Right-wing media outlets and disgraced former President Donald Trump touted a four-part Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article by Jeff Gerth, a former New York Times reporter known for decades of coverage critical of the Clintons, as a vindication of their claims that the FBI unfairly targeted Trump with investigations into his ties to Russia. However, critics have exposed a multitude of problems with Gerth’s article and pointed to his own conflicts of interest.
Gerth’s CJR writings criticize press coverage of the Trump/Russia investigation and the involvement by the Hillary Clinton campaign in pushing some of the stories that dominated attention during much of the Trump presidency. Gerth has claimed that he did not actually take any position on whether the allegations against Trump were indeed true, but his history criticizing the Clintons, the origins of the project, and its thin sourcing (such as citing polling numbers from Rasmussen Reports, a firm that supported Trump’s lies about the 2020 election) suggest otherwise.
During an appearance on Columbia Journalism Review’s The Kicker podcast, Gerth revealed that he had begun working on this project out of impatience that special counsel John Durham, whose work was initiated in a partisan attempt by the Trump administration to discredit the previous investigations, still has not produced any results.
Commentary on Gerth’s CJR article emphasized his history of coverage critical of the Clintons, and his flawed assessment of the Trump/Russia investigation
Media critics emphasized Gerth’s history of Clinton coverage in their commentary on his CJR article. Ironically, Gerth is known for covering the Whitewater investigation that dominated much of the Clinton presidency in the 1990s. He was the first to report on supposedly improper conduct between then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and businessman James McDougal, and the investigation resulting from his reporting ultimately found that nothing the Clintons did was a crime and many of Gerth’s accusations turned out to be “highly implausible or demonstrably false.”
Gerth’s criticism of Clinton continued in a 2007 Hillary Clinton biography he co-authored during her first presidential run, which had plenty of misrepresentations and factual errors in it. He continued to write articles critical of Clinton prior to the 2016 election as well.
In response to Gerth’s new CJR article, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen asked: “Why give this to Gerth given the many conflicts he comes with?” Similarly, Press Watch Editor Dan Froomkin called Gerth “a hack with an ax to grind.”
Mainstream media criticized Gerth, claiming he “worked backward from the conclusion” and “slips into some of the same myopia and confirmation bias he criticizes.” New York magazine political columnist Jonathan Chait said the piece “worked backward from the conclusion that Donald Trump had been vindicated.” Chait further illustrated that while “some of the reporting, as you would expect of a sprawling investigation, was wrong. … Still, the investigation produced extensive evidence of misconduct. The Russians secretly dangled a nine-figure payoff to Trump, whose campaign manager, who had previously worked to elect a pro-Russian candidate in another election, was working secretly with a Russian intelligence agent. The weight of this scandal would have forced a normal president to resign.”
Semafor Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who previously edited BuzzFeed News and has repeatedly defended his decision to publish the Steele Dossier, responded in his own newsletter that Gerth “slips into some of the same myopia and confirmation bias he criticizes.” Smith argued that “two conflicting claims are both obviously true: Parts of the liberal media, and many Democrats, developed wildly false theories about Trump. And a Russian intelligence operation, reported by the Times and others, helped Trump.” (Emphasis in original.) But in response to this complexity, Smith said, Gerth simply “treats the DNC hack, a hugely successful intelligence coup, as another data point in the narrative about the media.”
Critics highlight that Gerth’s focus on the Steele Dossier is fundamentally flawed. Many of Gerth’s claims focus on the Steele Dossier, treating it as some kind of original sin that poisoned the investigations, intelligence assessment, and media coverage of Trump — as well as Trump’s own relationship with the press. This is fundamentally false for multiple reasons. National security journalist Marcy Wheeler pointed out that the dossier “is mentioned or discussed in paragraphs making up over 5,000 words out of Gerth’s 23,000-word series. That’s consistent with the ‘Russiagate’ project, which often treats the dossier as stand-in for the entire Russian investigation (or, here, the coverage of it).” Wheeler then went on to demonstrate that even Gerth’s work ought to show how little media coverage was based on the dossier.
As the Justice Department’s Horowitz Report in 2019 made clear, “the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, just days after its receipt of information from a Friendly Foreign Government (FFG) reporting that, in May 2016, during a meeting with the FFG, then Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos ‘suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).’” (Note: The “Friendly Foreign Government” source is widely reported to have been Alexander Downer, then-Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom and a retired conservative politician.) Gerth, by contrast, does not even mention Papadopoulos’ name until midway through Part 3, after first preparing the ground with extensive writings about the Steele Dossier.
Right-wing media outlets began praising Gerth’s flawed article within a day of its publication
Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity promoted the article, calling it “a scathing retrospective of the media’s Russiagate hysteria” while complaining Fox didn’t get “props for being right the whole time.” [Fox News, Hannity, 2/1/23]
On Fox News and Fox Business, guests praised Gerth’s article. On Fox’s The Ingraham Angle, guest and New York Post columnist Miranda Devine praised Gerth’s “very good and very detailed, long, four-part piece” for attacking The New York Times and other “big corporate media organizations.” Fox Business’ Elizabeth MacDonald hosted right-wing podcaster Dave Rubin to promote Gerth’s “new scathing indictment of The New York Times.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 2/1/23; Fox Business, The Evening Edit, 2/1/23]
A RealClearPolitics article hyping Gerth’s work dedicated several paragraphs to defending disgraced former Trump adviser Mike Flynn. The article failed to note that Flynn pleaded guilty over lying about contacts with a Russian official and ignored his later pro-insurrection activism. [RealClearPolitics, 2/6/23; NPR, 11/25/20; The Associated Press, 1/6/23]
Multiple articles from right-wing outlet National Review praised Gerth. One National Review article headlined “Of Course Jeff Gerth Is Right about Russiagate” dismissed the impact of Russian election interference, the Trump Tower meeting where one of Trump’s children sought Russian “dirt” on Clinton, and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort sharing campaign information with Russians. Another National Review article praised Gerth’s piece as “thoroughly sourced” and “remarkably well-reported” despite the heavy criticism of his article. [National Review, 2/3/23, 2/5/23]
Trump also repeatedly amplified Gerth’s flawed article
Trump first posted a link to Gerth’s article on his Truth Social platform with no commentary on February 1. [Truth Social, 2/1/23]
Trump then hyped the article, saying the CJR is “in no way a conservative publication,” calling the piece “a STAGGERING, detailed account … of Fake News,” and claiming it proves the 2020 election was stolen from him. [Truth Social, 2/1/23, 2/1/23]
Days later, Trump posted links to all four parts of Gerth’s article, calling it “A MUST READ–Brilliant and so important!” [Truth Social, 2/7/23]