Russian bounties and the perils of anonymous news sourcing

Last Friday, the New York Times carried an article that claimed that the Russian military had offered bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan last year to kill U.S. and coalition troops.

The NYT also claimed that President Trump was briefed about this at an emergency meeting in March and that intelligence officials had recommended myriad tough measures such as sanctions against Russia, but the White House did not approve of them.

The White House categorically denied the allegations on Saturday.  White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that neither the president nor the vice president had been briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence.

The Russians also dismissed reports, according to Reuters, quoting the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.  "This primitive informational dump clearly demonstrates low intellectual abilities of the propagandists at the American intelligence service."

The Taliban also rejected the allegations, claiming they were committed to the peace accord signed with the United States earlier this February.

Despite the resounding denials, as expected, there were no explanations, retractions, or apologies from the NYT.  Most of the mainstream news outlets, meanwhile, continued to carry this story as if it were God's truth.  Democrats, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, used it to attack President Trump and even accuse him of treason.

This much debunked news story is just another in a series of anti-Trump articles that emanated from "senior White House officials" and "sources close to an individual" or "administration officials."  In this particular case, it was "intelligence officials."

There are a few questions that must be asked of news media outlets.

Should any news organization publish a story when the source is unwilling to be identified?  If the source is averse to being held accountable, why should the story even be considered?  The source could be planted by an adversary or may just be a gossip-monger or a Walter Mitty sort of fantasist.

The "unnamed source" can be misused to peddle fake news.  For the casual consumer "according to top aides of the president" or "intelligence sources" automatically grant gravitas to a report.  Since the relation between the source and the journalist is as sacred as the relationship between a lawyer and his client, there is no compulsion to identify the source.

A media outfit can claim that it needs to protect a source, and the detrimental accusations would remain unresolved.  There have been situations such as that of Judith Miller, who went to jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury and revealing the identity of a CIA operative source for a story.

So do we assume that unnamed sources are too risky and open to misuse, hence the practice is better abandoned?

Let's remember Watergate, where disgruntled FBI official Mark Felt — nicknamed "Deep Throat" — was the anonymous informant to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post.  Without Felt, the scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon would never have never come to light.

The best way to judge this is to place yourself right at the center and hypothesize your reaction.

Would you go on record and reveal your name should you learn of corruption, abuse, and harassment in your place of work?  Would you go on record knowing that the senior leadership of your place of work is either complicit or turning a blind eye to the malpractice?  Would you go on record if you knew that your superiors could retaliate if your identity were known?

Would you be willing to go on the record if malpractice emanates from government officials who can trap you in a Kafkaesque maze and send you to jail if your identity is revealed?  In the absence of the facility of anonymity, perhaps you would just remain silent.  There would be no other way of exposing malpractice when the perpetrators are powerful and connected.

There has also been a surfeit of stories where information emanating from named sources has turned out to be incorrect.  It is, therefore, a question of having a well defined set of guidelines while dealing with sources — both named and unnamed.

For an anonymous source, the following conditions must be true:

·        The information is of grave significance to a large group of people such as citizens of a nation, employees of an organization, students of a university, patients in a hospital, etc,

·        Disclosure of the identity of the individual could pose a threat to his/her life or harm to reputation.

·        There are no other methods of obtaining the information.

·        There is no other source is prepared to go on record.

For an anonymous source, journalists must adhere to the following practices:

·        A thorough background vetting of the source via multiple agencies.

·        Establish and verify the source of the information being provided.

·        Establish and verify the method being used to acquire information.

·        Establish and verify the possible motive behind the revelation.

·        Establish and verify the reason for anonymity.

·        Attempt to acquire other independent sources who can corroborate the information.

·        Have multiple individuals, including those not actively working on the story, independently question the source to evaluate the authenticity of the information and the individual.

·        Have a multilevel approval process in place that goes right up to the top of the editorial team such that the identity of the source is known to key people.

The above-mentioned practices have been compiled from the AP, the NYTWaPo, the BBC, and several other prominent news organizations. They have existed for ages, and yet we see this occur over and over again.

This is because these practices apply to those whose goal is to report facts and nothing but facts. That ship has sailed past a long time ago for the U.S. mainstream media.

In fact, it would be grossly erroneous to call them the news media. In reality, they are left-wing activists and lobbyists whose goal is to push their agenda and create talking points for the Democrats to run on. When they are not in government they are in the media spouting propaganda. Project Veritas has continued to expose Trump hatred among personnel in the news media. 

This also proves their blatant lack of faith in democracy. Since Donald J. Trump, an individual they despise was elected, they did not step back, cover him fairly, and respect the people's mandate and wait for the next election. They instead went on a mission to attempt to remove him from office. This also applies to the Democrats, it is ironic that they are called Democrats.

With almost all their attack stories on Trump especially the Russian Collusion story that was carried with great gusto for almost three years proving to be untrue. But if you ask any of the propagandists to admit their folly, they will insist that they were right and blame it on 'Republican' Mueller or claim that the law could not prove beyond reasonable doubt hence Trump was let go. The fact that some among them won a Pulitzer is an obscene joke.

Yet the baseless attacks and inventions about Trump continue. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Insanity is the only word that perfectly describes most of the US mainstream media. They probably don't even realize that their coverage now appears like a parody sketch on a comedy show.

The U.S. news media has been sounding like the boy who cried 'wolf'. In a strange way, this will help Trump because nothing they publish or say affect the consumer/voter anymore. There can be no October, September, August or any other surprise because they have called Trump every name under the sun, they exhausted their ammunition.

It would appear that the bounty story is being positioned as a sequel to the now-debunked Russia Collusion story. The NYT knows that the overwhelming anti-Trump media will use it without question. The report can also be used to pre-empt any impact of the Durham Probe that is on route to expose the involvement of the Obama administration officials to initiate the phony Russia investigation.

In fact, such is the dishonesty and bias of the media that, Matt Taibi who by no stretch of the imagination is a Trump supporter excoriated the media for its blatant partisanship and bias in his recent article. He had previously stated that such is the bias in the U.S. news media that he was compelled to turn to the BBC and the AFP for facts about the operation carried out by his own country. This is a truly sad state of affairs for the multi-million dollar organizations.

As the election date draws closer, expect more such stories to emanate from the anonymous 'sources.'

The sensible consumer has no option but to think of every news item as false until proven true, a healthy amount of skepticism but an open mind.

Image credit: Pixabay public domain.