The Journalistic Practices of the Washington Post and Walter Pincus

Fifteen hours after acknowledging that an innuendo-filled article is factually false, the Post still has not corrected it

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On Monday night - roughly 36 hours ago from this moment - the Washington Post published an article by its long-time reporter Walter Pincus. The article concocted a frenzied and inane conspiracy theory: that it was WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, working in secret with myself and Laura Poitras, who masterminded the Snowden leaks ahead of time and directed Snowden's behavior, and then Assange, rather than have WikiLeaks publish the documents itself, generously directed them to the Guardian.

To peddle this tale, Pincus, in lieu of any evidence, spouted all sorts of accusatory innuendo masquerading as questions ("Did Edward Snowden decide on his own to seek out journalists and then a job at Booz Allen Hamilton's Hawaii facility?" - "Did Assange and WikiLeaks personnel help or direct Snowden to those journalists?" - "Was he encouraged or directed by WikiLeaks personnel or others to take the job as part of a broader plan to expose NSA operations to selected journalists?") and invoked classic guilt-by association techniques ("Poitras and Greenwald are well-known free-speech activists, with many prior connections, including as founding members in December of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation" - "Poitras and Greenwald have had close connections with Assange and WikiLeaks").

Apparently, the Washington Post has decided to weigh in on the ongoing debate over "what is journalism?" with this answer: you fill up articles on topics you don't know the first thing about with nothing but idle speculation, rank innuendo, and evidence-free accusations, all under the guise of "just asking questions". You then strongly imply that other journalists who have actually broken a big story are involved in a rampant criminal conspiracy without bothering even to ask them about it first, all while hiding from your readers the fact that they have repeatedly and in great detail addressed the very "questions" you're posing.

But shoddy journalism from the Washington Post is far too common to be worth noting. What was far worse was that Pincus' wild conspiracy theorizing was accomplished only by asserting blatant, easily demonstrated falsehoods.

As I documented in an email I sent to Pincus early yesterday morning - one that I instantly posted online and then publicized on Twitter - the article contains three glaring factual errors: 1) Pincus stated that I wrote an article about Poitras "for the WikiLeaks Press's blog" (I never wrote anything for that blog in my life; the article he referenced was written for Salon); 2) Pincus claimed Assange "previewed" my first NSA scoop in a Democracy Now interview a week earlier by referencing the bulk collection of telephone calls (Assange was expressly talking about a widely reported Bush program from 8 years earlier, not the FISA court order under Obama I reported); 3) Pincus strongly implied that Snowden had worked for the NSA for less than 3 months by the time he showed up in Hong Kong with thousands of documents when, in fact, he had worked at the NSA continuously for 4 years. See the email I sent Pincus for the conclusive evidence of those factual falsehoods and the other distortions peddled by the Post.

There is zero possibility that the Washington Post was unaware of my email to Pincus early yesterday. Not only was it re-tweeted and discussed by numerous prominent journalists on Twitter, but it was also quickly written about in venues such as Politico and Poynter.

Nonetheless, the Post allowed the falsehoods to stand uncorrected all day. Finally, at 3:11 pm ET yesterday afternoon - 15 hours ago as of this moment, and more than 8 hours after I first publicized his errors - Pincus emailed me back to acknowledge that his claim about my having written for the WikiLeaks blog was false, and vowed that a correction would be published (he did not address the other errors):

pincus email

While it was nice that he finally acknowledged this one falsehood, there was a problem with Pincus' email to me: it, too, was false. The excuse Pincus offered for his error did not happen. The WikiLeaks Press Blog did not, contrary to his claim, carry my April 10 article, nor did it do so "without attribution to Salon as the originating venue". The blog - as countless websites around the internet do every day - simply excerpted several paragraphs of that article and then, right at the bottom, provided a link to the full article at Salon.

After he sent that email, someone apparently gave Pincus a tutorial on how this new invention called "The Internet" works, because, 30 minutes later, he sent me another email correcting the error in his first email:

pincus email

I had no intention of writing about any of this here, and wouldn't even have bothered doing so this morning if not for one fact: 36 hours after the Post published these falsehoods, 24 hours after I publicized them, and 15 hours after the author of this article acknowledged one of those errors and vowed a correction, the Post article still sits on the internet: uncorrected.

What kind of newspaper would allow claims they know to be false to remain uncorrected for 15 hours? How many tens of thousands of people went to the Post website all day yesterday and read Pincus' sleazy innuendo about my "close connections" to WikiLeaks when the primary, if not only, "fact" offered in support of that (that I wrote for the WikiLeaks blog) is one that Pincus himself acknowledges is completely false? At least at one point yesterday, the Pincus article was the third-most-read article on the entire Post website.

What makes this even worse is that after I checked the Post article last night and saw that it was still uncorrected, I went to Twitter at 10:28 pm ET and wrote this:

The paper's official "corrections and clarifications" policy states that "the Washington Post always seeks to publish corrections and clarifications promptly after they come to our attention." When corrections are to be made to articles published online, "the change should be made within the article and the correction should also be noted at the top of the item."

The lengths to which some media outlets in this case have gone to assist the US government in trying to criminalize the journalism we've done has been remarkably revealing. But the willingness of the Post to aid in this effort by spewing falsehood-based innuendo, which they then permit to remain hour after hour even while knowing it's false, is a reminder of how ill-advised it is to trust what you read in that establishment venue, and is a vibrant illustration of the reasons such organizations are held in such low esteem.


The Washington Post's Erik Wemple spoke to Pincus about all of this, and Pincus' comments have to be read to be believed. He says a correction "is in the works." Wemple's analysis of his Post colleague's journalistic practices is, by itself, well worth reading.

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