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The Intercept Takes a Look at WSJ Reporter’s Emails and Discovers…What, Exactly?

A talented intelligence reporter is subjected to sneers and insinuations.

By Nathan Pippenger

I imagine there was some point to this piece about Siobhan Gorman in The Intercept on Tuesday, but since it relies almost entirely on insinuation, its meaning will require a little decoding. Gorman, a highly respected reporter on terrorism and intelligence for the Wall Street Journal, will soon be leaving the paper to join a German communications firm. That career move is unpopular over at First Look Media (the article refers to Gorman deciding to “throw in the towel and join the Dark Side”), and it occasioned a brief review of her email correspondence with the CIA (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act). What The Intercept found next will shock you—if you can figure out what it is.

The article begins by admitting that it has no serious, specific complaints about Gorman’s body of work (“Gorman has done very solid reporting for the Journal and her previous employer”), and it doesn’t suggest that the emails might reveal one. It just cheekily promises that her correspondence makes for “colorful reading”—and then delivers the juicy details:

Gorman shows a lot of interest in learning about the CIA’s gym facilities (“I was just told that the facilities at the black sites were better than the ones at CIA”), and a year to the day after the killing of Osama bin Laden she cheerily began an email to the agency by asking, “So do I wish you a ‘happy anniversary’ today’?” There’s also this mysterious missive she sent the CIA about an apparent meeting she had with an agency official: “What prompted my guest to leave so suddenly? Bat phone rang twice, and then he excused himself?” And a word of warning to her next boss at Brunswick—watch what you say, because Gorman, when asking the agency for guidance on a rumor that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had been killed, explained to the CIA that the info came from the editor of her paper “but his tips aren’t always accurate.”

So, let me get this straight: The “colorful” details are that Gorman asked mundane questions about the CIA gym, once wrote to ask why an interview was cut short, and wrote another time to follow up on a shaky tip. Oh, and she greased her sources a bit by flattering them about the bin Laden mission. This is all normal, even routine, behavior for a reporter who interacts repeatedly with the same sources and has an interest in maintaining those sources. The article shrinks from specific allegations of corruption or inaccuracy—and so all we’re left with is a lazy gesture at (something like) an unbecoming chumminess with official sources, which can be explained by the standard practices of beat reporting. If there are real problems with Gorman’s work, let’s hear about them. But in the absence of actual allegations, this is an entry in a particularly cheap journalistic genre: The hit piece that lacks the courage of its own convictions. What, exactly, is being suggested here?

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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