NBC News and MSNBC specialize in repeating and disseminating what U.S intelligence officials tell them to say and then calling that servitude “reporting.” Those two networks really are the all-but-official outlets for CIA messaging. And this status has led their brightest on-air stars to broadcast a series of extremely consequential stories that turned out to be humiliatingly wrong.
This stenographic and highly jingoistic practice of mindlessly reciting the whispered claims of anonymous “intelligence officials” is what notoriously led the New York Times and other leading U.S. media outlets to deceive the country into believing Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz’s fairy tales about Iraqi WMDs and Jeffrey Goldberg’s tales about Saddam’s alliance with Al Qaeda.
But while many of those outlets apologized for that behavior and vowed to avoid it in the future, NBC and MSNBC have committed themselves to it with greater vigor than ever, as evidenced by the increasing prominence of their national security reporter Ken Dilanian, whose entire career has been defined by repeating what the CIA tells him to say – and has thus been plagued by one embarrassing false story after the next.
On Friday, veteran national security reporter William Arkin announced his departure from those networks, blasting them as stenographic servants of the security state agencies and pro-war propaganda. Noting that ex-generals and CIA officials dominate the NBC/MSNBC airwaves, Arkin wrote: “in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable,” adding: “the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested.”
We now have what might be the most vivid, reckless and dangerous illustration yet of how NBC and MSNBC functions. If their behavior weren’t so journalistically shameful and destructive, this would be darkly humorous.
Last September – on the symbolically meaningful date of September 11 – NBC and MSNBC breathlessly trumpeted what they regarded as a major exclusive scoop: that Russia is “the main suspect” in what the network called “mysterious attacks” that led to “brain injuries” in U.S. personnel in Cuba.” They put CIA loyalist Ken Dilanian on the air to explain – based, needless to say, on the script given to him by intelligence officials who, as always, are shielded from accountability by them with anonymity – that “sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers” and that it was Russia which likely engineered the attack. Watch their dramatic scoop in all of its glory:
It would be impossible to parody that. Permit me to highlight my favorite line from Dilanian: “The other interesting thing that we’re reporting here is that one of the technologies used to injure these American spies and diplomats was some kind of microwave weapon, that is so sophisticated, that the Americans don’t even fully understand it.” Yes: those poor American CIA officials who are such innocent naifs that they are not even aware of the latest developments in villainous technological weaponry.
Throughout the day, MSNBC hyped its exciting scoop about the mysterious attack on the U.S. “diplomats” (peace-seeking “diplomats” in Cuba presumably do things like create fake Twitter networks to lure young Cubans into receiving U.S propaganda encouraging them to destabilize their own country).
One six-minute segment led by Andrea Mitchell – who began the report by announcing that “intelligence officials now believe that Russia is the leading suspect, and it was no accident.” – featured Bush/Cheney Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate (who now, needless to say, works for NBC News as an “analyst”) along with reporter Josh Lederman, who said Russia’s guilt is “now more than just a theory. They’re the main suspect.” And, he said, Russia’s guilt is “backed up by” interceptions of Russians’ communications.
As this discussion unfolded, the graphic on MSNBC’s screen was crafted for its most sensationalistic expression: Russia is the “main suspect” in the “brain injury attacks” on American diplomats:
Mitchell then invited Zarate to explain the real significance of this story, and the former Bush/Cheney official-turned-NBC-analyst obliged: “The Cold War never ended for many in the Cuban government, including parts of the Russian government, including President Putin.” Zarate warned that this attack is just part of Moscow’s increasing aggression, including in South America, “yet another vector of attack from the Russia.”
Mitchell, with her sternest voice tone, underscored how villainous this all was: “This is not an accident. This is not a microwave listening device gone bad. This is an attack — against American diplomats and intelligence officers, and this was targeting.”
That night, on NBC News’ nightly broadcast, Mitchell condensed all these scary developments for the network news audience:
So for the last four months, thanks to NBC News’s eagerness to mindlessly repeat whatever CIA officials tell them to say, Americans were led to believe that Russia purposely caused serious “brain injuries” in dozens of U.S. “diplomats” – spies acting under diplomatic cover – through dastardly electromagnetic or microwave weapons that are so sophisticated and devious that not even the most advanced Pentagon scientists could understand what new horrific horrors the Kremlin had inflicted on peace-loving Americans.
Some media outlets expressed skepticism of NBC’s claims. Buried way down deep in an 11,000-word November article in from the usually hawkish-on-Russia New Yorker was this note of caution:
In September, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence agencies considered Russia to be the main suspect, citing evidence from communications intercepts. But intelligence officials, in interviews with The New Yorker, insisted that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.
So while NBC claimed that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between Russian officials where they acknowledged their guilt for this attack, those same agencies insisted to the New Yorker “that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.” Did any of that make MSNBC or NBC go re-visit their story and tell their viewers of this rather significant doubt raised by the New Yorker? Do you even need to ask?
Instead, NBC and MSNBC used hours of airtime and numerous pages to spread highly inflammatory claims across their numerous media platforms, all blaming Russia for an extremely serious attack on the U.S. – all because their CIA masters told them to do it. This is what NBC and MSNBC are, their function and mission:
An @NBCNews exclusive: After more than a year of mystery, Russia is the main suspect in the sonic attacks that sickened 26 U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials in Cuba. @MitchellReports has the latest. pic.twitter.com/NEI9PJ9CpD
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 11, 2018
And, needless to say, journalists from other mainstream outlets accepted these claims on blind faith, as exemplified by this Daily Beast reporter:
Wow >> U.S. has signals intelligence linking the sonic attacks on Americans in Cuba and China to *Russia* https://t.co/FbNla0vu9W
— Andrew Desiderio (@desiderioDC) September 11, 2018
One U.S. Senator used the NBC report to urge that Russia be classified as a “terrorist” state:
— Niels Lesniewski (@nielslesniewski) September 11, 2018
That the NBC/MSNBC storyline suffered a major hit this week is a rather dramatic understatement. Two scientists, Alexander Stubbs of Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the UK’s University of Lincoln have published their findings about one key part of the evidence about this incident, under this title:
In 2017, Associated Press obtained and published recordings of the sounds the embassy personnel complained of hearing. Rather than being the by-product of some sort of Bond-villain weapon cooked up in Kremlin laboratories, the scientists concluded that the sounds match those made by a specific species of Caribbean crickets during mating season:
As shown here, the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus) matches, in nuanced detail, the AP recording in duration, pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse. . . . This provides strong evidence that an echoing cricket call, rather than a sonic attack or other technological device, is responsible for the sound in the released recording. Although the causes of the health problems reported by embassy personnel are beyond the scope of this paper, our findings highlight the need for more rigorous research into the source of these ailments, including the potential psychogenic effects, as well as possible physiological explanations unrelated to sonic attacks.
One of the scientists, Dr. Stubbs, emphasized the certainty of their findings in an interview with the New York Times: “I can say fairly definitively is that the A.P.-released recording is of a cricket, and we think we know what species it is.” The villain behind the noises is the male indies short-tailed cricket, pictured below in what NBC News may soon use as his Interpol mugshot:
The first line of the 2017 AP report about the noises heard by U.S. personnel in Cuba suggested that the perpetrators may not be Putin scientists but rather tropical insects: “It sounds sort of like a mass of crickets,” AP said of the sounded recorded by embassy personnel. None of these caveats ever made their way into NBC’s Russia-did-it fear-mongering.
Indeed – contrary to the sensationalistic MSNBC screen graphics – serious doubt has been cast on whether U.S. “diplomats” in Cuba even suffered brain injuries at all. As the Guardian’s Science Editor, Ian Sample, reported in August: “Claims that US diplomats suffered mysterious brain injuries after being targeted with a secret weapon in Cuba have been challenged by neurologists and other brain specialists.”
The Guardian was referring to “four separate letters to the Journal of the American Medical Association” from “groups of doctors specialising in neurology, neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology” that “described what they believed were major flaws in the study” commissioned by the U.S. Government that originally claimed that brain injuries were detected. These experts all insisted that the original doctors “misinterpreted test results, overlooked common disorders that might have made the workers feel sick, or dismissed psychological explanations for their symptoms.”
Those doubts match the vehement denials not only from Cuban officials but also Cuba’s top neurological specialists that any type of brain injuries were even demonstrated. In May, the Guardian noted that “some scientists have questioned whether attacks even took place and say the wide range of symptoms reported by the embassy staff could be explained by a number of common medical conditions, or be driven by psychological factors in the high-stress environment the staff work in.”
Moreover, Luis Velázquez, the neurologist who serves as president of the highly regarded Cuban Academy of Sciences, “asked the US and Canadian national science academies for a joint scientific inquiry to examine the evidence behind the alleged attacks.”
But in jingoistic NBC/MSNBC world, statements and claims from officials of the Bad Countries – the ones disliked by the U.S. Government – are not merely to be assumed false but are to be ignored entirely. Only assertions from officials with noble intelligence agencies of the United States of American – with their well-earned reputation for truth-telling and integrity – are to be treated as Truth and uncritically blasted all over the world.
None of these recent revelations constitute dispositive proof exonerating Russia or negating that an attack took place. It’s possible that all of those neurological specialists independently objecting to the U.S. government-commissioned study claiming “brain injuries” are simply overlooking clear evidence of neurological damage. It’s possible that unidentifiable, highly sophisticated, non-audible weaponized microwaves or electromagnetic missiles were the culprit, not the sounds identified by the U.S. spies or, as NBC calls them, “diplomats.” It’s possible that Putin and his mad KGB scientists have harnessed the ability to control male short-tailed crickets and cause them to emit brain-harming mating sounds on command and target them at Moscow’s enemies. All of this is possible.
But what is certain is that the sustained, flamboyant, uncritical, breathless, CIA-subservient reporting from NBC and MSNBC on-air personalities – pinning the blame for an obviously serious attack on a nuclear-armed power that it has spent two years attempting to depict as a Grave Threat to the U.S. with very few caveats or doubts – was reckless, dangerous and journalistically unethical. And it’s just the latest in a series of attempts by the U.S. media to scare the population about Russia by fabricating attacks launched by the Kremlin that never actually happened: from invading Vermont’s electric grid and using mainstream news sites to infiltrate American minds with Kremlin propaganda to hacking into C-SPAN to take over the airwaves and hacking elections systems in 21 states.
Thus far, not a single NBC or MSNBC reporter who hyped the Russia-did-it story – Ken Dilanian, Andrea Mitchell, Josh Lederman – has bothered to tweet these scientific findings that, at the very least, raise major doubts about the accuracy of their huge and highly consequential story that the repeatedly hyped. That’s how the U.S. media functions: sensationalistic stories produce massive benefits, while there are zero consequences, or even an obligation to acknowledge error, when they turn out to be doubtful of even false.
MSNBC used this scary story to have one of its “analysts” – a former Bush/Cheney national security official – declare that “the Cold War never ended for many in the Cuban government, including parts of the Russian government, including President Putin.” That the U.S. is in a New Cold War – or never left the last one – is clearly a prevailing orthodoxy among prominent U.S. media figures; just this week Washington Post columnist Anne Appelbaum, invoked classic Cold War clichés to declare that “Moscow may be on the cusp of becoming, once again, a full-fledged imperial capital, absorbing and ruling over multiple countries.”
It’s bad enough to be so reckless with such dangerous rhetoric. But when this is all accomplished through the shoddiest of “reporting” – mindlessly repeating what anonymous intelligence officials tell journalists to say without a whiff of evidence – then it’s clear that the same journalistic pathologies that led to front-page reports of Saddam’s nuclear stockpile and alliance with Osama bin Laden continue to shape corporate journalism today, particularly at NBC and MSNBC.