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Opinion Staffers at The Hill press management about the work of John Solomon

Fox News’s Sean Hannity in 2016. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

A group of newsroom staffers at The Hill have complained to management about stories written by John Solomon, the publication’s executive vice president of digital video. The complaints were launched in December when Solomon and reporter Alison Spann broke a story under this headline: “Exclusive: Prominent lawyer sought donor cash for two Trump accusers.”

The gist of Solomon and Spann’s story: Prominent California lawyer Lisa Bloom worked to secure payments for women who “made or considered making sexual misconduct allegations against Donald Trump during the final months of the 2016 presidential race.” The story cited “documents and interviews,” plus the on-the-record explanations by Bloom herself.

The story impressed the conservative media world. Fox News host Sean Hannity called it a “bombshell report,” while conservative websites aggregated away. A New York Times story two weeks later noted that accuser-financing arrangements weren’t invented for the Trump era: Paula Jones’s harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton received funding from the Rutherford Institute.

Such context, complained staffers at The Hill, was missing from the Solomon-Spann effort, yielding a story that framed President Trump’s accusers as money-grubbing opportunists — and not so much, you know, as victims of sexual assault or misconduct. Staffers were eager to know whether the only two female news editors at the publication had reviewed the story. James A. Finkelstein, The Hill’s chairman, did not respond to a question on that matter.

According to several sources at The Hill, a mid-level editor at the publication raised concerns about that story — as well as another story, about a makeup artist who had “lobbied” to work for Trump “months before her sex assault allegations roiled campaign.” The editor then reported back to her colleagues via email that she had registered her apprehension about the matter and solicited further input.

She got it, according to sources at The Hill. For months, reporters at the publication have whispered sour somethings among themselves about the trail of Solomon investigations that have appeared under The Hill’s banner. It veers rightward.

As this blog has noted, a Solomon-Spann collaboration in October on the Uranium One deal lit up conservative media, with the aid of a plume of smoke and a warehouse full of mirrors. It appears to make the argument that the Justice Department quasi-covered up an important criminal case by . . . issuing a press release.

The pockmarks carried over into the new year. In a Jan. 8 piece, Solomon wrote, “Republican-led House and Senate committees are investigating whether leaders of the Russia counterintelligence investigation had contacts with the news media that resulted in improper leaks, prompted in part by text messages among senior FBI officials mentioning specific reporters, news organizations and articles.” At the center of the piece are then-FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, the text-happy officials whose communications leaked last year. During the summer, Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigative team after learning from a Justice Department inspector general probe* about text messages that cast then-candidate Trump in a negative light. From the story:

In one exchange, FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page engaged in a series of texts shortly before Election Day 2016 suggesting they knew in advance about an article in The Wall Street Journal and would need to feign stumbling onto the story so it could be shared with colleagues.
“Article is out, but hidden behind paywall so can’t read it,” Page texted Strzok on Oct. 24, 2016.

Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly and Nick Baumann grabbed Solomon’s piece, examined it and placed it neatly in the recycling bin. “Here’s What The FBI Lovers’ Secret Texts Actually Say About Trump, Clinton and Leaks,” reads the headline of the rebuttal piece, which strikes at the reason Solomon and his sources wanted to push the leak story: “The theory Trump and others have been pushing insinuates that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two current FBI employees who were having an affair, were at the heart of an FBI conspiracy against Trump during the 2016 election campaign,” they write. “Adherents of this theory believe that the couple’s 2016 texts criticizing Trump — which were recovered from their government cellphones, provided to Congress and shared with some reporters ― prove they were out to get the then-candidate.”

And about that Wall Street Journal article? Reilly and Baumann report that it was a story critical of Hillary Clinton, not of Trump — challenging the idea that the FBI officials were leaking against the eventual president. Nor does the fact that FBI officials know about a story in advance prove or even suggest leaking; many people in government agencies and in companies hear through the grapevine that a big story about their employer is about to drop.

Post media critic Erik Wemple frequently skewerws Fox News, and, well, some of the network's loyal viewers have something to say about it. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Solomon is among the best-traveled journalists around the Beltway. He has worked at the Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Center for Public Integrity, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, the Washington Guardian, Circa and The Hill. As he moves around, he leaves an interesting trail for media reporters to follow. Last summer, for instance, Solomon announced that he was jumping from Circa, a general news site owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, to The Hill. “The Hill’s spectacular rise as the leading outlet for political news coverage speaks to a far-reaching vision for digitally-powered growth,” Solomon said in a statement. “Joining The Hill team at this time, when the outlet is seeing just the first fruits of that vision, is an incredibly exciting opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with some of today’s most talented journalists to create a new political genre for the mobile generation, providing unmatched, non-partisan political news and bipartisan shows in the digital formats they love.”

Employees at The Hill would take issue with the “non-partisan” promise. According to sources consulted by this blog, there’s frustration that Solomon appears so tight with Hannity, the prime-time Trump apologist who has admitted straight-up that he’s no journalist. Over the past three months, Solomon has turned in a dozen or so appearances on “Hannity.” The TV hits may be good for traffic at, though the implications for up-and-coming journalists at the publication are less salutary: Their employer comes off as a propaganda mill.

Over the past several days, the Erik Wemple Blog has pressed Finkelstein on the complaints against Solomon. On Wednesday afternoon, he wrote via email, “As I have said . . . nobody has factually questioned the veracity of John Solomon’s reporting. Furthermore, that story was focused on Lisa Bloom not the accusers.”

Solomon has not responded to an email and a voicemail message seeking comment.

*Correction: The original version of this story said that news reports flagged the text messages. Strzok’s departure from the Mueller team was reported in August 2017 by ABC News, and the New York Times reported in December 2017 that the reason for the move was his text messages.