The identity of the Sony hackers is still unknown. President Obama, in a December 19 press conference, announced: “We can confirm that North Korea engaged in this attack.” He then vowed: “We will respond. . . . We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”
The U.S. Government’s campaign to blame North Korea actually began two days earlier, when The New York Times – as usual – corruptly granted anonymity to “senior administration officials” to disseminate their inflammatory claims with no accountability. These hidden “American officials” used the Paper of Record to announce that they “have concluded that North Korea was ‘centrally involved’ in the hacking of Sony Pictures computers.” With virtually no skepticism about the official accusation, reporters David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth deemed the incident a “cyberterrorism attack” and devoted the bulk of the article to examining the retaliatory actions the government could take against the North Koreans.
The same day, The Washington Post granted anonymity to officials in order to print this:
Other than noting in passing, deep down in the story, that North Korea denied responsibility, not a shred of skepticism was included by Post reporters Drew Harwell and Ellen Nakashima. Like the NYT, the Post devoted most of its discussion to the “retaliation” available to the U.S.
The NYT and Post engaged in this stenography in the face of numerous security experts loudly noting how sparse and unconvincing was the available evidence against North Korea. Kim Zetter in Wired – literally moments before the NYT laundered the accusation via anonymous officials – proclaimed the evidence of North Korea’s involvement “flimsy.” About the U.S. government’s accusation in the NYT, she wisely wrote: “they have provided no evidence to support this and without knowing even what agency the officials belong to, it’s difficult to know what to make of the claim. And we should point out that intelligence agencies and government officials have jumped to hasty conclusions or misled the public in the past because it was politically expedient.”
Numerous cyber experts subsequently echoed the same sentiments. Bruce Schneier wrote: “I am deeply skeptical of the FBI’s announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month’s Sony hack. The agency’s evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it.” The day before Obama’s press conference, long-time expert Marc Rogers detailed his reasons for viewing the North Korea theory as “unlikely”; after Obama’s definitive accusation, he comprehensively reviewed the disclosed evidence and was even more assertive: “there is NOTHING here that directly implicates the North Koreans” (emphasis in original) and “the evidence is flimsy and speculative at best.”
Yet none of this expert skepticism made its way into countless media accounts of the Sony hack. Time and again, many journalists mindlessly regurgitated the U.S. Government’s accusation against North Korea without a shred of doubt, blindly assuming it to be true, and then discussing, often demanding, strong retaliation. Coverage of the episode was largely driven by the long-standing, central tenet of the establishment U.S. media: government assertions are to be treated as Truth.
The day after Obama’s press conference, CNN’s Fredricka Whitfeld discussed Sony’s decision not to show The Interview and wondered: “how does this empower or further embolden North Korea that, OK, this hacking thing works. Maybe there’s something else up the sleeves of the North Korean government.” In response, her “expert” guest, the genuinely crazed and discredited Gordon Chang, demanded: “President Obama wisely talks about proportional response, but what we need is an effective response, because what North Korea did in this particular case really goes to the core of American democracy.”
Even worse was an indescribably slavish report on the day of Obama’s press conference from CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto. One has to watch the segment to appreciate the full scope of its mindlessness. He not only assumed the accusations true but purported to detail – complete with technical-looking maps and other graphics – how “the rogue nation” sent “investigators on a worldwide chase,” but “still, the NSA and FBI were able to track the attack back to North Korea and its government.” He explained: “Now that the country behind those damaging keystrokes has been identified, the administration is looking at how to respond.”
MSNBC announced North Korea’s culpability on Al Sharpton’s program, where the host breathlessly touted NBC‘s “breaking news” that the hackers were “acting on orders from North Koreans.” Sharpton convened a panel that included the cable host Touré, who lamented that “that Kim Jong-un suddenly has veto power over what goes into American theaters.” He explained that he finds this really bad: “I don’t like that. I don’t like negotiating with terrorists. I don’t like giving into terrorists.”
Bloomberg TV called upon former Obama Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who said without any challenge that “this is not the first time that North Korea has threatened Americans.” Blair demanded that “the type of response we should make I think should be able to deny the North Koreans the ability to use the Western financial system, telecommunications and system to basically steal money, threaten our systems.” The network’s on-air host, Matt Miller, strongly insinuated – based on absolutely nothing – that China was an accomplice: “I simply can’t imagine how the North Koreans pull off something like this by themselves. . . . I feel like maybe some larger, huge neighbor of North Korean may give them help in this kind of thing.”
Here is Vox’s foreign policy guy laying out an article titled, “Here’s the real reason North Korea hacked Sony. It has nothing to do with The Interview.” Never mind the tone (and headline) of utter certainty in the face of numerous computer security experts extremely skeptical of the government’s story that North Korea hacked Sony. . . . Vox’s foreign policy guy thinks he can explain the reason the notoriously opaque North Korean regime conducted a hack they may well not have actually conducted!
This government-subservient reporting was not universal; there were some noble exceptions. On the day of Obama’s press conference, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosted Xeni Jardin in a segment which repeatedly questioned the evidence of North Korea’s involvement. The network’s Chris Hayes early on did the same. The Guardian published a video interview with a cyber expert casting doubt on the government’s case. The Daily Beast published an article by Rogers expressly arguing that “all the evidence leads me to believe that the great Sony Pictures hack of 2014 is far more likely to be the work of one disgruntled employee facing a pink slip.” He concluded: “I am no fan of the North Korean regime. However I believe that calling out a foreign nation over a cybercrime of this magnitude should never have been undertaken on such weak evidence.”
Earlier this week, the NYT‘s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, chided the paper’s original article on the Sony hack, noting – with understatement – that “there’s little skepticism in this article.” Sullivan added that the paper’s granting of anonymity to administration officials to make the accusation yet again violated the paper’s own supposed policy on anonymity, a policy touted by the paper as a redress for the debacle over its laundering of false claims about Iraqi WMDs from anonymous officials.
But – especially after that first NYT article, and even more so after Obama’s press conference – the overwhelming narrative disseminated by the U.S. media was clear: North Korea was responsible for the hack, because the government said it was.
That kind of reflexive embrace of government claims is journalistically inexcusable in all cases, for reasons that should be self-evident. But in this case, it’s truly dangerous.
It was predictable in the extreme that – even beyond the familiar neocon war-lovers – the accusation against North Korea would be exploited to justify yet more acts of U.S. aggression. In one typical example, the Boston Globe quoted George Mason University School of Law assistant dean Richard Kelsey calling the cyber-attack an “act of war,” one “requiring an aggressive response from the United States.” He added: “This is a new battlefield, and the North Koreans have just fired the first flare.” The paper’s own writer, Hiawatha Bray, explained that “hackers allegedly backed by the impoverished, backward nation of North Korea have terrorized one of the world’s richest corporation” and approvingly cited Newt Gingrich as saying: “With the Sony collapse America has lost its first cyberwar.”
Days after President Obama vowed to retaliate, North Korea’s internet service was repeatedly disrupted. While there is no conclusive evidence of responsibility, North Korea blamed the U.S., while State Department spokesperson Marie Harf smirked as she responded to a question about U.S. responsibility: “We aren’t going to discuss publicly the operational details of possible response options, or comment in any way – except to say that as we implement our responses, some will be seen, some may not be seen.”
North Korean involvement in the Sony hack is possible, but very, very far from established. But most U.S. media discussions treated the accusation as fact, predictably resulting in this polling data from CNN last week (emphasis added):
The U.S. public does think that the incidents which led to that decision were acts of terrorism on the part of North Korea and nearly three-quarters of all Americans say that North Korea is a serious threat to the U.S. That puts North Korea at the very top of the public’s threat list — only Iran comes close. . . . Three-quarters of the public call for increased economic sanctions against North Korea. Roughly as many say that country is a very serious or moderately serious threat to the U.S.
It’s tempting to say that the U.S. media should have learned by now not to uncritically disseminate government claims, particularly when those claims can serve as a pretext for U.S. aggression. But to say that, at this point, almost gives them too little credit. It assumes that they want to improve, but just haven’t yet come to understand what they’re doing wrong.
But that’s deeply implausible. At this point – eleven years after the run-up to the Iraq War and 50 years after the Gulf of Tonkin fraud – any minimally sentient American knows full well that their government lies frequently. Any journalist understands full well that assuming government claims to be true, with no evidence, is the primary means by which U.S. media outlets become tools of government propaganda.
U.S. journalists don’t engage in this behavior because they haven’t yet realized this. To the contrary, they engage in this behavior precisely because they do realize this: because that is what they aspire to be. If you know how journalistically corrupt it is for large media outlets to uncritically disseminate evidence-free official claims, they know it, too. Calling on them to stop doing that wrongly assumes that they seek to comport with their ostensible mission of serving as watchdogs over power. That’s their brand, not their aspiration or function.
Many of them benefit in all sorts of ways by dutifully performing this role. Others are True Believers: hard-core nationalists and tribalists who see their “journalism” as a means of nobly advancing the interests of the state and corporate officials whom they admire and serve. At this point, journalists who mindlessly repeat government claims like this are guilty of many things; ignorance of what they are doing is definitely not one of them.