Glenn Greenwald describes how NBC News executives allowed a suspicious story to be propagated at a time when the US administration was ginning up war fever against the Assad regime.
It happened after their star Middle East reporter Richard Engel had been kidnapped in December 2012 by supposedly pro-Assad Syrian Shia forces, abused and threatened with death, and then freed by supposedly ‘moderate’ anti-Assad Sunni forces when the reality was that the whole thing was staged by the latter group. In this case, it seems likely that Engel was a victim of the ruse, not part of its creation. While there is no evidence that Engels and his crew knew about this potentially false story about who was responsible for their capture and release, the same cannot be said for executives at NBC News.
In other words, NBC executives at least had ample reason to suspect that it was anti-Assad rebels who staged the kidnapping, not pro-Assad forces. Yet they allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC personalities repeatedly and unequivocally to blame the Assad regime and glorify the anti-Assad rebels, and worse, to link the hideous kidnapping to Iran and Hezbollah, all with no indication that there were other quite likely alternatives. NBC refused to respond to the NYT‘s questions about that (The Intercept‘s inquiries to NBC News were also not responded to at the time of publication, though any responses will be added (update: an NBC executive has refused to comment)).
The Brian Williams scandal is basically about an insecure, ego-driven TV star who puffed up his own war credentials by fabricating war stories: it’s about personal foibles. But this Engel story is about what appears to be a reckless eagerness, if not deliberate deception, on the part of NBC officials to disseminate a dubious storyline which, at the time, was very much in line with the story which official Washington was selling (by then, Obama was secretly aiding anti-Assad rebels, and had just announced – literally a week before the Engel kidnapping – “that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative”). Much worse, the NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the west to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad.
That’s a far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo. Falsely and recklessly blaming the Assad regime for a heinous kidnapping of western journalists and directly linking it to Iran and Hezbollah, while heralding the rebels as heroic and compassionate – during a brewing “regime change” and intervention debate – is on the level of Iraqi aluminum tubes.
At the very least, NBC owes a serious accounting for what happened here, yet thus far refuses to provide one (note how, as usual, the media outlets who love to sanctimoniously demand transparency from others refuse to provide even a minimal amount about themselves). There were – and are – a lot of shadowy interests eager to bring about regime change in Syria and to malign Iran and Hezbollah with false claims. Whether by intent or outcome, that’s what this story did. If it was not only false at the time NBC executives repeatedly broadcast it, but recklessly disseminated with ample reason to suspect its falsity, that is a huge journalistic scandal.
Greenwald says that this is a much bigger scandal than their news anchor Brian Williams’s false boasts about his reporting heroics.
UPDATE: Thanks to reader SC (Salty Current), I learned that Richard Engel has confirmed that he was duped, saying that he has since learned that:
- The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.
- The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.
- The group that kidnapped us was a criminal gang with shifting allegiances.
- The group that freed us also had ties to the kidnappers.