Late last week, a pair of major national-security stories sparked testy exchanges between the Biden administration and reporters who cover it. At a briefing, Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, told reporters that Russia may soon fabricate a “propaganda video”—complete with “graphic scenes of false explosions” and “crisis actors pretending to be mourners”—as a pretext to invade Ukraine, leading Matthew Lee, a diplomatic writer at the Associated Press, to push back. “Crisis actors?” Lee asked. “Really? This is, like, Alex Jones territory you’re getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?” Price said that he was referring to declassified US intelligence; when Lee asked where he might find it, Price said “I just delivered it,” and invited Lee to print out a transcript. “That’s not evidence,” Lee objected. “That’s you saying it.” After several more minutes of back and forth, Price decided to move on, telling Lee that if he wanted to doubt the US government and “find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.”
Meanwhile, on Air Force One, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary was telling a gaggle of reporters about a raid that Biden had just authorized to take out Hajji Abdullah, the leader of ISIS, in Syria when Ayesha Rascoe, of NPR, asked her whether the administration would publish any evidence for her claim that Abdullah detonated a bomb as US forces closed in, killing himself, a woman, and three children. “There may be people that are skeptical of the events that took place and what happened to the civilians,” Rascoe noted. “Skeptical of the US military’s assessment when they went and took out the leader of ISIS?” Psaki asked. “That they are not providing accurate information and ISIS is providing accurate information?” Rascoe quickly clarified that this was not at all what she meant. “The US has not always been straightforward about what happens with civilians,” she said. “And, I mean, that is a fact.”
Psaki went on to assure Rascoe that it would take time for the Pentagon to make a “final assessment,” and that, in doing so, officials would provide “every detail they can.” But the damage was done. The dismissiveness of Psaki’s original response, coupled with Price’s near-simultaneous bout with Lee, sparked outrage among reporters at major outlets, who bridled, in particular, at their dual insinuations of disloyalty. Felicia Sonmez, of the Washington Post, noted that “asking for proof to back up government statements” is a journalist’s job, and that doing so “does not mean one believes propaganda put out by US adversaries”; Politico’s Alexander Ward wrote, meanwhile, that the administration could have touted a pair of intelligence “wins,” but instead “bumbled the message, raised the hackles of a skeptical press, and bullied the conversation into a Bush-era ‘you’re either with or against us’ false dichotomy.” Psaki complained that Sonmez had quoted her out of context, but quickly found herself doing cleanup, calling Rascoe to apologize if she felt her question was undervalued. Price, for his part, emphasized that he was unable to say anything that might compromise intelligence sources and that the reporters in his briefing room know that, but also accepted that this is an “unsatisfactory balance for journalists,” and said that he had since called Lee to express his respect for him.
Both officials stressed that they have committed to holding regular briefings, and that they respect the press and invite tough questions. Regular briefings are welcome, especially after they dried up under the Trump administration, at both the White House and State Department. But they’re really a bare minimum; what officials say at them, and in other settings, matters much more, especially when it comes to matters of life and death. There, already, the Biden administration’s record is highly checkered. Last summer, US officials bragged that a drone attack it executed in Kabul was a “righteous strike” that had stopped ISIS from bombing an airport amid the US evacuation, but Western news organizations soon reported that the strike had actually killed ten people—none of them terrorists, seven of them children. Sources close to the ground have already challenged the White House account of last week’s Abdullah raid in Syria, reporting more civilian deaths than US officials have acknowledged, including those of six children, and that at least one US helicopter engaged in heavy gunfire.
Psaki and others have cast Biden’s professed respect for the press as a stark contrast to Trump’s treatment of reporters. It is. But officials getting things wrong in the fog of war—or, often, overtly lying through it—is a genuinely bipartisan practice that transcends administration. Bush’s administration lied to the press about the rationale for the war in Iraq; in his 2019 “Afghanistan Papers” series based on secret government records, Craig Whitlock, of the Post, revealed the extent to which the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all lied about the progress of the war in Afghanistan. (Whitlock’s reporting sadly got a bit lost in the crazed Trump news cycle, but it reappeared in book form last summer and climbed to second place on the Times’s bestseller list.) Since then, the Times has undertaken comparably ambitious reporting on official war lies. In her recent “Civilian Casualty Files” series, Azmat Khan also used a trove of secret records to demonstrate a pattern of “opacity and impunity” in the Pentagon’s handling of deaths caused by US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria under Obama and Trump. Khan and colleagues reported last month that the US bombed a Syrian dam in 2017 even though it was on a “no-strike” list—a fact that officials dismissed, at the time, as “crazy reporting.” The Times has been particularly aggressive, too, in following up on last summer’s Kabul strike, even obtaining rare drone footage of the attack after filing a lawsuit.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, many reporters and pundits at major outlets—not least the Times—bought Bush’s casus belli hook, line, and sinker. It’s tempting to conclude, after being burned so badly, that the media learned its lessons. But it’s hard to draw clean, straight lines here. Not everyone in the media parroted the Bush administration’s lies at the time. And not everyone applies sufficiently rigorous skepticism to US intelligence claims in the present. Journalists like Whitlock and Khan have done excellent, highly time- and resource-intensive enterprise reporting to demonstrate the scale of official deceptions; journalists like Lee and Rascoe have asked sharp questions. But quick-turn formats—daily news stories, headlines, tweets, cable-news segments, and so on—still too often relay what “officials say” without as prominently telling readers much about the evidence, or lack thereof, for their statements. The problem reminds me, in some ways, of the media reckoning over police lies that intensified following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. A lot of astute articles noted the tactics police departments use to set misleading narratives. Many others continue, even now, to indulge them.
As Charlie Savage, of the Times, put it last week in an article about Price and Psaki’s remarks, “what officials say is news to be reported, but it is often impossible to independently verify the details right away.” The latter task does indeed take time, making it all the more important that the first draft of history contain rich and prominent context about the evidentiary record to that point and—where appropriate—the ample historical justification for skepticism of the official line. This challenge is especially urgent with regards to Ukraine, not just because the stakes are immediate and growing, but since, as I wrote recently, the US and its allies are detailing supposed Russian plots—in a break from past practice—as part of a conscious strategy of information warfare. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the plots aren’t real. But if your strategy involves sharing information, you can’t dismiss anyone who asks for more of it as a dupe for the bad guys. That starts to look like information warfare in itself.
Below, more on the Biden administration and information warfare:
- “All governments lie”: The media critic Dan Froomkin praised Lee and Rascoe for asking tough questions of Price and Psaki—and criticized the latter’s responses as “grotesque”—but also argued that the reporters’ skepticism didn’t make it into much mainstream coverage of the stories in question. “That remains a bridge too far, apparently,” Froomkin writes, “even coming only a few weeks after the New York Times brilliantly exposed the government’s initial story about a drone strike in Kabul in August as completely untrue.”
- An access request: After the Pentagon deployed troops to Europe to buttress NATO’s Eastern flank, the Military Reporters & Editors Association asked Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, to allow journalists to embed with them. “It has been several years since Americans have had such an opportunity to see and hear directly from troops in the field,” the association wrote. The European deployment “provides an opportunity for the U.S. military to showcase how the men and women in uniform undertake the mission asked of them by the U.S. government and the nation.”
- ***Redacted***: In November, Mark Esper, who served as defense secretary under Trump, sued his former agency, alleging that Pentagon officials were improperly scrubbing swathes of his forthcoming memoir “under the guise of classification” during a pre-publication review process. Now Esper says that he is dropping his lawsuit after the Pentagon reversed many of its prior redaction decisions. Esper’s lawyer said that he opposes the redactions that remain, but that they aren’t central to the book.
- Meanwhile, in Sweden: The Observer’s Miranda Bryant reports on the Swedish government’s decision to bring back a Cold War-era “psychological defence” agency in light of increased tensions between Western Europe and Russia. The agency’s top priority is fighting fake news ahead of elections in Sweden later this year, Bryant reports. Mats Engström, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Bryant that the agency “will have to tread very carefully on controversial issues not to create the impression of the state trying to stifle critical views.”
Other notable stories:
- The Winter Olympics in Beijing kicked off on Friday. NBC—which, as the Olympics rights-holder in the US, had been under pressure to incorporate China’s human-rights abuses into its coverage—did just that during the opening ceremony (though Slate’s Justin Peters argues that the network somewhat “hedged” key points); the ratings for the ceremony were sharply down on the 2018 winter Games in Pyeongchang, though Deadline’s Brandon Choe reports that other viewership metrics have been decent so far. Meanwhile, a Chinese official manhandled Sjoerd den Daas, a Dutch TV journalist, while he was live on air. And Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who largely disappeared from public view last year after accusing a politician of sexual abuse, denied making that claim in an interview with the French paper L’Equipe that was heavily mediated by Chinese Olympic officials.
- Also on Friday, News Corp said it recently discovered that journalists and other staffers were targeted by a hacking attempt, with a cybersecurity consultant judging that the perpetrators were likely aiming “to collect intelligence to benefit China’s interests.” The hackers “were able to access reporters’ emails and Google Docs, including drafts of articles,” the Wall Street Journal, which News Corp owns, reports. Journalists targeted by the hack “expressed concerns to company officials about protecting their sources’ identities. By Friday afternoon, many Journal reporters affected had been notified by company officials of specific documents that were believed to have been accessed.”
- The Joe Rogan debacle continues. On Saturday, he apologized after an online video showed him repeatedly using a racial slur on his show. (He also said that the video lacked context.) Meanwhile, old episodes of the show quietly disappeared from Spotify. Daniel Ek, the CEO, told staff that Rogan had chosen to remove “a number of episodes” following “discussions and his own reflections”; Ek also apologized, and said that Spotify would invest in content made by creators from historically marginalized groups.
- Last week, Amy Phillips, a public defender in DC, filed a lawsuit claiming that top officials within the district’s police department conspired to stonewall Freedom of Information Act requests that might embarrass the department. Vendette Parker, the department’s retired FOIA officer, told Phillips in a sworn statement that she was told to flag requests from reporters or groups that bosses perceived as hostile. The Post’s Radley Balko has more.
- On Friday, police in Kashmir arrested Fahad Shah, the editor of the Kashmir Walla, after accusing him of posting “anti-national content. In the days leading up to his arrest, local authorities had questioned Shah over his site’s coverage of a police raid in which four people died. Press freedom has been increasingly under assault in Kashmir. Two years ago, CJR’s Maria Bustillos interviewed Shah about the challenges he faces in his work.
- Last week, prosecutors in Nicaragua began trials for critics of President Daniel Ortega who were arrested ahead of elections last year; at least six guilty verdicts have already been returned, one of which targeted Miguel Mora, a prominent journalist who had planned to run against Ortega prior to his detention. Mora was convicted of “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” and could now face a fifteen-year prison sentence.
- Yelena Milashina, a prominent investigative reporter at the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has left the country after the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov described her as a “terrorist” and threatened to “eliminate” her; Milashina said that she didn’t want to go, but that her editors and sources had concluded that she was at high risk. (Anna Politkovskaya, who also covered Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, was murdered in 2006.)
- Last week, efforts to save Rayan Oram, a five-year-old boy who fell down a well in Morocco, attracted intense global media interest; rescuers reached him on Saturday but were too late to save him. As the mission unfolded, Morocco’s National Press Council criticized some of the coverage as “gratuitously sensationalistic,” claiming, among other things, that certain outlets took advantage of Rayan’s family for commercial reasons.
- And some sad news from the home front: Todd Gitlin, the influential writer and academic who chaired the PhD program at Columbia Journalism School, has died. He was seventy-nine. “Todd was a gifted, multifaceted person—journalist, sociologist, activist, author, and poet,” Steve Coll, the school’s dean, said. Gitlin contributed regularly to CJR over the years; you can find an archive of his work for us here and here.
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