Of course, discerning truth from lies, truth from truthiness, opinion from fact, fact from factoid and ad infinitum is difficult even in so-called normal times. We tend to seek information from sources that confirm our own biases. For example, if we want to be reassured that Trump voters really are a basket of deplorables, we look no further than Salon. If we're convinced that everybody in the government is out to get us, then Alex Jones's Infowars is manna from heaven (or should I say mannequins from outer space wearing tin foil helmets?) If we're comfortable trusting establishment figures and experts with credentials a mile long, we delve into the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and call it a news-consumption day.
Better yet, we read them all. We go outside our comfort zones, if only to find out what the alleged "opposition" is thinking and writing and imagining. I was particularly pleased last week when a reader left a comment on this blog stating that although she rarely agrees with me, she still reads my stuff. This is called having an open, curious mind.
It's healthy to be critical and discerning. As the motto on RT says: "question more."
And as Peter Van Buren writes in a Reuters op-ed, we need to go beyond this simple skepticism and learn the fine art of espionage.
Van Buren, a former State Department official who used to blog frequently at the Firedoglake (now Shadowproof) progressive site, says that given Donald Trump's paranoia and secretiveness about his shady business empire, journalists will probably have no choice but to rely on anonymous sources.
So how is one to judge? Van Buren writes,
Since an article’s unnamed sources are fully unknown to you as the reader, not every test applies, but thinking backwards from the information in front of you to who could be the source is a good start on forming a sense of how credible what you are being told might be.One warning sign that an anonymous source has an ulterior motive other than whistleblowing in the public interest is if he or she purports to know the "why" of any given revelation, or claims to have knowledge of the inner workings of the target's mind. Always question the source's possible hidden agenda.
For example, is a source in a position to know what they say they know, what intelligence officers call spotting? A story claiming bureaucrats are unhappy with the new president might be legitimately sourced from a contact in the human resources office of a large cabinet agency. But how many people’s opinions would that source be in a position to know, beyond cafeteria gossip? Tens out of a workforce of tens of thousands? So if the finished story reads “State Department officials are unhappy with the incoming administration,” how credible is such a broad statement? Is it news what a handful of people think?
Reporting that something "might be true" or "we can't prove that this is not true" are also warning signs of propaganda or a planted story. So is what Van Buren calls "piggybacking" off an existing narrative. For example, just because Donald Trump took possession of a luxury hotel in Washington doesn't necessarily mean that all foreign guests are staying there for purposes of pay-to-play. Just because something is probably accurate doesn't mean that every potentate visiting Washington has a bag full of cash for Donald Trump hidden in his Louis Vuitton luggage.
Van Buren suggests that readers emulate the CIA and the FBI when they assess the possibility that Russia had hacked the Democratic Party's emails or otherwise interfered with our elections. Don't take officials' word for it that it's "stunning" or "shocking." Read the fine print. Rate each report with your own level of low, medium, or high confidence.
In plain English, take everything with a grain of salt. This is especially true if the publication is funded by a political party, or more commonly, by a PAC or a think tank offshoot. I always try to find out if the reporters of thinly-sourced pieces which rely upon "officials granted anonymity to speak freely given the sensitivity of the issue" are themselves members or "fellows" of a ruling class or defense industry think tank.
David Sanger of the New York Times, for example, who has written many of the recent stories about Russian hacking, is affiliated with both the Council of Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute, an elite group of policy-makers and "thought leaders" focusing on US-Russia relations and national security. I always read his articles with the salt shaker close to hand.
The one quibble I have with Van Buren's piece is its failure to address the secrecy and propaganda and First Amendment assaults by the outgoing Obama administration. James Risen of the New York Times called the Democratic White House "the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation" after being hounded for years to betray the sourcing for his exposé on Deep State malfeasance.
In another case originating in the Obama justice department, Fox News reporter James Rosen was named a "co-conspirator" in a different leak investigation.
And it was Obama who instituted the Orwellian "Insider Threat" initiative which requires government employees to spy on one another, even to the point of reporting their colleagues' reading materials and extramarital affairs back to their superiors.
There's a precedent for Trumpism and the incoming president's threatened purges of various government agencies and his threats to reporters. Or as Donald himself might Tweet it, the ingrained assaults on press freedoms and the public's right to know are not "unpresidented."
Each commander in chief has this annoying habit of always paying his evisceration of the Bill of Rights forward. They take care of their own. They euphemise it as "continuity of government."
Because if they were ever prosecuted for torture or obstruction of justice or lying us into a war, where would our exceptional nation be in the court of manufactured public opinion?