Why the Panama Papers are a gold mine for conspiracy theorists

April 8, 2016
Image: Shehan Peruma (Flickr); Treatment by CJR

At first glance, the Panama Papers seem destined to become legend in conspiracy theory circles. The investigation, published Sunday, relied on 2.6 terabytes of secret data to reveal a vast network of offshore companies that hide money tied to politicians, celebrities, and criminals worldwide. These revelations offered conspiracy theorists a sip of ambrosia, a rare and highly visible confirmation of organized malice by the elites. Not since the Edward Snowden leaks have doubters of all things official been so strongly validated.

But, perhaps predictably, conspiracy theories are now forming around the Panama Papers themselves. Some believe the work is meant to take the Benghazi heat off Hillary Clinton, while others claim the US State Department manufactured the stories to tar its political enemies. Online forum discussions, conspiracy theory magnate Alex Jones, and even WikiLeaks have cast doubt on either the origins of the documents or the integrity of the journalism. At issue, they say, are the organizations that fund the project leader, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. What’s most striking is how a misunderstanding of how the news media works can simultaneously condemn proven muckrakers and empower state-run propaganda arms.



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First, some background: The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung began receiving encrypted files from an anonymous source more than a year ago. The documents–emails, invoices, photographs, and more–belonged to the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in creating offshore companies for banks, on behalf of their clients. The newspaper came to ICIJ to lead what would become journalism’s largest-ever cross-border investigation, encompassing more than 100 newsrooms in 80 countries. Their findings were damning and the fallout intense. So far, the Panama Papers have resulted in the resignations of Iceland’s prime minister, a top FIFA official, and the head of an Austrian bank.

The coverage has also centered on Vladimir Putin. The investigation unearthed that associates of the Russian president hid billions of dollars in the coffers of offshore companies.

When the news hit, Putin and his cronies came out firing. The state’s RT television “news” network claimed that Western media was out to shake up upcoming Russian elections. Other articles questioned how much influence the US government and powerful Americans had in the publishing process.

The obvious implication: that ICIJ is a cover for more nefarious backroom players. So who are the donors behind ICIJ, and do they influence the editorial operation they fund?

ICIJ lists its supporters on its website. Some, like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, are geared toward encouraging strong journalism. Most others lean left. Open Society Foundations, for instance, is funded by wealthy liberal George Soros. The Ford Foundation, the Adessium Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation tend to support causes more associated with progressives, climate change among them. Thus, those caught in the crossfire of the Panama Papers and conservatives like Breitbart have joined in, throwing shade on the political leanings of the news organization’s funders.

Fair enough. (In fact, journalists should ask themselves whether they would call attention to the financial backers of a news organization funded by Republican heavyweights like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson. Yes is the right answer.) But ICIJ director Gerard Ryle says the folks who write ICIJ’s checks don’t write its stories. A firewall between the newsroom and its funders means they know only that a big story is coming, Ryle maintains. He says he doesn’t accept donations from sources who want to dictate coverage, and there is no evidence to such that funders like Ford try to play a hands-on editorial role. “I’ve turned away money,” he adds. “And I don’t believe in taking money just to do stories on a topic.”

ICIJ built its reputation by publishing international investigations into tax havens, but the group doesn’t specialize in shady money. It has also covered the human effects of World Bank policies, mining in Africa, and the trade of corpses.

If these accusations were borne of a conspiracy, the organizers sure packed a lot of shrapnel into the bomb. Even film star Jackie Chan is under the microscope.

What’s more likely is that a handful of wealthy people set out to fund good journalism. The very status linked to their names incites paranoid speculation. Some people, for instance, jumped on the belief that the Rockefeller and Carnegie families finance ICIJ. Few names cause more alarm among conspiracy theorists. But the claim wasn’t quite true. Foundations linked to each family support ICIJ’s parent, the Center for Public Integrity, but Ryle says his operation doesn’t receive direct funding from them.

So far, the conspiracy theorists have offered up little evidence supporting their theories. “Believing in conspiracy theories is a lot like supporting a candidate,” says Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor and an expert on conspiracy theorists. “No matter what you’re told, that information always gets interpreted in the light of what you already believe.”

As Uscinski notes, even The Washington Post’s storied reporting on Watergate was the subject of dubious speculation.

Had the Panama Papers exposed more Americans, fewer skeptics might have emerged. Of course, few US news outlets wanted to work with ICIJ, for whatever reason, and there remains hundreds of offshore company specialists whose files are still secure.



What we do know has caused WikiLeaks to call for ICIJ to publish all documents related to the Panama Papers. The prolific leaker says that would enable independent sources to verify existing news stories and search for unreported information, pushing back against possible bias. Ryle has no plans to open his filing cabinet. He says the documents include passports, information on people whose use of offshore companies appears legal, and fodder for identity theft.

The disagreement between the two parties, however, might be the result of a stab that Ryle took at WikiLeaks in an interview with Wired. “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly,” he told the magazine. Since then, the criticisms of WikiLeaks, which at first rallied around the Panama Papers, have bolstered conspiracy theories and propaganda published by affected countries.

Is there any fruitful path to shutting down the noise? One that Ryle can think of: “All you can do is do what you think is the best possible job, and then sit back and let the journalism talk.”

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha