• Anonymous Sources Tell Us How Democracy Ends

    September 27, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    Watch how this is done: Joe Biden plans to resign after only one year in the White House, according to someone with direct knowledge of the Bidens’ plans.
    A senior official at Northern Virginia Community College confirmed Jill Biden reached out recently to see if she could resume teaching if her husband was elected; Dr. Biden famously taught there while her husband served as Vice President and had befriended the official. The College immediately offered Dr. Biden a four year cycle of classes. She replied, however, she wanted to make only a one year commitment. “We won’t be in Washington for the full term,” Biden reportedly explained. “Joe’ll stay in office for a year and work on some signature issues like cancer research, but Kamala will be doing the heavy lifting from day one. Joe will quietly resign and give her plenty of time to make the job her own. It’s set in stone I’m afraid. I wouldn’t let him run any other way given his health.”
    I made that up. See how easy it is? Start with a known bias, that many people believe Joe Biden won’t serve his whole term. Play off the fear he is a Trojan Horse. Tell people what they already believe, Harris is selected, not elected. Use your own credibility to overcome the lack of it in your sourcing. Include some truth (Dr. Jill Biden did teach at Northern Virginia Community College during the Obama administration) and then take advantage of the magic of anonymous sources. Allow for faux confirmation — if another journalist contacted the college, they just might have indeed recently heard from Jill about teaching.
    This comes in the context of a recent article in The Atlantic by Jeff Goldberg, where anonymous sources claim the president disrespected America’s military. Goldberg’s piece was followed by former Russiagate FBI agent Peter Strzok telling another Atlantic writer, without evidence the equivalent of an no-name source, Trump is controlled by the Russians. Then came the return of Alexander Vindman (powered by an anonymous source, er, “whistleblower”) and excerpts from Bob Woodward’s Rage claiming without examination or details Dan Coates and Jim Mattis planned “collective action” against the president. Those are a few recent examples; in a four year tantrum the media has recklessly published anything anti-Trump without concern for truth, little better than the minor celebs who take to Twitter to announce #TrumpisaPedo who craves sex with his own children. Journalism has become propaganda, its purpose not to inform but to advocate. Influence operations. Propaganda.
    It’s worth poking a lot of holes in Goldberg’s article as an example because of its exclusive use of anonymous sources in pursuit of advocacy, in this case, trying to chip away at Trump’s pro-military base. Though Goldberg’s article talks about events from as long as four years ago, it was released alongside a current Military Times poll showing Biden gaining some support among service members, and dovetailed with fuzzy reporting Trump ignored Russian bounties on Americans in Afghanistan.
    The question of motive makes the validity of the sources ever more important. How do we know Goldberg didn’t make things up, or at least allow himself to be used for his partisan end as he did in advocating for the whole false narrative of WMDs and the Iraq War? Unless you are Goldberg’s mother or the town mayor from Jaws, credibility comes from the sources, not a writer’s inner soul. Goldberg comes up lacking. As a former diplomat, I staffed overseas presidential visits from Reagan to Obama. I sat in on planning meetings, and got a pretty close up view of the Secret Service. The president exists inside a series of bubbles, forgive me, like those nesting Russian dolls. The innermost bubble, the one where someone might hear his personal thoughts, is reserved for very, very few people. The universe of people who could have physically been close enough to Trump (or any president) to overhear sensitive remarks is tiny.
    So if we know the names of the sources it will be easy to place them in that special group, or not. If we know the names, it would be easy to check photos to see if they were where they would have needed to be to overhear. It would be easy to see who else was around to confirm or deny the story (11 Trump officials deny it by name, zero confirm.)
    A real reporter would also provide context, what was said before and after the damning remarks; it is not uncommon for civilians to respectfully ask what motivates men to run into fires, to sacrifice themselves for a buddy, to stand in harm’s way. Goldberg’s sources say Trump remarked to former White House chief of staff and retired Marine General John Kelly, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” He said this at Arlington National Cemetery at the gravesite of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in Afghanistan. This photo shows who was there — Kelly, two family members, Trump, and Pence. This would have been the moment when Trump would have made his remark, and those are the only five people on earth who would have heard it. Trump and Pence deny it; the Kelly family has been silent from which one cannot draw any conclusion. The same photo set shows Trump meeting later with other Gold Star families, none of whom claim he made any disparaging remarks.
    There is also a sniff test to be applied. The credibility of journalism should not depend on the reader’s biases. Trump mocking Kelly’s son’s sacrifice at graveside would be among the most horrible things anyone could do to a parent. Who would say such a thing? There is no record of the worst humans in history, men like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, saying such things. There is no record of people such as concentration camp guards, men capable of killing children, saying such things. And would Kelly, a blooded Marine, stand silently with his family, accomplices in their own humiliation, then release the information only years later hiding behind the skirt of some minor journalist to score a glancing political point?
    Knowing the names of the sources also allows us to judge the credibility of the so-called confirmations by other journalists. Do their confirmations consist of nothing more than the same people who spoke to Goldberg repeating the same things to a second writer? That’s just saying the same thing twice, not a confirmation. Are the confirmations from people who heard the information second hand? The potential for circular confirmations is great and risky. It would also be easy to see who harbors grudges and deserves to have their motive to lie reviewed. It would be easy to ask a named source why he waited several years to reveal this information, just as an election is heating up. Knowing the names resolves the risk. Trust but verify.
    There are other sniff tests. Much has been made of the presumptive sources being “military men” who would not criticize the president. They are also not stupid, and if they did serve as sources knew exactly that they were attacking the president for political purposes weeks before the election. In addition, Kelly (Mattis, McMaster, et al) all took civilian positions in the Trump administration, and served out of uniform, so their refusal to comment is unjustified. The idea Goldberg would never risk his reputation as a journalist by writing a lie is silly. Goldberg and The Atlantic wholeheartedly supported the lies of the WMD story in Iraq and the lies of the Russiagate story. You can lie all you want as long as you tell people what they want to hear.
    Though it got much less attention, The Atlantic followed up Goldberg with a piece that included a named source but allowed him to simply list out baseless accusations of treason. Former FBI agent Peter Strzok sees Grassy Knolls everywhere. The Atlantic helps him along, introducing the back and to the left theory by saying “Despite multiple investigations by the FBI, Congress, and Mueller’s team, Americans have still never learned the full story about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia or Trump’s own decades-long financial ties with Russia.” Oh. Like what?
    Well, Strzok says he doesn’t really know, but it must be hidden in Trump’s taxes (which the IRS has reviewed for decades.) The writer feels it in her ample gut, too, stating “Strzok was getting too close to the truth” without actually saying what that “truth” might be other than it would be bad. Ah, from Strzok: “I do think the president is compromised, that he is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well.” That is a straight-up accusation of treason, a capital offense.
    And there both the writer and the source just leave it, no specifics, no follow-up questions, not even a pee tape. We’re left to fill in They Are All In On It, everyone who could have blown this wide open is dummied up — FBI, CIA, NSA, DOJ, Congress. Remember Mr. X, the character in JFK played by Donald Sutherland? Strzok wants to be him. Problem is he’s not good enough for an Oliver Stone film, so he’s just out there pimping his book.
    Same for some of the gotchas in Bob Woodward’s Rage. What reveals Woodward in this case as a propagandist, not a journalist, is his lack of curiosity. For example, he quotes Mattis and Coates as talking about the possibility of “collective action” against Trump. And then drops it. You’d think Woodward would have asked “Tell me more about that, what were you thinking?” A strongly worded Op-Ed or tanks on the White House lawn? Who else would have been involved? Was this the first time this was raised or almost the last? Woodward goes on to report Coates “felt in his gut” the Russians have something on Trump. Coates was of course the Director of National Intelligence, with the full reach of the global U.S. spying apparatus at his control. He was in a position to do much more than have a gut feeling on things, but Woodward leaves it at that. Woodward purposefully allows the audience to decide what Mattis and Coates were up to, filling in the silence in whatever their worst nightmare was.
    The Atlantic articles are sucked oranges. They are a rehashed muddle of Trump’s Worst Hits, accusations, and gossip people either have believed for several years because they will believe anything bad about Trump, or which people dismiss as a muddle of unsourced Trump’s Worst Hits, accusations, and gossip. It is what comes next that matters.
    The danger is in not snapping back. If Trump wins in November, does the media just pick up where they left off? Do they simply find a new cause to drive a new impeachment, demanding the 25th Amendment in published pieces while hinting at assassination in their ALL CAPS social media? Goldberg’s article got far too much attention for how little it had to say. But it has not gotten enough review as a marker, the place we had to end up when the media wholeheartedly advocated for the Iraq War based on lies. It is where we had to end up when the media buried things of concern with Hillary and helped create Russiagate out of anonymous sources. It is where we had to end up when the MSM uses its own freedom of speech to quash dissenting voices  (deplatforming is the 2020 term), dismissing them as unpatriotic in 2003 and as “useful idiots” and Russian bots in the current world.
    In defense of what they call advocacy, journalists often cite Walter Cronkite speaking out against the Vietnam War, or Ed Murrow publicly shaming Joe McCarthy. Not only are such  gold-standard examples rare enough that the list often ends there, they ignore negative examples, the most gleaming of which was the advocacy for the post-9/11 horrors. They also ignore how Cronkite’s and Murrow’s advocacy came at the end of dispassionate study, deep introspection, and clear sourcing. They did not seek to win the argument by literally rewriting history, as in the NYT’s 1619 Project. Cronkite and Murrow broke the objectivity wall not for a favored candidate, but over issues of deep national importance. And they knew the difference.

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    Posted in 2020, Democracy, Trump