The Washington Post has finally corrected a hysterical story it wrote last week, alleging that Russian hackers had wormed their way into a Vermont way-station that controlled part of the Northeastern United States’ electric grid.
The Post‘s headline was terrifying, laying out what appeared to be evidence of an imminent attack on the national infrastructure, uncovered in the Obama Administration’s investigation into “Grizzly Steppe,” the Russian hacker program that allegedly hacked the DNC’s servers.
It even featured quotes from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Vermont’s Democratic governor, decrying the nefarious influence of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin and calling on the federal government to take immediate action. “This episode should highlight the urgent need for our federal government to vigorously pursue and put an end to this sort of Russian meddling,” governor Peter Shulman said.
But as the holiday weekend wore on, the story turned from terrifying to embarrassing. Burlington Electric, the utility that Washington Post claimed had been hacked, issued a corrective statement to its local paper, specifying that it had simply found pernicious malware on a laptop that wasn’t connected, at all, to the grid itself. It alerted the federal government, it seems, out of obligation.
Pretty amazing how badly the Post appears to have mangled this one. You didn't call the Vermont utility regulator before publishing?
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) December 31, 2016
1. No they did not penetrate the grid. 2. The IOCs contained commodity malware – can't attribute based off that alone. https://t.co/AMNMVzFpFW
— Robert M. Lee (@RobertMLee) December 31, 2016
The clarification destroys the crux of the Post‘s story: that malicious hackers had infiltrated the electrical grid and gained access to a key link in the U.S. infrastructure. It also upended the contention that “multiple” computer terminals had been infected with malware.
It took more than an hour for the Post to update their story. By then, though, they’d been fact-checked by none other than InfoWars, which gleefully pointed out that the Post was transacting in “fake news.” By this time, however, the Post‘s report had already been picked up by a number of other outlets, quaking at the thought of a Russian incursion.
— ABC News (@ABC) December 31, 2016
January 2nd, the Post finally published a second story, this time noting that there was no breach, that Russia was not currently working on taking down the key U.S. utilities (at least, based the information in the Grizzly Steppe report). The new piece quotes federal investigators who say that they do not believe the Russian government was trying to turn all the lights off in Bernie Sanders’ home state.
They also noted that their initial reporting was “incorrect.”
And so amid all the mainstream media handwringing over “fake news”, an institution like the Washington Post was able to go three days without acknowledging a significant reporting failure. The paper crowed just before Christmas that it was hiring at least sixty new staffers as part of its explosive growth into the East Coast’s biggest click farm. Perhaps some of these new hires should be fact checkers.