By Caitlin Johnstone
Last week Politico published a major exclusive report that the “Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa” in retaliation for the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani earlier this year, citing (you guessed it) anonymous government officials.
The claim was nonsensical on its face; the idea that Iran would see the assassination of some random ambassador to an irrelevant country as a proportionate response to the killing of its wildly beloved top military commander would only make sense to someone with a very US-centric worldview who knows nothing about Iran. On top of that, the South African government published a statement that “the information provided is not sufficient to sustain the allegation that there is a credible threat against the United States Ambassador to South Africa”.
The flimsy nature of this allegation was of course not enough to prevent bombastic Twitter threats from America’s manchild-in-chief that this nonexistent assassination plot “will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” if carried out.
It also wasn’t enough to prevent the Politico article’s co-author, Natasha Bertrand, from falsely claiming that The New York Times had “confirmed” her reporting.
“The NYT has confirmed Nahal Toosi and my reporting about Iran,” Bertrand tweeted today with a link to a new Times article, quoting the excerpt “Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa and a political supporter of Trump, was a potential target of an Iranian attack…Politico earlier reported that Ms. Marks was a target.”
The New York Times has in fact not confirmed Bertrand and Toosi’s reporting, and Bertrand omits a very significant portion of text from her excerpt. Here is the quote in full, bold mine:
Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa and a political supporter of Mr. Trump, was a potential target of an Iranian attack, according to national security officials. But some briefed on the intelligence said Iran has not decided to directly target any American official, and other current and former officials accused the Trump administration of overstating the threat. Politico earlier reported that Ms. Marks was a target.
Awful lot of important information hiding in that ellipsis of yours, Ms Bertrand.
So NYT had in fact merely spoken to unnamed officials (probably some of the same ones) and found there to be misgivings about the claim Bertrand had promoted, and then Bertrand deceptively omitted text which contradicted the claim she was making that her report had been “confirmed”.
It should surprise no one that Bertrand would abuse the trust of her followers in such a phenomenally sleazy way. As Antiwar‘s Dave DeCamp explained after the Politico report was discredited by the South African government, Bertrand “built her career on hyping the Steele Dossier, a now-discredited document that made unverified claims about the Russian government and the Trump campaign in 2016.”
But Bertrand’s slimy manipulation is also to be expected because she knows she can get away with it. The word “confirmed” has been misused and abused to such a spectacular extent in mainstream news reporting of late that it doesn’t actually mean anything anymore when they say it.
When a news reporter announces that they have independently confirmed another outlet’s reporting, the reader imagines that they have done actual investigative journalism, traveled to the places about which the claims are being made, done deep digging and looked at the evidence with their own two eyes and found that the claim is true. In practice, all it often means is that they spoke to the same sources the other reporter spoke to and are in fact just confirming that the source did indeed make a given assertion. The reader assumes they’re confirming the source’s claim is true, but all they’re actually confirming is that the first reporter didn’t just make up the claim they’re uncritically parroting.
Take when the anonymously sourced story about Russia paying bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for killing occupying coalition forces was first reported by The New York Times. We now know this story was completely baseless, but when it first broke there were a bunch of mass media reporters buzzing around claiming to have “confirmed” one another’s stories on the matter.
“The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have confirmed our reporting,” the NYT story’s co-author Charlie Savage tweeted after the story broke.
“We have confirmed the New York Times’ scoop: A Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan,” tweeted The Washington Post‘s John Hudson.
“We matched The New York Times’ great reporting on how US intel has assessed that Russians paid Taliban to target US, coalition forces in Afg which is a pretty stunning development,” tweeted Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold.
All three of these men were lying.
John Hudson’s claim that the Washington Post article he co-authored “confirmed the New York Times’ scoop” twice used the words “if confirmed” with regard to his central claim, saying “Russian involvement in operations targeting Americans, if confirmed,” and “The attempt to stoke violence against Americans, if confirmed“. This is of course an acknowledgement that these things had not, in fact, been confirmed.
The Wall Street Journal article co-authored by Gordon Lubold cited only anonymous “people”, who we have no reason to believe are different people than NYT’s sources, repeating the same unsubstantiated assertions about an intelligence report. The article cited no evidence that Lubold’s “stunning development” actually occurred beyond “people familiar with the report said” and “a person familiar with it said“.
The fact that both Hudson and Lubold were lying about having confirmed the New York Times‘ reporting means that Savage was also lying when he said they did. When they said the report has been “confirmed”, what they really meant was that it had been agreed upon. All the three of them actually did was use their profoundly influential outlets to uncritically parrot something nameless spooks wanted the public to believe, which is the same as just publishing a CIA press release free of charge. It is unprincipled stenography for opaque and unaccountable intelligence agencies, and it is odious.
Earlier this month The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald published an article titled “Journalism’s New Propaganda Tool: Using ‘Confirmed’ to Mean Its Opposite“, about an anonymously sourced claim by The Atlantic that Trump had said disparaging things about US troops. An excerpt:
Other media outlets — including Associated Press and Fox News — now claim that they did exactly that: “confirmed” the Atlantic story. But if one looks at what they actually did, at what this “confirmation” consists of, it is the opposite of what that word would mean, or should mean, in any minimally responsible sense. AP, for instance, merely claims that “a senior Defense Department official with firsthand knowledge of events and a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer who was told about Trump’s comments confirmed some of the remarks to The Associated Press,” while Fox merely said “a former senior Trump administration official who was in France traveling with the president in November 2018 did confirm other details surrounding that trip.”
Greenwald also documents how in 2017 CNN falsely reported that Donald Trump Jr had received an encryption key to WikiLeaks which let him preview the 2016 DNC leaks ten days before they were published, which we shortly thereafter learned was actually due to nobody involved in the story bothering to read the date on the email correctly. The whole entire story, in reality, was that Trump had merely received an email about an already published WikiLeaks drop.
Greenwald writes the following:
Very shortly after CNN unveiled its false story, MSNBC’s intelligence community spokesman Ken Dilanian went on air and breathlessly announced that he had obtained independent confirmation that the CNN story was true. In a video segment I cannot recommend highly enough, Dilanian was introduced by an incredibly excited Hallie Jackson — who urged Dilanian to “tell us what we’ve just now learned,” adding, “I know you and some of our colleagues have confirmed some of this information: What’s up?” Dilanian then proceeded to explain what he had learned:
“That’s right, Hallie. Two sources with direct knowledge of this are telling us that congressional investigators have obtained an email from a man named ‘Mike Erickson’ — obviously they don’t know if that’s his real name — offering Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. access to WikiLeaks documents. … It goes to the heart of the collusion question. … One of the big questions is: Did [Trump Jr.] call the FBI?”
How could that happen? How could MSNBC purport to confirm a false story from CNN? Shortly after, CBS News also purported to have “confirmed” the same false story: that Trump Jr. received advanced access to the WikiLeaks documents. It’s one thing for a news outlet to make a mistake in reporting by, for instance, misreporting the date of an email and thus getting the story completely wrong. But how is it possible that multiple other outlets could “confirm” the same false report?
That’s three mainstream outlets–CNN, MSNBC, and CBS, all claiming to have independently “confirmed” a story that would have been recognized as false if even one person in any of those outlets had done the tiniest bare minimum of independent investigation into the claim that its source was making, namely looking with their eyeballs at the actual information they were being presented with.
They didn’t, because that’s the state of the mass media today. That is its culture. That, in answer to Greenwald’s question above, is how this could happen: the western mass media are nothing but a bunch of lackeys mindlessly regurgitating incendiary narratives by those in power in their rapacious search for ratings.
Natasha Bertrand is acutely aware of this, which is why she feels comfortable falsely telling the world that her absurd reporting has been “confirmed”.
So now you know. Whenever you see the mass media saying an important claim has been “confirmed”, just ignore them. They have no respect for that word, and it has lost all meaning among their ranks. The western media class does not exist to tell you the truth about the world, it exists to distort your understanding of the world for the advantage of the powerful.