Plugging the Leak
Members of the media became literal partners with the FBI in tracking down the Pentagon leaker, because some information is bad, apparently
April 16, 2023
Dateline: The day it became clear the big Dominion - Fox News trial… might not actually happen?!
Watching this week…
— Press joins with FBI to hunt the leaker
— Substack allows racist writing — good
— AI will replace the bad journalists
— Conservative Media, Future of Podcasts — Fourth Watch Pod with Chris Balfe
— Great Moments in Experts Say Journalism
Press gleefully joined with FBI to catch Pentagon leaker — a notable departure from past leaks
We’re just two weeks away from the one-year anniversary of Politico’s massive scoop about the draft of the Dobbs decision, signaling the end of Roe in America. That story was only possible thanks to a person leaking the draft to the two journalists who wrote the story, and to this day we do not know the identity of the leaker. There aren’t many possibilities! It’s either a justice or a clerk, pretty much. That narrows the list down. But it’s not just that we don’t know who the Supreme Court leaker is. It’s that there’s absolutely no appetite by any news outlet, it seems, to dig into this story at all.
I don’t know everyone in the media industry, but I’ve had enough conversations with people who work in the corporate media over the past few months to know that the topic of the Supreme Court leaker is not one they want to discuss. On Wednesday, Politico’s Playbook focused on “How SCOTUS skates past controversy after controversy,” and the massive norms-shattering leak of the decision, that put the lives of the justices in danger, was not even mentioned.
Some leaks, and some leakers, are protected by the media. There’s no other explanation for the incuriosity of the press to this enormous story. And I have to be honest — I want to know who the leaker is, but I also have respect for the media’s inclination toward protecting sources, even if it’s a source that put lives in danger, as the SCOTUS leaker surely did. Politico’s not going to burn the source, but I can see other outlets shying away from digging in to protect the source too. (Here’s a good spot for a parenthetical about conservative media — why is the Free Beacon or Daily Wire or anyone not devoting time and resources to this? And then comes in my conspiratorial thinking that maybe they have and they don’t like what they’re finding. But I guess we’ll see eventually — we even found out who Deep Throat was in the end.)
All of this brings me to the past week, and the news that Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old with the Massachusetts Air National Guard, had been arrested after being identified as the source of all the Pentagon classified documents leaks.
Now we have to start by reflecting on the poor initial coverage of this story, from places like Reuters, which wrote nine days ago, “Russia likely behind U.S. military document leak, U.S. officials say.” Ah yes, that again. Speaking of burning sources — maybe these “U.S. officials” constantly spinning you in the wrong direction should be unmasked?
But let’s get to how Teixeira was caught. The FBI was obviously trying to track down who did this, as were other areas of the Biden administration. But they were running in concert with forces in the press. In 2019, the New York Times profiled “Bellingcat,” an organization of volunteers who were sometimes described in the piece as “open-source journalists” and other times described as “amateur open-source investigators.” Basically this organization was made up of people who scoured the internet and social media sites to try to solve mysteries. It’s cool, I suppose, but it’s not journalism.
A few years later, Bellingcat is working in conjunction with the New York Times, to track down this leaker. The organization bragged that one of its members, Aric Toler, whose Twitter bio says he does “Research/Training” for Bellingcat, got a byline on the New York Times story about the revelation of Teixeira’s identity.
Similarly, The Washington Post’s “investigations” team was undergoing this sort of “open-source” project as well. Evan Hill, a member of that team, tweeted about how a “tabletop” in the background of one of the photos was used to track down the leaker.
Chris Hayes of MSNBC seemed excited about how the Post and Times “cracked the case of the mystery leaker” even before the FBI could (although that timeline has been slightly disputed).
We’ve entered bizarre, uncharted territory.
Let’s take a quick runthrough of what we’ve learned from this leak. We know the U.S. and other Western forces are fighting Russia inside Ukraine. We know the U.S. doubts Ukraine will be victorious. We know China and even potentially Egypt are helping Russia. We know the U.S. is spying on allies like Israel and South Korea. All of this is relevant to the American people, who have either outright been told otherwise by our government leaders or have certainly been misled in some cases. Of course the leak is damaging to our standing in the world. Just like the Snowden leak was. But it was important — and it was true.
I’m trying to imagine a scenario four years ago where the Trump administration was lying to us, some overzealous 21-year-old in the military leaked information proving that, and the corporate media suddenly decided "let's find that guy’s identity and bring him to justice!"
Glenn Greenwald put it succinctly: “I can barely put into words how dangerous and twisted it is that it is now the NYT and WashPost that does the FBI's job for it by hunting down leakers of classified information -- the people on whom real journalism depends.”
But this is the current iteration of the Acela Media’s anti-speech activism. Last week The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote how “U.S. authorities will urgently need to trace the leak’s provenance.”
The Supreme Court leaker? Gifted protection by the press. In this case, it was time to plug the leak on behalf of, and in partnership with, our government elite. It’s a sad reflection of where the ethos of the media is in 2023.
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You can say racist things on Substack, and Substack’s CEO should say that proudly
I’ve enjoyed being on Substack for a few months — so far I find it to be a great experience, and I hope you do too. One of the things I love about the platform is it houses all sorts of content, from the far right to the far left to the totally random apolitical weird stuff to everything in between. That’s great! The censorship is minimal to nonexistent, and that’s wonderful.
In an interview with The Verge on Thursday, Substack’s CEO Chris Best was pressed by Verge editor Nilay Patel on a specific instance of content moderation, and the exchange was shared widely. You can see the moment by clicking the screenshot below:
'‘We should not allow as many brown people in the country.’…Do you allow that on Substack? Would you allow that on Substack Notes?” asked Patel. Best didn’t answer, so Patel kept trying, and raising the emotional stakes in an obviously non-journalistic way: “I’m a brown person. Do you think people on Substack should say I should get kicked out of the country?”
This continued back and forth, with Best refusing to answer.
It’s important to note, Patel later had to add an update admitting his example actually was not a violation of the content guidelines, which read: “Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes. Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.”
I first noticed it through this tweet, from a journalist Luke O’Neil, who was praising Patel over pressing Best about what should and shouldn’t be allowed on Substack. Others I saw share it agreed — they were happy to see someone speaking out for what obviously should be disallowed on a platform.
This is disturbing. Activists not understanding freedom of speech or the free flow of ideas is one thing — but these are journalists, serving in their new role of anti-speech activists, arguing for more censorship and suppression. Racist ideas are bad ideas — I’m on board with that! But the idea that we should ban ideas that are bad is so absurd, and counterproductive, and yet it is becoming the norm among the Acela Media elite.
Best should say proudly that some racist asshole can write “We should not allow as many brown people in the country” on Substack. That person can get called out and ostracized. The system can, and very likely will, work. That’s called America. The members of the media who have abandoned their principles should not be placated.
You can say racist things on Substack. You can say dumb, incorrect things too. And in all these cases, you will not be rewarded. This is a feature, not a bug. Trust the process — Americans are much smarter than the corporate media gives them credit for.
Artificial Intelligence and the media: Why AI is going to replace the bad journalists
Artificial Intelligence is going to become perhaps the most important topic in many fields, for years to come. And journalism is no exception. What happens in the months and years ahead? This AI wave is coming. I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT for a few weeks now, trying to test its limits to see what it can and can’t do as a journalist or member of the media.
The conclusion seems clear to me. If you’re a journalist who adheres to the general principles of your occupation — you develop sources, you seek out information through a relentless curiosity, you crave breaking news, you aren’t swayed by the consensus in your pursuit of the facts — you should be fine. It’s going to be very difficult for AI to replace you.
But, unfortunately, this description doesn’t encompass very much of the corporate media these days. These people are in trouble. AI is coming for your jobs.
I dug into AI and how it might affect journalists in the latest Fourth Watch “Rabbit Hole” deep dive column, available in full for paid subscribers. Check out an extended free preview here:
Conservative media, future of podcasts - Fourth Watch Podcast with Chris Balfe
I’ve known Chris Balfe for a dozen years, and our careers have intertwined several times. The media executive and I have talked often, but never in a recorded setting — like we did in the most recent episode of the Fourth Watch Podcast.
His path to success is fascinating — including his rapid rise beginning as a high schooler working with Glenn Beck — and he tracks the entire origin story at the end of the podcast. You can download the full podcast on Apple, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Now, as the co-founder of Red Seat Ventures, Chris works with a variety of top talent (Chris is actually my boss, through Red Seat’s partnership with Megyn Kelly). What are the traits that the A+ level talent all share? Watch that exchange here.
You can also see clips about whether a giant media behemoth could try to scoop up a conservative media outlet to expand its audience (hint: nope), and why Chris hates all the new baseball rules.
We also talked CNN Plus' demise one year later, the state of streaming, the future of conservative media, the future of podcasts, and more.
WATCH IT… If you’re reading this, chances are you saw Elon Musk take an unprepared interviewer from the BBC to task over “hate speech.” So here’s a bonus “watch” - check out Piers Morgan on Bill Maher Friday night leave Rep. Katie Porter completely stumbling by simply asking her what she disagrees with Riley Gaines about.
HEAR IT… I was pleasantly surprised to see a new “Revisionist History” pop up from Malcolm Gladwell, that focused on his historically poor debate performance in the Munk Debates series. He argued in favor of trusting the mainstream media, and Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray set him straight. Now he reflects on why he messed up, in a quintessentially curious and self-critical way.
READ IT… I love when a giant UFO/UAP story just casually drops in a mainstream publication like Politico. This time, it’s about how the official in charge of the Pentagon’s “Anomaly Resolution Office” has authored a paper floating the theory that the rise in these unexplained objects (like the one shot down over Alaska recently) could actually be “probes from an extraterrestrial ‘parent craft.’” Go on…
Vox Media is “spinning off” one of its recently-purchased properties “NowThis,” in a story spun very positively by The New York Times but seems pretty ominous for the digital media company that’s been trimming elsewhere.
Semafor goes deep profiling Miranda Devine of the New York Post, who apparently has been tapped internally to write a biography of Tucker Carlson.
Outkick, the sports and culture site, continues to solidify a talent base, signing former ESPN talent Dan Dakich to a multi-year deal.
Media companies like NBC, CNN and the New York Times are suing for access to those same 1/6 tapes that Tucker got his hands on earlier this year.
Most trusted name in news? According to a new YouGov poll, that’s Fox News (most watched too) — which of course benefits from the ticket-splitting on the other side.
And Brian Stelter has a new book coming out this year called “Network of Lies” — a tell-all about his time at CNN (kidding, kidding, it’s about Fox News, naturally).
⏪ REWIND // FAST FORWARD: NPR TWEETS Edition ⏩
⏪ Perhaps the most embarrassing media tweet of the past few years was this, about the Hunter Biden laptop story, by NPR’s Public Editor, which quotes NPR’s managing editor talking about not wanting to “waste our time” with the topic.
⏩ Well now NPR has decided this week to “de-emphasize” Twitter as a media organization, in reaction to being labeled “government-funded” by Elon Musk’s regime. Really, a win for any media organization, if it can actually keep its journalists to stick to the plan…
I wrote a bit about the media hysteria over RFK Jr.’s run last newsletter, and this CNN article out today may be the most absurd one yet. “The Kennedys have been through a lot. They don’t want to go through this,” is how it begins, which seems to say this presidential run is worse than several prominent assassinations, among other deaths. It’s a gigantic preemptive shot at the RFK camp — ‘you do this, and the entire Kennedy clan is going to publicly disown you.’ There’s a long section that attempts to say Joe Biden is more of a Kennedy than RFK is. You really should read it. This is going to be a must-watch media side story during these 2024 elections — the Trump Lite route. More to come…
GREAT MOMENTS IN JOURNALISM
Oh, you see, “experts say,” so yeah, done deal. I think there needs to be an entire new section of Fourth Watch called “Experts Say.” If you see a great “experts say” headline this week, email me at FourthWatchMedia@gmail.com.
Thanks for reading. Here’s a little self-promo - the longest interview I’ve done about “Uncovered,” with the excellent interviewer Bridget Phetasy on her “Walk-Ins Welcome” show.
The great thing about Experts and Sources is that reporters are always able to find ones who agree with the reporters' desired narrative. I sometimes suspect the unnamed sources are imaginary. Like, who's to know?
Interesting angle. It makes sense that Teixeira’s best move when he knew the FBI was looking for him would have been to drive to the NYT’s front door with a briefcase filled with the original papers.