Who Watches the Watchdog?The CJR’s Russia Problem
How the investigation into The Nation magazine’s pro-Russia bias was canned by ‘press watchdog’ the Columbia Journalism Review
This week, Byline Times published a long-form investigation by Duncan Campbell into the long-running and controversial support of Russian policy by New York magazine The Nation. His investigation was commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review and completed in 2019. The report was spiked by CJR in 2020 and held back again, even after a Russian tank army had rolled towards Kyiv. Here he provides the inside story.
Pulitzer Hall, an imposing neo-classical building on the campus of Columbia University on New York’s Upper West Side, is named for the endower of the century-old Pulitzer Prizes, the award of which is widely held to be a global pinnacle of achievement. The Hall houses the University’s esteemed Graduate School of Journalism and the Columbia Journalism Review.
According to his speaking publicity team, Review Editor Kyle Pope is “the voice of journalism. As Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, which serves as both an advocate and watchdog of the press, Pope sits atop the most prestigious perch in media”.
In December 2018, Pope commissioned me to report for the CJR on the troubled history of The Nation magazine and its apparent support for the policies of Vladimir Putin.
My $6,000 commission to write for the prestigious ”watchdog” was flattering and exciting – but would also be a hard call. Watchdogs, appointed or self-proclaimed, can only claim entitlement when they hold themselves to the highest possible standards of reporting and conduct. It was not to be.
Conflicts of interest must be recognised and dealt with. Candour and transparency are paramount. For me, the project was vital but also a cause for personal sadness.
During the 1980s, I had been an editor of The Nation’s British sister magazine New Statesman and had served as chair of its publishing company. I knew, worked with and wrote for The Nation’s then-editor, the late Victor Navasky. He subsequently chaired the CJR.
Investigating and calling out a magazine and editor for which I felt empathy, and had historic connections to, hearing from its critics and dissidents, and finding whistleblowers and confidential inside sources was a challenge. But hearing responses from all sides was a duty.
I worked on it for six months, settling a first draft of my story to the CJR‘s line editor in the summer 2019. From then on my experience of the CJR was devastating and damaging.
After delivering the story and working through a year-long series of edits and re-edits required by Pope, the story was slow-walked to dismissal. In 2022, after Russian tanks had rolled towards Kyiv, I urged Pope to restore and publish the report, given the new and compelling public interest. He refused.
The trigger for my CJR investigation was a hoax concerning Democratic Party emails hacked and dumped in 2016 by teams from Russia’s GRU intelligence agency. The GRU officers responsible were identified and their methods described in detail in the 2019 Mueller Report.
The Russians used the dumped emails decisively – first to leverage an attack on that year’s Democratic National Convention; and then to divert attention from Donald Trump’s gross indiscretions at critical times before his election.
In 2017, with Trump in the White House, Russian and Republican denial operations began, challenging the Russian role and further widening divisions in America. A pinnacle of these operations was the publication in The Nation on 9 August 2017 of an article – still online under a new editor – claiming that the stolen emails were leaked from inside the DNC.
Immediately after the article appeared, Trump-supporting media and his MAGA base were enthralled. They celebrated that a left-liberal magazine had refuted the alleged Russian operations in supporting Trump, and challenged the accuracy of mainstream press reporting on ‘Russiagate’.
Nation staff and advisors were aghast to find their magazine praised lavishly by normally rabid outlets – Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Times. Even the President’s son.
When I was shown the Nation article later that year by one of the experts it cited, I concluded that it was technical nonsense, based on nothing. The White House felt differently and directed the CIA to follow up with the expert, former senior National Security Agency official and whistleblower, William Binney (although nothing happened).
Running the ‘leak’ article positioned the left-wing magazine strongly into serving streams of manufactured distractions pointing away from Russian support for Trump.
I traced the source of the leak claim to a group of mainly American young right-wing activists delivering heavy pro-Russian and pro-Syrian messaging, working with a British collaborator. Their leader, William Craddick, had boasted of creating the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy story – a fantasy that Hillary Clinton and her election staff ran a child sex and torture ring in the non-existent basement of a pleasant Washington neighbourhood pizzeria. Their enterprise had clear information channels from Moscow.
In the fall of 2018, I was introduced to the Columbia Journalism Review. On December 19 2018, Kyle Pope signed a contract for me to report in depth on The Nation and the background to its blind spot on Russia. The CJR urged me to look deep into the historic roots of the problems the magazine faced in publishing critical reporting on Russia.
By April 2019, all did not seem right at the CJR. But I failed to recognise the first warning signs.
On 9 April 2019, my line editor emailed me: “Kyle told me this morning that he would write to you to talk fact-checking policy and give you the info you need to reach Katrina and the new editor [of The Nation].”
Pope followed up: “Just thought we should [have a discussion], given CJR‘s past and current tie-ups with The Nation.”
We spoke for 31 minutes at 1.29 ET on 12 April 2019. During the conversation, concerning conflicts of interest, Pope asked only about my own issues – such as that former editor Victor Navasky, who would figure in the piece, had moved from running and owning The Nation to being Chair of the CJR board; and that the independent wealth foundation of The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel – the Kat Foundation – periodically donated to Columbia University.
She and her late husband, Professor Stephen Cohen, were at the heart of my reporting on the support The Nation gave to Putin’s Russia. Sixteen months later, as Pope killed my report, he revealed that he had throughout been involved in an ambitious and lucratively funded partnership between the CJR and The Nation, and between himself and vanden Heuvel.
On the day we spoke, I now know, Pope was working with vanden Heuvel and The Nation to launch – 18 days later – a major new international joint journalism project ‘Covering Climate Now!‘
Soon after we spoke, the CJR tweeted that “CJR and @thenation are gathering some of the world’s top journalists, scientists, and climate experts” for the event. I did not see the tweet. Pope and the CJR staff said nothing of this to me.
Any editor must know without doubt in such a situation, that every journalist has a duty of candour and a clear duty to recuse themselves from editorial authority if any hint of conflict of interest arises. Pope did not take these steps. From then until August 2020, through his deputy, he sent me a stream of directions that had the effect of removing adverse material about vanden Heuvel and its replacement with lists of her ‘achievements’. Then he killed the story.
There is a mea culpa here. There was nothing secret about Covering Climate Now!. The CJR widely publicised the project, including a Facebook post showing Pope and vanden Heuvel side by side for the project’s launch on 29 April 2019:
The initiative and the tie-up were in plain sight. The project they launched was worthy. And it appears to have been a strong, important success.
Working on my own story for the CJR, I did not look behind or around – or think I needed to. I was working for the self-proclaimed ‘watchdog of journalism’. I forgot the ancient saw: who watches the watchdog?
This week, Kyle Pope failed to reply to questions from Byline Times about conflicts of interest in linking up with the subjects of the report he had commissioned.
During the period I was preparing the report about The Nation and its editor, he wrote for The Nation on nine occasions. He has admitted being remunerated by the publication. While I was working for the CJR, he said nothing. He did not recuse himself, and actively intervened to change content for a further 18 months.
As I conducted response interviews and finalised my report, the CJR’s conduct became increasingly odd. Weeks and months passed without progress. My line editor refused to take phone calls from me, corresponding only by email until the day it ended.
On April 16 2019, I was informed that Katrina vanden Heuvel had written to Pope to ask about my report. “We’re going to say thanks for her thoughts and that we’ll make sure the piece is properly vetted and fact-checked,” I was told.
A month later, I interviewed her for the CJR. Over the course of our 100 minutes discussion, it must have slipped her mind to mention that she and Kyle Pope had just jointly celebrated being given more than $1 million from the Rockefeller Family and other foundations to support their climate project.
I sent in a revised version of my report, amended to suit the CJR‘s style and structure. I waited for a move to publication. Six months passed. I included comments from the new editor, asking about his freedom to take different directions from vanden Heuvel, who remained as (and is now) the publisher, owner and funder of the magazine.
In November and December, there were fresh edits, then: “I’ve passed along your piece to Kyle for review. I’ll let you know when I hear back from him.”
One comment passed back to me concerned vanden Heuvel. “Almost all of the references to Katrina are dismissive,” Pope complained “and assume she has no agency of her own. We talk about how young she was, and how Victor groomed her, and how Cohen seems to be pulling the strings, but give her no credit for anything she may have done at The Nation. I think it’s a bit unbalanced.” I was told to add material about her achievements as editor. I did so.
Pope then asked me to identify my confidential sources from inside The Nation, describing this as a matter of “policy”. I was surprised, and resisted, but was instructed to write to ask all my confidential sources to go on the record. All were aghast and angry that I had been pressured to ask, and rebuked me for doing so. “Do not attribute the quote!” one important and very vulnerable source responded in fury. “I honestly regret speaking to you… you should not use my quote at all.”
Pope asked several times that the article be amended to state that there were general tie-ups between the US left and Putin. I responded that I could find no evidence to suggest that was true, save that the Daily Beast had uncovered RT attempting cultivation of the US left.
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When I called Daily Beast writer Casey Michel for guidance, he told me “I can’t think of any other mainstream outlets on the left that followed the lines of The Nation” other than isolated journalists and bloggers. The report then said that “some on the left – including journalists – have joined Trump supporters and the GOP in pushing pro-Putin information and theories”.
Pope then wanted the 6,000-word and fully edited report cut by 1,000 words, mainly to remove material about the errors in The Nation article. Among sections cut down were passages showing how, from 2014 onwards, vanden Heuvel had hired a series of pro-Russian correspondents after they had praised her husband. Among the new intake was a Russian and Syrian Government supporting broadcaster, Aaron Maté, taken on in 2017 after he had platformed Cohen on his show The Real News.
Maté became the magazine’s prolific ‘Russiagate’ correspondent. Vanden Heuvel was later to tell Maté in a broadcast in October 2020 that “Steve always valued your work… your writing for The Nation was always important to him as it is to me… I think what you do at RealClearInvestigations is factual, is bullet–, and I was reading them to Steve in the last weeks, trying to rile him up.” Maté responded: “I’m forever indebted to you and Steve.”
In February 2020, and after cuts, the CJR deemed my article ready for fact-checking. Five months passed. I quickly dealt with fact-checks when they came, satisfying the checker on all points.
On 15 July 2020, I received the CJR‘s designated final publication copy, marked “FC” (fact-checked). This is the version of the article Byline Times published – in its form as spiked by the CJR in August 2020. (It does not, and by its nature could not, contain any evaluation of the editorial content of The Nation after the 2020 cut-off date. Since that time, and particularly after Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the magazine has published several articles critical of the invasion and the Kremlin.)
“Our plan is to publish the piece August 6,” the CJR‘s Managing Editor, Betsy Morais, then told me. It was the 310th email I had exchanged with the CJR by this point.
I was excited to know the project was finished and ready to run. Pope then took a holiday, returning to work on 3 August. Late the next day, 4 August – two days before planned publication – Pope pulled the report.
He wanted slashing cuts, new changes and more deletions. He asked for fact-checking on multiple details which had three months earlier been fact-checked and marked as such. Pope wrote his instructions in a change-tracked Microsoft Word copy of the article.
- The heart of the report – close to 20% – was struck out, removing what remained of the section describing how vanden Heuvel had blundered by rushing the ‘leak’ theory article to press.
- Pope described my characterisation of vanden Heuvel as “a fairly dismissive summary of her career”. Changes were needed: “I think it’s only fair to point out some of the ways The Nation has excelled under her.”
- A comment by a former colleague that vanden Heuvel “was always a little embarrassed that [people would think that] she had got there because she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth” was “overly snide”, he said. It was deleted.
- Also deleted was a comment from predecessor Navasky, who hired her, that she was “young and smart”. “We say she was young and smart several times,” Pope wrote, “which risks starting to sound condescending”. In fact, the description appeared once – until his proposed deletion.
- Pope struck out the passage describing how Cohen and vanden Heuvel had travelled to Moscow in 2009 to receive Russia’s Order of Friendship award from Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov. He removed references to vanden Heuvel then appearing on Russian outlet RT.
- Sentences describing how Professor Cohen’s Russian studies classes shrunk after the fall of Communism and that he had started writing about golf was “more than we need”.
- Finally, Pope said, the report “goes on too long and is too detailed given the fact that the story is two years old… need to cut way back”.
At the end, Pope added a bombshell – the disclosure he had failed to make in April 2019:
Editor’s note: “The Nation is a partner, with CJR, in Covering Climate Now, a collaborative aimed at improving media coverage of the climate crisis. CJR and The Nation regularly jointly publish stories as part of that collaboration, and Kyle Pope, Editor, and publisher of CJR, has separately been published in The Nation.”
My heart sank. And sunk further the next morning when Managing Editor Morais wrote to me again on Pope’s instruction to kill the article, blaming the delays: “So much has changed in the world, and given this especially strange and traumatic 2020, can’t help but feel that the story as written isn’t quite landing with the same effect we would have hoped for… If you’d prefer to run the story elsewhere as it is, that is entirely your prerogative, and we can certainly offer a kill fee.”
I did not hear more from the CJR.
My story was not published. Its conduct had taken me off other important stories for a year and left me unremunerated.
Byline Times has asked Kyle Pope and Katrina vanden Heuvel to explain and describe their contacts while my article was being edited. We wanted to know what she had said in her email to him and how Pope dealt with her requests. Did he, for instance, show her the story before he killed it? We asked them each to disclose any notes and correspondence they had passed about the article.
Katrina vanden Heuvel did not respond to questions about a conflict of interest. She did not acknowledge corresponding with Pope about the article and told Byline Times: “I had nothing to do with Duncan Campbell’s piece beyond granting him an interview.” Referring to her late husband, she added: “On a personal note, I feel there is something cruel in slurring a person who is unable to reply or defend himself.”
Byline Times sent Kyle Pope 18 questions about his actions. Writing before this article was published, he wrote: “Duncan Campbell’s characterisation of what happened to The Nation article in CJR isn’t remotely accurate.” The CJR tweeted his response to our questions at the same time as sending the replies to us. Byline Times has published the full list of questions Pope was asked about his conduct but did not answer.
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On 22 August 2022, as world revulsion and anger grew at Russian carnage and pillage in Ukraine, I asked the CJR to annul the protection they had afforded to the reputation of Katrina vanden Heuvel and the late Professor Cohen (who died in fall 2020) and to publish my report.
The Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Professor Jelani Cobb, did not acknowledge or reply. Kyle Pope refused. The text of my letter and his reply are in the box below.
You may remember telling Congress in May 2017 that Columbia Journalism Review had since 1961 been “an advocate for and a watchdog of the press”, with a mission to be “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”
It shapes the ideas that make media leaders and journalists smarter about their work … it is the most respected voice on press criticism”.
To Congress, you added: “we have seen moments when the press has been revered and honored in this country, and moments when its reputation has suffered. We have seen great and noble work by journalists here and around the world, and we have seen embarrassing blunders and lapses of judgment.”
By reason of your role in events described below, you appear to be the creator of such a blunder and lapse of judgement. These events may annul claims made for the ethical standing of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Two years ago, acting at the very last moment, you blocked from publication a report for CJR commissioned by you and written by me into the role of The Nation magazine in promoting the Russian imperialist agenda of President Vladimir Putin within the United States, as orchestrated by the late Professor Stephen Cohen through the agency of his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, owner and publisher of The Nation. That report – “The Nation’s Russia Problem” – was complete, had passed all fact-checking, legal and editorial checks, and was fully committed for publication on 6 August 2020.
Eighteen months later, the savage promotion of the agenda described in my report for you has plunged civilisation into escalating crises and imperilled the world and all our futures. Professor Cohen’s advocacy of the Russian agenda in the U.S. was central to this, as scholars such as Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale have robustly explained. You blocked this being reported, for what others may consider to be unworthy reasons.
The available evidence about your delaying publication and then pulling back points strongly to your having developed or allowed to develop interests, including financial interests, binding you to Katrina vanden Heuvel. You were silent to me about these growing connections and their scale – until the day after you blocked the report about her husband. This conduct surrendered truth to her financial power. Continuing to push Putin’s points as his carnage and slaughter overwhelmed Ukraine, Katrina wrote most recently in The Nation that “the expansion of NATO provided the context for this crisis”.
The withheld CJR report thus matters to the present as well as to as history. To the extent that Professor Cohen’s fatal illness might or might not have been an issue genuinely in your mind in the summer of 2020, it is now nearly two years in the past.
“Rectification” in our profession means putting things right, as fast and as amicably as possible. Please now set the record straight and publish my report, in context, in CJR forthwith. The alternative is that others publish the report to set the record straight, including also reporting on the ethical aspects of CJR’s conduct.
I have copied this email to the Dean of the Journalism School, Professor Jelani Cobb, and ask him to support publishing. Will you please now commit to publishing my report in CJR?
Tue, 23 Aug 2022
Your characterization of what happened to that piece simply isn’t accurate. I’ve attached CJR‘s last communication with you, an email from our managing editor, in which she lays out why the piece didn’t work. Much of it had to do with the many-months delay on your end to get a piece to us time-pegged to the changing of the guard at The Nation. That delay, and the imminent death of Stephen Cohen, meant the piece had lost its immediate urgency and would have to be reworked to reflect Cohen’s condition. As the email showed, we were open to considering a revamp or, in the end, to freeing you up to place the piece elsewhere, with CJR paying a kill fee. You never bothered to even respond to that email.
As to your insinuation of some financial “interest” between Katrina and me or CJR, there is none (though I have written for The Nation a few times and they did join us in launching Covering Climate Now, a media collaborative). She isn’t a funder of CJR and has never been during my tenure.
Pope’s final remark, that I did not “bother to reply” to his suggestion of “considering a revamp” of the article is accurate but incomplete. A ‘pinnacle of journalism’ who fails to acknowledge or deal with critical conflicts of interest; who seeks disclosure of the identity of vulnerable confidential sources; and extensively edits stories to the advantage of a subject with whom he shares undisclosed interests is not an editor who can be trusted to publish with integrity. I did not believe any sensible reply could be made.
My reactions to an important article being killed after years of work were intense.
Over several decades, I have taught investigative journalism and its methods, including ways to manage and provide pastoral care for prospective whistleblowers. I have handed out checklists of signs and symptoms of issues whistleblowers face, including the stress of managing decisive schisms from employers or institutions they once looked up to and respected. I checked my checklist, and when I applied my whistleblower management tests to myself, the CJR’s conduct ticked all the boxes.
Suddenly this year, déjà vu.
On 30 January 2023, the CJR published an immense four-part 23,000-word series on Trump, Russia and the US media. The CJR‘s writers found their magazine praised lavishly by normally rabid outlets. Fox News rejoiced that The New York Times had been “skewered by the liberal media watchdog the Columbia Journalism Review” over Russiagate”. WorldNetDaily called it a “win for Trump”.
Pope agreed. Trump had “hailed our report as proof of the media assault on Trump that they’ve been hyping all along,” he wrote. “Trump cheered that view on Truth Social, his own, struggling social-media platform”.
Research for the series was said to have been underway for two years – implying it had been commissioned soon after my report was spiked and, its subject, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, had died.
In the series, writer Jeff Gerth condemns multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on Russian interference operations by US mainstream newspapers. Echoing words used in 2020 by vanden Heuvel, he cited as more important “RealClearInvestigations, a non-profit online news site that has featured articles critical of the Russia coverage by writers of varying political orientation, including Aaron Maté”.
As with The Nation in 2017, the CJR is seeing a storm of derisive and critical evaluations of the series by senior American journalists. More assessments are said to be in the pipeline. “We’re taking the critiques seriously,” Pope said this week. The Columbia Journalism Review may now have a Russia Problem.
Duncan Campbell is an investigative journalist who has covered security, surveillance and politics since the 1970s