The headline on The Post’s exclusive on Rudolph W. Giuliani was unequivocal: “FBI warned Giuliani, key Trump ally in Senate of Russian disinformation campaign targeting Biden.” The story’s lead paragraph was similarly certain, claiming that the FBI warned Giuliani, former New York mayor and an attorney for then-President Donald Trump, “in late 2019 that he was the target of a Russian influence operation aimed at circulating falsehoods intended to damage President Biden politically ahead of last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter.”

A similar warning, according to the story, was extended to One America News, the pro-Trump cable news channel.

But it turns out the story overstated the familiarity of the "people familiar with the matter.” A correction sitting atop the current version of the piece — which is bylined by Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Tom Hamburger — indicates that Giuliani has “disputed” that he received such a warning. “This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings,” reads the correction.

There’s a multi-publication symmetry in how the “scoop” rolled out and fizzled: Both the New York Times and NBC News “confirmed” the story — with the Times tucking the news into a story about Giuliani’s treatment of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and NBC News doing a stand-alone piece on the developments. Both outlets, like The Post, have now appended corrections to those stories. The Times:

May 1, 2021
An earlier version of this article misstated whether Rudolph W. Giuliani received a formal warning from the F.B.I. about Russian disinformation. Mr. Giuliani did not receive such a so-called defensive briefing.

NBC News:

CORRECTION (May 1, 2021, 5:20 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect report that Rudolph Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019 warning him that he was being targeted by a Russian influence operation. The report was based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him, in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani. As a result, the premise and headline of the article below have been changed to reflect the corrected information.

To its credit, NBC News explains how the false report arose, though it might have included an explanation as to why it relied on a single source for such a damning report.

According to The Post’s story, “Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert J. Costello, did not respond to requests for comment. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.” The Erik Wemple Blog asked Costello how long he was given to provide a response to the newspaper. “It wasn’t much time,” responded Costello, who was unable to say exactly how long he was given.

“It happens all the time to me,” adds Costello. “I get these text messages wanting to confirm something. ... So I should stop my world to accommodate the reporter’s schedule?”

A Post source tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Costello was contacted via email, text and phone starting at 8 a.m. ET Thursday, about 12 hours before publication. Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for The Post, passed along the following statement: “The story is focused on official concern that Rudolph Giuliani and One America News risked becoming part of Russian influence operations targeting the 2020 election. The incorrect detail removed from the story was the assertion that the FBI had briefed Giuliani and OAN about those concerns — it is now believed the bureau did not do so.”

That’s a sunny assessment of the situation. Far from being just a “detail,” the part about Giuliani being briefed by the FBI was the thrust of the story’s headline and lead sentence. Costello told this blog that he felt a retraction was warranted in this case.

The meat of the original story was that Giuliani, OAN and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) had received “defensive briefings” from the FBI — essentially alerts that they were being targeted by the Russians to spread disinformation. From The Post’s story: “Defensive briefings are given to people to alert them that they are being targeted by foreign governments for malign purposes, former officials said. But they’re also used ‘to see how they respond to that,’ said Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI counterintelligence official. ‘They’re now on notice.’”

Earlier this year, a Post exclusive revealing a phone conversation between Trump and a Georgia elections investigator generated a spate of confirming follow-ups from other media outlets. Then we found out via the Wall Street Journal that certain quotes attributed to Trump in that conversation were never uttered, though the gist of his message to the investigator was accurately portrayed. A correct-a-rama ensued.

Perhaps the most embarrassing concatenation of false reporting occurred in December 2017, when NBC News and CBS News “confirmed” an inaccurate CNN report alleging that Donald Trump Jr. had received an email with a decryption key to secure an early peek at WikiLeaks documents in 2016. It turned out that CNN botched the dates, and the documents had already been released to the public. Efforts by the outlets to amend their bad work appear comical in retrospect.

“Confirmation” of incorrect reports suggests a groupthink approach to news-gathering in which establishment outlets place too much faith in the work of their peers. These lapses maul the credibility of the mainstream media at a time when critics see them as straightforward confirmation of their suspicions: that collusive media outlets assign false narratives to their foot soldiers. The most effective way to beat back that perception is for offending outlets to provide a top-to-bottom accounting of their failures (and the Erik Wemple Blog is always available for such exercises).

The irony of this contretemps is that it concerns Giuliani, a man with a robust false-news output all his own. As The Post reported in October, the White House was warned that Russia had targeted Giuliani as a conduit for misinformation intended for Trump. The warning related to Giuliani’s 2019 activities in Ukraine, when he sought to dig up damaging information on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Those efforts backfired, ending in Trump’s first impeachment proceedings. Giuliani moved on to sow falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election on behalf of Trump, sealing his descent into public disgrace.

None of that, however, excuses flimsy news reports: The worst of men deserve the best of our practices.

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