Current Affairs

‘Officials Say’ a Lot of Things, But That Doesn’t Make Them True

Journalists (and their readers) need to stop taking authorities’ claims at face value.

The past year gave journalists a lot to write about, but overall it was a dismal one for the profession. Glenn Greenwald, who revealed the breadth of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic spying program, is now writing in self-imposed exile from the news site which he founded. Julian Assange, who exposed enormous crimes by the U.S. military and intelligence services, endured nightmarish conditions while fighting extradition to the United States. And Robert Fisk, one of the most respected journalists in the Middle East, died in Ireland after a career that spanned half a century. His death hit hard among scholars and activists of the Arab world, where he had loomed like a titan since the 1970s. 

It’s hard to overstate the stature of Fisk, the Independent’s longtime correspondent in Beirut. Over 40 years and 11 major wars, he produced two colossal volumes of reporting, several documentaries, a doctorate in political science, and too many awards and accolades to count. Osama bin Laden gave him three interviews, before trying to convert him (“I think he was sniffing out to see if I might become a good pilot,” Fisk later guessed). When Fisk died, the Irish president expressed his grief. 

Fisk’s specialty was in introducing the kind of historical context that’s usually missing from cable news. I still remember feeling something like a panic attack the first time I read his book Pity The Nation, as the author climbed over decomposing piles of Palestinian corpses under the indifferent eyes of the IDF. The Israeli Army had blocked off the exits to the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, letting their Phalangist allies do the dirty work—the sort of thing they do not tell you about in high school. His second book, The Great War For Civilization, spends 1,000 pages tracking imperialism’s bloody footprints from one atrocity to the next. The title comes from the war his father fought in, after which the borders of the colonial world were redrawn. “I have spent my entire career,” Fisk wrote in the preface, “watching the people within those borders burn.”

Obituaries gently describe Fisk as a “controversial” figure, but that gives you no idea of the fights he got into when he was alive. On the evening of September 11, he had a very public on-air spat with Alan Dershowitz, who called him “a dangerous man” for asking why foreigners had flown themselves into skyscrapers earlier that day. Jeffrey Goldberg, who is now editor-in-chief at the Atlantic, called him “a rabid anti-Zionist” who “made common cause with the September 11 conspiracy movement.” (This last bit is not exactly true, but Goldberg is not one to let facts obstruct a good story.)

Even among progressives, Fisk was suspected of being a closet Assadist when he questioned Western narratives on Syria’s chemical weapons. Following the alleged use of chlorine gas at the city of Douma, and the Western bombing in retaliation, Fisk traveled to Douma, interviewed doctors and residents, and uncovered troubling inconsistencies in the official account. Subsequent leaks from inspectors at the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons later indicated that the U.S. had attempted to manipulate the watchdog’s investigation. 

Most Western correspondents instinctively believe that theirs is the “good” side, which sets them up for embarrassment when their troops are caught shooting up civilians or raping children in front of their parents. Fisk’s talent—if you can call it that—came from holding Western countries to the same standard as their enemies, and he could condemn both sides of a war in the same breath. Asked by Homeland Security if he had ever met any terrorists, Fisk bluntly replied, “Yes, I met Osama bin Laden and I met Ariel Sharon.” In the years after September 11, that was probably braver than flying first class in a keffiyeh.

There’s one chapter in The Great War which seems to encapsulate the problems for international reporters. During the Iran-Iraq conflict (then referred to as the “Gulf War,” a phrase with more tedious sequels than the Matrix) an American frigate had shot down a passenger plane, apparently believing that the pilot was on a suicide mission. Fisk interviewed air traffic controllers and learned the whole horrifying story—how American warships had routinely misidentified scheduled flights and challenged civilian pilots, often on the wrong frequencies, while ignoring the rules of international navigation. But when the story reached the pages of the Murdoch-owned Times, “every element of my story that reflected negatively on the Americans was taken out.”

Every journalist knows how hard it is to resist editorial pressure, and in practice very few are stubborn enough to push back. The word “censorship” might not be literally accurate for a privately-owned publication, but there are not many words to describe a paper that declines to print factual reporting. In those days before Substack, the only alternative was for Fisk to quit the Times and throw in with the Independent, where he remained for the rest of his career.  

The Dark Euphemisms of “the Language of Power”

One of Fisk’s favorite gripes was against what he called “the language of power.” Sometimes he acted less like a journalist than a curmudgeonly old English teacher, scolding his pupils for abusing threadbare phrases like “peace process” and “road map.” These habits are bad enough in regular writing, but in wartime they serve to sanitize atrocities and provide cover for those who commit them. We no longer have to read about “collateral damage” or “surgical” attacks, but how many times have you read bloodless descriptions of “targeted killings” or “precision defensive strikes”?  And why are Arab murderers referred to as “terrorists” while white ones are “loners” or “mentally ill?”

Sometime during the Bush administration, the State Department began borrowing milquetoast terminology from the Israeli government, and most media outlets followed suit. The high-tech barriers around Palestinian territory became “fences” in the American press. The colonies of armed, aggressive Israeli settlers became “neighborhoods” and the bulldozed Palestinian homes on which they were built became “disputed land.”

“By failing to use the real words, we de-semanticize the conflict,” Fisk told an audience at Georgetown University in 2010. If someone throws a stone, or a rocket, at an occupying military force, you might wonder if they have a legitimate cause for anger. But a dispute is the sort of thing you should discuss over a cup of tea. A fence—like the one around your garden—is something that can be sorted out in civil court. Put it in those terms, “then anyone who throws a stone must be generically violent,” Fisk told his Georgetown audience. “Thus, through our journalistic cowardice, we make it easier for those who suffer to become the aggressors and for the occupiers to become the victims.”

Instead of informing the public, those euphemisms provided diplomatic cover for what most of the world recognizes as an illegal occupation. The West Bank, supposedly the basis of a Palestinian state, is now an archipelago of disjointed cantons, slowly dissolving into the Israeli frontier. There’s no longer any semblance of a “peace process,” and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now considering outright annexations of Palestinian territory.

In dozens of online interviews and YouTube speeches, one of Fisk’s recurring themes was the “parasitic-osmotic relationship” between American journalists and their authorities, not to mention the nexus of think tanks and institutes which exist to turn donor money into public policy. Intelligence and defense bureaucracies know that they can set the course for public opinion through selective leaks and off-the-record revelations, which are then stenographically reprinted by journalists eager for a scoop. Sometimes, an anonymously-leaked story can later be cited by the same officials who first planted it: a Human Centipede of propaganda.

To illustrate the point, Fisk would sometimes take the war reporting of major newspapers and read out only the sources. Here’s an example from the Los Angeles Times, which he cited in the same appearance at Georgetown. Remember, these are just the attributions:

“….U.S. authorities say…”

“…U.S. officials said…”

“….said one U.S. Justice department counterterrorism official…”

“….officials said….”

“….U.S. authorities say….”

“…U.S. officials said…”

“….several U.S. officials said….”

And you get the idea. After another dozen variations on the phrase (and a single reference to Jordanian officials) Fisk asked his audience, “Why not just call the L.A. Times ‘U.S. Officials Said?’”

One could accuse Fisk of cherry-picking a bad example, but this was a favorite demonstration whenever he appeared in front of an audience. The New York Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Boston Globe each took turns becoming “U.S. Officials Say.”

In 2003, “U.S. Officials Said” that Saddam Hussein was enriching uranium and harboring al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, and the war that followed cost over a quarter of a million lives (and by some estimates, more than twice that figure). A few years later, “Western diplomats and intelligence officials said” that Iran was 18 months away from a nuclear bomb. That was in 2009, but no matter; “U.S. Officials Said” Iran has been on the brink of a nuclear weapon since at least 1991. In 2018, unnamed officials were “confident,” but not certain, that Assad had used chemical weapons at Douma, which was reason enough to bomb the country without waiting for an investigation.

Change a few dates, and those warnings can be reprinted at will. Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently asserted that Iran had become a “home base” for al-Qaeda—the same claim that had been made for Iraq, minus 17 years. History doesn’t repeat itself, but U.S. officials do. 

If you’re not one for newspapers, “U.S. Officials Said” is also syndicated on cable. Tune in to MSNBC on any day of the week, and you’ve got a fair chance of hearing from John Brennan, who as Director of the CIA had to explain to sitting U.S. senators why his agents were hacking into their computers. Or, you can turn on CNN for the intelligence analysis of former National Security Director James Clapper, who lied to Congress, under oath, about the extent of his agency’s domestic spying program. The perjury was only exposed by the Edward Snowden revelations two months later. Clapper and Brennan both moved on to lucrative private sector careers, while Snowden is likely to spend his life in exile. 

When Will Journalists Do Their Jobs?

Speaking of the devils, Brennan and Clapper later inserted themselves rather directly into the latest U.S. election on behalf of the Biden campaign. Along with dozens of other intelligence officials, both signed on to the letter warning that the alleged files from Hunter Biden’s laptop had “the classic earmarks” of a Russian plot. Although “we do not have evidence” that Putin was involved, the letter-writers said, it was “consistent with Russian objectives.”

I don’t know anyone who thinks Vladimir Putin is too ethical to meddle in American affairs, but the preoccupation with Kremlin intrigues makes it a little too easy to avoid hard questions, as Nathan Robinson has written elsewhere. Instead of asking how Democrats lost an un-loseable election in 2016, we got three years of Russiagate. Is Bernie Sanders tapping into the anguish of an alienated working class? Must be the Russians again. You don’t need a coherent narrative when you can resort to another Putin Ex Machina. 

Even if Hunter’s laptop was planted by the FSB (the Russian equivalent of the CIA), an independent press might have asked a few further questions of a presidential candidate whose son was credibly accused of peddling his father’s influence. For example, “Were the emails and private videos from the supposed leak authentic, or were they forgeries? If the former, did Joe Biden know his son was offering Vice Presidential access to his business partners?” 

The point here is not to re-litigate the election, but to demonstrate how quickly journalists switch off their critical faculties because U.S. Officials Said. Although the New York Times acknowledged that there was “no concrete evidence” of Russian disinformation, and the FBI said the same in response to congressional requests, Hunter Biden became untouchable for serious journalists in the weeks before the election. (Luckily, he became newsworthy again once the voting was over.) An op-ed in the Washington Post made the astonishing claim that “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation—even if they probably aren’t.” Twitter went even further by banning the story altogether. 

It’s no secret that most of the scribbling class had their fingers crossed for Joe Biden, or that many exhaled sighs of relief when his predecessor was banned from Twitter. But it should be a little disconcerting when private companies decide which stories are safe for consumption. If the owners of WeChat or Weibo chose to ban tabloid investigations of Chinese leaders’ children, as Twitter and Facebook did before the last election, most newspapers would probably describe it as censorship. 

Another character in the spy novel version of reality is Julian Assange, who at the time of writing is still in Belmarsh prison suffering from what a U.N. Special Rapporteur described as “prolonged exposure to psychological torture.” A British judge refused to extradite him, saying it would be “oppressive” to subject him to the conditions of the U.S. prison system.

Most Americans remember Assange from the Clinton email saga, but that is not the reason he is facing 175 years in solitary confinement. His real crime was revealing over a decade of verifiable atrocities and cover-ups, from the killing of 700 Iraqis who came too close to U.S. Army checkpoints to the massacre of civilians who tried to rescue a slain Reuters camera crew. Not to mention the prisoners tortured with power drills by Iraqi police, or the 12-year old sex slaves who entertained our brave defense contractors in Afghanistan.

None of that seemed to trouble the staffers at U.S. Officials Said. “Julian Assange Got What He Deserved,” said the Atlantic after his arrest, judiciously citing Assange’s supposed connections to Russian intelligence. Indeed, one must scroll through about two-thirds of the article before encountering any of the crimes for which Assange is actually being charged. 

The Washington Post is a bit more straightforward. “Assange is a spy, not a journalist. He deserves prison,” wrote Marc Thiesson, a former speechwriter for the renowned humanitarian and pacifist George W. Bush. 

It’s hard to imagine Assange receiving a fair trial in the U.S., considering how long the CIA has been recording the meetings with his defense counsel. But a successful conviction under the Espionage Act could open the door for any journalist who publishes unauthorized material to be prosecuted as a spy—a fact which should trouble the media outlets which collaborated with WikiLeaks on the Iraqi War Logs. Perhaps journalists will rediscover their principles when it’s their turn on the stand?

The Challenges of Covering the Biden Era

Returning back to Dr. Fisk for a moment: he was not a fan of technology, nor of WikiLeaks, but he also wasn’t one to blame the internet for his problems. “American newspaper editors are blaming the internet for their lowering circulations,” Fisk said at Georgetown. “I think people are going to the internet because they know they’re being lied to by the American press.” That may explain why there’s been such an explosion of podcasting and Substack commentary by people who lack the resources of bigger publications. When “serious” journalists hand over their own puppet strings to the people in power it’s no surprise that bloggers and streamers—and leakers—try to fill in the gaps. 

Things are looking slightly brighter for 2021. The Assange decision was a heartening rebuke of the national security state, even if only a temporary one, and the incoming president is a bit less likely to oversee the end of the world. International reporting is still dominated by “U.S. Officials Said,” but headline writers have at least learned that white people can be terrorists too.  

Yet the new president also presents a challenge to reporters, considering how little he was challenged over the past year. After positioning himself as a “Modern FDR,” Biden’s appointments have largely confirmed his commitment to the status quo, including a Treasury Secretary who made millions from Wall Street and a Secretary of State with strong business ties to defense contractors (not to be outdone, the new Secretary of Defense sits on the board of one). Biden has already rebuffed pressure from civil rights leaders, and his answer to the worldwide pandemic is a gift to health insurance lobbyists. 

All of which make the need for confrontational journalism more pressing than ever. Barack Obama was able to cloak centrist policies under a progressive mantle, thanks in part to reporters who were happy to participate in the fiction. Joe Biden, like his old boss, says he wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as well as to end “forever wars.” Those promises are likely to go the way of the $2,000 survival checks without continued pressure from the public. Democratic presidents tend to play coy with progressive issues, but there are significantly fewer excuses now that the country is facing an economic crisis on top of the climate one.  

Pressure from the left will probably not turn President Biden into the next Franklin Roosevelt, but it might at least shame him into occasionally keeping his word. And, when the drums start beating for the next war, a critical press might even prevent him from repeating his mistakes of 2003.  

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