The Fake News Panic is a US Media Credibility Crisis

On November 13th of 2016, every major media outlet in the United States of America ran front page articles centered around a newly invented term. “Fake news“, papers papered and online distributors distributed, was a serious and modern and unique problem being faced by the nation.

Specifically, mainstream media outlets equivocated all alternative sources of information to themselves with ‘fake news’, but had trouble bringing up specific instances. Notably a few examples of fake news articles have been traded by supporters of this panic, for example by NPR, and mostly they amount to three or four specific articles that had little readership and little impact. Among the touted examples found in a subsequent online witch hunt arose a combination of satirical articles from the Onion and other humor websites, some very obviously politicized articles heavily spinning current events, and articles from bloggers and citizens who produced confused accounts trying to consolidate perspectives provided to them by multiple outlets into a coherent single.

Fake news for liberals: misinformation starts to lean left under Trump” the Guardian writes, citing a number of fabricated, spun, misreported, and misleading stories trending on left-wing social media. Others point to right-wing websites that abused their headlines to make fast passersbys misinterpret the content of the news story: to deliver a misrepresentative synopsis of article content.

The abuse of headlines is (unfortunately) a common practice in news journalism editing, encouraged by the bottom line of the business as well as political and national security sensibilities. It is a well established fact that headlines are read in lieu of actual articles, and outlets abuse this to strategically misinform readership who browse headlines and to color the perspective of those that do go on to read full articles.

Famously, the New York Times published an article during the Israeli invasion of Palestinian Gaza about the killing of schoolchildren playing soccer by missile strike and the general tactic of using untargetted mass killing of civilians and hospitals as punitive measures during the offensive. This article was given the headline “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup.”

The article could have been headlined “Israel Continues to Implement Collective Punishment; Kills Children Playing Soccer” which is far more descriptive of the contents of the article. But that wouldn’t do. It calls into question Israel’s tactical ethics, the defense relationship Americans have with an important US ally, and would leave those who skim the NYT with the impression that Israel’s military invasion of Palestine was offensive and aggressive in nature – in direct contradiction to the professional obligation of US media to present the war fighting and civilian casualties as justified and defensive.

After a controversy, the NYT retitled the headline (after it was no longer news) and has since edited the headline to read “In Rubble of Gaza Seaside Cafe, Hunt for Victims Who Had Come for Soccer.”

The headline is descriptive of the article, and much less whitewashed than “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” but still does the reader injustice by framing away the context of the article. The new headline still did not mention the missile was launched by Israel, the controversy of its recent military incursion, and it invokes the World Cup as a distractionary measure as though this were more important context than the Middle Eastern peace accords, military law, or the international effort to call Israel into question for war crimes.

During the surge to get the United States involved in the Syrian proxy war against the Iranian and Russian ally Syria, reports about the barbarity of the Islamic State group made headlines. Selective reporting about the realities of war are destabilizing to the sensitivities of American vote makers and motivate their sense of exasperation that ‘something must be done’.  A US propaganda outlet established during the war on Iraq (“iraqinews.com“) reported, on the condition of anonymity for their source, that Islamic State prisoners of war were being executed and then their bodies dissolved in acid: but ran this with the headline “ISIS uses nitric acid to kill and torture citizens in Mosul” with a picture of people in jumpsuits, in a cage, submerged in liquid.

American domestic media outlets picked up this story, and as though by a game of telephone, the headline read “ISIS execute 25 people by DISSOLVING them in nitric acid” with the rumor growing – now sounding as though twenty-five souls were tied dangling over a bubbling pot of acid, as though it were a scene from a evil villain cartoon. It is difficult to discern exactly how and when the spies were killed by the Islamic State group before their bodies disposed, with escalatory and malinformative rumors originally publicized by military propaganda units republished domestically with no fact checking and with no investigatory journalism capable of cross checking facts or even getting clarity from the original, anonymous source.

Similar stories ran amuck in the US media industry regarding presumed ISIS and Islamist burning of Christians and Christian children to death, with Snopes thankfully posting articles providing context about the pictures used to promulgate the misinformation.

As American and allied propaganda slowly turned from building support against ISIS to the building support against the government of Syria, the US media industry followed suite. Foreign reporting from the BBC and the Independent, as well as from al Jazeera (a state-run propaganda outlet by the authoritarian government of Qatar), and domestic US news such as CNN and VICE, ran fake news stories about a little girl by the name of Marianna Mazeh (“Starving Syria Girl“) in a run of stories about a town being liberated by the Syrian government from rebel forces allied with al Qaeda. The girl is okay, not starving, and lives in Jordan.

At this point in time the Islamic State group hardly makes headlines at all, and most news concerning Syria is spun instead against the Syrian government. Recently, the United States ran an effort to associate Russian activity in Syria with war crimes to punish it for successfully backing the government of Syria against foreign efforts for regime change. Coordination between State Department messaging, Press Office contacts and UN diplomatic efforts gave domestic media a series of rumors about Russian bombing of hospitals in Syria, despite the US government’s official on-the-record position being that they did not know, had no evidence and nor could provide sources that implicated Russia in any of the activity they were being associated with in the press.

In contrast leaked audio recordings of a meeting between John Kerry and Syrian opposition war fighters had the United States Secretary of State clearly express that US activity in Syria – including the potential missile defense systems and air support being speculated about at the time – would be extremely limited in scope by international law, whereas Russia, as invited by the internationally recognized government of Syria, had a legal basis for its military operations and logistical support. The Obama Administration has, to date, been remiss to break international law as the United States has been suffering international condemnation for recent illegitimate incursions into Serbia and Iraq.

The New York Times coverage of this phone call was deeply misleading. For instance, someone reading that coverage would assume that the United States had a legal basis to take action against the Assad government in Syria and that Russia was in violation of international law. They cherrypicked exactly the words that seemed to imply this and left out Secretary of State Kirby’s admission:  “And we don’t have a basis, our lawyers, unless we have a UN security council resolution, which the Russians can veto and the Chinese, or unless we are under attack from the folks there, or unless we are invited in. Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime – well, it’s illegitimate in my mind – but by the regime.” The remainder of the coverage was similar: sound bites were selectively chosen that presented the US efforts as deeply committed to Syrian proxy forces, whereas in the recording the opposition was complaining about the lack of support they had been receiving and were desiring that the US involved themselves directly in the conflict.

The encouragement of misinformative rumors is commonly traded in the mainstream American media. According to every official European and American report, Ukrainian separatists in possession of an air missile defense system in an active war zone misidentified a target during the Crimean Russia-NATO proxy war, firing on a commercial airliner (“MH17”), killing hundreds of innocent passengers including AIDS researchers travelling between an HIV conference.

This tragedy was exploited in the US press by an incredible feat of spin. Titles such as “MH17 report: Plane downed by Buk missile from Russia” equivocated Russia itself as having fired the surface-to-air missile. Discussions with friends and family as well as a search over social media quickly identified that the public understanding  was that Russia had attacked an airliner and then, tried to cover it up or walk it back.

There was no discussion in the media of the relevant US firing on the Iranian Air Flight 655, in which the US navy killed hundreds of citizens transiting over the Gulf where the US Naval is present (in opposition to UNCLOS – the UN Charter on the Law Of the Sea – an international law the United States refuses to sign because it insists it must be able to perform military operations in other countries’ territorial waters).

The was no similar discussion in the media about the use of US weaponry by allies and proxies that have killed orders of magnitudes more innocent people. Collective contentment was found with a mass illusion about who fired the missile.

Selective attention to leaked material is no stranger to US mainstream spinning of news. During the start of the Ukraine proxy war, an audio recording surfaced  implicating Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt discussing plans to support a political transition in Ukraine. The coverage of this phone call in the US domestic press, however, belied the fact that Ukraine has been a long-standing location of spheres of influence, with Western media outlets exclusively covering Victoria Nuland’s use of a curse word during the conversation. This is another tactic effectively applied to spin information to American audiences: when there is a legitimate controversy, create a fake controversy to compete with it.

When the US supported proxies in Libya were used to take down the Qaddafi government, creating the vacuum visible by today’s failed state, it quickly exited and turned toward other ongoing foreign operations, including Yemen and Syria. The United States left behind some intelligence and special operations facilities near the capitol in Tripoli – in Benghazi where the original American support for Libyan terrorist forces was based. Among ongoing missions in Benghazi was the transport of weapons caches from Libya into Syria (through Turkey) to support terrorists fighting the Assad regime, this being a sensitive and highly illegal intelligence operation.

Warfighting elements in Libya’s failed state are al Qaeda affliates, not happy with either dictatorial rule or proxy governance from foreign magistrates. They targeted, on September 11, the remaining State Department buildings where Ambassador Stevens was embedded to facilitate weapons transfers into Syria. And when the Ambassador his CIA detail fled the State Department to the formerly-secret CIA annex on the same compound, the regional war fighting units followed and continued their attack, ultimately leading to the deaths of American special agents and diplomatic personnel.

Initial intelligence estimates correctly identified the nature of the attack as related to al Qaeda affiliated war fighters and the attack symbolically executed on September 11th. However, the United States did not have a legal mechanism to intervene, as it is the host country (Libya) who is in charge of diplomatic building security and the US did not have clearance from a United Nations body to move troops across territorial boundaries – what would technically be an invasion.

The news to the American homeland was different than the story on the ground. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in coordination with the national security team and press office, issued a statement purposefully confusing the 9/11 attack on the Benghazi compound with protests in Egypt centered around an offensive youtube video (a maliciously dubbed movie taunting Muslims and Islam) hundreds of miles away in Cairo. The media industry played ball, propelling the story that what had happened in the war-torn Libyan compound was related to a protest about a controversial youtube video, and there were public appeals to have the youtube video removed.

A public frenzy over youtube, censorship, sensitivities and Muslim identity transpired – and no collective understanding among Americans that their overseas embassy had been attacked by al Qaeda on the anniversary of 9/11, leading to the first death of an American ambassador in decades. Later, Hollywood would produce an action packed triller – “Zero Dark Thirty”, which had received input from the CIA in its direction – that further obscured what had happened, ignoring that the US continued presence in Libya had implicated their country in international criminal behavior, indeed the transfer of weapons that Turkey and Saudi Arabia used to arm the Islamic State group in Syria in their attempt to break and replace the country with friendly political leadership.

Like most events this probably would have been the end of it. Additional controversy ensued when an Eastern European hacker named Guccifer compromised the email account of Hillary Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal and released copies of prior emails to Clinton to the press. These emails included information contradicting the story the Secretary had given to the public. Washington officials and Congressmen, expressing anger over the leaks, the ham-fisted approach by the State Department to respond to the attack and then to cover it up – and as political slight to the prior Secretary who was in the middle of running for presidential nomination – a public investigation into Benghazi was issued, centered around an accusation that the Obama Administration and former Secretary had mishandled the situation.

However, it was not in the interest of the investigation to litigate American war crimes, and main criticism applied was that Mrs. Clinton had not done enough to protect the embassy or its ambassador, and that the administration had not taken the Libyan security situation seriously enough. The off the record portion of the hearing may have included national security and international criminal elements, but these class of hearings are routinely kept secret from the American public and no transcript, to date, is available.

What Americans know of the “Benghazi scandal” today has nothing to do with illegal international arms smuggling, an attack on 9/11, the death of an ambassador or domestic propaganda. Americans think it has something to do with Clinton’s emails. Or something. Ask someone and you’ll get either a blank stare or a rant inspired by Zero Dark Thirty about how the CIA agents there were real American heroes and it was a shame the Obama Administration didn’t save them.

Similar parallel controversy was used to confuse the American public during a series of intelligence leaks that implicated the United States and allied countries in engaging in whole-sale warrantless global surveillance. A Halliburton contractor who had previously worked for CIA named Edward Snowden used his access as a system administrator to mass download documents from the National Security Agency (a powerful and once secret US intelligence agency). After exhausting channels inside the US government to call attention to illegal mass surveillance programmes, Edward Snowden had contacted multiple media organizations and escaped from Hawaii to Hong Kong, China, where he met with US journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Snowden expressed exasperation that most news outlets in the United States had refused to cover the mass surveillance story – and that many had instead reported him through established government contacts for trying to blow the whistle on the operation. Indeed, James Risen had tried to bring the story of mass surveillance to the American people in 2004, but Washington pressured the media to suppress the story, arguing it may interfere with the then-ongoing Bush/Kerry presidential election. In the intervening decade, Americans who tried to talk about domestic surveillance, including myself, were laughed down and chided with remarks about tinfoil hats and aliens.

What transpired is likely to be a case study in propaganda war colleges in future decades. Journalists and media outlets, notably The Guardian of England and Der Speigel of Germany, went to bat statement-for-statement with Washington. Before the US government would announce who they suspected the whistleblower was, Snowden through Greenwald broadcast a message to the world with his full name and a statement of why he felt compelled to bring the covert ubiquitous surveillance to the front of the public attention. When the US government denied that Snowden had left with any secret information, The Guardian immediately published documents showing that the archive was real. Washington refused to acknowledge the documents as legitimate, but put out a statement denying the US performed espionage on partner countries. The Guardian immediately published documents that provably disputed this claim.

This continued, with a whose-who of media outlets contracting with federal government such as CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others repeating the official position of the state, even adding their own flourishes and versions of the statements, as though they had been the original source of an independent investigation. These outlets voluntarily adopted the ‘official’ version of events, covering the gross affront to civil rights as ‘bulk collection’ over the more accurate and damning ‘mass surveillance.’ When the US argued that, yes, there were some ‘bulk collection’ (sic) activities, but never on the domestic population of the United States. The Guardian once again produced documents contradicting the assertion.

Eventually, the White House Press Office went quiet and refused to acknowledge at all or respond to the continuing leaks while the media establishment also stopped covering the disclosures in favor of interest stories. “Germany’s Angela Merkel: Relations with U.S. ‘severely shaken’ over spying claims” one headline read, in defiance of revelations that the US had partnered with major US providers like Google and Microsoft to collect information on citizens around the world. “Snowden: Hero or Traitor?” pundits discussed until they found stories to distract from the existence of leaks at all. “Snowden a Russian Spy?” mainstream news networks spread conspiracy theories that persist in the American consciousness today.

When a shootout at the NSA headquarters occurred during the leaks, establishment media spread rumors – never to be followed up on – that there was a transexual in the car outside the NSA, and dovetailed into tangents about transexualism. In a similar stroke, the mainstream media almost exclusively covered the transexual Caitlyn Jenner while Congress renewed and extended the authorities used by the NSA for surveillance and stories broke that the FBI had been flying aircraft over the United States to track the minute, daily movements of American people across hundreds of American cities.

There was a palpable desperation to cover anything but the content of the leaks, which implicated the United States in spying on foreign companies to give advantages to American companies, hacking into other countries to understand their positions before global warming meetings (which the US then controversially stalled at and prevented anything from being done), and that the NSA had been collecting information on hundreds of millions of Americans, stored years of domestic phone conversations in huge data warehouses, had covertly infiltrated any US company who would not willingly backdoor their products for intelligence services, and backdoored the cryptographic standards it forces companies to use around the world. The leaks implicated the UK in collecting the web browsing behavior of nearly every person in the world, and had mass manipulation capabilities including those to change polls, rerank the order of social media posts, and upvote and downvote content on social media to hide/reveal content, as well as using their capabilities for mass propaganda on the Falkland islands – a territory disputed by England and Argentina.

Similar obscurantism flashed into display when the German BND (foreign intelligence agency) stated that the NSA had backdoored the Trusted Platform Module – a security chip built into many computer systems today. Mainstream media immediately dismissed the idea, and provided other – unconvincing – explanations about how to interpret the intelligence agency’s declaration and after meeting with the United States delegation the BND revised their statement and deleted their earlier statement of fact.

Perhaps the most damaging fake news promulgated by the American media industry was war news reporting leading up to the Iraq War. What would eventually give Kenneth Thomlinson, the former chairman of the US propaganda office BBG, a hushed and wealthy retirement by golden parachute the Bush Administration was implicated in a mass domestic propaganda campaign to justify a war effort and an invasion of the country Iraq, a recent allied power in a divide and conquer campaign against its neighbor Iran. Note the headline of this New York Times article: “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News”. Kenneth Thomlinson and the BBG ran efforts through the WCIA and Office of Broadcasting Service to fill American television with unattributed war propaganda.

But this was hardly the extent. Journalist Judith Miller then at the New York Times and now at Fox worked with the CIA and Iraqi National Council (a US operation in Iraq) to publish a fake news article presuming to have proof that the Saddam Hussein government had access to and had been building a nuclear program specifically, and generally “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” This narrative of the Iraqi government was entirely a fabrication of the administration, and a lie that American media happily sold traded access and grant money with the US government to bring to the American people. The Administration, then-President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice then pointed to this story from Judith Miller as independent verification of Administration claims and called for war.

Between direct executive branch activity and news media complicity, Americans even today believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, something to do with anthrax, and something to do with WMDs – all misinformation created deliberately to build public support for an aggressive and disastrous invasion that ultimately cost over a million civilians their lives in a war offensive known for “shock and awe” attacks, its use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous (destructive chemicals) and for the destruction of civilian infrastructure and non-military targets so brutal the international community (including Europe) demanded at the UN that the Americans retreat: another fact not covered in the domestic press.

Fake news featured daily in the American press, from manufactured soldier memoirs, manufactured hero stories and parallel Hollywood coverage of Jessica Lynch, invented and distributed rumors about incubator babies, and emotion-wrenching re-displays of the Twin Tower attacks in the middle of September, 2001, an attack carried out by war fighters with the financial and material support of the government of Saudi Arabia – a connection whose disclosure through a hard fought legislative battle came and went without any major domestic news media coverage.When it came to the recent 2016 election, the American people expected something different. Yet it became apparent after Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and disclosed their email records through the online distributor Wikileaks that the industry would not be reporting from an investigative mindset. Indeed, CNN spread a false rumor that looking at the DNC leaks could be illegal.

The DNC leaks implicated the chairwoman of the Democratic Party Debbie Wasserman Shultz (“DWS”) using Democratic Party resources to run a damage campaign against her political opponent Tim Canova to preserve her own party leadership. They implicated top and mid level officials (including the press spokesperson) in organizing the party to infiltrate and sabotage Senator Sander’s campaign. They exposed discussions within the DNC on political appointments (e.g. ambassadorships) offered to donors in exchange for their donations. The leaks showed coordination and planning of news media coverage of the elections including opponents (Sanders and the RNC). They leaks detailed the hiring of covert online commentators and fake protesters.

These stories from the DNC leaks did not make the press. Sure, there were journalists working on them, but the media industry in America refused to make revelations from the emails top headline topics. Online social media was bombarded by recently created accounts that purported to have read the emails that “found nothing interesting in them.” Instead, the media broadly spent time mulling over rumors, such as the completely unfounded conspiracy theory to date that Trump was/is a Russian patsy, or that President Elect Donald Trump and President of Russia Vladimir Putin are actual real life best friends. NBC publicized a fact-finding report about Hillary Clinton’s server, which had been used to circumvent Federal record keeping laws, and wiped clean of data before being handed over to investigators. Liar Liar, it scolded: while Donald Trump accused Clinton of “acid washing” her server, she had in fact wiped it instead with antiforensics software called BleachBit.

Then when it came time for election night on November 8th mainstream media reassured, based on the ‘research they had done’, that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election: effortlessly. Indeed, the predictions were unanimous across the entire industy. Even FiveThirtyEight, which had perfectly predicted the surprise win by President Obama in 2008 down to electoral college numbers, had Clinton winning the election.

What resulted when Donald Trump took the election with a wide margin was a collective existential crisis, with the massive American audience of mainstream media shocked dumb, unable to process the result of the election and in need of an explanation consistent with the coverage that they had received to date. Today, pundits, analysts and academics are churning out endless reports on various ways and perspectives to understand the events. It was Comey. It was racists. It was white people. It was voter intimidation. Bernie bros and the progressive wing of the Democratic party. The Democratic Party itself. Clinton’s weakness. Trump’s domination of the media. Third parties as a spoiler. Fake news. Alt-righter neo nazis. The working middle class. The Russians. Hacked voting machines. Uneducated Americans. FBI Director Comey.

The explanation that hundreds of millions of Americans voted entirely out of deep wells of racism, the explanation consistent with prior reporting, rings hallow. Conspiracy theories and fearmongering about Russian hacking of election booths too, quickly died down as the experts spoke out about media contortions of their testimony.

On the 13th of November, the industry found its narrative. The election was shocking to the mass of American people because of fake news. Not the spin, rumors, conspiracy theories, misinformation or distracting alarmism it itself had been producing, but fake news from anyone who wasn’t the mainstream media. The mainstream media had it right, all along, and the giant mirage and all the confusion was the work of someone else and was someone else’s dereliction of duty.

In DC, the election was compared with the Brexit vote in Britain – a groundswell of populist opinion voting “no” on the current establishment, current institutions and practices, trends in civil rights, and inequality of wealth as well as political representation.

Analysis of key demographics show that districts that had mobilized to elect Obama, when he was once and briefly considered a Washington outsider himself, had mobilized against Clinton. Public diplomacy has been on full steam the past months in an effort to create an American consensus that we want our information more tightly controlled: a list of fact checkers with political biases including a group in Serbia that publicly supports the independence of Kosovo.

At some level the American psyche understands that it is not the customer of news media. It does not pay news media for information. Others – government, industries, corporations – pay news media to deliver stories that narrate American perception. Journalists who pursue stories to reveal corruption or report corporate wrongdoing, as a rule, do not have customers, can’t find work and don’t have partners who provide them access. Reports who play ball, as those who contract with US intelligence, Departments and Agencies of the Executive Branch, banks and industries, and lobbyists and corporations are successful. They have customers, funds, and a steady stream of stories.

News media organizations have landing pages soliciting sponsored content. Got a story? Pay us and we’ll run it for you. We even have experts that can help you run a campaign of stories to get your perspective heard.

National Security personnel are fond of the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum” in which they intend to describe the pattern that, if the US does not exercise power the lack of power will attract someone or something to control the space.

What we’ve witnessed is such a vacuum created from an ever-widening credibility gap. Given the consistently inaccurate, poorly predictive and heavily biased propaganda from the US domestic news media industry, we’ve seen an enormous loss in credibility. This a continuation of a trend that has been in effect for decades, and today American trust of media is rated at the all time low of less than 20%.

A combination of private interest, national security propaganda, and a culture that revels in suspending disbelief have crippled America’s ability to take its own highly editorialized existence seriously.

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2 comments

  1. Wow. This is just an excellent, vastly detailed analysis of US media bias. I had completely forgotten about the conflation of the protests in Egypt and the attack in Benghazi.

  2. American domestic media outlets picked up this story, and as though by a game of telephone, the headline read “ISIS execute 25 people by DISSOLVING them in nitric acid” with the rumor growing – now sounding as though twenty-five souls were tied dangling over a bubbling pot of acid, as though it were a scene from a evil villain cartoon.

    Yeah. I read stuff like this and think “why doesn’t ISIS just shoot them?”

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