In October, Paste reported on a disturbing story involving Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and Sputnik editor Bill Moran. The former, it appeared, sought to silence the latter through the use of bribery and threats.
For the uninitiated, Moran had written a piece based on a Twitter user’s misattribution of a damning Eichenwald quote about Benghazi to longtime Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal. Wikileaks had just dumped Clinton campaign director John Podesta’s emails, and there was a mad dash among journalists and non-journalists alike to find a big story in them. One of those emails had Blumenthal sending the Eichenwald story to Podesta.
Upon realizing his mistake roughly twenty minutes after publication, Moran took the article down. However, then-GOP candidate Donald Trump used the misattributed quote in a speech to attack his opponent.
From these facts, Eichenwald inferred that the only possible means by which Trump could have come across the misattributed quote was purposeful collusion with the Russians, and that the Wikileaks documents themselves had been altered. This conclusion led him to write a piece, “Dear Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, I Am Not Sidney Blumenthal,” in which he wove a sordid web connecting the GOP candidate to Russia.
The piece went viral, earning the Newsweek journalist a top spot on various cable news shows. Moran was fired.
The young journalist reached out to Newsweek and Eichenwald, asking they update the story to reflect what had actually happened. After being ignored, Moran was contacted by Eichenwald, who offered to either help him get a job at New Republic, in seeming exchange for silence, or update the piece with a paragraph naming him. This latter option came with a warning that aligning himself with Sputnik made him unhirable.
Moran chose to come forward.
Following our reporting of the incident, Eichenwald and Newsweek doubled down with a follow-up, “How I Got Slimed By Russian Propagandist Site Sputnik” (this story and the original have both been removed, though no correction or retraction has been published by Newsweek), which named Moran, appeared to question his motivations for coming forward, and pointing out that Sputnik is a Russian state-funded outlet.
Around that time, suspicion surrounding Trump’s relationship with Russia blossomed into full blown collective hysteria with major media outlets like The Washington Post hastily publishing inaccurate stories about Russian hacking, and normalizing groups like PropOrNot, the unvetted, anonymous online collective that notoriously labeled left-wing media outlets “Russian propaganda.” This was also when demagogue and conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch became mainstream.
All the while, Eichenwald’s original article, “Dear Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, I Am Not Sidney Blumenthal,” made its way around the Internet, cited by people like the hysterical Keith Olbermann. It was even referenced by former FBI special agent Clint Watts in his Senate testimony.
To Bill Moran, it felt like a witch hunt. Outside of whether or not Russia really had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump, the young journalist saw his name become a central part of a story based increasingly on innuendo.
“I felt powerless,” Moran told Paste in an exclusive interview. “I was afraid of suing given the political climate we were in.”
Instead, he took to social media, taking shots at Eichenwald and Newsweek. He became a man obsessed—moreso after his father passed in October. This loss catapulted him into a dark place.
“It was the only time I ever considered suicide,” Moran explained. “Eichenwald’s smears were one of the last things my dad heard about me before he died. I had the same birthday and same name as my father and he always took pride in that and always told me to protect that name—it was the one thing of value he had to give me.”
However, the family death also marked a turning point for Moran. The former Sputnik editor and Georgetown Law graduate decided to pursue admittance to the Maryland Bar, and sue IBT Media, Newsweek’s parent company (now renamed Newsweek Media Group), for defamation and libel.
Representing himself, Moran filed his initial complaint back in February, arguing that Eichenwald had, in essence, accused him of disloyalty to his country by implying he was a mouthpiece for Russia, and thus crippled his ability to find future work as a journalist. His work at Sputnik, he claimed, was his own, rather than dictated by a foreign source.
(It should be noted that in May, a Sputnik wire service reporter, Andrew Feinberg, did allege, after leaving his job, that the outlet was more interested in hiring “propagandists” than journalists. But, his previous postings on social media appear to contradict this assertion. On multiple occasions, Feinberg defended himself and his colleagues from what he called accusations of “treason.”) Note: Feinberg’s statement has been added to the end of this piece.
In any case, Newsweek’s attorneys did not see fit to pursue a protracted legal battle with Moran. On Monday, after a total of 64 filings, the case was officially disposed of after the parties settled. (Details of the settlement are confidential.)
“The lawsuit was settled amicably and to my satisfaction,” Moran told Paste. “After the settlement, the stories were removed, the parties agreed not to speak about the terms of the settlement, so I can’t talk to you about what the settlement entails.”
When asked how it felt to finally be done with the whole affair, Moran would only say he was relieved.
“Our institutions actually do work,” he said, a pensive look creeping over his face. “I was a young journalist with no power, but the facts were on my side, and the system worked. Our institutions are made to last.”
Paste reached out to Newsweek Media Group for comment, but they would provide none as per their company policy.
Update: Feinberg, who worked at Sputnik after Moran had left, and for a different branch of the D.C. Bureau, told Paste that he didn’t see anything inconsistent about defending his colleagues, “many of whom are young journalists who simply want to do a good job and are trying their best under what are—I think—near impossible circumstances. These people need to make a living, and their tolerance for the way things are done at Sputnik may be greater than mine.”