Two days ago BuzzFeed published a front page story, under a “BREAKING” banner, headlined: President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project
In the article, Buzzfeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier claim to have been told, by two anonymous sources, that Robert Mueller’s “Russiagate” investigation had evidence Donald Trump had instructed his lawyer to lie to Congress. That would be a felony, and obviously an impeachable offence.
The reaction of the news media and associated twitterati was as quick as it was predictable. MSNCBC, CNN, the BBC, The Guardian…the usual suspects. They were all over it within hours.
But then, less than a day later, Robert Mueller’s spokesperson Peter Carr issued this statement:
BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,”
Despite this, BuzzFeed is sticking to its guns. Insisting that Mueller’s statement is vague, and therefore does not undercut the heart of their story.
The rest of the mainstream media are sensing the tone though and jumping ship. The Washington Post – not known for their pro-Trump slant – ran an editorial pointing out the scarcity of Mueller’s public comment (this the first statement Mueller has ever issued concerning evidence or claims in the press), and arguing that the rush to refute the BuzzFeed article means it is probably completely false.
Nevertheless, BuzzFeed has not retracted or altered their story in any way – except for putting in one small paragraph reporting that Mueller’s office disputes their story. There is no note of the update, and the rest of the story remains unchanged.
There is a striking parallel here, with a story Luke Harding contributed to The Guardian in late November last year: “Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy”
The article claimed Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort had met with Julian Assange at least three times prior to the 2016 Presidential Election. No evidence was produced, save the word of “unnamed intelligence officials”, “secret Ecuadorian documents” and the like. While the predictable news outlets picked up the story and ran with it with the eagerness of a 6-month-old Golden Retriever, we in the alternative media were quick to point out the logical and factual deficiencies in the story.
Within hours, The Guardian had edited its language to be rather more circumspect, and include the denials made by both accused parties. The edits made to the article were not noted or highlighted in any way, we only know they exist because of internet archives. The next day The Guardian released a brief, terse, defensive statement. That statement was itself refuted by both Manafort and WikiLeaks. As of today, WikiLeaks is actively pursuing legal action in this case.
Later, it was revealed that a key contributor to the story had been previously been convicted of forgery.
No apology has been made, and no retraction issued, no explanation given. Both the editor, Katherine Viner, and Luke Harding have been totally silent on the topic.
So, in the last 2 months both Buzzfeed and The Guardian have issued “BREAKING NEWS” stories that made bold claims, but were not backed up with any evidence. Both these stories were shown to be untrue in less than 24 hours.
Anonymous sources are a common area here – both stories rely exclusively on the word of “unnamed sources” from either “the intelligence services” or “government agencies”. Anonymous sources are the batarangs on the propagandist’s utility belt. Flexible, simple, timeless.
Anonymity allows government agencies to leak misinformation on purpose, without hurting their credibility. It allows newspapers to control public opinion without having any actual facts on hand. It allows intelligence agencies to plant narratives they may want to revisit, or to give targets of blackmail operations a warning. And, most obviously, it allows journalists to simply make stuff up.
I don’t know which specific class these two stories fall into – but I do know it’s one or all of them.
So we come to the question of motive: BuzzFeed and The Guardian must have known there was no evidence to back up their assertions (yet, anyway). They must know the “significant minority” of the population who believe “conspiracy theories about their own government” will research and refute these claims.
So why publish them?
Well, in the Guardian’s case, every story demonising Assange discredits WikiLeaks’ future output, whilst also softening public sympathy for Assange in preparation for potential extradition of to the US. All the mainstream press have turned on WikiLeaks, but The Guardian – for some reason – has a particularly strong institutional axe to grind with WikiLeaks, and specifically Julian Assange.
Similarly, every “Russia bad!” story primes the public to accept increased defence spending, increased control of the internet by the government and increased social media censorship. It is very much the gift that keeps on giving in that regard.
In BuzzFeed’s case, it has been apparent for a while now that the Mueller investigation is likely to fizzle. Articles and interviews from various media sources have been prepping the public for a “let down” for a few weeks. At this point, there is no case for impeaching Trump. But the Deep State still needs to keep him over a barrel.
Trump has been a disappointment to his base and is yet to implement half the policies he discussed on the campaign trail, but he’s not fully and totally being controlled by the warhawking Deep State yet, either. His policy of peace with North Korea and decisions to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan show that there is a tug-of-war ongoing inside the administration. It’s probably no coincidence that this latest of many “bombshells” comes so quickly on the heels of Trump’s announcement of the Syria withdrawal.
Careful “leaks”, planted stories and social media witch-hunts remind Trump how precarious his position is, whilst simultaneously distracting the public – both pro-Trump and anti-Trump – from real issues.
The case-specific “why?” doesn’t matter so much as the general aim of this type of manipulation. The important question is: Why does the media tell lies if they know they will be revealed as such?
Clearly, the lies serve a purpose, regardless of their retraction or qualification.
Telling a lie loudly and then taking it back quietly is an old propaganda trick – it allows the paper to maintain a facade of “accountability”. The point of this practice is to propagate lies into the public consciousness. It’s a method that can be used to distract and disseminate and divide.
The accuracy of the statement is immaterial. The point is, once it has been said it cannot be unsaid. There are countless examples: “Assange was working for Russia”, “Trump ordered Cohen to lie to Congress”, “Russia hacked the US election”, “Donald Trump worked for the KGB”, “Assad gassed his own people”, “Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite”.
The list goes on and on and on. None these have been proven. All were asserted without evidence, fiercely defended as facts, and then discretely qualified.
That is the purpose of “fake news”, to forge the Empire’s “created reality”, and force us all to live in it. These are world-shaping, policy-informing, news-dominating narratives…and are nothing but feathers in the wind.
A perfect exemplar of this occurred just two days ago on the BBC’s flagship Political debate show Question Time:
— Momentum (@PeoplesMomentum) January 18, 2019
The (notionally impartial) host not only sided with right-wing author Isabel Oakeshott in criticising Labour’s polling, but then joined in mocking the Labour MP Diane Abbott for attempting to correct the record.
Both Oakeshott and Fiona Bruce, the host, were factually incorrect – as shown a hundred times over since. But that doesn’t matter. The lie was told, the audience laughed, the reality was created. “Labour are behind in the polls, anybody who says otherwise is a laughingstock”.
The lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.
That’s why fake news is so important to them, and so dangerous to us.