Friday, November 01, 2019

To Even Speak of the Ukraine is to Invite Blowback (Weaponization)

cjr |  On May 1, The New York Times carried a story on its front page, “For Biden, a Ukraine Matter That Won’t Go Away,” by Kenneth P. Vogel and Iuliia Mendel. It delved into the effort by supporters of Donald Trump to connect Joe Biden, through his son Hunter, to corruption in Ukraine. Within the Times, the story has been treated as a big win, an early look at the matter that has now led to an impeachment inquiry of Trump. Vogel has popped up on a segment of the Times podcast The Daily, telling host Michael Barbaro his reporting was “prescient.” And he’s been on a recent episode of the Times’s TV show, The Weekly, where he and an image of that front-page headline both feature prominently on-screen.

But outside the paper, the response to the story has been far less enthusiastic: the piece has been labeled “controversial,” accused of getting its facts wrong, and of pushing a “Republican conspiracy theory” into the “mainstream.” Podcast host and former Obama White House staffer Dan Pfeiffer went so far as to accuse Vogel and the Times of having a “Watergate-style scoop about Trump … and fumbled the ball.” To which Vogel responded, “I literally broke the story upon which the impeachment inquiry is based.”

On October 9, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfeld, sent a letter to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet: “The Times had an outsized hand in the spread of a baseless conspiracy theory advanced by Rudy Giuliani,” she wrote. “What was especially troubling about the Times active participation in this smear campaign is that prior to its reporting on the subject by Ken Vogel, this conspiracy had been relegated to the likes of Breitbart, Russian propaganda, and another conspiracy theorist regular Hannity guest John Solomon.”

(The piece also generated a separate controversy when Mendel, who worked as a freelance reporter in Ukraine for the Times, announced in June that she had been hired as the spokesperson for President Volodymyr Zelensky—who President Trump had pressured in the now infamous July 25 phone call. The Times wasn’t happy to learn of the clear conflict of interest but said that the international desk conducted a review of her work and found it “fair and accurate.”)
What has made this such an alluring media story is that the battle lines are so firmly drawn: Is the piece, as Vogel has described it, a seminal journalistic work that opened the gates to the entire Ukraine saga? Or is it, per its critics, clickbait better suited to Breitbart than the Times?