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A 'heads up' to the media

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

It wouldn't have been the first time that a major media organization had reported a stunning development that turned out to be untrue. But it surely would have made the Top 5.

On her MSNBC program recently, host Rachel Maddow told viewers that her show had received an apparent NSA document over tip-routing portal SendItToRachel.com. Though Maddow didn't display the document or detail all of its allegations, she did say that it purported to be very secret.

“People who are in a position to recognize or authenticate this kind of document, people who have worked with things at this level of classification, they typically will refuse to even look at a document like this if there's any chance that it is real, that it is real classified information that has been improperly disclosed,” she said. “That's because the terms of their own security clearance mean effectively they can't review anything like that without it creating legal obligations on them.”

And its political implications?

“People talk about finding the smoking gun. What got sent to us was not just a smoking gun; it was a gun still firing proverbial bullets,” said Maddow, who went on to note that it “names a specific person in the Trump campaign as working with the Russians on their hacking attack on the election last year.”

And that wrinkle was just one of the fishy details in the over-the-transom tip. According to experts consulted by Maddow and her staff, it's unlikely that a U.S. citizen would be named in a document of this sort. Other telltale signs relate to printer codes and digital sleuthing. May it suffice to say that “The Rachel Maddow Show” took a pass on this potentially explosive document, except to point out that it appears to be a forgery.

As to who may have sent the document to the show, Maddow says, “We're working on it.” It could have come from a two-bit trickster or some hanger-on with no agenda whatsoever.

“Whether or not the Trump campaign did it, one way to stab in the heart aggressive American reporting on that subject is to lay traps for American journalists who are reporting on it, trick news organizations into reporting what appears to be evidence of what happened, and then after the fact blow that reporting up.

“You then hurt the credibility of that news organization. You also cast a shadow over any similar reporting in the future, whether or not it's true, right? ”

No way this is the first time that a media organization has received a forgery or a bogus tip. It happens all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Maddow herself pointed to CBS News' 2004 reporting on George W. Bush's National Guard service, which stemmed from documents whose origin Maddow described as “murky.”

These are dangerous times for reporters — dangerous because they may be body-slammed; dangerous because their resignations may be very readily accepted over a story gone wrong; and dangerous because — yes — there's misinformation out there. If there once was a stigma attached to spreading bogus tips for the purpose of discrediting the media, it's receding, according to this comment from Maine Gov. Paul LePage to WGAN-AM: “I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they'll write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid, it's awful,” said LePage.

Erik Wemple is a media critic at The Washington Post.

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