The Washington Post didn't let a small, but damning fact stop it from posting a sensational story about Russian hackers targeting and infiltrating the Vermont company Burlington Electric on Saturday.
The hysteria-inducing story cited the “Grizzly Steppe” investigation that has made national headlines with its currently thinly sourced conclusion that Russian hackers connected to the Kremlin targeted the Democratic National Committee and other party offices.
The Post reported at that time, in a now-retracted story:
A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials.
While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a security matter, the discovery underscores the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electrical grid. And it raises fears in the U.S. government that Russian government hackers are actively trying to penetrate the grid to carry out potential attacks.
Conjuring up images of hoodied Russian hackers working furiously in dark Moscow coffeehouses to penetrate the U.S. power grid, the fear-inducing story can be seen in the ripple effect of the Democrats' new-found obsession with a Russian adversary that President Obama tried to
overcharge reset relations with and had once even shrugged off.
The problem with the WaPo report? Burlington Electric isn't even connected to the “nation's electrical grid.” As it noted on its correction:
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.
But wait, the story gets better.
In an update to the original story, it comes out that there was no evidence of Russian hacking, either.
As federal officials investigate suspicious Internet activity found last week on a Vermont utility computer, they are finding evidence that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility, according to experts and officials close to the investigation.
An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn’t being targeted by the Russians. Indeed, officials say it is possible that the traffic is benign, since this particular IP address is not always connected to malicious activity.
To the Washington Post's credit, it immediately corrected its story, issued an editor's note, and did its best to ensure readers were not misled by the original report.
But when legacy news media scold newer outlets about “fake news,” it's best that everyone in the media be aware that there is a difference between deliberate misreportage and just plain getting a story wrong, like many outlets tend to do with sensational or breaking news.
It also would behoove journalists and pundits to be restrained in their criticism of anyone skeptical of government or media-driven reports that Russians hacked the
That's not carrying water for a future Trump administration, but demanding transparency and due diligence in reportage before Americans jump to political conclusions or diplomats provoke a second “Cold War.”