1 August 2016 — FAIR
This one appeared on the front page of the US newspaper of record, under the hyperbolic headline “Russian Spies Said to Hack Clinton’s Bid”:
It is not until the 20th paragraph of the 21-paragraph article, on page A13 in the print edition, that the Times reveals a crucial point of clarification: Clinton “campaign officials acknowledge that they have no evidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to tilt the election to Donald Trump.
The 11th-hour detail might send readers, scratching their heads, back to the beginning.
“Clinton campaign officials have suggested that Russia might be trying to sway the outcome of the election,” Times reporter Eric Lichtblau writes in the second paragraph. Here, one would think, would have been the place to mention that those officials have no evidence for their claim.
Instead this fact in consigned to the penultimate paragraph—a lonely wilderness where the vast majority of readers don’t tread—of a piece filled with weasel words and caveats like “said to,” “appears to,” “apparently,” etc. The headline of the digital version has two: “Computer Systems Used by Clinton Campaign Are Said to Be Hacked, Apparently by Russians.”
In the article, the only sources cited by the New York Times—which endorsed Clinton for president—are officials who work for the US government, the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
The most important source, whose claims form the crux of the story, is an anonymous federal law enforcement official who is allegedly involved in the forensic investigation and who says the hack is connected to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.
The FBI, on the other hand, was much more prudent in apportioning blame. The agency told the newspaper that the hacks involved “multiple political entities” whose identities the FBI did not reveal. The agency also said it is aware of the media reports blaming Russia “and is working to determine the accuracy, nature and scope of these matters.”
CIA Director John Brennan likewise refused to comment on the accusations. That is to say, neither the FBI nor the CIA is on board, at least publicly.
That the Times‘ ostensible scoop is based on a single anonymous federal law enforcement official and the admittedly evidence-free accusations of Clinton campaign officials is of a piece with the paper’s evident keenness to promote a tale of Russian cloaks and daggers, even when the plot thins.
Articles like “DNC Hack Raises a Frightening Question: What’s Next?” (7/30/16), premised on the time-honored notion of “frightening if true,” trade merrily in Cold War cliches, accompanied by gloomy photos of Moscow’s Red Square.
“There is a Russian word for this practice: ‘kompromat,’” the Times explains, introducing readers to the presumably exotic idea:
A portmanteau of the Russian words for “compromising” and “material,” it refers to the timeworn tradition of obtaining information and using it to smear or influence public officials. Unscrupulous Russian politicians have been doing it for decades.
“The Chinese and Russians are used to these tactics to settle political and business rivalries,” it seems, but the DNC hack suggests they may be “exporting kompromat abroad.”
In the July 29 piece, uncertainty is acknowledged. “It is unclear whether the break-in was fairly routine espionage or part of an effort to manipulate the election,” and “it is unclear whether the reported breaches…were part of a single coordinated attack or a series of attacks,” Lichtblau concedes. But this doesn’t seem to undermine a general idea that something insidious involving Russia is very clear indeed.
Even if it doesn’t really add up: The article seems to contradict itself, claiming that the GRU was also implicated in the hack of the Democratic National Committee that led to the leak of its opposition research on Trump. In other words, the piece suggests that Russia hacked the Clinton campaign’s computers in order to hurt her, yet it simultaneously admits that these same supposed “Russian” hackers leaked DNC opposition research that hurt Trump. Which is it?
It may not matter, given the endless fungibility of this useful storyline. In a July 30 piece, “US Wrestles With How to Fight Back Against Cyberattacks,” readers are given the usual murk about how “the administration has stopped short of publicly accusing the Russian government of President Vladimir V. Putin.”
But we are also told “private investigators have identified the suspects, and American intelligence agencies have told the White House that they have ‘high confidence‘ that the Russian government was responsible.” And another caveat: “less certain is who is behind the selective leaks of the material, and whether they have a clear political objective.”
The Times then concedes:
Even if officials gather the proof, they may not be able to make their evidence public without tipping off Russia, or its proxies in cyberspace, about how deeply the National Security Agency has penetrated that country’s networks.
In other words, that absence of proof should stand as proof. Clear enough?
Ben Norton is a journalist and writer based in New York City, currently a politics staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.
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