On November 27, The Guardian published a blockbuster report detailing an alleged meeting between Julian Assange and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Reporter Luke Harding’s story went viral almost instantly, but many journalists have expressed doubt, citing Harding’s long-standing personal feud with Assange’s WikiLeaks.
Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Glenn Greenwald asserted in an op-ed penned for the Intercept that there should be “ample video and other evidence” of the meeting, since Assange — effectively forced to reside in Ecuador’s London embassy — is subjected to “every form of video and physical surveillance imaginable.” All of Assange’s visitors are not only surveilled by multiple governments, but also required to give their passports and other forms of identification to be logged. The Guardian’s story, however, is based exclusively on anonymous sources’ claims.
Criticism like Greenwald’s appears to have prompted the publication to edit the story a number of times, according to News Sniffer, which tracks changes outlets make to their news stories. “Why Manafort sought out Assange in 2013 is unclear,” for instance, has been changed to “Why Manafort might have sought out Assange in 2013 is unclear.” As CNN journalist Hadas Gold reported via Twitter, The Guardian subsequently issued a statement about the Assange-Manafort story, claiming to have contacted their representatives prior to publication. Assange and Manafort’s representative, The Guardian argued, “did not respond to deny the visit taking place.” But WikiLeaks, in fact, made a public denial via Twitter, hours before The Guardian published its piece.
A number of left-leaning journalists took to social media to voice their criticism of The Guardian.
Max Blumenthal argued that The Guardian is not what it used to be since Kath Viner’s taking over as editor-in-chief, attacking Harding for publishing dubiously sourced stories in the past.
Since @KathViner took over the Guardian, the paper's become a de facto bulletin board for national security state disinformation. Another outlet might have sacked @LukeHarding1968 for his string of phony, dubiously sourced stories, but this one kicks him upstairs again and again. https://t.co/vcWuaPYkSs— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) November 29, 2018
Glenn Greenwald pointed out that no other media outlet has confirmed the story, adding that no photos or videos have emerged from the heavily surveilled Ecuadorian embassy in London.
One day after the huge, viral Guardian/Harding story on Manafort/Assange:— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 28, 2018
* No other media outlet has confirmed it.
* No videos or photos have emerged showing Manafort there.
* Only one person - @TopherSpiro of the UAE-funded CAP- claims confirmation, but won't say how he knows: pic.twitter.com/8y8USsegMq
Michael Tracy pointed out that The Guardian appears to be having second thoughts about the story as well, citing the paper’s statement released in response to criticism.
If the Guardian was unwaveringly confident in the accuracy of its story, in light of all the well-founded skepticism that has been expressed, this statement would be much more vehement and defiant https://t.co/wVYtc6b7DF— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) November 28, 2018
Ben Norton wrote that the publication is already “watering down” the article, adding “sources say” to the headline. Norton also reminded Twitter that WikiLeaks bet The Guardian a million dollars that the story is false.
Some of the edits The Guardian has already made to its supposed Manafort-Assange scoop might look small but are significant:— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) November 27, 2018
These weasel words like "would have," "apparent," and "might have" show the story is weak and relies entirely on anonymous sourcinghttps://t.co/6vEK5TQnIw pic.twitter.com/e0mb6iAc7m
But as skeptics raise their voices — pointing out inconsistencies, lack of evidence, Harding’s personal feud with WikiLeaks, and The Guardian‘s subsequent corrections — some are jumping at the chance to defend the publication. In an op-ed penned for Politico, former CIA officer writing under the pen name “Alex Finley” suggested, without evidence, that Russia may have duped The Guardian into publishing fake news.
According to the former CIA officer, in an effort to discredit the paper, Russian intelligence targeted one of its journalist and duped him into publishing a fabricated story about meetings between Julian Assange and Paul Manafort.
“Harding is likely a major target for anyone wrapped up in Russia’s intelligence operation against the West’s democratic institutions,” the former CIA officer writers. “This, in turn, would call into question any of Harding’s past reporting and could be raised any time someone mentions his reporting as evidence of wrongdoing.”
According to Finley, this is “an old tactic” used by authoritarian leaders around the world. “Someone is nervous,” Finley opined, reaffirming that The Guardian may have been duped by Russian intelligence services. The former CIA agent provided no evidence for his claims.