The headline of a New York Times article published April 6, “C.I.A. Had Evidence of Russian Effort to Help Trump Earlier Than Believed,” misleadingly implies not only that there was an effort by the Russian government to help Donald Trump win the American presidential election but that it is a settled fact that the CIA was in possession of hard evidence to that effect. The text of the piece does nothing to substantiate either claim. There is not one mention in the 33 paragraphs that follow about the purported evidence. As has been true for months, no evidence of any actual Russian actions is presented – only unfounded assertions that such evidence exists. But the allegations have been repeated over and over so many times over the course of so many months that they have become established fact, as saying something often enough apparently makes it true.
Eric Lichtblau, the reporter whose byline appears on the piece, received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on illegal and unconstitutional warrantless surveillance of Americans inside the United States by intelligence agencies during the George W. Bush administration. One would expect a journalist with such a history to be extra skeptical of government sources, but that is not the case. Lichtblau appears not to have done any due diligence at all. The article does little more than transcribe anonymous rumors, turning the New York Times into a conduit for intelligence officials to disseminate their narrative to the public.
The Times’ reports on Bush’s illegal spying campaign, first released in December 2005, are often presented as an example of the mainstream media practicing its intended role as the Fourth Estate in American society by acting in the public interest to hold government accountable for overreach and abuse. In reality, the warrantless spying story fits perfectly within the propaganda model of media developed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. The propaganda model recognizes that media organizations will – with varying degrees of frequency – produce critical coverage of government actions. But their criticisms are framed as examples of rogue actors or misguided policies that are part of a political system that is fundamentally benevolent, despite mistakes and abuses that represent exceptions to the rule.
This overarching worldview is evidenced by Lichtblau’s deference to the fact-free rumors spread by anonymous intelligence officials. Having reported first hand about the CIA’s flagrant disregard for the constitution, Lichtblau would logically be expected to reflexively question the motives of Agency officials when they feed him information off the record. Instead, he takes for granted that they are being honest.
“The briefings indicate that intelligence officials had evidence of Russia’s intentions to help Mr. Trump much earlier in the presidential campaign than previously thought,” Lichtblau writes.
This logical fallacy assumes that if members of the CIA told something to Congress, then it must be true. Alternatively, the briefings could indicate that intelligence officials stirred up wild fantasies about foreign interference in the elections as a way of themselves intervening in the election much earlier in the campaign than previously thought.
A journalist wouldn’t take his sources at face value unless he internalized the belief that they had benevolent motives and were only interested in ensuring the public learned the truth. It doesn’t even occur to him that they might have their own agenda, and were manipulating him by leaking information selectively to advance that agenda. Naturally, these are the motives of foreign intelligence agents – like the Russians – but not ours. Because U.S. intelligence agents are different, naturally; they have only noble motives.
This type of thinking requires a special penchant for ignoring and apologizing for the CIA’s long history of misdeeds, from playing an indispensable role in overthrowing the elected governments of Guatemala, Iran and Chile; to meddling in the elections of more than 30 sovereign nations; organizing and operating death squads and torture chambers in South Vietnam; creating and sponsoring a terrorist army led by former security officials from the ousted military dictatorship in Nicaragua, looking the other way as the terrorists obtained funding for weapons by flooding the streets of Los Angeles and other American cities with crack cocaine.
Even leaving aside the CIA’s history from more than a few decades ago, during the last 15 years alone the CIA has carried out illegal programs of kidnapping, torture and assassination. The CIA even went as far as hacking into the computers of Senate investigators – who nominally oversee them – while they were investigating the crimes. This was widely reported and even acknowledged by the Agency themselves.
When describing Trump’s assertion that he was wiretapped by Obama, Lichtblau notes that Trump made the claim “with no evidence.” One has to wonder why, then, he chooses to report completely unsubstantiated assertions from the CIA without qualifying them with the same caveat.
One could speculate that the CIA, in the absence of any real evidence of any Russian activities relating to the U.S. election, is using Lichtblau and the Times to launder their unfounded rumors. Instead of producing evidence, officials merely assert (off the record, of course, without explanation of why they refuse to attach their names to their assertions) that they have evidence. The press accepts these claims at face value without questioning their veracity, and gives them credibility by printing them as if there could be no doubt they are true.
In this way, intelligence officials are able to create a narrative stamped by the paper of record as historical fact based on nothing more than their own word. When government officials can shape the political discourse by substituting their own alternate reality for objective facts, there is no way a democracy can function. The media serve merely as an extension of government while simultaneously providing the facade of independence and oversight.
The picture that corporate media paints of the world would indeed be much different if journalists demonstrated the same skepticism toward their own government that they do without fail towards official enemies. And it would be much more difficult for the government to carry out their perilous game of demonizing foreign adversaries and leading the public towards a reckless, needless and possibly apocalyptic military confrontation based on grievances that have been manufactured out of whole cloth.