“A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories”

As I picked up the New York Times from my doorsill this morning, I glanced down at the front page headlines, as I always do.

On the right side in letters larger than normal I read this: “Russia’s Powerful Weapon To Hurt Rivals: Falsehoods: Spreading Disinformation to Sow Discord, Fear and Doubt in Europe and U.S.” (Note: the digital edition headline is somewhat different: Source: A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories – The New York Times)

Remember when, at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, Julia Stiles is sitting in some café hearing a TV news program saying that Jason Bourne’s body has not yet been recovered? And slowly she smiles, a small wise smile.

That was my smile when I read the Times headline.

Why? Because these thoughts are what rushed through my head, tumbling all over each other:

  • The Times was making an implicit comparison to the Trump campaign, “spreading disinformation to sow discord,” etc. And the Times placed this Russia story in the right hand column where they often place Trump stories.
  • And that leads to…the analogous–and oft-discussed–connection between Trump and Russia, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager Paul Manafort, and that Russia, via Julian Assange, is attacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democrats, in support of Trump.
  • And the entire Breitbart organization, specialists in social media defamation, i.e., falsehoods.
  • Which leads to how Russia has hacked a number of U.S. government agencies and presumably used the noble “hey, governments shouldn’t be hiding secrets from the public–and you’d better pay me for them” hero Julian Assange to leak them.
  • Which leads to a question I’ve had for quite a while: why do news media publish and discuss hacked and leaked info, like emails, as if they are genuine? If the source of the leak is not trustworthy, why does anyone assume the emails are not forged?
  • So is this story a sort of Times mea culpa for buying into or failing to dig adequately into the origins and facts underlying these attacks?

Here’s how the Times article begins (my bolding):

STOCKHOLM — With a vigorous national debate underway on whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, officials in Stockholm suddenly encountered an unsettling problem: a flood of distorted and outright false information on social media, confusing public perceptions of the issue.

The claims were alarming: If Sweden, a non-NATO member, signed the deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.

They were all false, but the disinformation had begun spilling into the traditional news media, and as the defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, traveled the country to promote the pact in speeches and town hall meetings, he was repeatedly grilled about the bogus stories.

“They were all false.”

In my mind, the Times has owed both Clintons a front-page headline apology since the first 1990s story about the Clintons in Arkansas, kicking off the decades’ long attacks on everything they are, everything they do.

I read every word of that first long article, mentally deleting overladen words and tendentious phrases to get the pith of the story. To get the facts. When I reached the last line I said out loud to myself, “There’s nothing there.” And a (prescient?) chill went down my back.

I’ve been shivering ever since. And I’ve been really angry.

The Times initiated and gave its imprimatur to a story that was, in contemporary lingo, a nothingburger. Every medium–now, of course, including the massive internet news media–has been picking up the Clinton “scandal”-mongering ever since.

I love the Times. I depend upon it for real news, real facts, intelligence, expertise. So forgive me if I want to see this fascinating and profound article by Neil MacFarquhar as a highly nuanced backhand apology about the harm this powerful, mostly dependably brilliant newspaper can do when it fails to delve immediately into the origins and credibility of such harmful stories.

In today’s story Russian falsehoods are messing with Sweden. For years, American falsehoods have been messing with the Clintons.

Yet the Clintons are, like Jason Bourne, still very much alive.

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