Esteemed journalist and former civil servant Michael Cohen demonstrated the modus operandi of, and problem with, US journalism in a single tweet:
It appears as though prominent American journalists like Cohen do not understand even the most elementary principles of the US Justice System, yet alone the scientific method. For them, the burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser.
In the words of Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute, the notion that people accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty is “one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system.”
If Cohen were accused of a crime by an anonymous source that provided no evidence, he would doubtless completely disregard the baseless accusations. The burden of proof would be on the accuser, not him. And, yet, prestigious public intellectuals like Michael Cohen insist that this sacred principle of justice need not apply in the realm of journalism.
Cohen echoed the media narrative that Snowden allegedly stole over a million classified documents, received asylum in Russia, and subsequently, became responsible for Moscow and Beijing allegedly accessing those documents. “There’s a name for that,” he says.
There’s also a name for blindly believing everything your government tells you—in spite of its well-documented history of lying to you again and again and again and again and again—and regurgitating it as “news” and “facts.” That word is “propaganda.”
This is not a small, unknown figure making these puerile remarks; Michael Cohen boasts an array of accolades. He is a(n)
- columnist for the Boston Globe and the World Politics Review,
- political correspondent for the London Observer,
- fellow at The Century Foundation,
- former columnist for the Guardian and Foreign Policy,
- former blogger for the New York Times and the New York Daily News,
- former senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the American Security Project,
- adjunct lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs,
- former chief speechwriter in the Department of State for the US Representative to the United Nations.
Cohen embodies the revolving door between US “journalists” and government officials.
I archived the tweet here, in case Cohen later deletes it.
A user asked Cohen a “better question”: Why should you believe anonymous government sources claiming Snowden had over one million documents (particularly in light of, once again, this same government’s well-known history of blatant lying)?
Cohen rebutted with his own question: “Is there any evidence it’s not true?”
This is the inversion of the scientific method. This is the propaganda method.
If you don’t have evidence that unicorns don’t exist, they clearly do. This is how science and journalism work. The burden of proof is on the party being accused, not the party making the accusation (anonymously, without evidence).
The snarky, and entirely warranted, responses were in plethora.
A user asked if there was any evidence Cohen is “not actually working on behalf of a boilerplate view instead of ‘real’ journalism?”
Another asked “isn’t the actual point of your job to find the evidence to make your point credible?”
Attorney Jordan T. Glaser pointed out that the government made an anonymous and unsourced claim and “Michael Cohen demands proof that it isn’t true.”
One troll asked the question burning in everyone’s heads: Is there any evidence that Obama is not actually a lizard person in disguise? Conspiracy theorist loon David Icke earnestly thinks so.
“We Just Publish What We Believe to Be the Position of the Government”
This sort of lazy acquiescence to power is precisely the reason US journalism—particularly on issues of national security—is so lousy. The original point of journalism, to doggedly dig for the truth in indifference, and even opposition, to power, has been abandoned on behalf of the allure of, and concomitant ease and even rewards than come with, sharing thinly disguised government and corporate press releases and half-baked PR talking points.
And, frankly, the problem is not isolated to US journalists. CNN interviewed Tom Harper, the British Sunday Times correspondent who co-wrote the piece claiming that Russia and China had gotten ahold of the “millions” of documents Snowden had in his possession. Harper told the network, on air, “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.”
As Reason associate editor Scott Shackford wrote,
The lack of actual “journalism” that took place in the Sunday Times piece ended up highlighted in an unintentionally hilarious and awful interview with one of the reporters, Tom Harper, on CNN Sunday. Harper is absolutely unable to delve further or explain further any of the claims made in his story. He cannot actually explain what evidence exists for any of the claims his story put forth and at one point actually says, “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.”
Journalism, ladies and gentlemen.
Washington Post reporter Steven Rich commented “If you can’t definitively answer the basic 5 Ws for a story you’re writing, well, it’s not really a story.”
Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, who published the Snowden documents detailing illegal US mass surveillance, among other crimes, took Cohen to task.
Greenwald also exposed, in blistering detail, the many media lies about the Edward Snowden Russia/China story the US press is having a field day with. The Sunday Times piece “reads like a parody I might quickly whip up in order to illustrate the core sickness of Western journalism,” he wrote.
Western journalists claim that the big lesson they learned from their key role in selling the Iraq War to the public is that it’s hideous, corrupt and often dangerous journalism to give anonymity to government officials to let them propagandize the public, then uncritically accept those anonymously voiced claims as Truth. But they’ve learned no such lesson.
Unless he cooked an extra-juicy steak, how does Snowden “have blood on his hands” if there is “no evidence of anyone being harmed?” As one observer put it last night in describing the government instructions these Sunday Times journalists appear to have obeyed: “There’s no evidence anyone’s been harmed but we’d like the phrase ‘blood on his hands’ somewhere in the piece.”
The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials. It gives voice to banal but inflammatory accusations that are made about every whistleblower from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning. It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them. It’s pure stenography of the worst kind: some government officials whispered these inflammatory claims in our ears and told us to print them, but not reveal who they are, and we’re obeying. Breaking!
Remarks such as these have constantly been made—and have equally constantly been refuted through real investigative journalism. The US government made similarly paranoid accusations about WikiLeaks. It was later revealed that, in 2010, the State Department had secretly internally admitted the whistleblowing organization’s leaks of government documents “was embarrassing but not damaging.” Yet the Obama administration knowingly lied, continuously claiming otherwise—and the corporate media establishment unquestionably followed suit.
Journalism is supposed to be the Fourth Estate; it exists (or, rather, is supposed to exist) to fact-check power.
Yet, contrary to their professed mission, when a story serves power, Western journalists like Cohen and Harper make little to no effort to fact-check it. It is only when a story challenges power that they suddenly start doing their job and exhibiting the degree of skepticism they should always maintain.
US journalists claim they want to “prevent another Iraq” (referring to the docile and gullible US corporate media’s obedient rehashing of unsubstantiated government myths about Saddam Hussein supposedly possessing “weapons of mass destruction”), yet they continue to anonymously cite government sources making extraordinary claims without the extraordinary evidence necessary to corroborate these claims.
The real way journalists can prevent another Iraq, investigative journalist Dan Froomkin (who works at The Intercept with Greenwald) explained in 2007, is by abiding by the following lessons:
- You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority
- Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
- Watch for Rhetorical Traps
- Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
- Look Outside Our Borders
- Understand the Enemy
- Write about Motives
Western journalists like Cohen, Harper, et al., in spite of their esteem, consistently fail to honor even the most basic of these rudimentary skills.