Reporting “truth” is a trickier problem than we might think. [stderr] Our interpretations are subtly, or unsubtly, adjusted by the reporters’ selection of words.

But that’s only part of it. As Howard Zinn points out, the truth in history is as much a matter of what you leave out as what you put in. So, what about entire stories that are left out? The New York Times has recently begun a massive marketing campaign revolving around the idea of “Truth.”

Does The New York Times deal in truth? Or is it just marketing? In my terms, I do not say that The New York Times is reporting the truth; it is reporting an edited version of the truth, which has been edited by the establishment. And, since it’s edited by the establishment, those edits being in service of the establishment, I would say The New York Times is not even a newspaper, it’s an establishment propaganda arm.

Regarding its treatment of America’s nuclear arsenal [stderr] The New York Times is credulous and unquestioningly spreads a highly distorted view of nuclear policy – that’s a nice way of saying “lies.” I’m willing to accept a plea of ignorance on the part of the reporter (which would also say something pretty nasty about The New York Times) but that stretches credulity; it takes only a small amount of research and thought to realize that the US Military is lying about the nuclear “upgrade.” If you were able to read and understand my explanation of what’s going on, we should be able to expect a journalist from a newspaper with the standing of The New York Times to understand it as well. That’s why I say “they are lying” not “they are ignorant.” And, by the way, lying about nuclear weapons policy is really not nice; nuclear weapons are one of the supremely important matters of public interest.

Keep this all in the context of the “Russia interfering with US election” story; at various times various agencies have claimed that they didn’t say anything about what was going on, because they were afraid it would negatively affect someone or other during the 2016 election. When we think through the time-lines of who said what and when and what effect it had, I think it’s fairly clear that James Comey’s various comments about Hillary Clinton’s emails had a political effect. We can allow Comey and various pundits to argue about what that effect was, but by choosing to say what he said, and when, it made some difference. And The New York Times has pointed that out. [nyt] i.e.:

Mr. Comey made a fateful decision in October 2016, when he was the F.B.I. director. In a letter that was immediately made public (you can read it here), he told Congress the agency was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Naughty, naughty, Comey. The New York Times are a bunch of hypocritical liars when they point out that Comey was making decisions with political effect, when The New York Times itself has a history of making editorial decisions that have a political effect. And they follow that up with a marketing campaign about “Truth.”

One of the NYT’s new ads. Its very truthy.

What if I told you that The New York Times has a lengthy history of adjusting the stories it chooses to report on, for political effect?

It’s obvious; they do. The New York Times reported on the My Lai massacre – a little four paragraph mention, heavily sanitized, on page 14 – it didn’t start reporting on it as what it was, until Sy Hersh broke the story in Dispatch News Service – and then it was front page news at The New York Times. [wp] All of that was in November, 1969: midterm elections. When you start digging into the history of The New York Times selective editing of history, elections are one of the primary reasons. But there’s always an election coming up, or just finishing; there’s always an excuse.

Is the excuse a good one? I guess it depends on whether or not you believe you’re a free press. And The New York Times does not believe it’s a free press, it merely acts as though it is; it goes through the motions. For one thing, it keeps the government’s secrets if the government asks nicely. In other words, it manipulates public perception at the government’s behest. James Comey’s choice of timing his announcements pales into insignificance compared to the stories that The New York Times delays covering, because the government asked nicely.

That’s something that anyone who follows the news should suspect, somewhere between subconscious and painful awareness. For me, it surfaced in my awareness while I was tracking the illegal government surveillance stories. Working with spooks, as I have, and in computer security, as I do, one hears of these things – listening posts, fiber taps, backdoors in encryption. And sometimes there’s news about them, confirming those murmurs, and we believe that the newspapers are reporting the truth.

A different truth starts to creep up on you when you discover the degree to which an important newspaper like The New York Times is willing to kill stories in order to make the government happy. James Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the CIA’s “black sites” in Thailand, and who broke elements of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, describes his experience in a piece at The Intercept [in]

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began asking the press to kill stories more frequently. They did it so often that I became convinced the administration was invoking national security to quash stories that were merely politically embarrassing. In late 2002, for instance, I called the CIA for comment on a story about the existence of a secret CIA prison in Thailand that had just been created to house Al Qaeda detainees, including Abu Zubaydah. In response, Bush administration officials called the Times and got the paper to kill the story. I disagreed with the paper’s decision because I believed that the White House was just trying to cover up the fact that the CIA had begun to set up secret prisons. I finally reported the information a year later.

I suppose “late 2002” would have been midterm elections, but does that really matter? The truth is that The New York Times had this important story, of national interest, and sat on it for at least a year. That’s not serving the truth, that’s serving the government.

One of the few stories I managed to get on the front page cast doubt on reports that an Iraqi intelligence officer had met with 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta in Prague before the attacks on New York and Washington. But Doug Frantz, then the investigations editor in New York, felt that he had to sneak it onto Page 1. “Given the atmosphere among the senior editors at The Times, I was concerned that the story would not make it to page 1 on a day when everyone was convened around the table,” Frantz emailed me recently. “So I decided that it was too important to appear inside the paper and went ahead and offered it on a Sunday; a day when the senior editors weren’t often involved in the discussion.”

Recall that, at that time, the Bush administration was trying to implicate Iraq in 9/11 so it could carry out its established plan to invade. Part of the story that was being promoted was that Iraq was involved in 9/11 – Risen’s story, in other words, was huge news. And he had to sneak it by on a day when the senior editors weren’t around to kill the story? Elsewhere Risen describes having reports of experienced intelligence analysts express doubts about the Iraq WMD story, and how he could not get those reports published; they’d sit in The New York Times output queue for weeks or months, then get chopped to pieces and dribbled out on page 14. This is politically important stuff – the US invasion of Iraq was not merely a crime against humanity and a national disaster, it was an expensive blunder. By choosing not to publish that information, isn’t The New York Times complicit in the disaster? Weren’t they hiding the truth; namely that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction? People died because of that; in fact you can draw a direct line between the invasion of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS, which led to the destruction of Syria, which led to a refugee crisis.

Journalists like Duncan Campbell, who have reported on the surveillance state for a very long time, pointed toward the existence of ECHELON and other illegal proceedings. In 2002:

Lichtblau had heard from a source that something potentially illegal was going on at DOJ, that officials seemed to be ignoring the law requiring warrants for national security wiretaps, and that Attorney General John Ashcroft might be involved.

Lichtblau and I compared notes, and we realized we were probably hearing about the same story. We decided to work together.

Build a time-line:

By the fall of 2004, we had a draft of a story. I felt it was time to go through the front door, so I decided on impulse to try to bluff my way to the top of the NSA. I called the NSA’s press spokesperson, Judy Emmel, and told her I had to talk to Hayden immediately. I said it was urgent, and I couldn’t tell her what it was about.

Oh, dear:

We were operating against the backdrop of the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. With a week or two to go before the election, Lichtblau and I, along with Corbett and Taubman, went to New York for a meeting with Keller and Abramson to decide whether the story would be published.

Bill Keller was The New York Times executive editor. Apparently Bill Keller is one of the people who decides what The Truth is for America. They spiked the story.

Keller now also says that the overall climate in the country in 2004 provides important context for his decision not to run the story. In a 2013 interview with then-Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, he expanded on that, saying that “three years after 9/11, we, as a country, were still under the influence of that trauma, and we, as a newspaper, were not immune. It was not a kind of patriotic rapture. It was an acute sense that the world was a dangerous place.”

Risen eventually broke the story in 2006.

(my version)

How dare they talk about The Truth.

------ divider ------

The entire interview with James Risen is very interesting and is worth reading.

Over at Mano Singham’s there was some discussion about journalism, and I commented, “what is the price of a journalist’s soul? access.” Sure, Risen was able to collect some important information, that impacted the well-being of the republic – yet he was remarkably easy to silence, when it came down to it. Risen may have known the truth, but he didn’t serve it.


  1. Allison says

    Oh God, yes.

    I live in the NYC area, and it seems like everyone I know reads “The Times” and, as far as I can tell, regard it as gospel truth. (They’re always quoting it, anyway.) I used to pick up my free copy from the ones that other commuters left on the train, but I eventually got sick of the way it pandered to the privileged classes and those in power, and I stopped bothering. (Remember the line “I get the news I need on the weather report”?) From what I can tell, the only difference between the New York Times and the New York Post (or the National Enquirer) is the demographic they’re pandering to. It’s all just gossip puttin’ on airs.

    I also used to listen to NPR, but I got fed up for pretty much the same reason. The breaking point came in the 2004 election, when they kept repeating the “Swiftboat veteran” propaganda even after they had reported that it was debunked. If anything, as time has gone on, NPR has become more and more like the media outlets it claims to be better than. “News in depth” — don’t make me laugh!

    Anyway, I find that the only actual information in Mainstream Media stories is in the headlines. The stories are mostly regurgitations of speculation, power-structure spin, and unsubstantiated reports, most of which I can predict from the headlines.

    And since the 2016 election, all the news channels seem to be nothing but “All Trump, All the Time,” and I have better things to do with my life than to listen to endless repetitions of That Man’s lies and confabulations.

  2. says

    Even when something is an absolute truth, people will find a way to have different perspectives about it. In our current regime time, I’m afraid the meaning of truth has been forcibly tossed over the side of the ship, to sink in obscurity.

  3. jrkrideau says

    As someone who does not live in the USA, I probably have only read the NYT 3 or 4 times.

    I have no idea about how good it or other major US media is on internal issues or news but I totally ignore anything from it to Fox News as a believable source of international news.

    The buildup to the 2nd Gulf War suggested that Goebbels would have been envious.

    Any media can get something wrong but the US media were purely propaganda machines in the lead up to the invasion.

  4. says

    There’s a Russian newspaper with the name Pravda. The word “pravda” (Russian: Правда) means “truth” is Russian. The name is truly ironic, because Pravda used to be the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Nowadays there is still a newspaper using this name, which has been accused of supporting the Russian government’s position on pretty much every subject, on top of that it also produces neo-Soviet, Russian nationalist news and outright conspiracy theories. (Their English version is here

    It’s interesting how whenever some newspaper tries to loudly talk about truth, the chances are that its articles contain very little of it.

    I’m willing to accept a plea of ignorance on the part of the reporter (which would also say something pretty nasty about The New York Times) but that stretches credulity; it takes only a small amount of research and thought to realize that the US Military is lying about the nuclear “upgrade.”

    Whenever some Latvian newspaper spreads a highly distorted view of USA nuclear policy, I tend to assume that some overworked journalist was forced to write about a topic they aren’t familiar with. The New York Times has more readers than all Latvian newspapers combined. That’s what you get when you try to write in a language that has less than two million speakers. All Latvian newspapers are very small, each one of them employs very few journalists who are forced to write about every topic there is. And it’s impossible for a single journalist to be knowledgeable about everything. The best they can do is repeat whatever was said in some press release. However, I do not accept this same excuse from American newspapers, because those have a lot more resources—if they wanted, they could do a lot better than just quoting press releases.

    Over at Mano Singham’s there was some discussion about journalism, and I commented, “what is the price of a journalist’s soul? access.” Sure, Risen was able to collect some important information, that impacted the well-being of the republic – yet he was remarkably easy to silence, when it came down to it. Risen may have known the truth, but he didn’t serve it.

    Let’s assume some journalist has no children, no spouse to support. They don’t have to worry about income either, because their rich aunt died and left them a stash of cash. What do you propose this journalist to do? Publish a blog post the first moment they get a tiny bit of secret information? The moment they do this, it is game over, they lose access to any more information, their journalistic career is over. They get replaced by another journalist who is obedient and willing to keep their mouth shut when asked to do so. The whole system is engineered in such a way that a single journalist who is concerned with truth cannot do much. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Risen, he did what he could.

  5. komarov says

    The truth is not for you

    That might also have been their conclusion after seeing the Ankh Morpork Times’ (misprinted) motto: The truth shall make ye fret!

    The “access” issue is a bit tricky. As Ieva Skrebele points out, inconvenient journalists and their parent papers can easily be ignored by the government. The power balance is off since the government can exclude or disinvite journalists. What seems to be missing (or isn’t enforced) is the government’s obligation to share their information with everyone, not just the supportive side of the journalistic corps. Whatever script the press secretary has come up with is given to everyone, not just those who have proven they know to read the correct in-between.
    That means no revoking press passes for news channels because Trump yells fake news every time he hears their letters. Ideally it would even mean no press passes at all because there’d be no need for special press privileges: If a concerned citizen showed up to join in and maybe ask a few pointed questions, by all means. (Who decides who counts as ‘press’ anyway? Wouldn’t be the government, would it?) But citizens asking questions and actually receiving answers does sound dangerously democratic.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Ieva Skrebele
    Sounds a lot like Правда and the New York Times.

    Do people in Russia still use this? I think I have spelled it correctly.

    Правда не известия и известия не правда.

  7. cartomancer says

    Around 200 AD the Greek philosopher and satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote his “True History”. It must rank as the truest work of literature ever written. It’s a load of farcical fantasy nonsense from start to finish, of course, but he does at least introduce it with a disclaimer that it is a scurrilous pack of lies and nobody should believe a word of it.

    Perhaps the New York Times ought to adopt a similar editorial policy.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @7 ahcuah
    Thanks, I was going from a 40 year old memory and I had never actually see the phrase written down, just remember a prof making the joke in class.

  9. Dunc says

    What if I told you that The New York Times has a lengthy history of adjusting the stories it chooses to report on, for political effect?

    I’d probably put on my best Inspector Renault impersonation and declaim that “I’m shocked – shocked – to discover gambling going on in here!”

    Once again, I feel the need to ask: you have read “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, right?

    I would say The New York Times is not even a newspaper, it’s an establishment propaganda arm.

    What do you think a newspaper is? It’s a propaganda organ for whoever owns it. Please don’t tell me you ever believed all that horseshit about truth and a duty to the public… That’s for Saturday morning cartoons.

  10. kurt1 says

    The NY Times is the paper of record -> history is written by the victor* -> The NYT is written by government interests.

    The Times fits perfectly in Edward S Hermanns and Noam Chomskys propaganda model. Even though it’s a bit tedious “Manufacturing Consent” was eye opening when i first read it.

    *and by Howard Zinn

  11. says

    jrkrideau @#6

    Do people in Russia still use this?

    I don’t know. I’m not a Russian, I’m a polyglot. The fact that I hadn’t heard this joke from my Russian speaking acquaintances doesn’t prove that people don’t use it. There’s still a newspaper with the title Izvestia, though. That means it is still possible to make this joke.

    @#11 and @#12

    I added Manufacturing Consent to my reading queue.

    By now, I have come to the point where I see most of the things that governments do as propaganda. Consider holidays, for example, 4th July for the USA; 14th July for France (Bastille Day); 3rd October for Germany (The Day of German Unity); 18th November for Latvia (that’s when the independence day is celebrated here). USSR had 7th November (Great October Socialist Revolution). Nowadays Russians celebrate the 9th May instead (Victory Day, the end of WWII). Pretty much every country has some version of this crap. Governments tend to spend huge amounts of money on organizing all the celebrations. Why do citizens even need these days? Those days are just big propaganda events—love your country, be patriotic, be happy that your country is exactly the way it is, etc. messages are all they are about.

    At school in history lessons my teacher told us about the horrors of the Soviet regime, and the message was obvious then—be happy that history happened the way it did, be happy that the Soviet Union fell apart, because otherwise you would be now living in a shithole. My 16-years-old-self who sat through those history lessons in a public school failed to realize that this was propaganda. I assumed that what I was being told made sense—life in USSR was objectively worse than in the current capitalistic country, therefore I should be happy that USSR fell apart and I now live in the country that I’m living in. But should I really? Does “things could be even worse than they are now” really is a good argument when trying to prove that I must be satisfied with how things are now? Now I perceive this as a weak and problematic argument.

    Every fucking regime tries hard to justify itself in the eyes of its citizens. They all do that. But why is this even necessary? If citizens really were happy with their country and enjoyed everything about it, they would just be happy about their country every day as they go through their daily life. There would be no need for additional propaganda to remind them that they live in such a great country, there would also be no need to convince citizens that their country truly is so great.