Monday, August 03, 2009

Judith Miller: the haunting

The spirit of Judith Miller clearly lives on at the New York Times. After the fiasco of the Iraq War and the poor performance of most press outlets in the run-up to it, news consumers have a right to expect that major, allegedly respectable press agencies not just type up propaganda press releases from anonymous intelligence sources without reasonably solid confirmation.

Today, the New York Times reports on Venezuela's alleged continuing support for the FARC narco-guerrillas in neighboring Colombia: Venezuela Still Aids Colombia Rebels, New Material Shows by Simon Romero 08/03/09.

And where did Romero find his new material? Well, he tells us it came from "computer material captured from the rebels in recent months and under review by Western intelligence agencies." Presumably "under review" means that those anonymous intelligence agencies have yet reached their conclusions on the material. In other words, it's raw intelligence information of the kind that Doug Feith's infamous Office of Strategic Plans (OSP) stovepiped to Rummy and Dick Cheney's office that they then used as propaganda claims to justify invading Iraq.

Later, Romero writes, "The New York Times obtained a copy of the computer material from an intelligence agency that is analyzing it." Not only are the individual(s) and the agency providing the information anonymous to the reader. So is the country it came from! The US Defense Intelligence Agency? The Colombian Ministry to Bamboozle Foreigners? Who knows? All Romero tells us is that it is "under review by Western intelligence agencies". And even the agency providing it is still analyzing it. The agency itself, according to Romero, isn't ready to draw conclusions from it. But he and the New York Times are willing to publicize the claims and given them credibility, just like Judith Miller's front-page stories on the existence of Iraq's non-existent WMDs gave credibility to Cheney's and Bush's war propaganda.

Romero also observes further down in the article:

The latest evidence, suggesting that the FARC operates easily in Venezuela, may put the Obama administration in a tough spot. President Obama has recently tried to repair Washington’s relations with Venezuela, adopting a nonconfrontational approach to Mr. Chávez that stands in contrast to the Bush administration’s often aggressive response to his taunts and insults.
If the editors at the New York Times remembered their own journalistic malpractice in the run up to the Iraq War and intended to correct it, they most likely would not be running raw intelligence for whose validity even their own super-anonymous sources apparently won't vouch. Particularly when it has real and immediate policy consequences.

Politics is politics, and relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been strained for years. So it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Venezuela has been providing some aid to the FARC. But I also don't want to be conned about it. And the neocons and other rightwingers have been working for years on painting Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez as yet another a bogeyman to fear.

So why is the Times running such a thinly-sourced story on its front page? Note: "thinly-sourced" means just that; it does not mean that the information is false but that there is no good reason for anyone to believe it's accurate based on the story itself. Especially since the agency leaking the information apparently isn't prepared to vouch for its accuracy themselves! Amazing.

And why did the Times agree to such blanket anonymity?

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