Is NYT the Little Journal that Could?

Over the past six years, New York Times reporter Julian E. Barnes has frequently provided material for Fair Observer’s Devil’s Dictionary by reporting fanciful things he wished his readers might believe to be true. He notably authored most of the articles we skewered concerning the Havana Syndrome. He persistently reported that officials “believed” Russia was responsible. Fake news. Last week, Barnes added a new chapter to his hearsay reporting.
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October 12, 2023 06:01 EDT

The New York Times’ Julian Barnes specializes in disseminating intelligence community propaganda focused on blaming Russia for every political dysfunction and social ailment felt in the US. His Havana Syndrome campaign lasted even beyond the moment early in 2022 when CIA’s Director, William Burns, officially admitted that neither Russia nor any other foreign power was behind the supposed attacks.

Barnes has not abandoned his noble cause. His latest masterpiece bears the title “Putin’s Next Target: U.S. Support for Ukraine, Officials Say” and the subtitle: “Russian spy agencies and new technologies could be used to push conspiracy theories, U.S. officials say.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


An auxiliary verb in English particularly useful to journalists specialized in propaganda who understand that by placing it before an untrue assertion it gives the appearance that, despite the absence of evidence in the subsequent body of the article, the assertion may be true.

Contextual note

What does “could” mean? For most people, it has no concrete meaning and therefore merits no consideration. We spontaneously assume that if someone mentions something that “could” happen, they are doing it because it is an object of real concern. It belongs to the world of interested speculation. For NYT journalists and propagandists, “could” in a headline falls into the category of “creatively evocative.” The evocative can, of course, embrace the provocative.

Ever since Blaise Pascal put his mind to it four centuries ago, the question of probability moved beyond mere speculation; it became a science. Probability theory is a noble branch of mathematics, the basic toolbox of most serious science. It focuses on the likelihood of something being true. Most people never give probability a serious thought or are even aware of the science. Although it would be a salutary thing to do, we rarely invoke probability theory when reading a newspaper article.

The problem with Barnes’s use of “could” is that it deceptively exploits the complete range of possibilities and gives no weight to probability. For journalists like Barnes, that opens a space that puts them on par with a writer of science fiction. If the story they write requires describing conditions that are possible and even remotely credible, and if those conditions help to establish a suggested belief, they have accomplished a propagandistic purpose.

To be fair, Barnes is objectively truthful when he quotes U.S. officials who say, “Russian spy agencies and new technologies could be used to push conspiracy theories.” He is truthful because the officials he quotes have certainly said that. He is truthfully reporting their words, irrespective of the facts. The officials themselves are truthful because their use of “could” allows them to say anything that is in the realm of the possible.

Barnes is counting on the reader’s respect for the authority of “US officials” and NYT’s reputation for seriousness to imply that there is a high degree of probability to what they evoke. It doesn’t have to be true, merely “possible to imagine.” But he presents zero evidence to support the specific claim concerning the spreading of conspiracy theories.

The article continues repetitively in the same vein. Barnes tells us that “American officials said they are convinced that Mr. Putin intends to try to end U.S. and European support for Ukraine.” Again we learn what the officials say, not what they know to be true. He does tell us that they are “convinced,” presumably on the basis of some unmentioned piece of evidence. But Barnes shows no interest in understanding or investigating the evidence.

Probability theory tells us that an assertion can either refer to certain knowledge, uncertain knowledge or a lie. It is theoretically possible to build a statistical scale to determine the probability or truth value of a statement on a certain topic made by a certain type of person at a certain time. According to probability theory, any unsupported assertion is as likely to be a lie as an expression of truth. We react according to our trust in the speaker. In this case, we must trust the speaker’s reporting of another (unidentified) speaker’s assertions.

Barnes claims the officials are “convinced” of what “Putin intends.” What is the possible truth value of that? Do the officials have access to Putin’s intentions? And should the fact that they say they are convinced convince us?

Then we get the assertion that “The Russia disinformation aims to increase support for candidates opposing Ukraine.” People have aims. But can an abstraction such as “Russian disinformation” possess aims? Assuming it does have aims, what evidence do we have that those aims exist?

But we don’t even need to ask those questions. The assertion is a truism. It needs no evidence because it is equally true to say that “Russian information aims to increase support for candidates opposing Ukraine.” We know Russia’s position with regard to Ukraine. Barnes simply wants us to think of Russian information as disinformation. What we brand as disinformation is simply information that we don’t want to hear. What this rhetorical ploy amounts to is journalistic non-information.

The article continues with a series of similar assertions, such as “Mr. Putin believes he can influence American politics to weaken support for Ukraine.” Does Barnes really know what Putin believes? Of course not. But, like the previous assertion, this is also a truism. Putin  “can” influence American politics. In fact. everyone in the world can, but not to the same degree. This too is non-information.

Historical note

Barnes never tells us the names of the officials who provided him with his copy. But he has always shown an alacrity for playing the role of CIA stenographer. Probability theory tells us the Agency is his most likely source. But let’s push the theorizing further. Forget about Barnes. What credit should we give to anything the CIA delivers gift-wrapped to The New York Times?

The CIA is known to have consistently lied to Congress about many things, including torture, or what they prefer to call “enhanced interrogation.” The Senate’s report on torture in 2014 proved the agency was lying to its Congressional masters when it “repeatedly asserted that torture was necessary because it allowed the agency to disrupt terrorist plots and capture additional terrorists, thereby saving lives.”

Who can forget that wonderful moment when Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State and former CIA Director, laughingly admitted that “we lied, cheated and stole.” It is unlikely that today’s CIA under Joe Biden has changed its habits. Are we ready to believe that, in its concern for the public’s taste for truth, it would refrain from sharing its lies with The New York Times?

Lying is one thing. It appears to be required to accomplish its mission. But what about failing to collect crucial intelligence? That has just happened spectacularly and embarrassingly in Israel, where neither Israel’s vaunted Mossad nor the CIA, both focused on the defense of Israel, had an inkling of what Hamas was preparing in Gaza. The CIA has not yet explained that lapse, but when they do, how much of it will be a lie?

There was another recent example of this recurrent failure to access the truth, let alone tell the truth. This concerned the unexpected coup in Niger this summer. Spytalk tells us that on July 25. at an embassy briefing, “American diplomats told NBC’s Courtney Kube that despite the Nigerien government’s reputation for corruption, it was still far more stable than others in West Africa. That wishful assessment of Niger’s political stability fell apart just a few hours later when the country’s military leaders overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.”

In short, the CIA produces and NYT dutifully reports lies, “wishful assessments” and especially the evocative and provocative speculation – or non-information – that populated Barnes’s article.

Does anyone seriously believe the current “war on misinformation” being waged in Washington will eradicate any of this? The situation could be compared to Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” that continues to this day. The consumption of what we might call illicit substances – in this case, the non-information and innuendo skewed to reinforce existing biases – will continue to grow apace.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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