How the mainstream media also propagates fake news

Did you hear the news where recently Julian Assange of WikiLeaks had sharply criticized Hillary Clinton while praising Donald Trump, also saying that Russia had freedom of the press and that was why WikiLeaks has not been releasing documents that revealed secrets of that country, and that Assange had a long and close relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin? This has been all over the mainstream media news and was largely based on an article published on December 24th in the Guardian newspaper, a paper that I read and link to regularly

Well, it turns out that this is a good example of why the ‘fake news’ epidemic is not only the product of Macedonian teenagers or US entrepreneurs out to make a quick buck or conservative trolls, but is also practiced by the very journalistic outlets that decry its rise.

The Jacobs article did not in fact consist of any actual reporting but merely paraphrased sections of an interview that had been conducted in the Ecuadorian embassy in London by di Stefania Maurizi and published in full in the Italian daily la Repubblica. In the course of paraphrasing the interview, Jacobs introduced serious distortions, all intended to put Assange in a bad light. Naturally, this was picked up by other media sources who can’t seem to deal with the fact that Assange is not a Democratic party operative and are willing to believe anything negative about him. What is interesting in this case is that few bothered to read the original interview transcript, even though it was in English and that Maurizi had angrily denounced Jacobs on Twitter for saying things that were not true.

Glenn Greenwald has compared the transcript and the Jacobs article and the subsequent coverage and says that it is an example of utterly shoddy journalism.

The shoddy and misleading Guardian article, written by Ben Jacobs, was published on December 24. It made two primary claims — both of which are demonstrably false. The first false claim was hyped in the article’s headline: “Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview.” This claim was repeated in the first paragraph of the article: “Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered guarded praise of Donald Trump. …”

The second claim was an even worse assault on basic journalism. Jacobs set up this claim by asserting that Assange “long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.” The only “evidence” offered for this extraordinary claim was that Assange, in 2012, conducted eight interviews that were broadcast on RT. With the claimed Assange-Putin alliance implanted, Jacobs then wrote: “In his interview with la Repubblica, [Assange] said there was no need for WikiLeaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there.”

Greenwald then goes on to look at what Assange actually said and quotes passage to show that his comments are quite similar to what many mainstream media people in the US have been saying as well in the wake of the Trump election and that the Jacobs article distortions seemed to have been designed to appeal to Clinton backers.

The reason these two claims are so significant, so certain to attract massive numbers of clicks and shares, is obvious. They play directly into the biases of Clinton supporters and flatter their central narrative about the election: that Clinton lost because the Kremlin used its agents, such as Assange, to boost Trump and sink Clinton. By design, the article makes it seem as though Assange is heralding Russia as such a free, vibrant, and transparent political culture that — in contrast to the repressive West — no whistleblowing is needed, all while praising Trump.

To begin with Assange did not praise Trump, guardedly or otherwise.

If one wants to be generous and mitigate that claim as sloppy and deceitful rather than an outright fraud, one could do so. But that’s not the case for The Guardian’s second and far more inflammatory claim: that Assange believes Russia is too free and open to need whistleblowing.

In that part of the interview, Assange was asked why most of WikiLeaks’ publications have had their biggest impact in the West rather than in countries such as Russia or China. To see how wildly deceitful Jacobs’s claim was about his answer, just read what he said: He did not say that Russia was too free to need whistleblowing. Instead, he explains that any Russian whistleblower who wanted to leak information would have many better options than WikiLeaks given that Assange’s organization does not speak Russian, is composed of English-speaking Westerners, and focuses on the West.

No doubt because of the strong criticism he received, the Jacobs article added a correction on December 29 that removed some of the most inflammatory contents.

This article was amended on 29 December 2016 to remove a sentence in which it was asserted that Assange “has long had a close relationship with the Putin regime”. A sentence was also amended which paraphrased the interview, suggesting Assange said “there was no need for Wikileaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there”. It has been amended to more directly describe the question Assange was responding to when he spoke of Russia’s “many vibrant publications”.

Greenwald says that the motivations for the atrocious Jacobs article are not hard to find.

Part of why this happened has to do with The Guardian’s blinding hatred for WikiLeaks, with whom it partnered to its great benefit, only to then wage mutual warfare. While the paper regularly produces great journalism, its deeply emotional and personalized feud with Assange has often led it to abandon all standards when reporting on WikiLeaks.

But here, the problem was deeply exacerbated by the role of this particular reporter, Ben Jacobs. Having covered the 2016 campaign for The Guardian U.S., he’s one of those journalists who became beloved by Clinton’s media supporters for his obviously pro-Clinton coverage of the campaign. He entrenched himself as a popular member of the clique of political journalists who shared those sentiments. He built a following by feeding the internet highly partisan coverage; watched his social media follower count explode the more he did it; and generally bathed in the immediate gratification provided by online praise for churning out pro-Clinton agitprop all year.

But Jacobs has a particularly ugly history with WikiLeaks. In August 2015, news broke that Chelsea Manning — whose leaks became one of The Guardian’s most significant stories in its history and whom the U.N. had found was subjected to “cruel and inhumane” abuse while in detention — faced indefinite solitary confinement for having unapproved magazines in her cell as well as expired toothpaste. Jacobs went to Twitter and mocked her plight: “And the world’s tiniest violin plays a sad song.” He was forced to delete this demented tweet when even some of his Guardian colleagues publicly criticized him, though he never apologized publicly, claiming that he did so “privately” while blocking huge numbers of people who objected to his comments (including me).

The absolute last person anyone should trust to accurately and fairly report on WikiLeaks is Ben Jacobs, unless the goal is to publish fabrications that will predictably generate massive traffic for The Guardian. Whatever the intent, that is exactly what happened here.

Whatever one’s views of Assange, and he has become an intensely polarizing figure, this story is about the way that so many journalists, while decrying the gullibility of people to believe fake news, are just as willing to swallow false stories as long as it fits within their ideological blinkers.

What I learned a long time ago is that one has to pay attention to the credibility of individual reporters, not institutions because the latter are just not trustworthy. There are good reporters at the Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, and elsewhere. But there are also utter hacks willing to push any dubious story (Judith Miller being a good example) and the media outlets use the credibility built up by their good reporters to sell the work of the hacks like Jacobs when they seek to pursue a political agenda. This story is a good example of that dynamic at work.


  1. says

    it is an example of utterly shoddy journalism.

    No, it’s propaganda.

    And Obama snuck into the NDAA the “Countering Foreign Disinformation and Propaganda” act:
    intended to:
    “proactively advance fact-based narratives that support United States allies and interests”
    fact-based. You know, like “I can’t believe it’s not butter” is butter-based.

    Meanwhile, the DoD already spends loads of money on propaganda:

  2. says

    @1 Marcus Ranum
    Sounds like a terrible idea. I mean, you give the government power to define what is “real news” mere weeks before the fact-free orange cheeto and his friends take control of said government? And Democrats keep wondering why they fail at life.

  3. John Morales says

    A Lurker from mexico, what Marcus wrote is that the Government allowed itself to “proactively advance fact-based narratives that support United States allies and interests” — proactively here menaing preemptively — rather than that the Government was the arbiter of what constitutes “real news”.

    (I do note you have not disputed his actual and explicit claim that it’s propaganda)

    There’s a bunch of luggage with the terminology, of course. News is news, and fake news is therefore still news — just not veridical.

    (As usual, caveat emptor. Consilience is your friend)

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