Monday, June 22, 2015

Don't Believe Anonymous Governmental Sources

In discussing the media with my classes I find it very helpful to use Chomsky and Hermann's Propaganda Model of the Media. This framework, first articulated in 1988 in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, consists of five filters that Chomsky and Hermann argue shape the way the media functions on the West. The third of these filters is Sourcing which involves the media relying on a limited range of sources for their reporting. Furthermore, these sources tend to be governmental officials or PR reps for large corporations meaning that most stories in the Mainstream Media are spun in favor of these governmental and corporate interests.

The reasons for the existence of this filter are complex, and beyond the scope of this blog post, but I did want to focus on a recent example of this filter in action. This comes from The Sunday Times (a Rupert Murdoch owned paper, see the first filter) published on June 14, 2015. The article in question "British Spies Betrayed to Russians and Chinese" (paywalled here, full text here) claims that Russian and Chinese have obtained the documents stolen by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, cracked the encryption, with the resulting information threatening British spies, and thereby damaging national security. The key problem with this article, and the reason I am writing about it is that the entire report appears to be based solely on claims made by senior government official who remain anonymous.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, most of the claims made by these anonymous officials are demonstrably false, and the fact that the Sunday Times printed them without bothering to engage in any fact-checking shows how debased and corrupt the mainstream media is. As Greenwald puts it:
The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them. It’s pure stenography of the worst kind: some government officials whispered these inflammatory claims in our ears and told us to print them, but not reveal who they are, and we’re obeying. Breaking!
 As Greenwald goes on to note, the real issue here is that in granting these individuals anonymity, there is no way for anyone to analyze or verify these claims. For all we know (and as seems likely) these individuals were just making stuff up in order to smear Edward Snowden. Because they are hiding behind anonymity, there is no way to evaluate their claims, or hold them accountable if they are in fact lying. Greenwald again:
The official accusers are being hidden by the journalists so nobody can confront them or hold them accountable when it turns out to be false. The evidence can’t be analyzed or dissected because there literally is none: they just make the accusation and, because they’re state officials, their media servants will publish it with no evidence needed. And as is always true, there is no way to prove the negative. It’s like being smeared by a ghost with a substance that you can’t touch.
As Greenwald goes on to note, the problem is compounded when other media outlets pick up and repeat the story, amplifying the lies and misinformation promulgated by the Sunday Times and these anonymous governmental officials. The take away from all of this is provided once again by Greenwald:
Ponder how dumb someone has to be at this point to read an anonymous government accusation, made with zero evidence, and accept it as true.
In closing, I leave you with Stephen Colbert's analysis of this phenomena from his masterful performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner (jump to 10:45):

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