The Lincoln Project #MediaFail - Chapter 1
The letter below demolishes the atrocious journalism of The New York Times, New York Magazine and The Associated Press. It tells the true story of The Lincoln Project – the one the reporters didn’t get.
GLASER WEIL FINK HOWARD AVCHEN & SHAPIRO LLP
10250 Constellation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90067
May 12, 2022
Executive Vice President, Secretary, and General Counsel
The New York Times Company
Re: Demand for Immediate Correction
Dear Ms. Brayton,
We represent Steve Schmidt.
Dean Baquet has asserted that it was “harassment” for Mr. Schmidt to criticize The New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman for her brand of access journalism. Mr. Baquet’s assertion is categorically rejected. So, too, is the perverse notion that the press is beyond the scope of criticism as Mr. Baquet’s attack on Mr. Schmidt implies.
Mr. Baquet is the Executive Editor of The New York Times—an American institution. The paper of record. A daily miracle. It enlightens. It inspires. It influences. It holds powerful people accountable, the way America’s Founders envisioned.
The New York Times possesses a depth of reporting expertise on every conceivable subject that has meaning and importance to modern civilization. It is home to some of the best journalists in the world. It is vital to American, indeed world, culture. Yet it does not exist outside of, or separately from, the broader society it covers—which is why when The New York Times publishes stories based on compromised journalism by conflicted or otherwise compromised journalists, it contributes to the destabilization of the whole of American society. The whole of American society has been brought low and destabilized by a politics of malice in the Trump era and that has been perpetuated by The New York Times’ reporting, including about The Lincoln Project.
Let us be clear—this is not a criticism of The New York Times journalists who are risking their lives in Ukraine and other conflict zones around the globe. Nor is this a criticism of the exceptional journalists who examine and find a way to explain the greatest complexities of our age in a way that is both illuminating and inspiring. To the contrary, this letter recognizes the marvel that each newly published The New York Times issue represents and the vital role that Mr. Baquet plays in making that happen.
But Mr. Baquet is also responsible for the abandonment of The New York Times journalistic standards with respect to coverage of American politics in the Trump era. By his approbative defense of the transactional journalism that Ms. Haberman uniquely represents and which diminishes the whole of The New York Times journalistic ethic, he has “undermined and diluted” The New York Times’ longstanding principles of integrity and objectivity; they have been “blemished during his stewardship.” Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Opinion Departments (“The NY Times Ethical Journalism Handbook”).
We appreciate that ultimately Mr. Baquet’s responsibility is to The New York Times’ shareholders and not to the public at large, that shareholder value drives decision-making, and that The New York Times’ statements about maintaining the “trust” of its readers and reporting the “unvarnished truth” are merely aspirational.
Access journalism is not truth-based. It is transaction-based. For journalists like Ms. Haberman, their special access facilitates untold transactions with powerful political partners that instead of being scrutinized instead are used as currency in the information commodities business. For Ms. Haberman in particular, her obvious conflict of interest should have precluded her from covering the Trump White House in the first instance. Even before then, however, she wrote a story for Politico, asserting that Schmidt had interviewed to be Trump’s presidential campaign manager, which is categorically untrue but which laid the foundation for her to falsely characterize Schmidt as a transactional Washington grifter.
When reporting on The Lincoln Project (and Schmidt) in particular, The New York Times has acted recklessly, irresponsibly, and contrary to its “fundamental purpose . . . to protect the impartiality and neutrality of The New York Times and integrity of its report.” The NY Times Ethical Journalism Handbook. The New York Times did not “tell its readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it.” Id. It abdicated its commitment to “such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts” and abandoned wholesale its “distaste for anonymous sources.” Id.
As recently as May 9, 2022, The New York Times reported on Schmidt’s Substack post from the day before, in which he spoke candidly about the hard lesson he learned from John McCain about the difference between loyalty and integrity. The headline read, “Former Top McCain Aide Says He Lied to Discredit a Times Article.” But that is not what Schmidt said. Schmidt did not lie. He was lied to. And, as he clearly explained in his post, it was only “[a]fter The New York Times story – which accurately detailed that relationship – was attacked and successfully discredited by the campaign under my direction [that] John McCain told me the truth backstage at an event in Ohio.” This is one among several stark and troubling examples of The New York Times’ efforts to deliberately mislead its readers.
And, while it is true that The New York Times reporters had in some instances been lied to and manipulated by sources, because the “rudimentary professional practices” were otherwise being ignored, The New York Times was used as the broadcast element of a political smear campaign against The Lincoln Project and those associated with it. The New York Times published political hit pieces disguised as authentic and earnest reporting, including the February 12, 2021 “Lincoln Project Co-Founder Resigns from Board Amid a Deepening Crisis”, the February 13, 2021 “Former Lincoln Project Workers Ask to Be Released from Nondisclosure Agreements,” and the March 8, 2021 “Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals.”
And so, what followed The New York Times’ slovenly journalism was true “harassment”—of the Lincoln Project founders and major donors, who were falsely accused of being complicit in the most heinous conduct imaginable. Multi-page color flyers were sent to their homes and to the homes of their neighbors and colleagues, trumpeting such headlines as, “WARNING: PREDATORS ALL OF THEM ARE GUILTY” and falsely and recklessly accusing The Lincoln Project’s founders and donors of, among other loathsome conduct, “HARBORING A SICKO WHILE HE PREYED ON YOUNG BOYS” and “bankrolling a grift that enabled a sexual predator.” In support of these defamatory statements, the flyers cited among other sources The New York Times’ Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals. From there, the lies became the truth in the right-wing media ecosystem, where Schmidt and the other Lincoln Project co-founders were branded pedophiles. See, e.g., “The Right Is Now Attacking Lincoln Project As ‘Pedophiles’ Because They Mock Republicans”
Yet, remarkably, not a single story was written about this harassment, by The New York Times or any other publication, to our knowledge. Instead, the first person to comment on the vile, defamatory flyers was Donald Trump Jr.’s friend and advisor, Arthur Schwartz, who on March 7, 2021, posted screenshots of the flyers and tweeted that they were “being mailed to and plastered all over the neighborhoods where the pedophile predator enablers at Lincoln Project live.” When confronted by The Lincoln Project’s Stuart Stevens, who suggested that Schwartz had copies of the flyers because he was responsible for disseminating them, Schwartz responded, “No, pedophile protector. I got them from a reporter.”
The New York Times avows that its “policy [is] to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.” The NY Times Ethical Journalism Handbook. However, there is no doubt that it has been, or at least should have been, aware of the errors in its reporting about The Lincoln Project for some time. In fact, on July 8, 2021, when reporting on Toyota’s decision to stop contributing to Republican members of Congress who disputed the 2020 presidential vote (after a Lincoln Project ad aired exposing such contributions from Toyota and others), a The New York Times media reporter, Tiffany Hsu, reported that a month earlier The Lincoln Project’s independent investigation undertaken by the Paul Hastings law firm “had found that its leadership was unaware of the accusations against Mr. Weaver until they were made public.” The New York Times, however, did not update, much less correct, its prior reporting on Weaver and The Lincoln Project to reflect the conclusions of the independent investigation.
* * *
What follows is the real account of what has been falsely reported about The Lincoln Project by The New York Times.
The Lincoln Project’s Meteoric Growth and Its Decisive Role in the 2020 Election
When Mr. Schmidt and the other co-founders launched The Lincoln Project in 2019, its mission was singular, straightforward, and resolute—defeat Donald Trump and Trumpism. A referendum on the incompetence of the Trump administration, The Lincoln Project helped to define the 2020 presidential race. It inspired millions of supporters and social media followers and raised more than $87 million in only eleven months.
The Lincoln Project was also bold in its mission—it would seek to become the principal antagonist of Trump and the Trump campaign, such that Trump would strike out at The Lincoln Project and not Joe Biden. The Lincoln Project would attack and destabilize the Trump campaign, exploiting tensions within, and build an insurgent movement that would bring the fight directly to Trump. It did so through, among other strategies, its provocative, groundbreaking, and highly effective television and online ads aimed squarely at Trump, exploiting, often mocking, his foibles and failings and drawing him into the fight.
By all measures, The Lincoln Project succeeded in its mission. It was credited widely for its decisive role in the 2020 presidential election. But, like many other start-ups that experience meteoric growth and/or headline-making successes, The Lincoln Project struggled operationally. The Lincoln Project was additionally challenged by the Covid pandemic which coincided with its launch—to the extent it was even able to establish a culture, it soon lost control of it, as staff were dispersed and detached from any single location.
Reed Galen was tasked with responsibility for The Lincoln Project’s day-to-day operations. Schmidt had known Galen for 16 years and in that time had done what he could to create opportunities for Galen. The Lincoln Project was one such opportunity and Schmidt advocated for Galen to be a co-founder. Though Galen had no experience running a national organization or political campaign, Schmidt wanted someone he could trust to manage the organization, particularly the financial side of the house where Schmidt insisted rigorous financial safeguards be put in place.
By early 2020, Galen had engaged The Lincoln Project’s first contractors, including former Bill Weld 2020 presidential campaign manager Jennifer Horn, Michael (Mike) Madrid, a direct mail vendor, Ronald Steslow, a principal in Tusk Digital, and Sarah Lenti, former aide to Condoleezza Rice. Although Horn, Madrid, and Steslow were independent contractors and had nothing to do with the conception or launch of The Lincoln Project, co-founder Rick Wilson asked that they be referred to as “co-founders” on the program for an upcoming fundraising event according to their wishes. Schmidt did not care about titles and whether Horn, Madrid, and Steslow referred to themselves as “co-founders” was of no moment to him (“they can call themselves The Lincoln Project Fleet Admirals for all I care.”). Consequently, Horn, Madrid, and Steslow were designated as “co-founders” in name only; they were not members of the management committee and remained contractors throughout their respective tenures with The Lincoln Project.
Since its inception, The Lincoln Project had been run exclusively by the management committee, originally constituted by the four founders. However, in June 2020, without any notice to, much less a vote by, the members of the management committee, Galen appointed contractors Steslow and Madrid, along with himself, to The Lincoln Project’s three-person board of directors. Galen named himself president, Steslow treasurer, and Madrid secretary. Pursuant to the corporate bylaws, directors had signatory authority over The Lincoln Project’s accounts, such that now, Steslow and Madrid also would have authority to, among other things, sign checks, obtain loans, and pledge the organization’s assets to secure bank financing.
Galen perhaps did not appreciate the serious conflicts of interest to which these appointments would give rise—Steslow and Madrid were contractors whose companies were Lincoln Project vendors (Madrid’s GrassrootsLabs and Steslow’s Tusk Digital). As The Lincoln Project’s sole data vendor, Tusk Digital received more than $21 million under its contract with The Lincoln Project, making it the second largest vendor.
Coincident with Steslow and Madrid’s appointment to The Lincoln Project board, in fact on the very same day, Steslow delivered an email to Galen. The email, authored by Steslow’s second-in-command, made allegations of misconduct involving John Weaver (the “Weaver email”). Based on second and thirdhand accounts, the email put forth vague quid pro quo allegations about Weaver offering political career opportunities in exchange for sexual liaisons with younger men (not the email’s author) predating The Lincoln Project’s formation, in some cases by many years. Galen made a decision that would set in motion a series of events that ultimately would cause incalculable harm to The Lincoln Project and those associated with it—Galen did not to share the email with his fellow management committee members, Schmidt and Rick Wilson. Steslow likewise did not share the email with them, notwithstanding that the very day he provided it to Galen, Steslow—as a member of the board of directors—was imbued with fiduciary duties to the organization and its donors.
When The New York Times and other news outlets later reported that The Lincoln Project leadership had known of specific allegations of misconduct against Weaver, Galen, in coordination with attorneys for The Lincoln Project, commissioned an independent investigation of The Lincoln Project’s supposed knowledge of those allegations. Although it exonerated The Lincoln Project and its founders, the investigation was branded a “whitewash” and a “cover-up.” And, by that time, the vague and unsubstantiated allegations of the Weaver email had been conflated with, and indistinguishable from, the later specific allegations as reported by The New York Times in its January 31, 2021 story, “21 Men Accuse Lincoln Project Co-Founder of Online Harassment.”
Galen’s decision not to surface the Weaver email was a self-inflicted wound, which, combined with the reckless and irresponsible reporting by The New York Times and other media, caused irreparable harm to The Lincoln Project and those associated with it, including and especially Schmidt, given his high profile and leadership role, including in particular his role as The Lincoln Project spokesperson on the Weaver matter.
But, Schmidt did not have knowledge of the Weaver email or of any specific allegations against Weaver until February 2021 when a reporter (not a New York Times reporter) asked him specifically about the email. As it turns out, though, a The New York Times reporter—Ms. Haberman—apparently knew about Weaver sending inappropriate messages to young men long before Schmidt or anyone else involved in The Lincoln Project had any such knowledge. Ms. Haberman told Schmidt in a text that she knew at least as far back as three years before The New York Times first reported about the Weaver allegations in January 2021, before The Lincoln Project even was formed—“One addendum – since you’re rewriting history and so it’s in writing. I told you that someone I knew * three years ago * had weaver slide into his DMs in a flirty way, with nothing overt or graphic or even particularly attention-calling. The person was of age and also did not want to speak on the record or have the information used.”
Yet, Ms. Haberman did not report on Weaver then. You should ask yourself why. But I suspect you already know the answer.
The Truth vs. What The New York Times Reported About the Weaver Email
January 31, 2021 – “21 Men Accuse Lincoln Project Co-Founder of Online Harassment”
Even from the very beginning of The New York Times reporting about Weaver’s misconduct, it was clear that the reporting was not and would not be honest or objective. In fact, days after the first New York Times article was published, reporter Maggie Astor was asked about the title of the article and specifically the reference to Weaver as “Lincoln Project Co-Founder.” In response, Ms. Astor explained, “The headline and article refer to Weaver as a Lincoln Project cofounder because that is his most recent role, [and] because much of the harassment we reported occurred while he was working for the Lincoln Project...” (Emphasis added.)
But the article—purportedly based on interviews with 21 men “as well as a review of dozens of messages [Weaver] sent them over the last five years”—reports only about four specific men. Based on what is reported, there is no basis to say that “much of the harassment reported occurred while [Weaver] was working for the Lincoln Project.”
“Cole Trickle Miele was 14 when he followed Mr. Weaver on Twitter in 2015 and quickly received a message from him.” (Emphasis added.) “In June 2018, Mr. Weaver asked, “Are you in HS still?...” In March 2020, when Mr. Trickle was 18, Mr. Weaver wrote, “I want to come to Vegas and take you to dinner and drinks… and in a follow up message used a term that in sexual banter refers to one’s body: “Hey my boy! Resend me your stats.”
Although the article mentions that Weaver had “helped run” John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign, nowhere does it scrutinize Kasich or his campaign, which is where Weaver was working when he first messaged a then 14-year-old Cole Trickle Miele. Instead, the article focuses on a single message sent in March 2020, after Weaver apparently had been sending messages to Mr. Miele for more than five years previously.
“Last year, when Cody Bralts was a recent college graduate looking for a job in politics, he replied to one of Mr. Weaver’s tweets and, to his surprise, received a direct message from him.” (Emphasis added.)
Although there are no specific dates given for this message, presumably “last year” refers to sometime in 2020. But, as even The New York Times reported, Weaver had been on “a medical leave that began in the summer [of 2020].” And The New York Times also reported that “Mr. Schmidt said in the interview that the Lincoln Project did not have an office when Mr. Weaver was involved, so the founders and staff were not together.”
“Kyle Allen, 23, said from 2016 to 2018, Mr. Weaver asked about his height, weight, what he was wearing and whether he was circumcised. He also pushed repeatedly for an invitation to speak at the University of Ottawa, where Mr. Allen was studying, using sexually explicit language to express his eagerness to visit.” (Emphasis added.)
This alleged conduct occurred well before The Lincoln Project was formed in December 2019.
Anthony Covell “said Mr. Weaver had begun messaging him in July 2019. That exchange tapered off, but on Dec. 3, 2019 – two weeks before the Lincoln Project was publicly announced – Mr. Weaver invited him to join the initiative.” (Emphasis added.) Weaver asked Covell “ to call for more details on the project.” Covell “decided not to call.”
By the reporters’ own admission, this conduct predated The Lincoln Project’s formation and there apparently was no further communication post-formation.
Feb. 12, 2021 – “Lincoln Project Co-Founder Resigns from Board Amid a Deepening Crisis”
“Mr. Schmidt reiterated his claim that he had not known of Mr. Weaver’s behavior until last month. However, a former [unidentified] Lincoln Project employee told The New York Times that Mr. Schmidt had known by October 2020 at the latest. The former employee described being in the room when Mr. Schmidt spoke about it.” (Emphasis added.)
The statement that Schmidt knew about “Mr. Weaver’s behavior,” i.e., the behavior described in the Weaver email prior to February 2021, is categorically false.
Relying on a single unidentified employee, without “tell[ing] readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source” and without “shed[ding] light on the source’s reasons” for not being identified is a clear violation of The New York Times own standards. Who was the mystery employee? A janitor? A staffer? A “co-founder”? What was the unidentified specified employee’s motivation in making this assertion? Was the nameless employee motivated to lie? Did he or she have an axe to grind or an agenda to advance? I suppose the reader will never know.
“On Thursday, The Associated Press and New York Magazine, citing unidentified former employees, reported that Lincoln Project leaders knew about Mr. Weaver’s behavior last summer, which Mr. Schmidt has continued to deny. Mr. Weaver took a medical leave from the group in August and announced last month that he would not return.” (Emphasis added.)
In actuality, the AP did not cite “unidentified former employees.” The AP reported that “[i]n June 2020, members of the organization’s leadership were informed in writing and in subsequent phone calls of at least 10 specific allegations of harassment against co-founder John Weaver, including two involving Lincoln Project employees, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the situation.” (Emphasis added.) The AP did not in any way identify the “multiple people with direct knowledge.”
Thus, The New York Times would appear to have violated its policy on the use of anonymous sources (cited above) as well as its Guidelines on Integrity (Other People’s Reporting: “Our preference, when time and distance permit, is to do our own reporting and verify another organization’s story; in that case, we need not attribute the facts. … Attribution to another publication, though, cannot serve as license to print rumors that would not meet the test of The New York Times’ own reporting standards. Rumors must satisfy The New York Times’ standard of newsworthiness, taste and plausibility before publication, even when attributed. And when the need arises to attribute, that is a good cue to consult with the department head about whether publication is warranted at all.”)
Moreover, the AP’s anonymous-source-based reporting was demonstrably wrong, including the assertion that the Weaver email identified “ten specific allegations of harassment.” It did not. The Weaver email, authored by an employee of a Lincoln Project vendor (the employee himself was not claiming to have been harassed by Weaver), contained second and thirdhand accounts, without names, locations, or specific dates. Moreover, the email’s author made clear at the outset that the purpose of sending the email was not concern about those alleged to have been harassed but rather concern about “the reputation of the organization” and its “public image.”
In fact, New York Magazine cited to the AP story; New York Magazine did not have independent sources.
This violation of the same New York Times policies (use of anonymous sources and other people’s reporting) is even more profoundly egregious because the clear intent is to mislead the reader to believe that there are two publications who have support for the false assertion when in fact there are none.
March 8, 2021 – “Inside the Lincoln Project’s Secrets, Side Deals and Scandals”
“In the midst of the Lincoln Project’s overnight success last summer, a troubling email arrived.
I’m writing regarding a pattern of concerning behavior by Weaver that has been brought to my attention by multiple people,” it began. “In addition to being morally and potentially legally wrong, I believe what I’m going to outline poses an immediate threat to the reputation of the organization, and is potentially fatal to our public image.’”
“The email was sent to Mr. Steslow, the Lincoln Project contractor and board member, by an employee at his company, Tusk, which handled the project’s digital advertising. It described a wide array of allegations dating from 2014 to 2020, including what it called a ‘bait-and-switch situation’ around 2015 in which Mr. Weaver offered to discuss a political job with a young man, then tried to bring him to his hotel room instead. It also said that Mr. Weaver had continued to harass people after the Lincoln Project was founded in late 2019, and that he had ‘mixed suggestive commentary with official T.L.P. marketing work.’”
“The Times obtained a portion of the message, and multiple people who have read it provided detailed descriptions of the rest. It included an offer to provide more information if Lincoln Project leaders requested it.” (Emphasis added.)
“This was not the first time that allegations of harassment by Mr. Weaver had been reported to project leaders. In January, five months before the email was sent, another person working for Tusk had raised concerns with Mr. Steslow.” (Emphasis added.)
****************** SEE CHAPTER 2 : The Truth About the Weaver Email *********************