Media critics erupt after Russia bounty story fizzles: 'Nonsense from the beginning'

Press, Democrats went wild on unverified story in 2020

In yet another example of a dramatic mainstream media narrative imploding, the intelligence community has backed off reports that Russia placed bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

A senior Biden administration official said Thursday the intelligence community only had "low to moderate" confidence in the Russian bounty story, meaning it is unproven and possibly untrue, due to a reliance on "detainee reporting." The revelation came as the administration announced a new series of sanctions against Russia for a host of reasons, but the bounty story was not among them.

In a press that already fixated on Russia collusion accusations since 2016, the story went wild last year, and critics are furious over another example of legacy press outlets corroborating one another on an anonymously sourced story that turned out to be, at best, doubtful.

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"What happened here?" Fourth Watch newsletter's Steve Krakauer wrote. "Well I think we know. There are only two explanations - either the media got spun bad information from its intelligence sources, or it got the story being fed from the intelligence sources wrong. Either way, it's a bad look."

A New York Times report last June said  American intelligence "concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan," amid peace talks to end the war there.

Former President Donald Trump and some officials pushed back on the story at the time as an unverified rumor, but that only fueled media narrative that the Trump administration was in Russia's pocket and hanging troops out to dry. 

A senior U.S. official who has been briefed on the matter told Fox News last summer that the information that the National Security Council had received was based on "several streams of intelligence of concern" with some of it being contradictory and some open to interpretation.

Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany reminded Twitter followers she said the intelligence was "not verified" at the time, although then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he confronted Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last year and told him Moscow would have a price to pay if the story was true.

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"I'm glad this day of accounting has come," McEnany said Friday on "Outnumbered."

A thread by conservative writer Drew Holden showed the extent of the coverage last year, with MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, ABC News, NBC News, Reuters, NPR, and a host of others giving the story credence. In one story, CNN called the story "richly reported."

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, a leading proponent of Russia-related conspiracy theories during the Trump era, passed the story along as true to her viewers, calling it a whole new level of "bad." Joy Reid, another MSNBC host known for disseminating conspiracy theories, also accepted the story without question.

The Daily Caller compiled a montage of pundits and news anchors breathlessly sharing the news, often without noting it was "alleged." One MSNBC chyron under left-wing host Lawrence O'Donnell read, "Lawmakers demand answers re: Russian bounties to kill U.S. troops." 

"Americans found out this weekend that Vladimir Putin is paying to put bounties on the heads of American troops," MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said at one point.

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As the story broke in the middle of the 2020 presidential election fight, it had political consequences as well. Then-candidate Joe Biden blasted Trump for saying there was low confidence in the intelligence and continuing to have calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Kamala Harris even brought up the story during her vice-presidential debate with Mike Pence.

Numerous other Democrats also used the story to go on the attack, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and left-wing advocacy groups like the disgraced Lincoln Project.

Holden and other media critics didn't hold back after the news of the intelligence community's walkback hit Thursday.

"Where are the corrections? Where are the retractions?" he asked.

The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway wrote about her doubts on the story last year and blasted the Times reporters who wrote the original story: Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz.

"If you ever swallow any of their stories ever again, you're the idiot," she wrote.

"Media outlets - again - repeated CIA stories with no questioning: congrats to all," Glenn Greenwald tweeted. 

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Author Ryan Girdusky said the story was "nonsense from the beginning." 

Fox News' Morgan Phillips contributed to this report.