The lack of facts to work with couldn’t be more obvious, but this doesn’t prevent the journalists from getting the job done.
What we read in newspapers isn’t just a list of facts or an objective account of an actual event. It’s always an exercise in style, such as this creative piece in The New York Times. I love creative journalism. Well, actually I hate this particular type of it, but I love having a go at deconstructing it. So here we go.
The title promises an exciting read even before we understand the context: “As Democrats Gather, A Russian Sublot Raises Intrigue.” The reader will get the impression that this could be a compendious John Le Carré novel. It sounds like something akin to terrorism. The word “subplot” followed by “intrigue”—although literally used in the sense of curiosity, it subtly connotes conspiracy—clearly suggests subterfuge and criminal complicity. “As Democrats Gather” establishes a setting that sounds friendly and harmonious. As in a Hollywood horror film, the gathering Democrats are designated as the innocent, unsuspecting community of targeted victims on whom the horror will be unleashed. For the moment, we have no reason to suspect that the subject at the heart of the article is the recently broken scandal of intercepted emails released by WikiLeaks that revealed the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) tipping of the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Let’s look first at one key sentence from the lead paragraphs of the article, a gem of journalistic style worth spending the time to deconstruct. Here’s where we first get an idea of what the article will be describing:
“But the release on Friday of some 20,000 stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers, many of them embarrassing to Democratic leaders, has intensified discussion of the role of Russian intelligence agencies in disrupting the 2016 campaign.”
“Stolen emails” tells us we are confronted with not just a petty crime (20,000 indicates it isn’t petty), but a form of lèse-majesté, an affront against our sacred privacy, a cross-border act of evil intention that is worse than an ordinary crime because, as we quickly learn, it has a sinister international dimension. By the end of the sentence we learn that the guilty party is “Russian intelligence.”
Goal of the Crime
But before we can identify the culprit, we need to appreciate the goal of the crime, “embarrassing Democratic leaders.” This tells us why we should be reading this. From a journalistic point of view, the embarrassment of leaders makes for great copy. It’s even become a major trend I wrote about recently. The story we are about to read isn’t just important. It is also titillating. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing about the powerful being humiliated?
The next thing we read is that the crime “has intensified discussion of the role of …”—a dramatic way of saying we are about to talk about what are, for the moment, nothing more than tendentious rumors, while carefully obscuring the fact that they are both tendentious and rumors. We are nevertheless intriguingly informed with these words that things have become intense.
Then comes the climax we were waiting for, “a crime of our enemy, Russian intelligence.” Russia is peremptorily designated as “our enemy,” something which hasn’t been the case since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those who remember 2009 will know that newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “reset” the relationship between the two nations, cancelling the very idea of enmity.
But our diligent journalists are making sure we understand what they understand. This is where we should ask ourselves, who are the authors and what do they mean by “our enemy”? Should we imagine that “our” refers to an enemy of The New York Times? No, our pair of journalists are making it clear that we—you and I, the readers as well as the authors themselves—feel that we are together in this, as a people. Russia is America’s enemy, our common enemy, an enemy we can share among ourselves.
Of course, the authors bring forward nothing to justify considering Russia as an enemy. They are simply counting on the reader’s reflex of feeling that Russia is “our enemy.” When we learn that it the enemy they are referring to isn’t just Russia in general, but that fearful entity known as Russian “intelligence” we can feel authentically frightened. We’ve been transported momentarily into the cultural space of a James Bond movie.
This is when we get a special surprise. The aim of this sinister initiative is described as “disrupting the 2016 campaign.” This suggests the lovely fiction that all was going smoothly until then in the Republican and Democratic primaries. There was no drama, certainly no low blows or tampering as the two champions, Trump and Clinton, progressed valiantly through the ordeal of the long months of primaries to earn their nominations. In the end we find the calm splendor of Amityville awaiting the ghastly horror we, as spectators, bought tickets to see. We are invited to think that the 2016 campaign was Norman Rockwell’s America before the Russians barged in.
We are thus compelled to understand that this is clearly a gratuitous, evil foreign invasion, something far more fearful than finding out and reflecting on the fact that DNC had undermined its own democratic principles by seeking to sabotage the Sanders campaign. This is journalism that tells you how to think, because it supposes you don’t need to. All that in one sentence.
But the article has only begun to create its intriguing story. Just before the sentence we’ve just looked at, the authors had taken the trouble to whet our appetite with this question: Is Valdimir V. Putin trying to meddle in the American presidential election? As we read the article we expect to see evidence that will support this. So we must keep on reading.
Instead of pursuing the logic of the Clinton campaign’s strategy, the authors develop an entirely imaginative, if not imaginary, scenario that involves not only unidentified Russians as well as Putin himself, but also—wait for this—Donald Trump. The story is beginning to be worthy of Alex Jones.
What we do see is an elaborate construct of speculation that takes us further and further away from the issue of the stolen emails and their content. Leaving aside the ethical issue of how the DNC might justify violating its own principle of objectivity—attacking a legitimate, popular candidate—readers of as serious a newspaper as The New York Times might at this point expect to see the analysis focusing on the more interesting point: how the Democrats, by launching this accusation against Russia, were dodging the real issues by constructing a strategic defense against embarrassment.
The journalists could have pointed out that this is a somewhat typical case of using the tactic of deviating the discussion toward an imaginary but more serious event: foreign interference in our democratic process. Had they pursued this idea they would have had the opportunity to teach us a lot about how political strategy works and, in this particular case, also throw light on a visible trend promoted in the media of branding Russia—a country with which we have no formal conflict—our enemy.
But these are themes that most of the media avoid developing probably because it would require tact and subtle analysis—something for which readers are assumed to have no time or patience.
The trigger for the article was a statement by Ron Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. Good journalism would immediately have focused on his motives for making that statement. But at no point do the journalists even consider this. His opinion is the story, not how he formed that opinion. The obvious observation would have been to point out that this is a classic wag the dog strategy—an attempt to distract from the actual and tangible scandal of the emails and develop a more exciting and frightening talking point: the scandal of not just Russian but Putin’s personal interference in American election processes. Threatened by the effects of their own scandal, the Democratic establishment preferred creating the idea of a threat to all of us from our enemy.
Instead of pursuing the logic of the Clinton campaign’s strategy, the authors develop an entirely imaginative, if not imaginary, scenario that involves not only unidentified Russians as well as Putin himself, but also—wait for this—Donald Trump. The story is beginning to be worthy of Alex Jones. The journalists begin by quoting verbatim Mook’s sensationalist claim that the emails were leaked “by the Russians for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” a speculative and tendentious attribution of intention and agency that serious journalists should immediately query.
At the same time they should point out how predictable this would be from the mouth of the head of Clinton’s presidential campaign. But rather than query it and remind the reader of Mook’s political motive, they are content with approvingly citing his own analysis which “also suggested that the Russians might have a good reason to support Mr. Trump.”
This is wonderfully creative journalism, whose effects of style are again worth analyzing. Let’s have a closer look. Ron Mook, the interested party who launched the story, suggested (i.e. gave a self-interested interpretation) that the Russians might have (i.e. are not known to have) a good reason (i.e. we know nothing about their actual motives and intentions) to support Trump (the other declared enemy, this time of the Democrats, not the Americans).
The fanciful lack of substance continues in another sentence that ends tellingly: “Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess.”
This is a clever rhetorical ploy. Although there is no conclusive evidence for either hypothesis, by offering the choice between the two, the reader is invited to select the most likely to be true and is left feeling that one of them must be valid. It’s either this Russian or those Russians—take your choice. Binary algorithmic processing always does the trick. In its perverse way, this can be compared to the “opportunity” Americans have in 2016 to express their deepest, most sincere democratic ideals by choosing between Clinton and Trump.
But we haven’t finished. As the article continues, following the threads suggested by Mook, we learn yet another technique for making the speculative appear to be substantial, this time with the key phrase—“would be among”: “But the theft from the national committee would be among the most important state-sponsored hacks yet of an American organization …”
It combines a conditional (would be) and a superlative (most important), but of course we are told nothing either about the conditions or the points of comparison. It sounds dire, though, so it must be effective. And yet the implied dire comparison appears singularly weak when the journalists admit later in the article: “Intrusions for intelligence collection are hardly unusual, and the United States often does the same, stealing emails and other secrets from intelligence services and even political parties.”
Learning to read, unpack, deconstruct the texts that concern our lives is a particular skill we cultivate in the realm of one of the arts, literature. Largely neglected in the past and threatened in the present, it should be developed in schools.
And then, we get this: “It is unclear how WikiLeaks obtained the email trove. But the presumption is that the intelligence agencies turned it over, either directly or through an intermediary … Moreover, the timing of the release … seems too well planned to be coincidental.”
The lack of facts to work with couldn’t be more obvious, but this doesn’t prevent the journalists from getting the job done. Our thinking is carefully guided towards the desired form of speculation: “seems too well planned to be coincidental.”
Seems? Seems? An honest journalist should take Hamlet’s wisdom to heart and counter: “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” But “is” requires checking for truth. And if the truth isn’t available, there will be no story.
Finally, the rhetoric moves to another dimension when the journalists consider another declared enemy of the United States, WikiLeaks: “But the release to WikiLeaks adds another strange element, because it suggests that the intelligence findings are being “weaponized”—used to influence the election in some way.”
The concept itself is strange, weaponized emails. But the newspaper that did the most to support George W. Bush’s pursuit of imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq back in 2003 may well have developed a culture of seeing weapons everywhere.
Coda and Warning
I hope that I have been able to establish that although appearing in a “newspaper of reference,” this is clearly a partisan article that exploits sensationalism and a certain number of pop cultural memes at the expense of political analysis, but uses a degree of detail that makes it appear seriously analytical. Caveat lector. Let the reader beware.
This article exemplifies a certain type of journalism with a purpose and a style. The style may, in certain cases, obscure the purpose. We need to understand what journalists and politicians are trying to tell us. We need as a society to develop skills that enable us to do that. We live increasingly in a world of shifting perspectives and multiple subjectivities. We can and must acquire the tools to make sense of our world.
A personal note: I studied literature in three universities in two different countries and somewhere along the line learned the importance of what we call close reading. This is the tool I’ve used to write this article.
Today, among politicians, all the emphasis in education is on what is called STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Some generous souls would like to include the Arts to make a program called STEAM. In our hyper-technological world, all of the arts are important, if only because they take us outside of and beyond our increasingly materially constructed environment of devices and gadgets, allowing us to achieve a more holistic view of the universe we live in.
Creativity and imagination, which can and should be applied to technology and mathematics, are born in the domain of the arts. They should always occupy an important place on their own and at the same time accompany the development of the technical competencies our 21st century civilization seems to privilege. Learning to read, unpack, deconstruct the texts that concern our lives is a particular skill we cultivate in the realm of one of the arts, literature. Largely neglected in the past and threatened in the present, it should be developed in schools. It is the only hope we have of making sense of a world in which we are all called upon to see ourselves as responsible citizens.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: charles taylor