Opinion | Washington Examiner is forced to correct article attacking New York Times reporter Charlie Savage
Now it appears that the Examiner has turned the trust-in-journalism cliche upon itself: The publication’s attempt to spotlight Savage’s outrages turned out to contain several of its own. Thus far, it has drawn two letters from an attorney representing Savage. “The Washington Examiner deliberately misquoted our article to support a predetermined narrative and then the Examiner refused to fix it until a lawyer wrote to demand a correction,” reads a statement from Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. “Knowingly publishing false information is what causes distrust in the media.”
The spat relates to the politically explosive activities of Durham, who last September announced that a grand jury had indicted lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI in a 2016 meeting. The alleged deception, claimed Durham, was that Sussmann claimed that he wasn’t representing any clients when he brought evidence to the FBI of a “covert communications channel” between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. Not so, charged Durham — Sussmann was representing at least two clients, including the Clinton presidential campaign and a technology executive later revealed to be Rodney Joffe, an expert on cybersecurity and founder of the world’s first commercial Internet hosting company. Sussmann has pleaded not guilty.
In a Feb. 14 story, Savage, a Pulitzer Prize winner and longtime Washington correspondent, criticized “right-wing outlets” that squeezed misleading narratives out of Durham’s filing. Included in Savage’s piece was a link to a story in the Examiner. The Examiner’s Savage headline the following day thus had the feel of a payback operation. (It also was thoroughly unoriginal, considering that everyone with a Twitter account has a pet theory about why people don’t trust the media.)
On Feb. 18, Savage used Twitter, the world’s most diligent media-accountability platform, to request a retraction of the claims against him in Carroll’s piece:
Please also address telling your readers I hid that Sussmann had Democratic ties (“Savage wants to hide the ball, calling Sussmann merely a ‘cybersecurity lawyer’”) when I actually described him as “a cybersecurity lawyer with links to the Democratic Party.” Thank you.- Charlie/2
— Charlie Savage (@charlie_savage) February 18, 2022
Whereas Savage’s story identified Sussmann as a “cybersecurity lawyer with links to the Democratic Party,” Carroll’s piece accused Savage of obscuring Sussmann’s work on behalf of Democrats, “calling him merely a ‘cybersecurity lawyer.’ ”
Despite the appeal, Carroll’s piece remained unchanged. So Savage and the Times brought in Steven Lieberman, a lawyer with the firm Rothwell Figg. A Feb. 23 letter from Lieberman noted that while the Examiner was resisting Savage’s request for a change to its wording on “hiding the ball,” the publication had corrected another part of the story. From an archived version of the story from Feb. 15:
In the new filing Friday, Durham further alleged that, after Trump became president, Joffe continued to take data from his company’s contract with the Executive Office of the President and feed it to the partisan Sussmann.
In the new filing Friday, Durham further alleged that the data Joffe gave Sussmann included times when Trump and his associates were in or near the White House, possibly during the presidential transition.
There was good reason to make that change. As Glenn Kessler noted in The Post: “Durham’s filing, which is written in turgid and confusing prose, did not actually say that Trump’s Internet traffic had been monitored during his presidency.” And Durham later acknowledged — albeit elliptically, in a court filing — that the activities took place under Obama’s presidency.
“Mr. Carroll republished his piece, fixing one error in the story, while at the same time failing to correct his prior false and defamatory statement about Mr. Savage’s description of Mr. Sussmann,” wrote Lieberman. “Mr. Carroll (and the Washington Examiner) thus republished on February 18 a statement about Mr. Savage that Mr. Carroll knew at the time of the republication was false.”
One day later, on Feb. 24, the Examiner changed the text and inserted an editor’s note: “This article has been corrected to include Charlie Savage’s full description of Mr. Sussmann as a ‘cybersecurity lawyer with links to the Democratic Party.’ Originally, the article only included ‘cybersecurity lawyer.’ We regret the error.”
The amount of “regret” here is open to interpretation, considering that Carroll’s piece still accuses Savage of “hiding the ball.” Examine this paragraph, which seeks to juxtapose two incompatible data points:
For Savage, Sussmann is not a highly partisan lawyer who has served the Clinton Foundation and was a partner at Perkins Coie, counsel of record for the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. No Savage wants to hide the ball, calling Sussmann merely a “cybersecurity lawyer with links to the Democratic Party.”
The Times isn’t done. On Tuesday, Lieberman sent a second letter to the Examiner, this time taking issue with another passage in which Carroll suggested that Savage was carrying water for Democrats: “Savage, dutiful stenographer that he is, provides two quotations purporting to back up his claim that Mr. Sussmann did not use White House data to allege nefarious ties between Trump and Russia.”
“Mr. Savage’s story never said such a thing,” reads the March 1 letter from Lieberman. “In other words, the second main premise of the Article is also false.”
We’ve asked Carroll for comment on these allegations.
Hit pieces are high-maintenance affairs. Since they seek to flatten some muck-a-muck or other, they’re certain to draw the scrutiny of the target. In this case, that very scrutiny has revealed a story that’s certain about its premise — that Savage is the bane of his industry — and uncertain about the underlying facts. That’s a bad mix.