The Intercept Refuses to Back Down from Likely False Story About Democratic Candidate

The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill’s online news publication, makes no bones about its contempt for the Democratic Party. Stocked with writers critical of the party’s dominant centrist wing, the publication has become a thorn in its side, as its articles emphasize their failures far more than those of their Republican counterparts. Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel called the publication “a weekly Democratic nightmare,” but it might as well be a journalistic one.  

In their desire to go after Democrats, reporters Ryan Grim and David Dayen committed journalistic malpractice this week as they rushed to publish a story before they had all the facts. The story, published April 26th and originally called “Democratic Party-Backed Candidate Leaves Groggy Voicemail Warning for Opponent,” documented an inter-party schism in California’s 39th district, where Democrats hope to pick up retiring Republican Ed Royce’s seat. California is critical to the Blue Wave, and Royce’s district is ripe for the picking as the state gets more Democratic every election cycle. Two of the candidates, the DCCC-endorsed Gil Cisneros, and the Our Revolution-endorsed Andy Thorburn, are running against two other Democratic candidates, but both have heavy, largely self-funded war chests to compete in the June 5th primary.

Grim and Dayen’s article focused on a strange voice message that, according to them, Cisneros left on Thorburn’s answering machine last month. The message consists of eleven words, spoken in a low voice: “Hi Andy, it’s Gil Cisneros. I’m gonna go negative on you,” followed by a few seconds of silence. Before they could verify whether or not it was actually Cisneros speaking, Grim and Dayen rushed to publication. Shortly after they did, they were contacted by Cisneros’s campaign manager, Orrin Evans:

A cease-and-desist letter from lawyer Andrew Harris Webrock of the firm Remcho Johansen & Purcell called the story “false [and] defamatory” and accused Grim and Dayen of “reckless indifferen[ce],” saying:

“The story’s headline and introduction were based solely on an unauthenticated audio file that was provided to the Intercept by Mr. Cisneros’s political opponent, and could have easily been fabricated by Mr. Thorburn in a negative campaign tactic…The story seems to be motivated by nothing more than animus against Mr. Cisneros and the DCCC, which recently endorsed Mr. Cisneros’s candidacy.”

The letter went on to make three demands of the Intercept: remove the story from the site, publish a retraction, and issue a public apology to Cisneros, all before 3:00 PM, pacific standard time, on Friday the 27th, lest they face legal action.

In addition, the Cisneros campaign turned over the audio file to Sylint, a cybersecurity group, for analysis. When compared to another recording of the candidate’s voice, Sylint concluded that “The digital and analog analysis performed and the discrepancies between the two recordings are indicative or two different individuals having made the telephonic voice recording and the sample recording provided by Gil Cisneros.”

The authors published a revised version of the story, now called “Multi-millionaire Democratic Candidates Locked in California Feud.” However, rather than accept the findings of these outside groups and take responsibility for their errors, they insisted that their own conclusions held sway and that their own independent counsel debunked Sylint’s findings, coupled with a clip of Thorburn’s wife Karen playing the voice message on their answering machine. 

Although Webrock has not announced plans to sue, it’s interesting that none of Grim and Dayen’s actions follow his demands to the letter: the story wasn’t removed from the site, its claims weren’t retracted, and the Intercept has not issued an apology to the Cisneros campaign. To his credit, Dayen has apologized, claiming the decision to take down the article entirely wasn’t his call. Grim, on the other hand, has been less forthcoming, claiming that he still went through the necessary steps before publishing the story and accusing his questioners of having a “fixed view” of the Intercept, tainting their perception of his work before they read it. 

The rank hypocrisy of the Intercept to fail to own up to its mistakes would be stunning if it weren’t so commonplace. Last week, Glenn Greenwald made hay out of Joy Ann Reid’s rediscovered blog posts that revealed homophobic sentiments. He demanded her head, going so far as to call her “the single most deceitful, malicious, just journalistically unreliable, horrible person on television…without any doubt.” Although Reid apologized this weekend in an elegantly crafted monologue that satisfied fans and critics alike, Greenwald is still busy going after her on Twitter.

If Grim and Dayen’s mistake had appeared on MSNBC, The Washington Post, or The New York Times, Greenwald and company would be vicious in their demands for retractions, apologies, and even firing the reporters who made those mistakes. But they’d rather double down on their defenses, insisting that they’re more trustworthy than the rest of us because they’re telling the truth about how awful Democrats and the DCCC are. They’ve made this their bread-and-butter, and they’re not going to back down from it, even when proven wrong.