Part 1—The way the press corps functions: Midway through last night's 7 o'clock hour, cable news went "all-Manchester all-the-time."
Before that happened, we were struck by several aspects of Erin Burnett's journalistic performance on CNN.
First, Burnett discussed the newest report from the Washington Post, a report which appears on this morning's front page.
The Post reports that Donald J. Trump "asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials."
Before events in Manchester took precedence, this report was destined to be the focus of last night's cable excitement.
Did Donald J. Trump really do the things described in the Post report? We were surprised to see Burnett treat the report as established fact. Whatever the facts may turn out to be, that wasn't the world's greatest journalism.
Soon after, we were surprised by Burnett's treatment of a new report concerning Michael Flynn. She seemed unfamiliar with a ludicrous claim Flynn first made last summer.
The ludicrous claim concerns the money Flynn was paid for a speaking engagement in Russia—a December 2015 engagement which is now quite famous. According to a congresional committee, Flynn received roughly $45,000 for the engagement. But by whom was he paid?
At least as early as last summer, Flynn was answering that question in a ridiculous way.
In a widely-discussed interview with Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, Flynn offered an absurd explanation. He wasn't paid for the Russians, he said. He was paid by his speakers' bureau!
ISIKOFF (7/18/16): Were you paid for that event?He wasn't paid by the Russkies, Flynn said. He was paid by his speakers bureau! To watch that exchange, click here.
FLYNN: You’d have to ask my—the folks that I went over there on behalf of.
ISIKOFF: Well, I’m asking you. You’d know if you were paid.
FLYNN: Yeah, I mean I went over there as a speaking event. It was a speaking event. What difference does that make? Did somebody go "Oh, he’s paid by the Russians?"
ISIKOFF: Well, Donald Trump has made a lot of the fact that Hillary Clinton has taken money from Wall Street, Goldman Sachs.
FLYNN: I didn’t take any money from Russia, if that’s what you’re asking me.
ISIKOFF: Well then, who paid you?
FLYNN: My speakers’ bureau. Ask them.
Periodically, that silly distinction has bubbled up over the past ten months. Yesterday, it seemed to bubble up again in a letter by Rep. Elijah Cummings—but Burnett seemed to think the silly distinction was new.
Burnett's apparent cluelessnes regarding this point struck us as unimpressive. That said, there's been a lot of journalistic heat surrounding Flynn's behavior on the international stage, not always a whole lot of journalistic light.
How competent have our news orgs been in their discussions of Flynn-in-the-world? Not gigantically competent! Consider something we read in Saturday's Washington Post.
The report concerned Flynn's work for Inovo BV, a Netherlands based lobbying firm. In this passage, two Post reporters described Ekim Alptekin, the founder of the firm:
BARRETT AND ZAPOTOSKY (5/20/17): A grand jury in Alexandria, Va., recently issued a subpoena for records related to Flynn's business, the Flynn Intel Group, which was paid more than $500,000 by a company owned by a Turkish American businessman close to top Turkish officials, according to people familiar with the matter.Alptekin wasn't named, but he was described as "a Turkish American businessman." Two weeks earlier, Matea Gold had described him the same way in this front-page report in the Post:
The Flynn Intel Group was paid for research on Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who Turkey's current president believes was responsible for a coup attempt last summer. Flynn retroactively registered with the Justice Department in March as a paid foreign agent for Turkish interests.
GOLD (5/5/17): [Flynn's] research was financed by a company owned by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish American businessman close to top officials in Turkey, the documents show. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accuses Gulen for fomenting a coup attempt last summer and wants him extradited from the United States.Alptekin is "a Turkish American businessman," Gold also reported. That would be fine, except back in March and April, the Post was describing Alptekin as "a Turkish businessman," which isn't the same thing.
Inovo, a Netherlands-based company owned by Alptekin, paid Flynn Intel Group $530,000 to activate an "investigative laboratory" made up of former top security and intelligence officials to research Gulen, according to documents Flynn filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The New York Times has also toggled back and forth in its descriptions. Sometimes Alptekin has been "Turkish-American," sometimes he's been "Turkish."
Does this distinction matter? Given the charges and claims involved here, it probably pretty much could!
That said, we'd make a different basic point. Given the amount of attention paid to Flynn's work for Inovo BV, it's amazing that our biggest newspapers can't be bothered to establish even the simplest facts about the man for whom he worked.
Is Ekim Alptekin a Turkish citizen? Is he "Turkish American," a designation which seems to imply that he's an American citizen?
Might he be a dual citizen? Does anyone at these major newspapers know or care?
The Post and the Times have both toggled about between these dueling descriptions of Alptekin. Given the amount of focus directed on this matter, this is lazy, incompetent front-page pseudo-reporting as its ridiculous worst.
In fact, reporting on Flynn's work for Inovo has been riddled with incompetence and error. This extends beyond the work of the Post and the Times, extending up the slopes of Olympus to the aerie which houses Rachel Maddow, whose accounts of this much-beloved matter change on a daily basis.
In the next few day, we'll try to nail down a few basic facts about Flynn, Alptekin and Inovo, the Dutch-based form Alptekin founded and still runs. But our focus won't be on Flynn or Alptekin. As always, our principal focus will be on the work of the press, which is currently staging a chase.
A headlong chase is currently on; excitement fills the air. When such episodes occur, our journalists sometimes send their standards and skills on holiday. On partisan cable, you may get severely conned.
Flynn, who strikes us as a nut, has been widely ridiculed for his unreliable "Flynn facts." That said, the press corps has produced its own array of puzzling, murky "Flynn facts" as it has pretended to cover this high-profile topic.
Who the heck is Ekim Alptekin? As we attempt to fumble through the press corps' array of "Flynn facts," that will just be our initial question.
We'll end with the most exciting question of all. What is a "foreign agent?"
Tomorrow: Who is Ekim Alptekin?