There’s a form of laziness, opportunism, and cynicism that is far too common among mainstream journalists: the willingness to report on stories that news reporters themselves believe to be false.
Why would a journalist from the BBC or the New York Times or some other publication that purports to have a high regard for its own credibility treat as newsworthy something that even their own readers will quickly conclude deserves no attention?
For the simple reason that once something, however fanciful, enters the public domain thanks to the world of push-button publishing we now live in, it can be treated as a phenomenon in the news environment and thus traded as a piece of news. Its veracity can be treated as secondary to the fact that it has already become a subject of conversation. Most importantly, the journalist who chooses to breath life into such a worthless story can contrive a judicious distance from the story by attaching the necessary number of caveats that make it clear that he is doing nothing more than repeat someone else’s claims. Note that this kind of reporting will always repeatedly use the phrase “says” in order to underline that no factual claims are being made by the reporter. The reporter assumes a pretense of agnosticism.
In addition to employing fake naivety, the reporter will also fall back on the myth that journalists are mere observers — that they do not have an instrumental role in making news.
So, to turn to the specific case now at hand — Richard Silverstein’s latest episode of blogging buffoonery — the BBC‘s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus who interviewed Silverstein yesterday would no doubt explain his choice to do so by saying that the story — Silverstein’s promotion of a bogus war plan for an Israeli attack on Iran — is “out there.”
The leaked text may or may not be a precis of Israel’s battle plans.
But it is now an integral part of the increasingly feverish national debate and a debate that resonates well beyond Israel’s own borders.
But it’s only an integral part of that debate thanks to the BBC and others. Were it not for the attention that the press gives Silverstein, his blog would generally be ignored and he would not be flattered by being referred to as a journalist.
Silverstein’s latest antics began with a post titled “Bibi’s Secret War Plan“. The post includes a passage of text that Silverstein describes as a “document” and he claims that this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s “pitch for war” against Iran. He claims that this is an “Israeli government document” yet presents no evidence to back up this claim other than that his source’s source described it as such.
The one thing that seems clear about this “document” is that it was written by someone who knows Hebrew so I think one could strongly infer that means the author is in Israel. Having limited the number of possible authors to a few million Hebrew speakers, how are we going to radically narrow that range and determine this was written inside the Israeli government for consideration by its highest officials. That’s a tall claim and requires strong evidence.
Silverstein has no physical document and merely the claim from a purported former Israeli minister (not a rare species given the rapid turnover of Israeli governments and ministerial positions) that he received it from an IDF officer (and there are only a few tens of thousands of those).
Preempting reader doubts, Silverstein writes:
There will be those who will dispute the authenticity of this document. I’m convinced it is what my source claims, based on his prior track record and the level of specificity offered in the document. It references cities by name and the facilities they contain. It names new weapons systems including one Israel supposedly hasn’t even shared with the U.S.
Anyone who follows Silverstein’s “exclusives” should know that the credibility of his source(s) is highly debatable, but most importantly — and this is something Silverstein clearly does not understand — the authenticity of a document can rarely be established on the basis of its content. Content merely points to plausibility — or in this case implausibility. Referencing Iranian facilities and their locations can be accomplished by anyone with access to the internet. If these details carried any weight in authenticating the document they’d have to reveal vastly more — such as the naming of facilities whose existence is only known to Israeli intelligence. But even if that much was established it would still not take us that extra and all-important leap — to show that this is indeed a briefing document written for Netanyahu. Moreover, even if we were to cast an uncritical eye on the claim about the document’s authenticity, we are still left with the most problematic question: if this was being leaked from the prime minister’s office, why would it end up being passed on to a blogger, least of all one with such a dubious reputation?
Needless to say, none of this concerns Silverstein as he breathlessly declares:
This story is now a screaming headline in the Israeli media and at no point has anyone in the Israeli government maintained that this document is anything other than what I claim it to be. They know it is authentic. Anyone else who claims otherwise does so at the risk of their own credibility (if they have any).
Sorry, but the absence of a denial is not the proof of truth. And in this instance, when the Israeli prime minister and defense minister have already been working overtime raising to fever pitch the talk of war, Silverstein’s entry into the arena is no doubt welcomed as yet another element in the war-is-just-around-the-corner hysteria.
Beyond the implausibility of a war plan that makes grandiose claims about Israel’s ability to launch an attack on Iran that, as described, would militarily be more impressive than the U.S. invasion of Iraq, some observers were quick to note the Silverstein’s “secret document” was actually already in the public domain and had appeared as a post in a military and security forum on the Israeli social media site, Fresh.
Silverstein hit back:
Israelis are posting a claim that the document I published is identical to a post published by Fresh, an Israeli gossip/news portal, a few days ago. It is not. My original IDF source leaked the post to a Fresh member and me at the same time. That person published a small portion of the original memo at Fresh, embellishing it with much material that was meant to disguise what it was and where it came from. I can’t ascribe motives to whoever published it at Fresh, but much of it fantasy and isn’t in the original document.
And in a follow-up post he writes:
Contrary to claims made by many in the hasbarafia at sites like Harry’s Place and CIF Watch, anyone who actually reads the Fresh post and compares it to what I translated & published would see that there is very little overlap. Of the entire 500 word (in English translation) document, perhaps 100 words are in the Fresh post, which itself is quite long, probably over 1,000 words (I haven’t checked).
Let’s see how this assertion checks out by comparing the translation of the “document” Silverstein posted with a Google translation of the Hebrew post appearing at Fresh. (Bear with me. I don’t understand Hebrew and Google’s automated translation produces mangled English, but still, the correspondence between the two texts should be obvious.)
The Silverstein “document”:
The Israeli attack will open with a coordinated strike, including an unprecedented cyber-attack which will totally paralyze the Iranian regime and its ability to know what is happening within its borders. The internet, telephones, radio and television, communications satellites, and fiber optic cables leading to and from critical installations—including underground missile bases at Khorramabad and Isfahan—will be taken out of action. The electrical grid throughout Iran will be paralyzed and transformer stations will absorb severe damage from carbon fiber munitions which are finer than a human hair, causing electrical short circuits whose repair requires their complete removal. This would be a Sisyphean task in light of cluster munitions which would be dropped, some time-delayed and some remote-activated through the use of a satellite signal.
Israel’s attack opens a combined action an unprecedented cyber attack, completely paralyzing the Iranian government ability to know what’s going on in his own country. Internet networks, telephone, radio and television, satellite communications and fiber optic and leading to important sites – including underground missile bases and Asfahn Bhorambad – find out of action. Years of careful planning, and intelligence assets landfill command day – worthwhile. Power grids across Iran are paralyzed, and hate sites (transformers of the power grid) suffer serious injuries of arms dissipating carbon fiber fish trough person – creating short in order to fix them requires removing the physical – a task Sisyphean light quenching area arming cluster shared a time delay and some remotely operated via satellite signal.
The Silverstein “document”:
A barrage of tens of ballistic missiles would be launched from Israel toward Iran. 300km ballistic missiles would be launched from Israeli submarines in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. The missiles would not be armed with unconventional warheads [WMD], but rather with high-explosive ordnance equipped with reinforced tips designed specially to penetrate hardened targets.
Barrage of dozens of ballistic missiles from Israel to Iran shot. Missiles are equipped with non-conventional warhead – but charged warheads and explosives specially ruggedized bow, designed to penetrate hardened targets deep in particular. […] Short Range Ballistic Missiles (300 km), shooting Israeli submarines.
The Silverstein “document”:
The missiles will strike their targets—some exploding above ground like those striking the nuclear reactor at Arak–which is intended to produce plutonium and tritium—and the nearby heavy water production facility; the nuclear fuel production facilities at Isfahan and facilities for enriching uranium-hexaflouride. Others would explode under-ground, as at the Fordo facility.
Missiles hitting their target – some above ground, such as Arak nuclear reactor designed to produce plutonium and tritium, production facility next to the heavy water, the production facilities of nuclear fuel conversion facilities Baisfahn gas and uranium Hksaflurid.
The Silverstein “document”:
A barrage of hundreds of cruise missiles will pound command and control systems, research and development facilities, and the residences of senior personnel in the nuclear and missile development apparatus. Intelligence gathered over years will be utilized to completely decapitate Iran’s professional and command ranks in these fields.
The hundreds of cruise missiles adequate command and control systems, facilities development and research institutes, and even in residential buildings and villas surrounded by lush greenery of senior officials in the nuclear and missile development of Iran. For years, collected intelligence manifested almost complete decapitation of professional ranks and command of Iran in these areas.
The Silverstein “document”:
After the first wave of attacks, which will be timed to the second, the “Blue and White” radar satellite, whose systems enable us to perform an evaluation of the level of damage done to the various targets, will pass over Iran. Only after rapidly decrypting the satellite’s data, will the information be transferred directly to war planes making their way covertly toward Iran. These IAF planes will be armed with electronic warfare gear previously unknown to the wider public, not even revealed to our U.S. ally. This equipment will render Israeli aircraft invisible. Those Israeli war planes which participate in the attack will damage a short-list of targets which require further assault.
After the first assault wave, precise timing of seconds, flies over Iran satellite radar “Blue and White”. Its systems allow to evaluate the extent of damage caused purposes. Only after the fastest decryption of satellite data, data is transferred directly to the aircraft en route to the unknown paths towards Iran. these planes of the Israeli air force, equipped with electronic warfare suits that were brought to the attention of the general public, nor exposed to the Friends of Israel from the United States. Systems can then be puzzled by the weapons expert in the world – yes, they made the Israeli planes can be elusive. Air Force aircraft participating in the attack last – and affect only a small number of targets that require further injury – not detected at all by the discovery and tracking system of Iran. Air defense system will launch into the sky hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles – blindly – futile attempt to harm aircraft corps.
The Silverstein “document”:
Among the targets approved for attack—Shihab 3 and Sejil ballistic missile silos, storage tanks for chemical components of rocket fuel, industrial facilities for producing missile control systems, centrifuge production plants and more.
Among the targets approved injury – storage sites such ballistic missile Shahab-3 and Sejil, reservoirs of chemicals used in rocket fuel materials, industrial facilities for the production control systems for missiles, the factories producing centrifuges, and more.
Let’s reconsider Silverstein’s claim: “anyone who actually reads the Fresh post and compares it to what I translated & published would see that there is very little overlap.”
OK. I think that most readers who have trudged through this tedious process this far will probably share my assessment. Richard Silverstein is a fool and it’s time the media stopped treating him like Julian Assange. He might share Assange’s hunger for media attention, but unlike Wikileaks which understands that the organization’s credibility will evaporate if it starts publishing bogus documents, for Silverstein getting his name in the newspaper appears to be the be all and end all of his operation.