And he did all that without triggering a factual uproar.
After a three-month review of Solomon’s work, the Hill had an opportunity to properly retract the Ukrainian stories that Solomon, a longtime Beltway scribe, wrote before departing the publication after September 2019. The publication’s leadership, however, punted. There would be no retraction of Solomon’s columns, no acknowledgement of the dishonesty that produced them, no disciplinary actions announced.
None of which is to say that the review perpetrated a whitewash. It articulated well-reasoned, if gentle, brush backs of Solomon’s actions. For instance: “In certain columns, Solomon failed to identify important details about key Ukrainian sources,” noted the review, “including the fact that they had been indicted or were under investigation.” It also dinged Solomon for not disclosing that his lawyers, Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, served as sources for his work; for omitting pivotal information in his stories about Ukraine; and for emailing a pre-publication draft of a column to those lawyers — as well as to Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — without the knowledge of editors at the Hill. “It is worth reiterating that The Hill has legal counsel who reviews certain articles and opinion columns before they are published,” notes the review.
There’s plenty of “there” there, in other words. But the review lacked that final computational step, in which the publication’s leadership declared in plain language how it all adds up. Something like this: Solomon acted not as a journalist but rather as a political actor, furthering a story line advanced by Giuliani and Parnas.
All these stories — which just so happened to align with the Bidens-are-crooked scam that Giuliani was running on behalf of Trump — left staffers at the Hill with a mountain of claims to check. On this front, they performed admirably. The review was announced on Nov. 18, 2019, and featured “working panels” for each of the 14 pieces that it examined for falsehoods and other forms of journalistic malpractice. Again and again, those panels found gaps in Solomon’s work — missing context that enabled him to get away with journalistic murder. One column by Solomon from last March, for instance, clocked in at 960 words. The editor’s note now affixed to the column stands at 687 words — an amplification that nullifies the original story’s thrust, which was to call for an investigation into allegations that the Ukrainians colluded with Democrats in the 2016 presidential campaign. That’s by now a debunked idea.
Consider, too, the April 1, 2019, story in which Solomon suggests that Joe Biden pushed for the firing of Shokin to benefit his son. Burisma, according to Solomon, was subject to a “wide-ranging corruption probe” led by Shokin.
Or not, as the Hill’s review notes:
That account has been disputed by officials in both Kyiv and Washington and others who maintain the investigation had grown dormant, and that Joe Biden was pushing for Shokin’s removal, not because he was investigating corruption allegations, but because he was neglecting to do so. British officials investigating fraud at Burisma backed this account, dropping a case against the company in early 2015 — months before Joe Biden’s push to remove Shokin — citing a lack of cooperation from the prosecutor general’s office in Kyiv. Furthermore, seeking Shokin’s ouster was the official position of the U.S. and the European Union. The Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove Shokin in 2016. Like Lutsenko, Shokin’s reliability as a source is in question. Shokin was among the figures Solomon interviewed during his research.
That’s a powerful rebuttal, one that compels a retraction or at least a strong correction.
Perhaps the most glaring of Solomon’s omissions relates to Yuri Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general of Ukraine on whom Solomon premises his story line about Yovanovitch. He is presented in Solomon’s work as a fighter of corruption. However, the Hill’s review notes that “State Department officials, more than a year before the interview, had deemed the prosecutor general’s office to be an untrustworthy partner in that cause, suspecting him of undermining those very efforts.”
Sort of an important consideration.
After dropping his reports on the Hill’s website, Solomon laundered them on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, also never a resting place for journalistic context. Trumpworld figures then boosted them on social media. This very smear campaign cost Yovanovitch her post as ambassador to Ukraine; she was recalled in early May, just weeks after the blast from Solomon.
Speaking of the smear campaign, Solomon’s story alleging that Yovanovitch trashed “the current administration” relied on a letter from then-Rep. Pete Sessions to the State Department. What was missing? This detail, from the Hill’s editor’s note in the story: “In October 2019, Ukrainian American businessman Lev Parnas and an associate were arrested on a federal indictment charging federal campaign finance violations. Parnas and the associate allegedly donated money to the 2018 campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), whose letter accusing Yovanovitch of being disloyal to Trump was cited by John Solomon.”
Yovanovitch has denied expressing disloyalty to Trump. Who to believe — Yovanovitch or some unsourced letter from a congressman?
Flimsy and tendentious reporting of this sort explains why Solomon’s columns were so routinely denounced in impeachment hearings, which featured testimony from U.S. diplomats fully briefed on the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. In his testimony before a House committee, State Department official George Kent said of a series of Solomon’s columns, “It was, if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs.” Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council staffer with expertise in Ukraine, said, “I think all the key elements were false.” That said, Vindman conceded the possibility that Solomon got his grammar right.
Such denunciations sparked the internal review by the Hill.
On one level, the Hill acted with transparency and credibility. It announced the review, did the necessary research and released the results. On another level, it allowed a concerted political campaign by a former employee to go unretracted. “Editor’s notes” exist to present solemn and weighty disclosures about ethical lapses and the like. But they can also double as a bureaucratic means of sidestepping retractions.
We asked Bob Cusack, editor in chief of the Hill, why the review didn’t take the next, obvious step. We will update this post with any response.
In a 2008 interview on C-SPAN, Solomon chatted about his leadership of the Washington Times — where he then served as executive editor — and he delivered this bit of wisdom: “You can have a series of accurate facts that don’t precisely capture what may be going on in a story.”
That is precisely the coup that Solomon pulled off at the Hill. This is no Facebook knucklehead disinformation agent; this is a fellow who foisted upon the country a series of “accurate facts” that, it turns out, didn’t bear much resemblance to the ground truth. He did so at a time when few were paying any attention to Ukraine. Who was Marie Yovanovitch, anyhow?
In a November interview with Fox News host Martha MacCallum, Solomon stood by his reporting on Ukraine. “Every fact I reported is online,” he said, adding that he welcomed the review. The Erik Wemple Blog contacted Solomon for comment on this story. In response, we received an email from Adam Gustafson, a partner at Boyden Gray & Associates: “John Solomon is unavailable for comment. He has retained Boyden Gray & Associates to explore legal options.” Solomon is a contributor at Fox News; does the network have any concerns about the review? We have checked with Fox News and will update with any response.
In its review, the Hill addressed the remedies that might prevent another Solomon problem. Here are two of the publication’s eight “lessons learned” from the Solomon episode:
⋅There should be clarity and distinction between opinion writers and news reporters, and opinion columns should not read like news stories. The Hill will consider and adopt changes in presentation to differentiate opinion and news more substantially than the current methods.[...]⋅Solomon’s Ukraine columns represented a departure from The Hill’s standard opinion content because they attempted to blend opinion and investigative, “original reporting” material. The Hill will avoid such blending of reporting and opinion columns going forward.
The Erik Wemple Blog takes personal exception at the Hill’s suggestion that reporting and opinion cannot ethically cohabitate. Journalists here at the opinions section of The Post, along with similarly situated staffers at many, many other outlets, each day blend news reporting and opinion without launching false narratives about Ukraine.
The problem with Solomon’s news-opinion reporting is that it wasn’t honest.