MSNBC on Tuesday night released documents defending host Joy Reid’s claims that offensive posts allegedly from her old and shuttered blog, “The Reid Report,” were the work of a malicious digital orchestration. “We have significant evidence indicating that not only was Ms. Reid’s old blog compromised, some of the recently circulated posts were not even on the site at any time, suggesting that these instances may be the result of screenshot manipulation with the intent to tarnish Ms. Reid’s character,” noted Jonathan Nichols, a security consultant.
The pushback adds another strange turn to a tale that kicked off in December 2017, when Reid — who hosts “AM Joy” on weekend mornings on MSNBC — apologized for having written some material on “The Reid Report” that contained homophobic thoughts and references. The posts, dug up by a Twitter user under the handle @jamie_maz, said that former Florida governor Charlie Crist was a closeted gay man. “Miss Charlie,” Reid called the politician, among other offensive stuff. Reid apologized for the posts.
But the story didn’t end there. As Mediaite reported on Monday, a “new” batch of posts bearing similarly offensive material poses further questions about Reid’s intellectual history. Also unearthed by @jamie_maz, the writings lay out various iterations of meatheaded homophobia. In a post reacting to gay-hating remarks by retired NBA star Tim Hardaway, for example, there is this riff:
Keeping it real … most straight men feel exactly the same way, and would have the exact same reaction to the idea of stripping naked in a sweaty locker room in close quarters with a gay teammate. Most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing… Most straight people had a hard time being convinced to watch ‘Broke Back Mountain.’ (I admit that I couldn’t go see the movie either, despite my sister’s ringing endorsement, because I didn’t want to watch the two male characters having sex.) Does that make me homophobic? Probably.
Faced with these career-harming allegations, Reid issued a statement:
In December I learned that an unknown, external party accessed and manipulated material from my now-defunct blog, The Reid Report, to include offensive and hateful references that are fabricated and run counter to my personal beliefs and ideology.
I began working with a cyber-security expert who first identified the unauthorized activity, and we notified federal law enforcement officials of the breach. The manipulated material seems to be part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago.
Now that the site has been compromised I can state unequivocally that it does not represent the original entries. I hope that whoever corrupted the site recognizes the pain they have caused, not just to me, but to my family and communities that I care deeply about: LGBTQ, immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups.
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Nichols identified two distinct modes of alleged computer malice. On one level, he alleges, someone skulked into the dark web and snatched passcodes for the platform on which Reid placed her posts — Google’s Blogger.com. Armed with those credentials, the bad actor hacked into Reid’s publishing persona. On another level, says Nichols, someone deployed a basic computer program like MSPaint to essentially retro-fabricate old blog posts and sell them as the insensitive, homophobic work of Reid. This is a technique known as “screenshot manipulation.”
“She’s telling the truth,” says Nichols, who says he came into this project in November with the mind-set that she was lying. “Joy Reid is telling the truth. She was hacked.”
The @jamie_maz account has posted a thread of nearly 50 tweets displaying screenshots of posts attributed to Reid. Can Nichols claim that all of those are, somehow, fraudulent? “I am not prepared to say all of them are fraudulent,” says Nichols. “I am prepared to say that some of them are.” For every instance in which Nichols could find a tag attached to those screenshots, he says, he attempted to “replicate” — or authenticate — the post. He couldn’t do so on Archive.org, yet he reports that he was indeed able to replicate all of the posts for which Reid apologized in December. “We are claiming that her blog was hacked and we are also claiming instances of screenshot manipulation — that someone is just writing words on a background that looks like her blog and those aren’t her words. Listen: If you know how to hack, you also know how to Photoshop,” says Nichols.
Another info-security maven had more success replicating the @jamie_maz screenshots. Michael Nelson, a professor of computer science at Old Dominion University, has dug into the Library of Congress web archive. There, he found copies of five screenshots surfaced by @jamie_maz. “We don’t know the full details of what Reid’s lawyers alleged, so perhaps there are details that we don’t know. But the analysis from the Internet Archive crawl engineers, plus evidence in separate web archives suggest that the claim has no merit,” wrote Nelson.
Responding to Nelson, Nichols emailed, “Frankly ANY scraping website will have (obviously) scraped the fraudulent posts. Be that archive.org , Library of Congress, or the hundreds of others. We are not alleging that ANY scraping website was hacked. They….scraped.” (Update: In another turn in the story, Mediate reports that Nichols has “bragged about personally knowing” white supremacist Andrew “weev” Auernheimer.)
An archived copy of “The Reid Report” for Oct. 3, 2005, carries a post headlined, “Harriet Miers and the lesbian hair check.” The post, snapshotted in 2006, contains this thought: “Let’s face it, that’s one hellified lesbian hair-do she’s sporting. Listen, I used to work for a woman with that hair-cut — in fact, she and her girlfriend both had that hair-cut.” The Miers musings are among the posts identified by @jamie_maz, and their existence in the Internet Archive, says Nelson, says something about the likelihood of a hack against Reid. Around that time, Reid worked as a columnist and a radio host in Florida. “It seems unlikely,” says Nelson, “that somebody went to the trouble to hack this in 2006…targeting a regional radio host. That would be an awful lot of work to do for someone you don’t know is going to be famous.”
The timing of the alleged activity animates this digital discussion. The blog posts in question appeared on the Internet a decade ago. Just when they may have been fabricated and captured by archiving sites is a pivotal question in the forensics. “It’s extremely unlikely that there was a hack in 2006 and no one would have noticed,” Nelson tells me. Likewise: “It would be extremely difficult to hack the page today and make it appear indexed in the archive circa 2009 or 2006 — that would essentially be a hack of the archive,” says Nelson.
Team Reid has attempted to secure information to buttress its hacking claims. MSNBC on Tuesday night released a December letter from lawyer John Reichman to Blogger.com’s parent company seeking a boatload of technical information about postings and access relating to Reid’s Blogger.com platform. The company replied that the information wasn’t available.
To make the case that Reid had been hacked, Reichman argued that “fraudulent” posts appeared under Reid’s name at times — such as when she was hosting a radio show — that she couldn’t have possibly authored them. Other arguments: There are no comments on the fraudulent posts; they differ in style from Reid’s authentic work; they contain different formatting from the real stuff; and they feature content that Reid couldn’t possibly have conceived. One post cited as bogus, for instance, contains the line, “I love Lou Dobbs.”
Another point: “How come nobody contemporaneously had any discussions about any of these things,” says Nichols, wondering how a popular blogger such as Reid could have gotten away with so many offensive statements. “Are you kidding? It’s Joy Reid. Everybody would have.” (See Nichols’s report here.)
In another letter released by MSNBC, Reichman appeals to the Internet Archive — home of the famous Wayback Machine — to “remove in its entirety the Blog.” Nichols explains that the initial outreach to the Internet Archive related to hacking possibilities but then zeroed in on the presence of allegedly bogus material that had migrated from Blogger.com to the Internet Archive. “Can we take down these fraudulent posts?” was the question, he says.
On Tuesday afternoon the Internet Archive posted an item responding to Reid’s allegations. “When we reviewed the archives,” wrote the Internet Archive’s Director of Open Libraries Chris Butler, “we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions. At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.”
And some background: “This past December, Reid’s lawyers contacted us, asking to have archives of the blog (blog.reidreport.com) taken down, stating that ‘fraudulent’ posts were ‘inserted into legitimate content’ in our archives of the blog. Her attorneys stated that they didn’t know if the alleged insertion happened on the original site or with our archives (Reid’s claim regarding the point of manipulation is still unclear to us),” says the post. The material was blocked anyhow, via an automated procedure.
That automated procedure merits some consideration. In its post on the controversy, the Internet Archive notes that during its correspondence with Reid’s people, “a robots.txt exclusion request specific to the Wayback Machine was placed on the live blog. That request was automatically recognized and processed by the Wayback Machine and the blog archives were excluded, unbeknownst to us (the process is fully automated),” notes the Archive’s post. If that explanation sounds complicated, please scan this very good explainer on the Archive by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. “The Wayback Machine collects every Web page it can find, unless that page is blocked; blocking a Web crawler requires adding only a simple text file, ‘robots.txt,’ to the root of a Web site. The Wayback Machine will honor that file and not crawl that site, and it will also, when it comes across a robots.txt, remove all past versions of that site,” writes Lepore.
As Nelson notes, a robots.txt maneuver, in this case, must come from whoever maintains the keys to “The Reid Report.” “Nothing says, ‘I’m guilty’ like blocking the entire site from the Internet Archive,” says Nelson.
Reid has said that the alleged hacking has been referred to law enforcement. “The FBI has been made aware of this,” says Nichols.
Thus far, the story of Joy Reid and her blog has been litigated among Reid, her lawyers and the media. So just what is MSNBC’s position on the whole thing? According to a company source, “the matter has been brought to the attention of law enforcement and we’re letting that process play itself out.”