It’s been two weeks since Seymour Hersh published what must be recognized as the only credible account of the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines that has appeared in the media. Saying it’s credible does not imply that it’s true. It simply acknowledges that, besides being consistent with important historical facts, it stands as the “only” credible story on the simple grounds that there are no others.
Initially the NYT and others followed the US government’s line that claiming that “the most likely” explanation was that Russia sabotaged its own installations. But by December 2022, even The Washington Post, always careful to reflect State Department wisdom, ran a story quoting an expert who claimed there was “no evidence at this point that Russia was behind the sabotage.” The article went into contortions to affirm that Russia was not a serious suspect even while repeating that some people still considered it a suspect. When propaganda is the aim, self-contradiction is never a serious problem.
So, if Russia is now eliminated, the Western governments and the media should, one would think, be focused on identifying them. Instead, what we see is the media’s utter indifference. We can interpret that in two ways. Either the media believes that solving a major act of terrorism is not news, or it understands that some news stories need not be mentioned, let alone investigated. Either hypothesis casts a bad light on the media in a democracy that still claims to believe in freedom of the press. The second one, certainly the most likely, indicates that corporate media in all its supposed diversity is happy to play the role of a silent partner to what has effectively become a militarized state that dutifully informs the media what is fit to print.
The rare “respectable” media outlets that have deigned to allude to Hersh’s reporting have attempted to throw doubt on its veracity and, wherever possible, resort to mild or extreme smear tactics. Business Insider’s Mia Jankowicz, for example, titled her piece: “The claim by a discredited journalist that the US secretly blew up the Nord Stream pipeline is proving a gift to Putin.” In one short sentence she combines two smears: the claim that a legendary investigative journalist is “discredited” and the now standard trope that brands anyone critical of US foreign policy as being in the service of Vladimir Putin.
NYT played a different game, as did most of US media. It totally ignored the story. One of its columnists, Ross Douthat, nevertheless had the temerity to mention it in an opinion column. He used the occasion to write a pseudo-philosophical essay on how journalism works. His sole purpose appears to consist of casting doubt on Hersh’s thesis. Douthat titled his piece: “U.F.O.s and Other Unsolved Mysteries of Our Time.”
After five paragraphs on curious news items, some of which he categorizes as “the subject of crank theories and sub rosa conversations to being more mainstream,” Douthat cites Hersh’s narrative as an example of blathering about a mystery that simply does not deserve our attention. Why? Because it’s a mystery. Mysteries are by definition unsolvable, at least until the moment when one finds a “smoking gun.”
In the paragraphs that precede any mention of Hersh, while still dwelling on UFOs, Douthat philosophizes about the nature of truth in our troubled times. He evokes “one of the patterns of our era, which is what you might call the incomplete reveal. Sometimes a phenomenon goes from being the subject of crank theories and sub rosa conversations to being more mainstream, but without actually being fully explained or figured out.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A journalistic technique favored by respectable media such as The New York Times that allows journalists to select the unique angles of any story that are in line with the media’s editorial policy, itself ultimately attributable to well-disguised but increasingly easy to identify corporate, partisan or governmental interests.
Douthat knows what he wants his readers to think: “Yes, this may be troubling, but there’s no need to dwell on it because no one is going to solve it.” Or as Donnie Brasco might have said: “Forget about it.”
Before examining Hersh’s thesis he warns the reader: “There are good reasons to doubt the story.” An honest reporter might well think that but at the same time admit that there are intriguing reasons to investigate whether the story holds up. He obviously sees no intriguing reasons and even more obviously hopes it won’t hold up.
Douthat then goes on to make an incredible assertion designed to leave the question of whether the US might have been the author of the attack in limbo. “The Biden administration denies any involvement,” he writes approvingly, “and it would have been quite the act of recklessness for an administration that’s been very cautious about direct engagement with the Russians.”
This is incredible for two reasons. The first is Douthat’s apparent astonishment that a US government might actually do something that’s “reckless.” Invading Iraq was reckless; exiting Afghanistan in the way Biden did was reckless; waging war on Libya was reckless; refusing even to discuss the situation at the Ukrainian border in December 2021 has proved reckless beyond description, especially as it has taken the form of prolonged recklessness that the US wants to see go on “as long as it takes.”
Douthat makes it clear that we should stop wondering about who sabotaged the Nord Stream pipeline. We should be happy not to know. That may well be what most criminals who think they have committed the perfect crime think? But isn’t that precisely what serious journalists should not be content with?
Interestingly, for years The New York Times produced article after article not just wondering about who was using “directed energy” to produce the dreaded Havana Syndrome, but repeatedly accused Russia of the crime without any of its journalists asking themselves whether there may be “good reasons to doubt the story.” They finally gave up when the CIA admitted there was no reason to suspect any foreign source. Could that be an example of a “pattern of our era” or is it just a pattern of The New York Times’ reporting?
The one pattern of our era that clearly emerges from a reading of today’s media, whether its NYT or Business Insider, is that over the past three decades US political culture has progressively focused on developing what has now evolved into a nearly watertight propaganda system. Hersh’s revelations tell us that it can even aspire to be “underwater tight” when it sends divers to the ocean floor. At the same time that it encourages the media to report promiscuously on what is both speculative and unconfirmed (the Havana Syndrome) it expects that same media to remain dead silent about what has enough circumstantial evidence to impose critical examination (Hersh’s story), if not total adhesion.
The price of “winning the cold war,” when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 appears to be not just Francis Fukuyama’s lenifying “End of History,” but, far more dramatically, the end of a perceived need for truth itself. Once the new golden age of an eternal liberal-democratic world order abolishes history, no new stories need to be told. The only ones required are those that serve to facilitate our adaptation to this new world order. In many ways, Fukuyama set the tone for an ideology now famously promoted by the wealthy thinkers of the World Economic Forum. “You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy. What you want you’ll rent, and it’ll be delivered by drone.”
In these columns we have consistently pointed out how our so-called respectable media consistently exploits any embarrassing situation where the journalist can point to the lack of a “smoking gun.” This technique serves to stoke the public’s a manifestly false take on serious matters, whether it’s Russian interference in US elections (Russiagate), the Havana Syndrome, the JFK assassination or who to blame in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It rarely occurs to anyone to consider that the convenient lack of a smoking gun may simply be evidence of a carefully hidden gun.
Douthat’s clever ruse consists of equating Sy Hersh’s reporting with stories about UFOs or the threat to US national security of a $12 dollar balloon. This tells us more about the techniques and designs of papers like The New York Times than it does about the fascinating “mysteries” that we must accept as unsolvable. Douthat’s piece reads more like a case of confusing the end of history with the end of the population’s need or desire for truth.
*[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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