What Entous told Anderson Cooper: Last Friday, cable news got its nightly sugar high from this exciting report in the Washington Post.
The next morning, the report appeared atop the front page of the Post. It struck us as underwhelming work, drifting toward dishonest.
According to the Post report, Jeff Sessions discussed campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in two encounters during the 2016 campaign. Well—the Post report didn't exactly make that assertion. The Post reported that Kislyak had said that to his superiors.
The Post report started like this:
ENTOUS, NAKASHIMA AND MILLER (7/22/17): Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.According to the Post report, Kislyak's communications with his superiors were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies. According to the Post report, he told his superiors that he had those discussions with Sessions, though his claims may not be true.
Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions—then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump—were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.
In our view, the Post's report was very shaky, in ways we noted on Saturday morning. Later that day, CNN posted its transcripts of Anderson Cooper's two-hour broadcast on Friday night.
Lead reporter Adam Entous appeared for the bulk or the whole of both hours with Cooper. In our view, the fuzziness of his report only grew more plain.
Did Sessions actually have those conversations with Kislyak? Even in its formal report, the Post explicitly offered a pair of caveats.
Kislyak could have been misleading his superiors, the Post explicitly said. Or he could have been spreading false information, in line with the Russkie attempts to create confusion and mistrust all through the American world.
Even after explicitly stating those possibilities, the Post still claimed certainty in the headlines it placed atop its report. This is what the headline says on-line today, even as we type:
"Sessions discussed Trump campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence intercepts show"
The actual report claims less certainty. But so what? It was close enough for a front-page headline in the Washington Post, especially when a stampede is on!
Did Sessions have those discussions with Kislyak? We have no idea. That said, it seems to us that the Post's position is substantially worse than what we've discussed so far.
In our view, it isn't clear that the Post knows what was in those intercepted communications, assuming they even exist. Why do we say that? Let's run through the way this would have worked:
According to the Post report, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted some communications. Presumably, this means there are tapes of Kislyak's conversations. (Entous seemed to say as much during Cooper's program, as you'll see below.)
People who heard those tapes would have first-hand knowledge of what Kislyak said. But uh-oh!
During Cooper's first hour, he asked an obvious but very good question. He received got the explicit answer which, as we noted on Saturday, didn't appear in the Post's report:
COOPER (7/21/17): It is accurate to say you have not heard these intercepts?As we noted on Saturday, the Post's report never explicitly said that the Post hadn't heard the intercepts. We think it should have done so.
ENTOUS: No, I have not heard these intercepts.
COOPER: Right, but you've talked to—
ENTOUS: We've talked to multiple current and former officials who described it, and I think we can all understand why we use anonymous sources.
You'll also note that, as Entous answers Cooper's question about his sources, his statements may perhaps seem a bit slippery or fuzzy. The Post talked to multiple current and former officials "who described it?"
If a chase were on with Entous as target, he'd get strung up, perhaps unjustly, for a slippery sideways non-answer answer of that type. At this point, he at least seems to have said that he has "multiple" sources (which could imaginably mean two). That said, Cooper never asked him how many sources he had, and he never said.
During Cooper's second hour, Cooper somehow managed to ask a second specific question. This time, the answer strikes us as rather strange:
COOPER: This is based on intercepts, U.S. intelligence intercepts.Say what?
COOPER: You haven't heard the intercepts. but you have spoken to people who have?
ENTOUS: Correct. I don't know if they listened to the intercepts or read intelligence reports that are based on those intercepts.
Once again, Entous seems to say that he had more than one source. But in two hours on the air, Cooper never asked him how many sources he had, and Entous never said.
In our view, that was lousy work on Cooper's part. But beyond that, good God!
Adam Entous doesn't know if his source(s) heard the intercepts? He doesn't know if his source or sources heard the intercepts, or if they just read (second-hand) reports?
Cooper seemed surprised by that statement. But he never asked Entous why he doesn't know this basic fact about his source or sources.
(Dearest darlings, this is a courtesy within the guild. You simply don't ask a fellow guild member—a "CNN contributor," no less—an awkward questions like that.)
That said, Adam Entous doesn't know if his source or source heard the intercepts! Aside from the suggestion of journalistic incompetence, let's get clear on why this matters:
A person who heard the intercepts has first-hand information about what Kislyak said. A person who only read the intelligence report is starting out with second-hand information.
He is relying on someone else's account of what Kislyak said. That account may be perfectly accurate, of course. But then too, it may not be.
We're now back to a problem Entous has struggled with in the past—the problem of playing "Telephone." If his source or sources didn't hear the intercepts, then Entous is relying on his source's account of someone else's account of what Kislyak said.
By the time we read the Post's report, we are relying on Entous' account of his source's account of somebody else's account. Someone else's account of a conversation in which, according to the Post, Kislyak may be lying!
In other words, we Post readers are receiving fourth-hand information. We're receiving a fourth-hand account of a conversation in which, according to the Post, may have been a Russkie con.
Does it sound to you like Adam Entous had a "bombshell report?" We use that term because that's the way Cooper described the Post's exciting report at the start of Friday's 8 PM hour.
But uh-oh! In his bombshell report, Entous never said how many sources he had. In speaking to Cooper, it turned out that he didn't even know if his source, or sources, had heard the intercepts!
Then too, there was something else. Shortly after 8:30 Eastern, Cooper addressed the idea that Donald J. Trump may have leaked this material because he wants to get rid of Sessions.
Entous threw cold water on that idea. We thought his overall statement was striking. Here's why:
According to Entous, the Post had been sitting on this "bombshell report" for six or seven weeks. They's only decided to publish it now because they feared the New York Times might scoop them:
COOPER: You and I were talking during the break, and I just want to have everyone else hear what you said. Because I think it's important because there is—Again, Cooper seemed surprised. According to Entous, the Post had been sitting on this "bombshell report" (Cooper's term) since early June. They only published it now because they were afraid they might get scooped in the ongoing newspaper war.
I've seen it online, a lot of people sort of have a, I don't know if it's a conspiracy theory to grant the term, but the idea that perhaps given what President Trump said about his anger toward Attorney General Sessions and then the story breaks that it gives him a reason to get rid of Sessions.
You've actually been working on this story for quite some time.
ENTOUS: Yes, I mean, we had the initial story back in March, which was that Sessions had two encounters with Kislyak. And basically ever since then, we were trying to figure out what was the nature of those discussions, what were the contents of those communications, right?
And so we've been working on it for weeks, you know, before this, and when the New York Times had that excellent interview with Trump in which Trump commented about Sessions in particularly, you know, talked about specifically how he didn't appreciate the way he answered the questions in the confirmation hearing, we realized that we may not have as much time as we thought and we should basically try to push the story out as soon as we could.
COOPER: May not have as much time because other reporters are going to be hunting it down?
ENTOUS: Correct, correct. Yes. It's a competitive environment and, you know, obviously something—sometimes we can work on stories for months and not worry about the competition. But when we saw The New York Times story, we realized, you know, we really need to finish up that.
COOPER: I don't want the program the areas (INAUDIBLE) too much but then, you know better than anybody what to say or not to say, but the information about what Kislyak said to his boss is, is that information you had had for—
ENTOUS: That's information we had since basically early June.
COOPER: Wow. OK.
COOPER: So you've had it for a while.
COOPER: So for those who believe that this only fell into your lap 24 hours ago, that is not the case. This is something you've been working out.
ENTOUS: That's correct.
Simply put, this means the Post never thought they had a "bombshell report" at all. They had been trying, for almost two months, "to figure out what was the nature of those discussions, what were the contents of those communications."
They knew their information was murky. Sensibly, they didn't want to publish until they had something more.
On Saturday, we inquired into the honesty of Adam Entous. Today, we're letting our question stand.
To this day, Entous has fudged the number of his sources for this murky report. As it turned out, he doesn't even know if his source or sources heard the intercepts.
Meanwhile, the Post had been sitting on its report for six or seven weeks before last week's excitement. That means it wasn't a bombshell at all. It seems to mean that it was a murky, poorly sourced, underdeveloped report.
Are you sure there actually were intercepts? Absent stronger information, we don't think you should feel sure.
At the present time, a chase is on. In truth, the chase is a stampede.
Sessions is one of its targets. Over here in our liberal tents, we very badly want him to be a liar. Meanwhile, "cable news" wants a sugar high every night, as do we cable news stooges.
If we want to be children our whole lives, we can maintain our true belief in the giants who are conducting the chase. If we want to be rational animals, we might consider starting a chase against the slippery people who parade around on cable TV, giving us our nightly excitement.
Does Entous know what he's talking about? We can't say we're sure that he does.