not an important distinction; part of what allowed Solomon to launder the allegations into the U.S. was that he could pass off columns as straight, factual reporting.

But it misses the more crucial point that he, knowingly or unknowingly, spread disinformation that could very easily have been debunked at the time of publication.

To be fair to The Hill, the news outlet did a thorough job with the review; a wrenching task given the damage that Solomon dealt to the website’s reputation.

And, the review acknowledges the impact that Solomon’s columns had in spreading disinformation into the political discourse last year. The website notes that both The New York Times and ABC “followed Solomon’s work with news articles of their own.” The review also notes that Solomon promoted his columns in appearances with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, saying that it “amplified the reach” of what he wrote.

The portions which do address Solomon’s factual mischaracterizations — which are myriad — tend to present a thorough debunking of what Solomon wrote as a failure to tell both sides of the story.

Take how The Hill addressed what is arguably the central fiction of Solomon’s reporting – that Biden had a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son.

The review noted that Solomon’s account was “disputed by officials in both Kyiv and Washington,” and refrains from conclusively stating that the columns were inaccurate.

Rather, the review equivocates by taking factual points like the closure of the investigation into the gas company and attributing it nebulously to “others who maintain the investigation [concerning Hunter Biden] had grown dormant.”

The Hill did note that it “should have” disclosed Solomons’ relationship as a client of Victoria Toensing while citing her as a source.

But there is no straightforward mea culpa on the real problem with Solomon’s columns: his factual misrepresentations, all of which were clear at the time of publication.

The Hill apologized for failing to tell Fox News producers that Solomon was a columnist, and not an “investigative reporter,” with the review saying that “it should have” informed the right-wing news network of the columnist’s position.

But when it came to where Solomon got the facts wrong, there was no strong language. Rather, it was just a matter of there being two sides to the story.

Solomon did not return a request for comment from TPM about the review.

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