In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the high-profile Washington reporter Franklin Foer, according to recently-published documents, did something that would, in all likelihood, get an intern run out of town: He showed a full draft of an unpublished story to one of the co-founders of Fusion GPS, the Democratic-allied research firm notorious for producing a dubious dossier containing the claim that Donald Trump was being blackmailed by the owners of a "pee tape." More troublingly still, this isn't the only time Foer has contravened a fundamental journalistic norm—or the only time his editors have apparently let it slide.
Foer is a fancy, connected, and well-known journalist, formerly the editor of The New Republic and currently a staff writer at The Atlantic, who is working on what will presumably be an insidery and well-sourced book about the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The brother of famed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and author of ponderous, well-reviewed books like How Soccer Explains the World, he’s the sort of journalist whose dispatches set the tone not just for what will be covered by, but how it will be covered in, the elite centrist press. Throughout the summer and fall of 2016 he was far ahead of most of the mainstream press in forwarding the theory that Trump was in essence a Russian agent, publishing conspiratorial articles with headlines like “Putin’s Puppet” and “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?”
Last fall, Foer was at the center of a mini-scandal in the Fox News cinematic universe. Court documents filed in relation to the indictment of Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman on charges of lying to the FBI appeared to show that Foer had sent the first 2,500 words of a draft of that second, highly influential article to Fusion GPS—the opposition-research firm behind the infamous “Steele dossier”—ahead of the article’s publication on Slate on October 31, 2016. The firm, the court filings revealed, had told him it was “time to hurry,” at least suggesting that it wanted the unconvincing conspiracy theory to be published ahead of the November 8 general election, in time to influence the results, and that Foer was serving as its catspaw.
Sending a draft of a story to a source ahead of its publication is—and is widely regarded as—a red-letter journalistic offense, the sort of thing that generates stories when even the hint of it arises. (As an editor at the website you are now reading, I am routinely across communications in which reporters explain to sexual assault survivors, scientists, experts in a variety of fields, and other people that they simply cannot review stories before they are published.)
As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple reported at the time of last fall’s mini-scandal, Foer broadly conceded that he had done what he was accused of doing, but defended himself by asserting that he had merely sent 2,500 words of what was ultimately a 4,000-word story to Fusion GPS. (“If memory serves,” he told Wemple, “it was a technical piece. I sent one long section, that was about the community of computer scientists and their work, to someone who I thought was knowledgeable to see if I had the thrust right. Unfortunately, they weren’t of much help.")
That brings us to this week, when the blog The Reactionary published documents appearing to show in black and white that in June 2016, Foer in fact ran the entire draft of a story by one of the co-founders of Fusion GPS before publishing it at Slate. One email shows a file called “Manchuriancanidate.foer” attached; given the timing, it seems highly likely that this is a version of the story that eventually ran under the headline “Putin’s Puppet” on July 4, 2016.
Neither Foer nor The Atlantic, where he works, responded to repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson at Slate, for which—disclosure—I’ve written, said, “The very basic journalistic best practice and principle of not sharing drafts of stories with the people and institutions we cover is a standard we ascribe to.”
At risk of boring you to death, some context is necessary here. For nearly three years, famed prosecutor John Durham has been investigating an FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump and Vladimir Putin for the Department of Justice; since October 2020, he has been doing so as special counsel. His work has generated multiple arrests and indictments and things like this NPR lede, which there is no special reason for you to care about if you find this all convoluted and it makes you yearn for death: “A federal judge has handed down a one-year sentence of probation to a former FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email used to get surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser during the Russia investigation.”
What is relevant here is that Sussman, the aforementioned Democratic lawyer, is currently facing trial. As part of the legal proceedings, parties including Fusion GPS, the remnants of the Clinton campaign, and the Democratic National Committee have argued that various pieces of evidence shouldn’t be admissible because they are legally privileged. Durham, the famed prosecutor, has weighed in, arguing that this evidence is not legally privileged; as part of that argument, he filed sealed documents to the court that apparently contain, among other things, emails between Fusion GPS and reporters that he obtained using his broad powers as special counsel. For whatever reason, the documents he filed under seal were, briefly, not in fact sealed and thus were accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the Washington Examiner reported.
The Reactionary, which published the email between Foer and Fusion GPS this week, has a focus on the Durham investigation and the tangled matters surrounding it, and publishes court records and other materials as well as, well, reactionary polemics on such topics as “The War for Young Minds.” Techno Fog, the person behind the publication, presents themself as a lawyer, and told Motherboard that they obtained the documents through their not having been actually sealed. While this is not exactly common, it’s also not exactly rare, and Motherboard has obtained theoretically sealed court documents simply by observing online court dockets and downloading what turns up there. In all, there seems to be no reason to doubt the authenticity of the documents. (The Department of Justice did not respond to an inquiry.)
At the moment, Foer and the outlet where he works aren’t saying anything about his apparent decisions to share drafts of stories with highly partisan third parties. There's every chance that this story remains, then, firmly in the realm of right-wing media, which covers every possible instance of media-Democratic Party collusion breathlessly and with an electron microscope. But beyond that claustrophobic world and its various frenzied paranoias, the ways that journalists influence public opinion—and who is influencing them—are always worth bringing into view.
The central irony here is that Foer’s feverish writing in 2016 was focused on the ostensible hidden role of state-adjacent actors in manipulating the U.S. political process. Whose hand sits undetected behind such Atlantic articles as “Biden Answered the 3 a.m. Call” and Foer’s forthcoming book—and who is reading them before the public does—are questions readers will do well to consider.