Media critic

Bloomberg Businessweek spent more than a year reporting on an alleged breach of U.S. computer infrastructure by China -- a hardware hack supposedly affecting Apple, Amazon, Supermicro and nearly 30 other companies. That story was published on Oct. 4 under the headline “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies.”

More than three months later, reporting on the story continues.

An email obtained by the Erik Wemple Blog shows that Jordan Robertson, who wrote the story with Michael Riley, recently contacted a former Apple employee with a request:

I’m a reporter with Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. You likely saw a story we published in October about Chinese manipulation of Supermicro server hardware at companies including Apple, Amazon and others. 

I see that you recently left Apple in a security role. Would you be willing to connect on background -- nothing we might discuss would be attributed to you in any way -- to chat about any visibility you might have had into these incidents? We are working on some follow-up reporting and talking to lots of folks. Would be great to connect if you had insights into the issue we wrote about.

The term “follow-up reporting” is doing a lot of lifting in this context. As the Erik Wemple Blog has noted before, “The Big Hack” drew condemnations and/or expressions of dubiety and/or denials from the companies highlighted in the story, not to mention from government officials and various computer security experts. Apple CEO Tim Cook called for a retraction, as did an official at Amazon Web Services. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) A cybersecurity official at the National Security Agency said, "If somebody has first-degree knowledge, can hand us a board, can point to somebody in a company that was involved in this, as claimed, we want to talk to them.”

Perhaps most damning is the void that has followed “The Big Hack”: No competitor of Bloomberg has yet matched the story, despite vigorous efforts by some of the country’s leading outlets. Ignoring the Bloomberg story was not an option, considering that the hack alleged in the piece -- the implanting of a tiny microchip on server motherboards -- was a scary operation. If true, the scoop would be the portal to a national scandal of sorts -- something that no outlet could afford to sit out. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Post, in addition to other outlets, have all tried to replicate Bloomberg’s findings -- without success.

Yet the story’s status as a journalistic dangling modifier puts Bloomberg in league with a couple of other major stories of recent months that stand by their lonesome, with just one news brand attesting to their bona fides. Every journalist loves to produce an exclusive, but no journalist wants a permanent exclusive. “Being alone is great for about two days and then you start saying, ‘Where is everyone else or where is anybody else?’” says Bob Woodward, who partnered with Carl Bernstein on The Post’s coverage of Watergate. Referring to former Post eminences Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, Woodward says, “Ben would say, ‘Kay says if it’s such a good story, where’s everybody else? Why are we alone?'”

McClatchy’s Greg Gordon told MSNBC host Joy Reid after a big story relating to Russia and the Trump campaign: “We have to follow what our sources that we trust and have developed over this two-year period,” said Gordon. At issue was a Dec. 27 story that Gordon co-authored with Peter Stone with the headline, “Cell signal puts Cohen outside Prague around time of purported Russian meeting.” Four knowledgeable “people” provided the basis for McClatchy’s claim that a phone traced to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen “briefly sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, leaving an electronic record to support claims that Cohen met secretly there with Russian officials, four people with knowledge of the matter say.” That scoop followed a story from April 2018 by the same reporting duo that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III “has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016,” a breakthrough that would help support an allegation in the famous Christopher Steele dossier that Cohen had met there with Kremlin officials in late summer 2016. The purpose of the meeting, according to the dossier, was “how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally."

Every time such an allegation has surfaced, Cohen has denied it.

Though most Mueller-related scoops are subsequently confirmed by multiple outlets, the Gordon-Stone story just sits there. So is there any concern at McClatchy about this enduring exclusive? “No, not really, not for me,” Wendy Benjaminson, the managing editor of McClatchy’s Washington bureau, tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “Of course, there’s a little niggling voice in back of your head but I am 100 percent confident in our reporting. I’ve run stories that haven’t been matched in the past, and that doesn’t make them any less true.” Nor is the piece an extravagant one, says Benjaminson, emphasizing that it’s just a "breadcrumb.” "His cell phone was pinged in the Czech Republic. That’s all the story says. It doesn’t say Cohen was there on behalf of Trump,” she notes.

Why, then, publish a quarter of a loaf? “That’s a good question and, of course, we would love to have video of Michael Cohen in Prague, but I do think that we as journalists are creating a body of evidence and that at some point all the dots will be connected,” says Benjaminson.

Dot-connecting gets little help from Cohen himself, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. That offense, of course, came before Cohen flipped on Trump and aided the Mueller investigation, presumably kicking off a more honest period in his life. Even so, his denials land with a whimper. “We’ll have to see how this sorts out, because Michael Cohen, as we all know, has been convicted of lying about his dealings with the Trump hotel in Russia. He’s been convicted of being deceitful in a number of ways, and so his credibility is not high," said Gordon in his MSNBC appearance.

When Reid drilled Gordon on his sources, Gordon acknowledged that they were passing along second-hand information, though he stood by them. “We have used these sources on many subjects and they have been accurate,” said Gordon. As Jonathan Alter and Maxwell Tani point out in the Daily Beast, multiple outlets have bounced off this story. And it’s clear why they’d throw resources after it: “What this meeting or purported meeting in Prague could mean is the first strong evidence of some sort of collusion,” said Gordon on MSNBC.

Woodward tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he sunk some work into the Cohen-Prague story. “I heard this from somebody who should know. I couldn’t take it any further and passed it on to somebody at The Post and never saw it matched or duplicated and . . . I don’t know if that means it’s true or not.”

As Marcy Wheeler at EmptyWheel pointed out, McClatchy’s Prague-reporting team hasn’t blanketed the Russia probe. “We at McClatchy are not working full-time on the Russia story,” says Benjaminson, adding that Gordon has excellent sources who “keep bringing him things.” The organization’s focus is on regional news in the company’s markets. “I think we punch above our weight," she says.

Whereas McClatchy is happy to hop on the phone to talk about its unmatched story, the same cannot be said for the Guardian, which alone reported that Paul Manafort “held secret talks with [Julian] Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say.” Talk about explosive: Manafort is Trump’s former campaign chairman, a convicted felon and a man with deep ties to pro-Russian Ukrainian strongmen. “Sources have said Manafort went to see Assange in 2013, 2015 and in spring 2016 – during the period when he was made a key figure in Trump’s push for the White House,” reads the story. The meetings allegedly took place in Ecuador’s London Embassy, where Assange secured asylum in 2012.

A representative for the Guardian declined to comment beyond the outlet’s previous statement: “This story relied on a number of sources. We put these allegations to both Paul Manafort and Julian Assange’s representatives prior to publication. Neither responded to deny the visits taking place. We have since updated the story to reflect their denials.” We didn’t get a denial, of course, can never substitute for an affirmation of anything. Consider, too, that there’s a significant hedge in the story: “It is unclear why Manafort would have wanted to see Assange and what was discussed. But the last apparent meeting is likely to come under scrutiny and could interest Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.” Bolding inserted to highlight an adjective that should never accompany a cacophonous allegation.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has cited London’s airtight surveillance web and the embassy’s security procedures in wondering why the Guardian was unable to secure better sourcing for this report. “Not only are guests who visit Assange required to give their passports and other identification to be logged, but they also pass through multiple visible cameras – to say nothing of the invisible ones – on their way to visit Assange, including cameras on the street, in the lobby of the building, in the reception area of the Embassy, and then in the rooms where one meets Assange,” noted Greenwald. The Post’s Paul Farhi raised further concerns about the piece.

Time is a friend to none of these stories. The longer they remain on their evidentiary islands, the more marginalized they become. In the case of the Cohen and Manafort-Assange stories, there’s a possibility that the Mueller probe will deliver a report shedding light on these killer allegations. If it omits mention of them, other news organizations would presumably find little incentive to review them.

The Bloomberg piece on China hacking is a different animal. It not only alleged that Apple was affected by this hack, that Amazon was affected by this hack and that server manufacturer Supermicro was affected by this hack, but also this: “One official says investigators found that it eventually affected almost 30 companies, including a major bank, government contractors, and the world’s most valuable company, Apple Inc.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked Bloomberg if any one of those dozens of additional companies has come forward. Wouldn’t some newsworthy tidbit arise from these dozens of organizations? A spokeswoman for Bloomberg declined to comment. Meanwhile, the outlet is sticking with a three-month-old statement: “We stand by our story and are confident in our reporting and sources.” Then why did the company in November dispatch a reporter not on the story’s original team to “join the research effort” and “do more digging” on the matter? And is Robertson’s “follow-up” really just an effort to bolster this much-criticized investigation? We didn’t get answers to those questions, either.