Media: How Debunked Stories Continue to Thrive

On the slimmest of pretexts, even (or especially) The New York Times will push stories whose purported facts have been discredited.
Christopher Miller, Russia, Russia energy attacks, Russian news, Russia news, US politics, US Russia relations, Donald Trump, The New York Times, Peter Isackson

© Photo Kozyr / Shutterstock

On May 6, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary dared to express surprise at the latest example of Russia-related fearmongering by the respectable corporate media. When Christopher Miller, who had recently risen to fame as acting defense secretary in the waning months of Donald Trump’s presidency, claimed to have unearthed an “act of war” attributable to Russia, the media jumped on the occasion. Miller was referring to the dormant “Havana Syndrome” dossier and accusing Russia of conducting direct-energy attacks against Americans in various places across the globe.

Not wishing to miss the festivities, two prominent media outlets — CNN and Politico — immediately crashed the party. They quoted Miller’s warnings and mobilized their journalistic talents to promote a story capable of striking fear in anyone with an American passport. Curiously, The New York Times, always eager to accuse Russia of anything suspicious that takes place anywhere on earth, missed the scoop. It took them another week to get around to covering it, possibly because they were hard at work on another debunked story that they deemed worthy of resuscitating, concerning the reported Russian offer of bounty for killing US personnel in Afghanistan. Or possibly because they didn’t want to give credence to a Trump official.


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The bounty story was their big scoop a year ago. In its coverage at the time, The Times claimed to reveal “a stunning intelligence assessment” intended to prove, as always, that Trump was covering up for his best friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since then, even the intelligence community and the Biden administration have walked it back, but not The New York Times. Perhaps they believe it’s the best way to defend their honor.

On May 10, four days after the publication of our article and two days before The Times decided to raise the alarm again, Foreign Policy published an article by Cheryl Rofer with the title, “Claims of Microwave Attacks Are Scientifically Implausible.” Apparently, no one at The Times had time to consult this article before publishing their account on May 12. Even Homeland Security News Wire publicly called the thesis into question on May 11.

Foreign Policy describes Rofer as a writer specialized in scientific and political commentary who had spent 35 years as a chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In other words, she is not a journalist dabbling in science but a scientist now active in journalism. After sifting through the testimony, Rofer came to the evidence-based conclusion that the technology the intelligence agencies speculate may be behind the “attacks” probably does not exist. In her own words: “The evidence for microwave effects of the type categorized as Havana syndrome is exceedingly weak.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Exceedingly weak:

For some media, highly probable, on condition that the evidence cited may possibly be construed as pointing to Russia. In all other cases: not to be taken seriously.

Contextual Note

To be fair, Rofer offers no definitive proof that the technology does not or cannot exist. She explains why she reached her conclusion: “No proponent of the idea has outlined how the weapon would actually work. No evidence has been offered that such a weapon has been developed by any nation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

Every journalist would be wise to follow the example of her reasoning. It doesn’t exclude the most extreme hypotheses, but points in the direction of others that are far more probable. “It’s possible,” she writes, “that the symptoms of all the sufferers of Havana syndrome share a single, as yet unknown, cause; it’s also possible that multiple real health problems have been amalgamated into a single syndrome.” This assertion contains two important truths. It reminds readers that, until there is proof of the technology at play, the cause remains “unknown.” It also points to the fact that many of the health problems we all encounter — particularly concerning perception and mental functions — may be attributable to multiple causes.

Miller based his belief in Russia’s “act of war” on a 2020 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine commissioned by the State Department. According to Kyle Mizokami, writing in Popular Mechanics, the State Department’s assessment cited the fact that there “was significant research in Russia/USSR into the effects of pulsed radio frequencies.” There has also been significant research on witchcraft and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean Russia has weaponized witchcraft. The CIA, on the other hand, does have a history of weaponizing psychedelic drugs. The tendency to assume that research points to the existence of an operational weapon reflects the kind of tendentious reasoning psychologists call paranoia. Would this be the first time that the State Department has allowed paranoid speculation to pollute its scientific endeavors?

In the guise of proof, the assessment offers this statement, as explained by Mizokami: “This could have resulted in the development of a portable, nonlethal, covert weapon designed to exploit something called the Frey Effect.” This sentence alone tells us we are in the presence not of science, but propaganda. The auxiliary verb “could have” gives the game away. Evoking a remote possibility to suggest a “probable” sinister outcome is standard procedure in all propaganda (and paranoia). Adding the detail of the “Frey Effect” makes it sound like serious research. Preceding it with the qualification “something called” further reveals that we are in a world of deliberate rhetorical imprecision.

Mizokami has read Rofer’s article. He first presents the State Department’s circumstantial case and then provides an explanation of the Frey effect, noting that “there’s considerable debate over whether the Frey effect actually exists.” He concludes by aligning with Rofer’s scientific skepticism: “We may never know who’s behind the attacks, and what kind of weapon is being used.” A philosopher skilled at analyzing the logic of the English language would push it even further. We may never know whether there were “attacks,” in the sense of external aggressions. If there were no attacks, there was no weapon.

Humankind, in the age of electronic communications, lives under a permanent barrage of microwaves, electronic signals and frequencies that may, for all we know, combine in various ways to produce diverse effects on particular people. The State Department seems to believe only Americans are targeted. That is why it suspects the Russians (and sometimes the Chinese). But other people elsewhere may be experiencing the same symptoms. Only Americans would report this to the State Department. Most scientists and logicians would want to take wider statistics into account before jumping to a conclusion.

Historical Note

This is pretty obviously a handy piece of fake news that establishment news outlets have now taken on a five-year-long joyride. But why? First and foremost, the story is readable and attracts eyeballs. It combines James Bond-style intrigue, next generation technology and science. It’s also fodder for Trump-haters and fits snugly into the new Cold War mentality that so much of the media now depends on to keep the public’s fear alive.

The New York Times’ manner of stating the case offers an interesting technical explanation of why such a flaky story continues to work even after being largely discredited. Here is how it creates false perspective: “Though some Pentagon officials believe Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., is most likely behind the case of the 2-year-old, and evidence has emerged that points to Russia in other cases, the intelligence agencies have not concluded any cause or whether a foreign power is involved.” The journalists here populate two-thirds of the sentence with opinion supporting the accusation and the last third with a negatively formulated admission that doubt may exist.

The rest of the article offers a plethora of anecdotes about who thinks what, who has met with whom and other details, all of it serving to remind readers how troubling the issue is and how concerned they need to be. It concludes with an appeal formulated by a politician: “We really need to fully understand where this is coming from, what the targeting methods are and what we can do to stop them.”

In other words, readers can expect a host of new articles on the question, perhaps lasting another five years. It’s a serial thriller.

*[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.

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