The Daily Devil’s Dictionary cannot help but love The New York Times, with increasingly diabolical ardor. Whenever the news cycle goes dry, we can turn to The Times and its documented paranoia for inspiration. The risk is repetition. The reward is the pleasure of picking and consuming low-hanging fruit.
Yesterday, we focused on a glossy piece of propaganda designed to dismiss US President Donald Trump’s warnings that the results of the US election will be invalid because the new generation of voting machines will be Russia-proof. Now, we have the pleasure of examining The Times’ latest contribution to the revival of the Cold War. This time it’s a spy-versus-spy story, a true Cold War classic.
The New York Times Confesses to Paranoia
A trio of Times journalists — Ana Swanson, Edward Wong and Julian E. Barnes — has penned an article bearing the title, “U.S. Diplomats and Spies Battle Trump Administration Over Suspected Attacks.” It turns out to be a valiant effort on their part to resuscitate a story that officially died in 2018. That was when scientists proved that the sophisticated sonic weapon some American diplomats in Cuba believed was targeting their mental health turned out to be nothing more than the sound produced by a certain species of cricket. At no point in their article do the authors acknowledge the debunking.
Patient readers will find the piece confusing, like so many other Times articles that flood the reader with random facts, creating the impression that some great investigative work has been undertaken. The following paragraph contains the core of the authors’ accusations (or rather insinuations). It illustrates the type of paranoid reasoning The Times has now routinely adopted as a key feature of its editorial policy.
“The cases involving C.I.A. officers, none of which have been publicly reported, are adding to suspicions that Russia carried out the attacks worldwide,” the journalists report. “Some senior Russia analysts in the C.I.A., officials at the State Department and outside scientists, as well as several of the victims, see Russia as the most likely culprit given its history with weapons that cause brain injuries and its interest in fracturing Washington’s relations with Beijing and Havana.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
For The New York Times (and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff), whatever the crime: Russia.
The article consists of a magma of unverified and contradictory accounts of impressionistically reported cases. What the authors cannot achieve by the quality and accuracy of their reporting they try to accomplish through the quantity of random examples. They punctuate the citations with passages of pseudo-reasoning meant to point the reader toward a conclusion that no responsible authority — political or scientific — appears to have reached.
The paragraph cited above offers a glimpse of the modes of reasoning used to make the article’s thesis sound credible. It cites “cases” that “are adding to suspicions that Russia carried out the attacks worldwide.” In other words, the central fact is that suspicions exist, which is undoubtedly true. But whose suspicions, other than Times journalists? They do cite something that is factual rather than a mere suspicion: “The C.I.A. director remains unconvinced, and State Department leaders say they have not settled on a cause.”
Admittedly suspicions exist. That should be true for any thesis that isn’t clearly established. In the same vein, if there are suspicions (in the plural), we might expect that there will also be suspects. But for The Times, there is only one: Russia. The journalists cite different categories of individuals who designate Russia as the culprit: “Some senior Russia analysts in the C.I.A., officials at the State Department and outside scientists, as well as several of the victims.” Now, if “some” Russia analysts see Russia as the culprit, it means that others don’t.
Readers should always maintain a “suspicion” that journalists who rely on citing “some” of a designated group of people are more likely expressing opinion than reporting news. We know how eagerly climate change deniers love to cite “some scientists” who doubt the majority opinion. The Times reporters never tire of citing “some” authorities for their opinions or assessments.
Early in the article, to establish that there was a real and not imaginary health problem, they cite “some officers and their lawyers.” At one point, they tell us, “Some C.I.A. analysts believe Moscow was trying to derail that work.” At another, “Some senior officials at the State Department and former intelligence officers said they believed Russia played a role.”
They occasionally use “some” disparagingly to identify those who have failed to reach their conclusion about Russian guilt. “Some top American officials insist on seeing more evidence before accusing Russia,” the journalists write. They cite the CIA director, Gina Haspel, who “has acknowledged that Moscow had the intent to harm operatives, but she is not convinced it was responsible or that attacks occurred.” Maybe this article will convince her.
Critical readers should also be suspicious of sentences that begin with the phrase, “it’s obvious.” Quoting Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the article tells us, “It’s obvious how a U.S. adversary would have much to gain from the disorder, distress and division that has followed.” As Sherlock Holmes might observe, the obvious is the first thing to become suspicious of and the last thing to trust, even if what seems obvious does have a bearing on the truth. The Russians probably do think they have something to gain from disorder in the US. But so do others. That “obvious” fact doesn’t point in any specific direction, nor does it imply agency.
In the same edition of The New York Times (October 19), an op-ed by Michelle Goldberg has a rhetorical question as its title, “Is the Trump Campaign Colluding With Russia Again?” Goldberg suspects the omnipresent Russians were behind the story of Hunter Biden’s notorious hard disk that enabled The New York Post to publish compromising emails for the Joe Biden election campaign. National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, a Trump administration appointee, claims that there is not an iota of evidence to support the claim that Russia is behind the story. The Times counters with an op-ed by John Sipher, a former CIA man who worked for many years in Russia.
Sipher complains that Ratcliffe’s denial represents nothing more than his willingness to toe Donald Trump’s line. He offers this astonishing moral reflection: “Rather than operating as an honest steward of the large and important intelligence community, Mr. Ratcliffe appears to regard the nation’s secrets as a place to hunt for nuggets that can be used as political weapons.”
Let’s try to decipher Sipher’s thoughts. He may be right about Ratcliffe’s loyalty to Trump and the need to suspect he might be lying. No, let’s correct that and say he is absolutely right about not trusting anything Ratcliffe says. But his contention that a director of intelligence should be “an honest steward” is laughable. The whole point about working in intelligence is to be a loyally dishonest steward of somebody’s political agenda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, made that clear when he proudly admitted that the CIA trained its people to lie, cheat and steal.
Presumably, Sipher worked for the CIA under George Tenet, who famously accepted to lie on behalf of President George W. Bush’s agenda and provide false evidence for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In his book, “At the Center of the Storm,” Tenet later complained that Vice President Dick Cheney and the Bush administration “pushed the country to war in Iraq without ever conducting a ‘serious debate’ about whether Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States.”
By now, most people are aware of The New York Times’ role in supporting and encouraging the invasion of Iraq and confirming as news the Bush administration’s lies. For some people, it was obvious at the time. That in itself is a lesson in the language of the news. When speaking from a historical perspective about what “some” people did and what was “obvious” in a former time, those much-abused tropes of “some” and “obvious” no longer merit our suspicion. The New York Times doesn’t do history. What it does do, and with much insistence, is contemporary political agendas, despite its claim to be an objective vector of today’s news.
*[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 The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.