Being able to spot a fake news story is a valuable skill but truly “fake” news is a somewhat overblown issue. Media literacy nowadays is at least as much a matter of what Sherlock Holmes termed “the dog that didn’t bark.” Holmes solved The Adventure of Silver Blaze by noting that a dog ought to have barked if the racehorse was removed from its stable by an unfamiliar intruder, and the fact that it did not revealed the guilty party. The corollary to dogs not barking where the press is concerned is the decision not to cover things. We see that a lot. I think it is revealing in and of itself.
Now we know the press can’t cover everything and that editorial decisions as to what to cover rely on judgment, experience, intuition and wisdom. There are also editorial standards to consider. Should the prestige press cover John Edwards’ extramarital affair knowing the story is about to be broken by the National Enquirer? After the story has run in the Enquirer? After it has been picked up on the nightly news?
These judgments are not easy and subjectivity is involved. Still, as social media, internet news outlets and the tabloids put pressure on the mainstream as regards what to cover it is generally possible to see some kind of underlying logic to what the mainstream press does, and why. Does the story constitute news of the type we consider right for our outlet? Are there facts to back it up? If an issue is already in play might it be covered with caveats?
But I must say I am all too often mystified at the things the press does not cover. I cannot reconcile them with any known rationale for non-coverage or caveats based on the kinds of considerations listed above.
There’s the case of Imran Awan, the congressional tech staffer who may or may not be implicated in larger political issues. I won’t go into those issues here except to say that the story has been alive and kicking for a long time now, well over a year. The theories about Awan being linked to bad political derring-do are not proven. But any review of the facts as reported outside the mainstream strongly suggest that this is if nothing else a story. There is something to report on that is not just vapors.
I watched the Boston Globe archives for the last year and a half looking for any mention of his name. Zero. He was apparently simply not newsworthy. If you read the Globe for all your news you would not have known who he is.
There was a legal twist in the non-case a few weeks back that some took as vindication for Awan, and that suggested that he might not be involved in anything nefarious. Oddly–or perhaps not so oddly–the Globe then ran a story about Awan, indicating that recent developments suggested he was not involved in anything bad.
So consider: the Globe treats Awan as a non-person. But it knows the story is out there. So when it comes time to run a story it only runs the supposed wrap-up: nothing here, move on. You could take that as a sign of vindication: they knew there was nothing there and now could say so.
But what is the rationale for reporting on a story you didn’t see fit to cover in the first place? More to the point, Awan is not, as the Globe seems to hope, about to go away. He is hardly out of the woods, as an honest review of coverage elsewhere would suggest. Yet the Globe has now placed him back in news purgatory. We can expect no more stories unless he is totally cleared or–more likely in my view–coverage of substantial misbehavior becomes unavoidable.
Or Seth Rich. Maybe Rich was shot in a botched robbery maybe there was more going on. But why is the media so determined not to ask questions? We have Julian Assange making pubic comments highly suggestive of Rich’s involvement with the leak of DNC emails. Whatever else you think of Assange he doesn’t lie or spin; if anything he is too earnest and self-righteous. And you have an audiotape of Sy Hersch, the greatest investigative journalist of his generation, saying that he has been told by a reliable source that Rich, not Russia, gave the emails to Wikileaks.
Again, these things do not prove anything. But journalists are not judges and juries–or at least they should not be. They are supposed to follow up on credible leads to find things out. Where Rich is concerned what we hear instead is outrage: how could anyone be so cruel, so callous to the feelings of the Rich family, as to ask questions? My goodness, it is almost, almost as if the outrage serves as a barrier to asking questions, by ruling any reasonable inquiry off-limits. And the mainstream press does not find this objectionable. It is just fine.
For his part Hersch does not stand by his recorded telephone comments about Rich. But why should he? He is careful with his sources. He will stand by his writing only after it is published. He didn’t know he was being recorded and may well have let slip something he believes but that he is unwilling to discuss in public at the moment.
But where is the curiosity on the part of the press? The recording is of Sy Hersch fer chrissakes. He said the words. Does anyone care? No, to follow up would sully the memory of the sainted Seth Rich.
Or take Pizzagate, another instance in which curiosity is banished since the mere mention of elites and pedophilia will likely lead to another crazed gunman invading an innocent pizza shop.
You have to admit there is a lot of odd stuff on display in the case, including head-scratching photos from the establishment
and Tony Podesta’s bizarre and disturbing art collection. But the theory is on the face of it pretty far out and I am not a believer in the literal argument about goings on in that establishment.
So OK let’s agree for now that nothing bad happened in Comet Pizza. But as with Seth Rich we are now being told that asking anything about the underlying question is beneath contempt. How could anyone believe such things? Politicians and business leaders? Weird sex and pedophilia? Not worth asking about. In fact, offensive to raise the question.
Meanwhile we have given awards to Spotlight, the film that highlighted how easy it is for pedophilia to hide in plain sight. Ah, but that was different, that was the Catholic Church, and we know they are not to be trusted.
1. But then we note another set of scandals at elite private schools around the country. More sex with underage kids, this time by nice Protestants of refined education and taste.
2. Then we note Jerry Sandusky at Penn State and abuse of Olympic athletes.
4. Then we note wholesale conversion of underage working class girls in Northern England into prostitutes and sex toys at the hands of largely Pakistani grooming gangs, with the elites in charge looking the other way for fear of appearing racist . . . or worse.
5. Then we note arrests for underage sex rings in this country are up, although not reported widely in the press.
7. Then we see prominent politicians and entertainment figures flying down to a convicted pedophile’s Orgy Island.
8. Then we note the undercurrent of sex with kids breaking out into public view in Hollywood.
9. Then we note NGO sex abuse.
10. Then we note that a large percentage of kids crossing the borders are not brought by parents but by traffickers. As the country expressed outrage at family separations was there an ounce of curiosity evident in the mainstream press for the fate of such kids?
But no, no, no, no, no! Don’t talk about that pizza place!
These are all interesting instances of the press not doing its job, and not doing it in such a brazen way as to raise many deep and disturbing question as to why.
But the Dog-Doesn’t-Bark award for 2018 does not go to Imran Awan, Seth Rich or Pizzagate.
It goes to . . . (envelope please) . . . .Bill Browder.
Maybe you know the name maybe you don’t. It is not as though Bill Browder has not been covered in the mainstream press. Though his name has not been a household word he has been covered, quite a bit. He returned to the news with a bang recently, with Putin calling for American cooperation in investigating Browder in connection with crimes committed in Russia.
That came as a bit of a jolt to the press. If you read the mainstream news Browder comes across as a hero. A successful businessman in post-communist Russia. His company is snatched away by well-connected pirates who use the stolen company to defraud the Russian tax authorities of $230 million. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitky, is tasked to investigate, but is whisked away to prison, where he is beaten to death. Browder becomes a human rights hero, using the dramatic story of Russian stealth and brutality to convince Congress to pass the so-called Magnitsky Act, a measure that authorizes the US government to slap sanctions on Russian oligarchs, most of whom have money in the Western banking system. Yay!
In this counter-narrative Browder is the bad guy. He was in this telling complicit in schemes to not pay Russian taxes and was under investigation by authorities. Indeed, the entire story about the theft of his firm has it backwards: he arranged for a secretive conveyance, the Russian government was defrauded on his say-so, his co-conspirators in the scheme died mysteriously, and Magnitsky neither reported corruption nor died in prison from a beating.
Wow! Heavy stuff. The charges and countercharges are so large that you’d think you might be able to get to the bottom of it without breaking a sweat. There is not a lot of subtlety here. Either the balance of evidence will favor Browder or it won’t.
Sounds like a good job for the press, right? Forget about it.
The mainstream press is totally in the tank for Browder. The counterarguments are simply ignored or, when forced to the surface by events, elided past gracefully.
But don’t take my word for it. The Unz articles are a good first step in understanding what is really going on. If you want to go deeper you need to watch a documentary film entitled The Magnitsky Act–Behind the Scenes.
It is riveting. It was written and directed by celebrated and award winning filmmaker/documentarian Andrei Nekrasov. Nekrasov is a Putin critic who was taken by Browder’s tale and started out making a movie to tell his story. The film is a real-time unfolding of Nekrasov’s change of mind and heart. He sees flaws in Browder’s story and as he asks more questions the Browder narrative starts to unravel. Eventually, to Nekrasov’s suprise and indeed his distress, the whole Browder narrative falls apart, to be replaced by a compelling counter-narrative dealing with Browder’s complicity.
But Browder had the money. He used it to buy influence in Congress. He used it to buy media cred. He used it to suppress the film, seeing to it that it was cancelled at the last minute at a showing for an EU audience. It was shown once, despite threats of lawsuits from Browder, at the Newseum in Washington, with Sy Hersch endorsing the showing, But it is very hard to find on the web. It is not on YouTube. The producer can offers private viewings to those interested, and it occasionally pops up for a while here and there. See it while you can at the link above.
To my mind it is extremely hard to square the exquisitely documented findings in the film with the Browder narrative that is unquestioned in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and in the halls of Congress.
But what do I know? Perhaps the film is flawed in some deep way. I am a pretty smart guy and I think I can for the most part distinguish the presentation of evidence from propaganda. But maybe not. Maybe the film is a corrupt or inept act.
But there is a lot of evidence presented in the film that requires some honest inquiry. Why does the press not at least deal with the counter-narrative? Why don’t we at least see articles on “Browder: is he a hero or a villain?” in which the evidence is weighed and the arguments considered? Why is the official story simply accepted, without questioning and without even a fair reference to another side?
Could it be that Browder was just too successful in his manipulations? Could it be that his supporters in Congress and in the press are now in it so deep that they cannot make a graceful exit, or even admit to nuance? Browder has provided them with a compelling dramatic story but perhaps one that is too brittle. It either stands or falls.
That damn dog is not barking again, and it is getting very loud.