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BuzzFeed's big scoop and the media's giant factual loophole
Note to Readers: I have another chapter of “Hate Inc.” coming out Monday. Given the events of yesterday, however, I thought I’d first release a fragment of the chapter below, which had been scheduled for later
The Media’s Giant Factual Loophole
Call them “four-sourced clovers” – unverifiable scoops.
On Friday, January 18, Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the unusual step of releasing a statement essentially shooting down the latest “bombshell” in the Russiagate story, which had been released by BuzzFeed earlier that day. The BuzzFeed story said Donald Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to congress, which would potentially have been a felony.
Democrats after the BuzzFeed piece broke not only wasted no time calling for impeachment, but within hours began fundraising to the story. This is from a mass mailing issued that same day by DNC chief Tom Perez:
“Huge news just broke that indicates Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen lied to congress under the specific direction of Donald Trump himself… If you’re committed to holding Trump accountable… today is an important day to show it. Donate $3 right now to help Democrats…”
Mueller’s statement said “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office… are not accurate.” It was an extraordinary step, one an official in that position rarely takes unless it’s necessary.
It wasn’t the first time it happened. Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, 2017, former FBI director James Comey shot down a New York Times story from February 14th of that year suggesting Trump campaign officials had had repeated contacts with “senior Russian intelligence officials.”
Asked by Idaho Senator James Risch about that story, Comey said, “in the main, it was not true.”
The Times story had been sourced to multiple “current and former American officials.” How could it have been wrong? Or was Comey wrong?
Both stories belonged to an ancient tradition of reports, predating Russiagate, that live in a precarious loophole in the American system of media. As an Appendix to Hate Inc., I had written up the following:
The public largely misunderstands the “fake news” issue. Newspapers rarely fib outright. Most “lies” are errors of omission or emphasis. There are no Fox stories saying blue states have lower divorce rates, but neither are there MSNBC stories admitting many pro-choice Democrats struggle with a schism between their moral and political beliefs on abortion.
Most of what’s “fake” is in the caricature: of our own audiences, and especially of despised groups. As even Noam Chomsky said, newspapers are “full of facts.”
With one exception.
There is a loophole that involves a procedural flaw in Western journalism’s fact-checking tradition. It’s gotten worse with time. The offending story type nearly always has the same elements:
It involves national security or law enforcement;
It’s sourced to unnamed officials;
The basic gist of the scoop is classified or otherwise unconfirmable.
On August 25, 1986, the Wall Street Journal, citing multiple unnamed sources, stated without qualification “The U.S. and Libya are on a collision course.” The article said the American intelligence community had new information Moammar Qaddafi was planning terrorist acts and we therefore were planning to bomb the crap out of him. Oh, and he was possibly facing an internal coup, too.
"There are increasing signs that [Qaddafi has] resumed planning and preparations for terrorist acts,” the Journal wrote.
Other outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, later picked up the story. International tensions heightened.
The whole thing was a crock. It was an American-generated “deception plan” designed to make Qaddafi nervous. We only found out because another unnamed person with a conscience designed to leak the memo explaining as much (the memo had been written by Reagan National Security Adviser John Poindexter) to Bob Woodward.
I call these stories “four-sourced clovers,” because the number of unnamed sources claiming to bolster such questionable scoops has, humorously, grown over time.
The “senior Russian intelligence officials” story James Comey was forced to shoot down had four unnamed sources. So did this one, suggesting Trump was about to fire the Fed chair. Luke Harding had two for his recent Guardian bombshell.
A lot of these stories begin with a single high-ranking intelligence official speaking to a reporter (or team of reporters) at an esteemed paper like the Times or the Washington Post. The reporters might ask for additional confirmation. The official gives them some names. They call the names.
The names might belong to agency subordinates, or to retired officials now working at think tanks or private “research” agencies. They confirm the initial story in its particulars. So you get four sources, or maybe six, but depending on the story type, it’s really just one story that’s been cycled through four friendly heads – a game of telephone with the reporter at the end.
Incidentally: it’s a red flag if the call is coming from the official, as opposed to the reporter calling the officials. The average intelligence official wouldn’t stop to tell you if your child was on fire. When they start cold-calling agencies, and/or rotating scoops by doling them out to different outlets and papers each week, that’s a huge red flag. When you see one of these stories, check to see if that reporter has a history of national security pieces. If he or she does not, if this transmission of classified scoops is taking place in the context of a new relationship, be extra wary.
Why? Because relationships matter in journalism. Reporters theoretically anyway must be willing to go to jail to protect their sources. Similarly, no good source will want to burn a reporter with whom he or she has a longstanding relationship.
It’s not easy for any security official to find a journalist with the intelligence, integrity, and wherewithal to successfully protect their identities. When an official finds a reporter who’s proved he or she will not burn them by running off-the-record disclosures, the official will tend to want to protect that relationship. The official therefore will not knowingly dump a big steaming pile of horseshit on that reporter’s lap.
So for instance, there was a pretty good chance the particulars of the story were correct when David Ignatius of the Washington Post printed the first “bombshell” about Michael Flynn having had phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It’s an open secret in the business that Ignatius is basically the pet reporter of the CIA.
God only knows who his source was on the Flynn story, but it was interesting that he ran a slobbering 2000+-word profile of departing CIA director John Brennan shortly after, somehow managing not to mention Brennan’s infamous episode of lying to congress about hacking the computers of Senate staffers.
In other words, we know the CIA folks aren’t going to toss their beloved Ignatius in the Judith Miller memorial shame-dungeon. There were some other things in that Flynn piece that raised eyebrows, but the gist of it was almost certainly dead-on.
In so many other cases, you just can’t been sure. Remember these stories?
Israel Ramps Up Campaign Against Gaza Aid Flotilla, 2011
When Israel effected a naval blockade of the Gaza strip, pro-Palestinian activists (including the likes of Alice Walker) organized to try to break through with boats to deliver humanitarian aid. In advance of the arrival of those flotilla-challenging civilians, Israeli authorities told every reporter with a pulse they had firm intel violence was planned.
This is from the above Washington Post article about the story:
On Tuesday, Israeli newspapers were filled with reports from unnamed military officials, charging that sacks of chemicals, including sulfur, had been loaded onto flotilla vessels with the aim of using the materials against Israeli soldiers. The reports, citing military intelligence sources, said that some activists had spoken in preparatory meetings of their desire to “shed the blood” of soldiers and had threatened to kill those who might board their ships.
“Coming to kill,” said a headline in the Maariv newspaper over a photo of one vessel.
About a month later most of the activists, stuck in Greece, gave up and went home. Five months later a few boats tried to break through, and “activists from nine nations surrendered peacefully.”
It’s possible Israeli officials really did have intel about planned violence. Whether they did or not, telling the whole world about it in advance pre-justified almost anything that might later have taken place on the seas. This is one of the most common varieties of these tales, intel agencies salting audiences with scary warnings, so later action looks more proportionate. There were examples of this in the months prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident as well, before the Kosovo campaign, really before any military action it’s standard. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it sure is tough for a civilian reporter to check.
US Officials Increasingly Concerned Iran Could Attack Israel, May 18, 2018
CNN this past summer helpfully relayed concerns of “several” unnamed officials who warned Iran might be on the “cusp” of an attack against Israel. It might have been true. Who knows? The language of the piece seemed pulled from Team America World Police: “Iran is about attack Israel – isn’t that right, Intelligence?”
“Intelligence is not clear on when an attack could come and what form it would take, they said, with one official noting that ‘if there is an attack, it might not be immediately clear it’s Iran.’”
So there may or may not be an attack, and if there is one, it might not look at first like Iran is behind it, although you might want to assume they are, if it happens, and we’re not saying it will.
How do you confirm that?
These stories aren’t always about national security. Take, for instance, this piece:
Evidence Supports Officer’s Account of Shooting in Ferguson, October 23, 2014
Having written a book about the controversy surrounding the grand jury investigation of a police killing, I know this is very dicey territory for reporters. The central conundrum with grand jury investigations is that sources will often reveal bits of testimony, but almost never put their names behind their information for the very good reason that they’re typically prohibited from doing so by law.
I say almost never, because some grand jury witnesses feel strongly enough about what they’re doing to take the risk. I had three grand jury witnesses in the Eric Garner case come forward by name. The New York Times got a key witness to put her name to the information that she’d been instructed by prosecutors not to use the word “chokehold.”
In the above Washington Post account of the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, the sourcing appeared to be a weird game of racial telephone:
More than a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses have provided testimony to a St. Louis County grand jury that largely supports Wilson’s account of events of Aug. 9, according to several people familiar with the investigation who spoke with The Washington Post.
So: unnamed black grand jury witnesses told other unnamed “people familiar with the investigation” who in turn told the Washington Post that testimony largely supported Wilson’s account of a righteous shoot.
Not to delve too deeply into this case about which many people have very strong opinions, but the actual legal issues in the Wilson-Brown case were subtle. There were multiple sticking points. One was the whole issue of why Brown was stopped in the first place.
Most of the American public saw the gnarly footage of Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store. But Brown was actually stopped for the legally meaningless offense of “blocking traffic.” Wilson also allegedly saw cigars in Brown’s hands, conveniently providing the probable cause for arrest, at which point Brown supposedly tried to reach into a squad car and take Wilson’s gun.
The sequence of events from there supposedly involved Wilson firing twice from the car, hitting Brown once on the thumb and missing with the other shot. Brown then fled and was 160 feet away when he turned around, at which point Wilson fired ten more times, in self defense (I’m being generous not putting that in quotes).
That the grand jury ultimately decided to accept this account could already have been inferred from the fact that they returned no bill in St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCullough’s effort to indict Wilson. McCullough, who ostensibly was the one seeking that indictment, sounded more like a defense counsel after the grand jury’s decision. He described eyewitness accounts that Brown had attempted to surrender as having been “completely refuted by the evidence.”
Okay, then - we get it, the grand jury decided to believe Wilson’s story. So what is the point of the Washington Post piece? The major piece of information in it is that six black witnesses provided accounts that “largely” supported Wilson’s version of the shooting.
These black witnesses did not speak to reporters directly, as witnesses had in the Garner case, to me and to Times reporters Al Baker, David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller. Instead, their accounts were relayed to the Post reporters via the telephone game, through “people familiar with the story,” whose races were of course not mentioned.
It should be noted prosecutors are barred from providing information to the public about what’s discussed in a grand jury proceeding. If they want to do it, they normally have to ask a judge, as prosecutor Dan Donovan did in the Garner case. Donovan got permission from Judge Stephen Rooney to tell the public he’d called fifty witnesses and shown them sixty exhibits over nine weeks.
When various groups asked the same Judge to break the grand jury seal for other information, they were denied.
The same thing happened in Ferguson. Although we got to hear through the Washington Post that someone characterized the testimony of six black witnesses as supporting Wilson’s account, at least one actual grand juror in the case was mad enough to sue to ask permission to tell his side of the story.
The unnamed juror (who couldn’t offer a name) sued because he or she felt the public’s impression of the grand jury’s work was “not entirely accurate.” The plaintiff said the case had a “stronger focus on the victim” than other cases the grand jury heard, i.e. the juror felt prosecutors were trying to put Michael Brown on trial more than Wilson.
The judge struck down the suit.
This is a perfect example of the “four-source clover” effect. You’ve got multiple unnamed sources telling reporters something they really can’t check in any conventional way. They could have used their names if they had so chosen, but did not.¹
Meanwhile another person literally goes to court to ask permission to give the world his or her name and tell his or her story, and is denied.
One of the most infamous varieties of this story of story involves drone strikes, as in:
U.S. Drones and Yemeni Forces Kill Qaeda-Linked Fighters, Officials Say
It used to be a big deal for America to be at war. When 8,000 American troops spent three days shooting Cubans hiding behind palm trees in the island of Grenada, apparently to rescue 600 medical school students, the country was transfixed. War! Shooting! Helicopters! Awesome!
The press swarmed over the island and Tom Brokaw got to do a special report complete with rat-a-tatting “Breaking News!” typewriter sounds that included a graphic with two hastily-composed computer warships (they looked like trace jobs from Battleship pieces) sitting outside the harbor at St. George.
Today we bomb people basically nonstop and it never makes the news. The average American had no idea we were at war in seven countries last year, and that was just the official disclosure. In addition to actions in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Niger, we’d been aiding the Saudi bombing of Yemen for nearly 1,100 consecutive days on December 11, 2017, when the Pentagon submitted its latest “where the hell we’re currently at war” summary – also known as a section 1264 report, which has to be delivered to congress every six months under the National Defense Authorization Act.
That’s about as much as the military is required to tell us these days about what it’s doing. We were already occupying a third of Syria before the military really bothered to tell anyone. The Washington Post informed us somewhat after the fact that we intended to stay in country on an “indefinite” basis. Congress neither debated nor authorized this action.
So in a world where not just wars but occupations can safely be left out of the news, imagine how the reporting works on individual bombings.
There is a lengthy story about how we even have the authority to kill people in countries all across the globe by remote aircraft; those interested can read here. The government as recently as last spring asserted in an American courtroom that it had the right to authorize “lethal action” against even an American citizen without indictment, probable cause, even notice, due to a series of legal loopholes so preposterous they would impress Kafka.
So our drones are in the air constantly, searching out the enemies of democracy. How does someone get on the Kill List? Ususally through a combination of human intelligence and algorithmic analysis. In the Obama years there were meetings cheerfully known as “Terror Tuesdays,” in which lists of soon-to-be-dead were approved.
You can get on the list by being a “military-aged male” in one of our “small war” zones, by carrying a weapon, by calling the wrong cell phone number, and for dozens of other reasons. So we have a list (known as the “Disposition Matrix”) and our flying robots zoom around the globe, crossing borders without permission, dropping payloads whenever we think we’ve spotted one of our targets.
We hit with surgical precision. In fact, we’re so good, we’ve killed the same terrorist twice on dozens of occasions.
This is how totally without ethics our intelligence sources are, and how lazy newspapers are – we don’t even notice when we report the same terrorist killed by drone on different dates in different countries!
Fahd al-Quso was hit by a missile on Sunday as he stepped out of his vehicle… The drone strike that killed Quso was carried out by the CIA after an extended joint surveillance operation with the US military, two American officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
And here we are killing him in Pakistan, two years before:
One of the FBI's most wanted terrorists was killed alongside a Briton by a drone attack in Pakistan last month targeting al-Qaeda operatives planning a Mumbai-style attack in Europe, according to reports...
In all, there were four different publicly-reported bombings in which al Quso was supposedly the target. We killed him those two times in Yemen and Pakistan, but we also tried to kill him on at least one other occasion in Yemen. The New York Times cited non-government sources in saying we hit al-Quso’s car on July 14, 2011 (he’s called al-Qusaa in their piece). One estimate places the total number of people killed in efforts to kill al Quso at 48.
We do this so often, a non-profit in England took over a year to count just the publicly double-killed terrorists. The London-based Reprieve organization found that 1,147 people were killed by drones in efforts to kill just 41 men. Twenty-four men were reported killed or targeted multiple times in Pakistan. Those attacks resulted in 874 people dead, including 142 children. Just in pursuit of Ayman al Zawahiri, we killed 76 children (he’s still alive).
There are several issues here. If we’re reporting someone killed more than once, someone who is not Fahd al Quso or Baitullah Maisud or Qari Hussain is actually dying in each case. Yet read the accounts of all of these bombings and see if you notice a pattern, as in the case of the Times report above about how drones killed “Qaeda-linked fighters”:
WASHINGTON — American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants linked to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months, officials from both countries said Monday.
At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities, government officials said in a statement.”
Unnamed “officials” tell us the “militants” killed were planning to “attack civilian and military facilities.”
True? Possibly. How would a reporter really know? One thing we do know, however, is we kill a significant number of civilians, and children, and these people never appear in the information handed to reporters.
Pick out any one of these stories at random. Suspected IS spokesman Aziz Azam was supposedly killed in an “IS hideout” in Afghanistan in late December. Was he the only one killed? Who else died? Nobody is ever mentioned.
Remember that MOAB bomb we dropped that sent an entire couch full of Fox analysts into painful tumescence? Remember them gushing about how that’s “what freedom looks like,” and Geraldo Rivera saying “one of his favorite things to watch” is “dropping bombs on bad guys”?
In that orgiastic case we dropped a 21,000-pound bomb, which initial reports said killed 36 “militants,” and “no civilians were affected by the explosion.”
By the next day, April 15, 2017, the death toll was “at least 90 militants,” and none of them were civilians!
How about that for precision! America, fuck yeah!
When I studied in the Soviet Union, a Russian friend told me a joke about what a typical Pravda headline looked like: «АВИАКАТАСТРОФА - ЖЕРТВ НЕТ!» (AIR CATASTROPHE - NO VICTIMS!). Most Russians at least had the decency to not believe this stuff in private. But we swallow similar absurdities on a regular basis.
We know our open-ended bombing campaign kills children, in quite large numbers. So how can anyone with even half a brain think that we can drop the largest non-nuclear bomb on earth, have it hit a group of people, and seriously believe no innocent people were killed?
In a lot of these “four-source clover” stories, reporters technically don’t do anything wrong. In fact, we’re taught: we’re clear to run stories, so long as multiple reputable sources are saying the same thing.
In rare cases it’s even considered acceptable to try to push a story forward with one unnamed source. Some of the most famous stories in history were broken this way. Watergate was a great example.
The issue is with the assessment of “reputability.” To me, reporters have been burned so often by government officials from nearly every national security agency that there should be a big disclaimer on any article sourced entirely to these no-named folks, i.e. “four current and former officials from an agency with a record of lying to the media that dates back to the U.S.S. Maine said today.”
There are lots of good journalists who would disagree about this. There are gut calls we make in this job. Especially when the info your unnamed source puts out is actually derogatory to the government, you might be more inclined to act on a hunch.
But so many things are beyond confirmation, and we run them anyway. The errors are piling up fast enough that we might want to reconsider the practice.
¹ Re the unnamed Ferguson sources: perhaps they’d have risked a penalty to offer their names. But others had taken that same risk in other cases - like the Garner case - because they felt strongly enough about what they felt was the truth that they were willing to incur consequences to tell their stories. The same is very rarely true for unnamed sources. In some cases, as in the Chelsea Manning case, an anonymous source is taking a big risk. But most of the anonymous sources in the above examples were probably bosses, not underlings. Why would the head of the CIA need to be nameless? A general? A chief of police or D.A.? Always take that into consideration. What is the purpose of the anonymity? Is it to protect someone’s job or freedom? Or to insulate the person against political consequence if the story goes sideways?
The key to all of this is, most officials have no mandate to protect a news outlet’s reputation. They’ll happily burn anyone and not lose a wink of sleep. They’ve been doing so for decades. TV channels and newspapers to them exist to be used politically. In some cases an official will develop a working relationship with a reporter who perhaps semi-knowingly transmits dicey, “trust us”-style information (this is similar to the way short-sellers have working relationships with financial reporters). But just as often, the news outlet is in the dark. They’re assuming a person with a government title won’t screw them, despite extensive evidence to the contrary. They always think: “This is different from My Lai, the missile gap, the Pentagon Papers, the ‘Soviets planned the papal assassination’ story, WMDs, the seventy-plus American backed foreign coups, and countless other incidents. In this era, my era, officials don’t lie.”
Wrong. They lie constantly and always have, yet for some reason, we allow them to keep doing it.
One last note. One of the reasons this trend is worsening has to do with class changes in this business (ironically, this is the subject of this coming week’s chapter).
The old days were obviously no panacea. Reporters until recently almost uniformly were white men, which had an obvious deleterious effect on journalism.
However, back in the day, reporters did tend to come from a different class than the people they reported on in government. A newspaperman in the forties or fifties socially was somewhere between a plumber and the administrator of a typing school. Often he was not college-educated.
Celebrated radio man Walter Winchell worked for a newspaper called “The Graphic” early in his career. Legend has it he was asked in those days if he worked at a newspaper. He supposedly joked in reply: “Yeah, but don’t tell my mother. She still thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.” Might be an apocryphal story, but it gives a clue about where the newspaperman was class-wise back then.
Meanwhile the worthies who established the OSS and later the CIA were almost exclusively products of the Ivy League. The cliches about the Bushes bringing their goofball Skull and Bones sensibility to secret service governance were true. The secret agent was a silver spoon creature.
There was therefore a natural antipathy – at least a little – between some reporters and the self-appointed philosopher-kings who worked in secret agencies and spent their days deciding what the world map would look like.
That antipathy is gone today. Reporters, especially national ones, often come from the same schools as FBI and spy chiefs, and they worship the big brains at Langley. There’s an obsession with credentials and resumes that would have made reporters of the Sy Hersh school puke.
So when unnamed “officials” with secret clearances call reporters today, reporters wet themselves. They’ll print anything they’re told, and they don’t even need to be bribed or intimidated into doing it. This is a major reason these unconfirmable stories are so easy to place now.
The press used to be at least a bit of a tough crowd. Now, it’s a laugh track, and the joke is on us.
In the mid-sixties, a South African sociologist named Stanley Cohen focused on a seemingly parochial topic.
He was interested in news headlines about gangs of “Mods” and “Rockers” clashing at seaside holiday resorts around Great Britain. The narrative had taken the nation, and the world, by storm.
The Mods and Rockers in 1964 were not fully distinguished and had little concrete group identity at the time.
Rockers roughly speaking had long hair and fashioned themselves after American groups like the Hell’s Angels (although they listened to different music).
Mods had cropped or shaved heads, listened to soul, ska, jazz and R&B, and favored tailored clothes. The original skinheads being worshippers of African-American culture and music is an irony that’s seldom mentioned today.
According to media narratives in sixties Britain, these dueling young deviants, minds addled by new forms of music, were desecrating British holiday resorts. The victims were middle- to upper-class Britons enjoying traditional seaside holidays.
Cohen went back to see how closely the real tales matched tabloid descriptions. He went looking for the source of the Nile, sussing out the first “Mod-Rocker” clashes.
One of the first occurred at the small town of Clacton, on the east coast of England. On Easter, 1964, the small town was sopping wet and suffering its coldest temperatures in eighty years.
The shopkeepers were testy about losing tourism money, and young people in the area (the town was a hangout for kids from the East End of London) were grumbling over rumors some restaurant doors would be closed to them.
On that Easter weekend in 1964, a few members of the groups threw rocks at each other on the streets. A couple of beach huts were destroyed. One youth fired a starting pistol in the air. A few were arrested.
Not much of a story.
The press thought otherwise. The Monday after these happenings, every paper in London with the exception of the Times carried the Clacton events on the front page. They included the following headlines:
DAY OF TERROR BY SCOOTER GROUPS
YOUNGSTERS BEAT UP TOWN – 97 LEATHER JACKET ARRESTS
WILD ONES INVADE SEASIDE – 97 ARRESTS
Cohen began to look at other clashes and noticed a pattern. As he wrote:
The next lot of incidents received similar coverage on the Tuesday and editorials began to appear, together with reports that the Home Secretary was ‘being urged’ (it was not usually specified exactly by whom) to hold an inquiry or to take firm action…
Straight reporting gave way to theories especially about motivation: the mob was described as ‘exhilarated’, ‘drunk with notoriety’, ‘hell-bent for destruction’, etc.
Reports of the incidents themselves were followed by accounts of police and court activity and local reaction. The press coverage of each series of incidents showed a similar sequence.
Before long, the story went international. There were articles in America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and other nations. In Belgium, a photo of the disturbances came over the caption, “West Side Story on English Coast.”
A keen observer of language, Cohen smelled fabrication in some of the stories, if only because they were “too stereotypical to be true.” But he couldn’t prove that the many “interviews” tabloid journalists supposedly scored with would-be Mods and Rockers had been invented.
When Cohen looked more closely, he found more that was incorrect in the national reports. Local newspapers were better.
“Not only are the reports more detailed and specific,” he wrote, “but they avoid statements like, ‘all the dance halls near the seafront were smashed’ when every local resident knows there is only one dance hall near the front.”
Cohen found other problems. The “Mods” and the “Rockers” were uniformly described as “affluent young people,” who came to resort towns in a kind of zombie haze.
The fable of “affluent” gangs was elevated in part because of a story – true, as Cohen found – that one of the youths arrested in one of the clashes offered to pay his £75 fine by check. That the haughty kid didn’t have a checking account and was just pressing the buttons of the locals was not reported.
The Mod-Rocker clashes peaked with infamous episodes at the beachside towns of Margate and Brighton. As Cohen discovered, nothing earth-shaking happened in any of the cases. Locals actually spoke warmly of the clashes as having increased tourist traffic.
Moreover, regional coverage put the cost of the damage at Margate – made famous by the sensational Daily Mirror headline, WILD ONES ‘BEAT UP’ MARGATE – at a whopping… £400 pounds.
The papers worked overtime to keep the narrative of out-of-control youth alive in the homes of prim and proper Englanders. Any story they could possibly tie to the Mod-Rocker clashes hit the papers, even if the link was tenuous.
The Dublin Evening Press for instance on May 18, 1964 published:
TERROR COMES TO ENGLISH RESORTS. MUTILATED MOD FOUND IN PARK.
This turned out to be a story about a man in his early twenties found stabbed in a Birmingham park a day before a reported “clash” at a nearby resort. The only thing “mod” about him was that he was found in a “mod jacket,” whatever that is.
A national furor set in. Lawmakers everywhere rushed to get “Malicious Damage Bills” into law, and campaigns against youth music and movies abounded.
There was not a single editorial in any major newspaper that dared play down the threat. Editorials frequently came in tandem with calls for action of increasingly intense variety.
After an incident at Whitsun, the Evening Argus printed 23 letters; seven proposed corporal punishment! There were calls for “using fire hoses on the crowds, tear gas, hard labour schemes, flogging, long prison sentences,” and “banning the offenders from the town.”
Perhaps most important, the tabloids – staffed as they were with people who had few skills, moral or otherwise, beyond being occasionally clever writers – began to master the art of creating dehumanizing symbolic language for both groups.
The favored epithet was “wild ones,” but that was soon accompanied by other descriptors: “vermin,” “ratpack,” “ill conditioned odious louts” (Daily Express), “retarded vain young hot-blooded paycocks” (Daily Sketch), “grubby hordes of louts and sluts” (Daily Telegraph), “their bovine stupidity… their ape-like reactions to the world” (Evening Standard).
Cohen found the most omnipresent descriptors were boredom and affluence. These descriptions played into belief systems of target audiences who were desperate to believe young people were simply lazy, drug-addled, spoiled monsters. In fact, the Mods and Rockers both were mostly undereducated and working class.
In 1972, Cohen would publish a book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, that described all of this. Moral panic has as a result become a permanent part of our lexicon. “Folk devils” were what Cohen called the targets of these instant manias.
Not a reporter, Cohen nailed many of the techniques that make journalism work.
Thanks to Christopher Nolan, pop audiences now know magicians rely upon a basic premise of a pledge, turn, and prestige, i.e. a promise to turn something ordinary into the extraordinary. Show the audience a common top hat, pull a rabbit out of it.
Cohen in examining the mod-rocker mania noticed tabloid reporting worked on a similar premise.
Reporters depicted ordinary life, then showed it disrupted and distorted by contagion. The scare coverage implied future problems and put audiences in a siege-like mentality. Like audiences at a magic show, they’d been trained to wait for the delivery upon the implied promise of coverage: more violence, more social disruption, more headlines.
This set of circumstances in turn led to something that another sociologist, Leslie Wilkins, deemed the “Deviancy Amplification Spiral.”
This was an academic term for “using invented problems to drive people actually crazy.” It went something like this:
1. LESS TOLERANCE
2. MORE ACTS BEING DEFINED AS CRIMES
3. MORE ACTIONS AGAINST CRIMINALS
4. MORE ALIENATION OF DEVIANTS
5. LESS TOLERANCE OF DEVIANTS BY CONFORMING GROUPS
leads back to #2, etc.
With this circular method, you could take small incidents and blow them into national terrors in a snap, and God only knew when they’d stop.
All this research was groundbreaking and impacted the thinking of sociologists and academics around the world from the early seventies on.
It did not, however, much penetrate the consciousness of editors and news directors, who continued to profit off moral panics whenever possible. They ran audiences through the same Satanic spin cycle for decades.
American news consumers will remember many of the worst examples.
During the sleepy years of the later Cold War, shlock magazines like Time and Newsweek constantly tried to sell us on the next “folk devil” invasion.
Editors knew: the target magazine reader plopping down in the chair of a doctor’s waiting room is desperate to find fellow travelers on the bandwagon of fears most middle-aged people have about the confusing changes in their once-lovable children.
Why is little Johnny suddenly so taciturn? Could it be the drugs? The glue? The music? The alarming new sexual mores? Pick up Newsweek and find out!
Weeklies for decades cycled through TEENS: HORNY AND OUT OF CONTROL covers. If you look back you’ll notice, humorously, there’s usually a well-placed teen female derriere on the front of such efforts.
Teen pregnancy has been another favored topic. To scare the pants off parents, mags will make sure the third-trimester horror on the cover looks no older than eight.
The mystery of your suddenly aloof child’s brain, your child as tyrant who needs a hell of a spanking (think of the “corporal punishment” letters in Cohen’s study), and, of course, your child as potential rifle-toting mass murderer are other popular themes.
Moral panics were once very likely to involve a “something is corrupting your otherwise angelic youth” theme.
The “Dungeons and Dragons” terror of the early eighties was an example. Some of us are old enough to remember the absurd scare flick Mazes and Monsters, starring an early version of America’s most dependable moral-panic frontman, Tom Hanks.
Often the panic came hand in hand with a ready legal solution. Tipper Gore’s “Parents Music Resource Center” freakout over heavy metal lyrics was an eighties re-hash of Mod-Rocker fear. The solution, thankfully, was tame: warning labels. The same craze today would likely result in a Heritage Foundation council working with iTunes to secretly remove morally threatening music.
Reporters were always allowed tons of leeway when investigating moral panics. The thinnest statistical reeds would do.
Time ran an infamous “CYBERPORN” cover in 1995 showing a shocked kiddie looking aghast into the evil glow of a computer screen. The reader is left to imagine the awful image the boy must be seeing.
The piece was based on a bogus undergraduate research report about rising cyber-threats by a mysterious figure called Marty Rimm, who shortly after disappeared.
Time writer Philip Elmer-Dewitt later wrote eloquently about being too young to realize he’d been duped. In retrospect, he wrote the piece was the worst combination, i.e. good writing, bad facts:
One Time researcher assigned to my story remembers the study as “one of the more shameful, fear-mongering and unscientific efforts that we ever gave attention to.”
Nonetheless, the Time cover caused political figures like Ralph Reed and Chuck Grassley to spring into action demanding censorship of the Interwebs.
Another early Time cover telling parents to worry about the impact of video games may not have predicted mass social contagion, but did hint at a future football star (“GRONK! FLASH! ZAP!”).
There were constant variations on “techno-panic” themes, suggesting new technologies would addict children to profanity, violence, peeping, sexual deviancy, and other terrors.
Moral panics tended to have the most profound consequences for “folk devils” who were politically under-represented. The War on Drugs has arguably been the most devastating ongoing panic of all, dating back to the unintentionally comic Reefer Madness.
It would be impossible to calculate how many unnecessary years in jail have been handed out to dealers and users thanks to blunt moral-panic stunts like George H.W. Bush holding up a bag of crack supposedly bought outside the White House (the offender had actually been lured from across town).
There was even a hoax scare over teens using a Zambian hallucinogen called jenkem – brewed from fermented human waste – that turned out not to have any confirmed American cases. But it made for good copy. “Jenkem: Stay Alert or Call it a Hoax?” wondered ABC in 2007.
A few sociologists over the years noted moral panics benefited the interested players in a particular way. There was symbiosis between big commercial news outlets and state authorities.
Scare the crap out of people, and media companies get richer, while state agencies get more and more license for authoritarian crackdowns on the “folk devil” of the moment. A perfect partnership.
The crack story exemplified this.
TV stations glamorized the “wars” on the streets, got great ratings, yet rarely got to the heart of what the crack epidemic was: a way for cocaine cartels to expand the consumer base beyond the saturated market of upper-class buyers of powder coke. Crack was just the cartel version of a corporate marketing ploy to rope in poorer consumers.
Poor crackheads scared the public so much, authorities got almost anything they asked to fight them. The most infamous reform was the so-called 100-1 sentencing laws, which gave crack offenders sentences 100 times longer than powder offenders.
This is the hallmark of the moral panic. It’s a real story, but it’s exaggerated, often wildly, and comes wrapped in proposals for authoritarian solutions.
The only thing preventing the moral panic from becoming the dominant model of commercial press in the past was that we in the media had other ways to make money.
As Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News explained to me, newspapers in the pre-Internet days were cash machines. They had their own networks of trucks and distribution points, and if you wanted to find a worker for hire or sell a car, the only game in town was the local paper.
“These were scarcity businesses,” is how he put it.
It was the same with local radio and TV stations, limited in number because each needed FCC licenses. There were only so many 30-second spots on the air.
If you had a radio show or a daily newspaper, you didn’t have to wind up the local Junior Anti-Sex League to torch-bearing action every week to sell copies. You made enough on classified and local ads that you could safely not indulge in fearmongering insanity, if you so chose.
Smart people, however, understood the instant that cash cow disappeared, the media business would change forever. No less an authority than Marshall McLuhan, in his famed book Understanding Media, wrote way back in 1964:
The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold…
In the Internet age, the news media has, completely, lost classified ads.
We have also lost the distribution advantage. The trucks and paper-kids no longer have much value in the age of one-click searches.
The instant relay of stock market quotes, which made empires out of services like Reuters and Bloomberg, no longer much impresses business consumers.
We’re left to hunt other game now.
Accelerated by social media, the moral panic has become the last dependably profitable format of modern news reporting.
Until recently, crime has been the great example. Despite what the public believes, crime has been declining precipitously in America for nearly three decades.
Because so much news programming depends upon beliefs to the contrary – to say nothing of politicians who depend upon scare tactics and “tough on crime” platforms to get into office – we rarely hear about this, thanks to a number of scams the press has employed over the years.
One is cherry-picking sources for crime stats. Every crime reporter will tell you there are two major outlets for national crime statistics, particularly violent crime: the annual reports by the FBI, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Both are outputs of the Department of Justice, but the BJS uses the same methodology every year (it’s based upon broad surveys of households, asking people if they were victims of crimes) and tends to report less alarming statistics.
Newspapers inevitably use FBI stats, which use varying methodologies and somehow always come out a little scarier.
Going by the FBI, violent crime fell 49% between 1993 and 2017. By the BJS, violent crime fell 74% during the same period.
But the public doesn’t believe it.
There have been 22 Gallup surveys asking about violent crime since 1993. In 18 of them, Americans believed crime was rising. Significantly, the numbers change if you ask people about crime in their neighborhoods, where most people see flat or declining dangers. Thus the typical belief system of an American media consumer is: crime may be down in my area, but it’s surely way up somewhere else.
It’s easy to play with numbers. NUMBER OF KILLINGS SOARS IN BIG CITIES ACROSS U.S., wrote the New York Times on July 18, 1990.
Murder rates have increased steadily over the past several years. After reaching a peak of 10.2 killings per 100,000 population in 1980, the rate fell to 7.9 per 100,000 in 1984 and 1985, a decline that officials attribute to the drop in numbers of people in their teens and 20's. The rate has since rebounded, reaching 8.4 in 1988, the last year for which the F.B.I. has figures broken down in that way.
In other words, the Times in 1990 could have written the murder rate was down compared to 1980. But they chose to use the more recent swing upward as a hook. In the long run, of course, violent crime declined after 1990, and has overall since 1980. 1988 proved a high-water mark.
The only brake on this kind of behavior in the past was the potential that another news outlet might call BS. This rarely happened, since even rival news agencies tended to collectively benefit from any scare. But the possibility at least existed.
Today, in a politically cleaved media landscape, reporters know there is less danger than ever that their target audiences will be exposed to dispositive information. Rival publications do not reach rival audiences. MSNBC viewers do not read the Daily Caller and vice versa.
Moral panics therefore rage on, essentially unchallenged, in every corner of the political universe.
The 2018 “caravan” of Central American immigrants was a classic moral panic. Immigrant stories frequently are. The caravan had all the hallmarks, with simplistic symbolic language describing the “invaders” (“criminals,” “gang members,” etc), along with the classic over-prescribed authoritarian solution – troops, literally told by the president they could consider a rock in the hands of an immigrant to be a firearm, i.e. shoot them if so engaged.
President Trump later walked back the idea, but this was all a typical panic tale.
Not having interviewed the people arriving, I couldn’t tell you which group of reporters is correct on one of the other central questions. Were the migrants attempting simple immigration, i.e. were they just looking for better living conditions, in which case their journey was technically illegal? Or were they seeking asylum from violence or political oppression, which is legal under international law and requires the host country to grant hearings?
Who knows? It was probably a mix of both. One thing, however, seems certain. Seven thousand migrants was not an “invasion.”
This would have been a minor, if depressing, story, were it not in the eye of a furious maelstrom surrounding the politics of Donald Trump. It might not have been reported at all in the Bush or Obama years.
Similar to the crime story, the immigration furor has mostly rested upon the pumping up of anecdotal information about border crossings. Placed in proper context, we’re talking about a problem (if it’s even that) that’s declined significantly since 9/11. It’s the Mods and the Rockers clashing at the border, only on a much bigger scale, with much more prominent political players mixed up in the cultural argument.
The same kinds of reporting techniques increasingly dominate anti-Trump media, however.
The constant drumbeat of “It’s the beginning of the end” stories about “bombshells” causing the “walls” to “close in” on Trump – so comic that a mash-up of such comments dating to Trump’s first week in office has gone viral – is a case of straight-up emotional grifting.
Editors know Democratic audiences are devastated by the fact of the Trump presidency, so they constantly hint at hope that he’ll be dragged away in handcuffs at any moment. This is despite the fact that reporters know the legal avenues for removal are extraordinarily unlikely.
Such puffing of false hopes is the most emotionally predatory behavior that exists in journalism.
If you do a TRUMP’S FINAL DAYS story in Politico in September 2018, there’s no penalty when he’s still in office weeks later. These stories get a lot of hits.
Meanwhile, the rare articles in the liberal press warning audiences not to expect a Nixon-like exit tomorrow – like the Guardian piece from July, 2018, WHAT LIBERALS (STILL) GET WRONG ABOUT TRUMP’S SUPPORT – tend to disappear quickly.
Even worse has been the Russiagate business. The topic probably deserves more of a book than a paragraph, but no matter what your position on the underlying narrative, it’s been a clear case of moral-panic journalism on top of whatever the actual issue turns out to be.
The press for instance has stopped making distinctions between individual Russians and “Russia,” assuming somehow one Russian must be in communication with the other 150 million.
When special prosecutor Robert Mueller submitted in a filing that an Olympic weightlifter promised “political synergy” to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (an overture Cohen “did not follow up on,” according to Mueller himself), the press jumped. Here is Franklin Foer of Slate, who wrote some of the first Russiagate pieces:
Cohen was talking "political synergy" with the Russians in November, 2015. November, 2015! That's further dates back than most timelines of collusion usually begin.
So “a weightlifter” becomes “the Russians” instantaneously, and the minor fact of the communication never going anywhere is left out. Imagine if a “Putin lawyer” contacted Hulk Hogan and the Russian press reported “CONTACT WITH AMERICANS!!!”
We would think this was crazy. But it’s typical of what happens in these tales.
The reporting surrounding the infamous “Internet Research Agency” ads was also a virtual copy of Cohen’s findings about how statistics can be bent to fit narratives.
In the fall of 2017, the New York Times worked hand in hand with a collection of unnamed sources, congressional authorities, and self-interested think-tankers (who’ve been gobbling up grant money to study the new red threat) to create a devastating portrait of Russian subversion via the Facebook ads. This is from a monster 10,000-word piece by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti called THE PLOT TO SUBVERT AN ELECTION. The money quote:
Even by the vertiginous standards of social media, the reach of their effort was impressive: 2,700 fake Facebook accounts, 80,000 posts, many of them elaborate images with catchy slogans, and an eventual audience of 126 million Americans on Facebook alone. That was not far short of the 137 million people who would vote in the 2016 presidential election.
The “126 million” stat has been quoted and re-quoted over and over, despite it actually representing a remote hypothetical. In Senate testimony, Facebook executives said the statistic represented the number of people who “may have been served” by one of the 80,000 posts over the course of a 194-week period – nearly three full years – between 2015 and 2017.
Facebook executive Colin Stretch testified before the Senate that during the same period, “Americans using Facebook were exposed to, or ‘served,’ a total of over 33 trillion stories in their News Feeds.”
This means the IRA content represented a whopping .0000000024 of all impressions seen during this time. The BBC, conspicuously not an American outlet, was one of the few agencies to put the IRA numbers in context, calling the ads a “drop in the bucket.”
Does that mean the IRA ads are a non-story? No. They are certainly concerning and worth investigating. But this is one of many instances of the scale of an issue clearly being exaggerated.
Moreover, it’s been hard not to notice the usual moral-panic symbiosis in full effect: the prolonged scare has translated into heightened profits for media companies, and aggressive calls for increased powers of censorship and enforcement for government, ironically to control the spread of “fake news.”
What Stanley Cohen described over fifty years ago was a pale preview of what was to come. Cohen saw a primitive effort by cash-hungry tabloids to slap simplistic, symbolic labels on “deviant” groups.
The tabloids were highly effective in creating an “ick” factor around their Mod and Rocker villains, even stripping them of sympathetic characteristics they had in real life, like working-class backgrounds. Without public defenders, media audiences were free to despise them without restraint, and embellish their anti-portraits in their heads.
In America in the eighties and nineties there were usually people to counter such public panics. For every Tipper Gore, there was a Frank Zappa or Dee Snider appearing for the defense.
In our new cleaved and atomized landscape, those brakes are gone. Every demographic has its own folk devils, who go undefended.
Conservative media long ago fixated on libs, commies, terrorists, Islamicists, tax-and-spenders, feminazis, and countless others. No one shows up on Fox to plead for context.
#Resistance media now has devils of its own: deplorables, white supremacists, Trumpites, Bernie Bros, neo-Naderites, false equivalencers, dirtbag-lefters, and countless others.
Even the hated subgroups have developed their own demons, from normies to Hillbots to never-Trumpers and the “deep state.”
Without any way to put a brake on such passions, the new normal will be coexisting, dueling panics: the caravan versus Russiagate, “the beginning of the end” versus “How the Left lost its mind,” Breitbart versus The Palmer Report. Few audiences of any of these outlets will realize they’re engaged in similar behaviors to those of hated antagonists.
The only constant will be more and more authoritarian solutions. In the social media age, we can scare you as never before. Which means politicians will have an easier time obtaining permission for censorship, surveillance, immigration bans, and other expanded powers.
This is the major departure from the Manufacturing Consent age. In 1985, the popular demons were objects of universal terror, usually an external threat – Soviets, Sandinistas, the AIDS virus.
Today pockets of media consumers demonize one another, calling for dueling crackdowns. We have become our own worst enemies, and the longer the cycles play out, the more authoritarian will be our world.
Earlier in ‘Hate Inc.’: