Once again, a reporter has been accused of writing fake stories – over a span of years – reinforcing the suspicion that we are living in a post-truth world where words, to paraphrase Kipling, “are the most powerful drug.”
This week, Der Spiegel, the German news weekly, was forced to admit that one of its former star reporters, the award-winning Claas Relotius, “falsified his articles on a grand scale.”
Indeed, it seems the disgraced journalist was motivated more by the writing style of fiction writers John le Carre and Tom Clancy than by late media heavyweights, like Andrew Breitbart and Walter Cronkite.
Relotius, who just this month took home Germany’s Reporterpreis (‘Reporter of the Year’) for his enthralling tale of a Syrian teenager, “made up stories and invented protagonists,” Der Spiegel admitted.
There is a temptation to rationalize Relotius’s multiple indiscretions, not to mention the failure of his fastidious employer to unearth them for so long, as an unavoidable part of the dog-eat-dog media jungle. After all, journalists are not robots – at least not yet – and we are all humans prone to poor judgment and mistakes, perhaps even highly unethical ones.
That explanation, however, falls short of explaining the internal forces battering away at the foundation of Western media, an institution built on the shifting sand of lies, disinformation and outright propaganda. And what is readily apparent to those outside of the Western media fortress is certainly even more apparent to those inside.
A good example is Russiagate. This elaborate myth, which has been peddled repeatedly and without an ounce of 100-percent real beef since the US election of 2016, goes like this: A group of Russian hackers, buying a few hundred social media memes for just rubles to the dollar, were able to do what all the Republican campaign strategists, and all the special interests groups, with all of their billions of dollars in their massive war chest, simply could not: keep Democratic voters at home on the couch come Election Day – a tactic now known as “voter suppression operations” – thereby handing the White House to Donald Trump on a silver platter. Or shall we say ‘a Putin platter’?
Don’t believe me? Here’s the opening line of a recent Washington Post article that should be rated ‘R’ for racist: “One difference between Russian and Republican efforts to quash the black vote: The Russians are more sophisticated, insidious and slick,” wailed Joe Davidson, who apparently watched too many Hollywood films where the Russkies play all of the villains. “Unlike the Republican sledgehammers used to suppress votes and thwart electorates’ decisions in various states, the Russians are sneaky, using social media come-ons that ostensibly had little to do with the 2016 vote.”
Meanwhile, Der Spiegel, despite being forced to come clean over the transgressions of Claas Relotius, will most likely never own up to its own factual shortcomings with regards to their dismal reporting on Russia.
For example, in an article published last year entitled ‘Putin’s work, Clinton’s contribution,’ the German weekly lamented that “A superpower intervenes in the election campaign of another superpower: The Russian cyber-attack in the US is a scandal.” Just like their fallen star reporter, Der Spiegel regurgitated fiction masquerading as news.
However, there is no need to limit ourselves to just media-generated Russian fairytales. The Western media has contrived other sensational stories, with its own cast of dubious characters, and with far greater consequences.
Consider the reporting in the Western media prior to the 2003 Iraq War, when most journalists were behaving as cheerleaders for military invasion as opposed to conscientious objectors, or at least objective observers. In fact, two reporters with the New York Times, Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, arguably gave the Bush administration and a hardcore group of neocons inside Washington, which had been pushing for a war against Saddam Hussein for many years, the barest justification it required for military action.
Just six months before the bombs started dropping on Baghdad, Gordon and Miller penned a front-page article in the Times that opened with this stunning claim: “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.”
The article in America’s ‘paper of record’ then proceeded to build the case for military action against Iraq by quoting an assortment of anonymous senior administration officials, anonymous Iraqi defectors, and anonymous chemical weapons experts. In fact, much of the story was based on comments provided by one ‘Ahmed al-Shemri,’ a pseudonym for someone purported to have been connected to Hussein’s chemical-weapons program. The authors quoted the mystery man as saying: “All of Iraq is one large storage facility.”
Gordon and Miller also claimed their source had said that “he had been told that Iraq was still storing some 12,500 gallons of anthrax.” Several months later, just weeks before the US invasion of Iraq commenced, US Secretary of State Colin Powell invited the UN General Assembly to imagine what a “teaspoon of dry anthrax” could do if unleashed on the public.
Powell, who later said the testimony would be a permanent “blot” on his record, even shook a tiny faux sample of the deadly biological agent in the Assembly for maximum theatrical effect.
Shortly after the release of the Times piece, top Bush officials appeared on television and alluded to Miller’s story in support of military action. Meanwhile, UN inspectors on the ground in Iraq never found chemical weapons or the materials needed to build atomic weapons. In other words, the $1-trillion-dollar war against Iraq, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, was a completely senseless act of aggression against a sovereign state, which the US media helped perpetrate.
Aside from the question of whether readers really put much faith in these fantastic media stories, complete with pseudonymous characters and impossible to prove claims; there remains another question. Does the Western media itself believe its own stories? The answer seems to be no, at least not always.
With regards to the Russiagate story, for example, an investigative journalism outfit, Project Veritas, caught a few Western journalists off-guard about their true feelings in relation to the claims against Russia, and their feelings in general about the state of the media.
“I love the news business, but I’m very cynical about it – and at the same time so are most of my colleagues,” CNN Supervising Producer John Bonifield admitted, unaware he was being secretly filmed.
When pushed to explain why CNN was beating the anti-Russia drum on a daily basis, things became clearer: “Because it’s ratings,” Bonifield said. “Our ratings are incredible right now.”
In the same media sting operation, Van Jones, a prominent CNN political commentator who has pushed the anti-Russia position numerous times on-air, completely changed his tune when caught off-air and off-guard. “The Russia thing is just a big nothing burger,” he remarked.
This brings us back to the story of the fallen Der Spiegel journalist. It seems that a deep cynicism has taken hold in at least some parts of the Western media establishment. Journalists seem increasingly willing to produce extremely tenuous, fact-challenged stories, many of which are barely held together by a rickety composite of anonymous entities.
And why not? If their own media bosses are permitting gross fabrications on a number of major issues, not least of all related to Russia, and further afield in Syria, why should the journalists be forced to play by the rules?
Under such oppressive conditions, where the media appears to be merely the mouthpiece of the government’s position on a number of issues, those working inside this apparatus will eventually come around to the conclusion that truth is not the main priority. The main priority is hoodwinking the public into believing something even when the facts – or lack of them – point to other conclusions.
Thus, it is no surprise when we find Western reporters imitating the greatest fiction writers, because in reality that is what they have already become.
By Robert Bridge