The title of today’s post is also the name of a Peter Allen song featured in Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film “All That Jazz,” starring Roy Scheider and Ann Reinking. This week, I had a sense of déjà vu when MSNBC, the Washington Post and New York Times admitted they erred when each reported the FBI and CIA had informed Rudy Giuliani and One American News Network (OAN) they had been targeted by Russia to spread disinformation about Joe Biden and Ukraine interference in the 2016 election.
Why? The song and accompanying dance sequence are a visual representation of how knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. Reinking wants to show Fosse’s cinematic alter-ego Joe Dideon how she taught his daughter dance steps she had originally learned from Dideon. It must have been a moment of great pride and satisfaction when Fosse watched how he ensured, through Reinking and his on-screen daughter (Erzebet Foldi), the Fosse-style of dance would continue long after he was gone.
Some things should not be passed from generation to generation. Avoiding the mistakes of our predecessors, regardless of the profession or situation, is the advantage of learning from the past experiences of others. The three media outlets that blew the Giuliani/OAN story should have known better. It has been less than 50 years since two reporters made the same blunder which almost negated their otherwise stellar example of investigative journalism.
The year was 1973. The reporters were Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The story was Watergate. Their mistake involved misrepresenting information from a source about H. R. Haldeman’s role in crimes committed during the 1972 presidential election. This one error could have derailed the paper’s Watergate investigation and all the solid reporting the two neophyte reporters had done.
Using anonymous sources is risky business. Not only because you can never be sure of their motivation or to whom they may be loyal. The process of vetting sources is more an art than a science. The potentially fatal error by Woodstein (as Post editor Ben Bradlee referred to them) involved confirmation by a second source that Hugh Sloan, Jr., treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President, had fingered Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, as overseeing the direct tricks campaign which included the Watergate break-in and controlling the slush fund that financed the operation.
As well documented in their book All the President’s Men, that second source did not meet in person with either of the reporters and insisted the information be passed in a way it could never be traced back to him or he could be charged with a violation of the law which prohibits leaking grand jury testimony. Think of it as the James Bond equivalent of the childhood game “Telephone.” Anyone who has every participated in the game knows the original message seldom, if ever, remains intact as it moves down the chain of players.
The lesson from this episode in the downfall of a president is that two things can be true at the same time. To prove this point, I will draw on the script from the film version of Woodstein’s book. After the Post runs a story with the headline “Testimony Ties Top Nixon Aide to Secret Fund,” the White House pounces on Bradlee and his paper with evidence the story is flawed. Bradlee demands Woodstein find out exactly how this could have happened. When they meet Bradlee at his home, Bernstein explains:
I finally got through to Sloan–it was all a misunderstanding that we had: he would have told the Grand Jury about Haldeman, he was ready to, only nobody on the Grand Jury asked him the goddamn question.
To which Woodward adds, “So I guess you could say that we screwed up, but we weren’t wrong.”
Which brings us back to Giuliani and OAN. We know the three news outlets screwed up as they have publicly admitted as much. But were they wrong. The formal retraction reads as follows.
Correction: An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.
Let’s be clear. The only “correction” is that OAN and Giuliani did not receive the warnings. The factual distortion during this real game of “Telephone” was that the subjects of an investigation had been warned. Like Woodstein, Post reporters Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Tom Hamberger (Nakaharberger?) screwed up, but the story could still largely be true. The FBI may have had evidence that Giuliani and OAN were “the target of a Russian influence operation.” There must be some truth in the story or the FBI could not convince a federal judge to approve a search warrant for Giuliani’s home and office. Furthermore, it begs the question, “If the FBI was prepared to share this information with Giuliani and OAN, who stopped them and why?” One hopes Nakashima, et. al., will stay on the story as did Woodstein.
Being half-right when it comes to journalism is not good enough. In fact, being 99 percent right is too low a standard. I suggest the managing editors of the Post put up the following sign in the “bullpen,” where row upon row of reporters do their research and draft their stories.
You’ve done worse than let Haldeman slip away, you’ve got people feeling sorry for him. I didn’t think that was possible.
~Deep Throat/All the President’s Men
Remind each reporter to substitute the name of the subject of their own investigations for Haldeman’s.
And if they order it from Amazon in the next 9 hours and 24 minutes, it will be there by Wednesday. Right, Jeff?
For what it’s worth.