Fake News and Phony Watchdogs: Journalists Loving the Liars They Cover

Do the American intelligence services knowingly plant false stories in mainstream newspapers? Do reporters for mainstream news agencies know of this practice? Do they approve of it? Yes, yes and yes.

A 2014 story by The Intercept (which I ran across recently) revealed the collusion and kowtowing of an LA Times reporter (now at AP) in his dealings with the CIA, the agency he was supposed to be covering as one of ever-fierce watchdogs of out freedom-loving Fourth Estate. Drawing on a trove of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Intercept’s story lays out the embarrassing work of Ken Dilanian, as he sent whole stories off to his “guys” at the CIA seeking their pre-publication approval and often softening and shifting stories at their request. He constantly expresses his ardent desire to make the CIA look better and to downplay any bad press the agency might be getting from, say, drone-bombing carloads of civilians or destroying information about the agency’s torture programs.

But beyond the brown-nosing (which went far beyond the usual courting and cultivating of journalistic sources), I was most struck by a paragraph that was buried deep in the report. It seemed to me to confirm and exemplify one of the most shocking elements of the American system today: the casual, unquestioning acceptance that our intelligence services routinely manufacture news stories to advance their given agenda of the day. Not only is this accepted by our “fierce watchdogs” — they think it’s, like, really cool!

Read this paragraph, then explain why you would ever approach even a “liberal” mainstream newspaper or media report with relaxed confidence in its veracity and independence:

"On March 14, 2012, Dilanian sent an email to the press office with a link to a Guardian story that said Bashar Al-Assad’s wife had been buying a fondue set on Amazon while Syrian protesters were gunned down. 'If this is you guys, nice work,' he wrote. 'If it’s real, even better.'”

There it is, the whole rotted, corroded, corrupt system laid bare: “If this story is bullshit propaganda that ‘you guys’ planted in one of the world’s most highly regarded news organisations, that’s great! Well done! And if it’s actually true — although, in the end, who cares? — that’s even better, because it helps advance our common agenda of demonizing the government’s enemy du jour!”

For be sure: if the US power structure had wanted to support Assad during the beginning of the uprising, then we would have seen this:

“On March 4, 2012, Dilanian sent an email to the press office with a link to a Guardian story that said Bashar Al-Assad’s wife broke down in tears during a hospital visit to the families of law enforcement officers killed by extremists in recent rioting. ‘If this is you guys, nice work,’ he wrote. ‘If it’s real, even better.’”

I just can’t get that phrase out of my mind: “If this is you guys, nice work.” The puppy-dog, tail-wagging eagerness to praise the CIA “guys” for planting a false story in the mainstream press. The unconscious, unexamined assumption that this would be a good thing, that it’s what should be done: that our intelligence apparatchiks should manipulate the media and shape public opinion according to secret agendas never revealed to or debated by a democratic society. And this from a journalist, working at the highest levels of our most “respectable” media institutions — institutions whose work is considered automatically credible and objective by millions of people who would consider themselves educated, thoughtful, keen-eyed, liberal.

But this is the real system, and these are its real underlying assumptions and working methods. And the watchdogs supposedly keeping guard on our behalf are all too often lapdogs curling up with the thugs who have looted our house and murdered our neighbors.

CORRECTION:  I ran across this Intercept piece on Twitter recently, but didn't notice that it was from 2014, so the original blog post here described it as a "recent story." The main point still stands -- even more so today perhaps -- but apologies for the inaccuracy on the timing.