The Washington Post's revealing blunder: Their screwup over the FBI's Hillary probe is a great example of why Americans hate the press

Post gets played by Republicans looking to sink Clinton by wildly exaggerating the number of agents probing her

Published March 31, 2016 8:35PM (EDT)

              (AP/Gerald Herbert)
(AP/Gerald Herbert)

I don't think there's ever been a period in my lifetime during which a sizable plurality of Americans didn't look upon the mainstream media with a mix of disdain and distrust, but the 2016 election has taken it to another level.

There's Donald Trump's campaign, obviously, which has placed hatred of elite media — not just as an institution, but very much as a group of "disgusting" individuals — front and center like no other presidential campaign (at least since Richard Nixon's in 1968). But he's hardly alone.

In fact, with the possible exception of Gov. John Kasich, every candidate still in the race is known for having an either frosty or downright hostile relationship with the press.

Hillary Clinton's loathing for the media is central to her political identity; Sen. Ted Cruz routinely uses the press as a punching bag in order to avoid tough questions; and rare is the occasion when Sen. Bernie Sanders turns down the chance to slam "corporate media," which he sees as structurally biased — at best.

We may be a profoundly heterogeneous and divided nation, in other words, but we do all agree that the media sucks. (Few people, by the way, hate media more than those who are themselves journalists.)

Why is the media almost universally despised? That question is way, way too big for a blog post to handle. People — smart people — have devoted their careers trying to answer just that. So if you want a more holistic analysis, I'd recommend you acquaint yourself with the work of NYU's Jay Rosen. Eric Alterman's "What Liberal Media?" also still holds up.

But if you want a case in point, look no further than this correction from the Washington Post:

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 11.25.01 AMFrom 147 to "fewer than 50" — that's quite a drop! But if a subsequent report from NBC is correct, the Post is still selling itself short. The real number isn't 147, and it isn't fewer than 50. It is, NBC reports, twelve:

Sources close to the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton's email are knocking down suggestions that 147 federal agents are working on the case, a figure first reported — and now revised — by the Washington Post, citing a lawmaker.

The Post updated the figure on Tuesday, stating that while the "FBI will not provide an exact figure," there are "fewer than 50" FBI personnel involved in the case.

But a former federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the Clinton investigation tells MSNBC an estimate anywhere near 50 agents is also off base.

That's not all the Post screwed up, either (though it's more than enough already). According to NBC, the Post's number wasn't just way off — it was, to those in law enforcement who'd know, "completely improbable."

Again, from NBC:

A former FBI official, also speaking anonymously, says many in the law enforcement community view the large estimates of people assigned to the case as completely improbable.

"147 was such a ridiculous number," said the source, adding that 50 also sounded unrealistic for this kind of inquiry. "You need an act of terrorism to get 50 agents working on something," said the former FBI official.

How the hell did such shoddy journalism ever make it into The Washington Post, you ask? I don't know; that's something for the Post's ombudsman to find out. But I can tell you how I — and many others — suspect it went down. The key phrase, turning back to the Post's correction, is this: "...according to a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey."

That "lawmaker," almost certainly, was a Republican. And if past is prologue, it was a Republican involved with the so-called Benghazi committee, the oh-so-serious investigative entity that House Republicans established in order to destroy Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign get to the bottom of the 2012 attack. It would not be the first time that a politician leaked knowingly false information just for the sake of giving its target a few days of bad press.

Yet that, right there, is the problem: This was utterly predictable. It's something that happens all the time. And any journalist with an ounce of common sense is always on guard, careful not to become a useful idiot for someone engaged in political machinations. Getting played like this is, to put it lightly, amateurish.

But man-oh-man, did the Post's initial report get a lot of attention. You gotta figure it earned the Post's website a whole lot of clicks. That's often the case with these "too good to check" stories. Meanwhile, the Post can just slap a correction at the bottom of the piece and continue along with its business. And who knows what juicy leak Republican politicians might send its way next?


By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith