Edward Jay Epstein: Journalism and truth

Michael Wolff has declared Edward Jay Epstein “one of the great investigative journalists of the era.” Who is his peer? I say he is our most formidable investigative journalist.

He is the author of numerous riveting books, among which are three on the Kennedy assassination: Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, Counterplot: Garrison vs. Oswald, Ferrie, Shaw, Warren Commission, FBI CIA, the Media, the Establishment and Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald. His three books on the assassination have been collected in The Assassination Chronicles. Also related to the subject are his ebooks Killing Castro and James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right? as well as his classic 1992 New Yorker article, “Epitaph for Jim Garrison: Romancing the Assassination.”

EXTRA Ed is also the author, most recently, of the “short-form book” Extra: The Inventions of Journalism, just published in paperback and as an ebook. The new book collects some of Ed’s best pieces on journalism itself. After compiling the book, Ed realized that the book needed a preface to bring it up to date to include reference to the Rolling Stone story that has been in the news over the past few weeks. He therefore added the following by way of introduction, which he has authorized us to post on Power Line. Ed writes:

The problem of journalism in American proceeds from a simple but inescapable bind: journalists and editors are rarely, if ever, in a position to establish the truth about a story for themselves, and are therefore almost entirely dependent on “sources,” who may be self-interested, falsifiers or even fictional characters. It is these “sources” that provide the version of reality that journalists report.

Walter Lippmann pointed to the root of the problem a century ago when he made a distinction between “news” and truth. “The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and to make a picture of reality on which men can act.” Because news reporting and truth seeking ultimately have different purposes, Lippmann concluded that news should be expected to coincide unerringly with truth in only a few limited areas, such as the scores of sports events and the results of elections, where the results are definite and measurable. In more ambiguous areas, where the outcome may be in doubt or dispute, news reports could not be expected to exhaust or perhaps even indicate the truth of the matter. Lippmann held that if the public required a more truthful interpretation of the world it lived in, it would have to look elsewhere.

Today journalists would have difficulty accepting such a distinction between news and truth. Indeed, newsmen almost invariably depict themselves not merely as gatherers of the fragments of information but of hidden truths. Even though they remain dependent on “leaks” from sources whose motives are murky, their standing, as well as the circulation of their news organization, often requires them to ferret out scoops that depend on secret and otherwise unverifiable sources. The pressure to supply something extra in these stories has led time and again to journalistic invention.

Consider the invention of an epidemic of child heroin users in Washington D.C. On September 28, 1980, the Washington Post ran a sensational story about an eight-year old addict entitled “Jimmy’s World.” Janet Cooke, a staff reporter on the Post, described her extended interviews with “Jimmy” whose “thin, brown arms” had tracks of “needle marks” from repeated injections of heroin. Even after a massive police search for “Jimmy” proved unsuccessful, assistant managing editor Bob Woodward of Watergate fame submitted it for the Pulitzer Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize committee, unperturbed by the lack of verification, awarded Cooke the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing on April 13, 1981.

It turned out that the reason the police could not find “Jimmy,” the putative source for the story, was that he was imaginary. Cooke, as she admitted to her editors, invented “Jimmy” in response to pressure to produce an exclusive story for the Post. To his credit, Donald Graham, the publisher of the Post, admitted that the story was fraudulent and returned the award. Even so, Woodward said, “I think that the decision to nominate the story for a Pulitzer is of minimal consequence. I also think that it won is of little consequence. It is a brilliant story—fake and fraud that it is.” He added, in what might be termed the Woodward doctrine, “It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are nominated for prizes.” (Cooke, who resigned from the Post, demonstrated the profitability of invention by selling the film rights to the story of Pulitzer Prize fabrication to Columbia Tri-Star Pictures for $1.6 million, though the film was never made.)

Woodward also took advantage of this doctrine when he described in vivid detail a scene in which he extracted a death bed confession from William Casey, the former CIA Director, in his hospital room at Georgetown University hospital just before Casey died of a brain tumor in 1987. But, according to Kevin Shipp, who was part of Casey’s round-the-clock security detail at the hospital, Woodward was turned away at the door and never entered Casey’s room. If so, the interview was pure invention.

The pressure to accept stories based on unverified sources has only increased in the Internet era. In November 2014, for example, Rolling Stone published a stunning story by Sabrina Erdely entitled “A Rape on Campus.” It described in gory detail the ritual gang rape on September 28, 2012 of a student identified only as “Jackie” during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia. It further described the University’s response to the incident as inadequate. As it turned out, however, there was no party held at the fraternity on the night of the alleged rape, the description of the fraternity house was incorrect, and prior to the Rolling Stone story there had not been any allegation of sexual assault against any members of the fraternity.

The reporter, who viewed her assignment as finding a campus rape story, had not made any effort to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators. Instead, the story relied on a single questionable source. As the discrepancies mounted, Rolling Stone admitted that its trust in the source was “misplaced.” Rolling Stone editor Will Dana explained, “We made a judgment — the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. And in this case, our judgment was wrong.”

I first became interested in the inventions of the media in 1970 when William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, asked me to investigate whether the reported killing of 28 members of the Black Panther party was part of a US government “genocide” program to destroy the Black Panther Party. After investigating each case, I discovered that the list of 28 Black Panther deaths was partly invented, proving that there was no basis for the widely circulated press stories of genocide. After The New Yorker published my article in February 1971, both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times wrote editorial apologies for their stories based on the invention of 28 Black Panther supposed deaths.

The essays I have included in this book are all variations on a single theme – the vulnerability of journalism to deception. Even after 45 years, it is very much a work in progress.

—December 17, 2014

Published with the kind permission of the author.
Copyright © 2014 EJE Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.

Long story short, Iowahawk edition

Iowahawk took to Twitter yesterday to comment on President Obama’s after-the-fact advice to Sony in the matter of The Interview. As is his wont, Obama affected the position of an innocent bystander. Even without the relevant history I found Obama’s pose somewhere beyond creepy. He thinks we’re really, really stupid, and he’s got the evidence to back it up.

Iowahawk took a quote from Obama speaking about Sony at his press conference and applied it to the unforgettable photograph of the man who…what was his name?

How could we forget? Ms. Hillary is in the background along with el presidente. We better remember. Oh, yes, his name is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a/k/a “Sam Bacile.”

The Week in Pictures: Cancel The Interview Edition

Okay, so when the Obama Administration says it is seeking a “proportionate” response to the North Korean hack of Sony, we know that is a euphemism for “weak response.”  Wouldn’t want to upset our new friends, the Castros down on Cuba, who we know are tight with the Kims.  Exchange holiday cards and torture tips and all that.  What was the first clue?  When Obama referred to James Franco as “James Flacco.”  Most observers thought he was confusing Franco with the Baltimore Ravens QB, but I think Obama had “flaccid” on his mind, since it describes his response.  Meanwhile, best not take our eyes of the most significant threat to the nation’s future—the Clintons.

Team America copy

Just because.  F— yeah.

Kim Jong Oscars copy

What next year’s Academy Awards telecast will now look like.

Sony Cowards copy Nork Threats Work copy Sony's New Chairman copy Sony's New CEO copy Kim Jogs Twitter copy

North Korea Hollywood copy

Future Interrogations copy ISIL Waterboards copy Ramirez on CIA report copy Big Gov Tow copy Anti-Obama Reindeer copy Obama Cuba copy

Clinton Caption Content copy

Speaking of cigars. . .

More Bill Clinton copy

Dare we even suggest a caption contest for this. . .

No wonder Hillary talks about “empathy” a lot. Oh, wait. . .

Hillary Empathy copy

Warren for Pres copy

Kopechne T shirt copy

Rolling Stone facts copy

Ruble Putin copy Tesla Crap copy More Lerner emails copy Biden Separated copy Santa Obama copy

Turkey Hooker copy

Wait, what?

Wine Tree copy

My kind of Christmas tree.

Head for Sale copy

The perfect stocking stuffer for a liberal.

Santas SUV copy Ackbars Mouse Traps copy Duct Tape copy Will to Power Bar copy Knights of Ni copy Hapy Hunnakah copy Han in Hannuhah copy Red shirt gogerbread copy Christmas copy Guiness copy

Not the Boss copy

And finally. . .

Hot 178 copy

What’s in a political name?

I am unenthusiastic about Jeb Bush as a presidential candidate for several reasons: his position on immigration reform, his position on the common core, and the fact that his last name will make him difficult to elect.

Some conservatives have advanced another reason to be unenthusiastic: the fact that his father and brother have both been president. Political dynasties are unseemly, if not un-American, we are advised.

To me, apart from the question of electability, this objection to Bush’s candidacy has no resonance. Nor does the parallel objection to a Hillary Clinton presidential run.

To be sure, if Bush is nominated, the Republicans will have had a Bush at the top of the national ticket in five of the last eight elections. And a Bush will have been on the national ticket in seven of the last ten.

Even the trio of Richard, Tricia, and Julie Nixon wasn’t this ubiquitous.

But so what? Jeb Bush served two terms as governor of a big state. It is his performance in that capacity, not his name, that makes him a presidential contender.

It’s possible that if his father hadn’t been president, Jeb Bush wouldn’t have been a governor. But it’s also possible that if his brother hadn’t been president, Jeb Bush would have already been nominated at least once by his party to run for president.

As for Hillary Clinton, she is a legitimate presidential contender by virtue of her time as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. Sure, she might not have attained either position if she hadn’t married Bill.

On the other hand, prior to her marriage Hillary was on the fastest of fast tracks (Yale law school, staff member on the House Judiciary Committee) at just the time when women were starting to break through in law and politics.

Who is to say that Elizabeth Warren would have beaten Hillary to the top of the greasy pole if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?

Such speculation is beside the point, though. America desperately needs a first rate president, and it isn’t brimming with politicians likely to fill the bill. It makes no sense to eliminate presidential prospects due to their lineage.

Should Democrats prefer a first-term Senator who pretends she’s an Indian to a two-term Senator and former Secretary of State, simply because the latter was married to a U.S. president. Of course not.

Should Republicans reject a successful two-term governor in favor of, say, a first-term Senator whose biggest claim to fame is paving the way for a partial government shutdown that accomplished nothing, simply because the former is the son and brother of former presidents. Of course not.

There’s nothing un-American about political dynasties as long as birth doesn’t trump merit (and in a democracy, it’s never likely to). Two of our first six presidents were from the Adams dynasty, and Charles Francis Adams would probably have made rather a good president.

Eric Holder invents rights for the transgendered

Christian Adams reports that Eric Holder has issued a decree stating that cross dressing and transsexualism are now protected under federal civil rights laws designed to protect women from sex discrimination. According to Holder, the “most straightforward reading” of Title VII’s bar on discrimination ‘because of … sex’ — indeed, the “plain meaning” of its text — is that it bars discrimination “based on gender identity, including transgender status.” Therefore, DOJ will adopt this reading, one that somehow escaped it, and nearly everyone else, for 50 years.

I’m against discriminating against the “transgendered,” just as I’m against discriminating against blacks and females. Whether, at this point in our history, the benefits of a federal law prohibiting these forms of discrimination in employment outweigh the costs — in litigation expenditures, workplace disruption, and coerced bad employment decisions — is a different question. But I suppose it could be argued that, nowadays, the transgendered need more protection against discrimination than blacks and females do.

Congress, though, has never seen fit to outlaw employment discrimination against the transgendered. It certainly didn’t do so when it outlawed sex discrimination in 1964. Back then, the mere suggestion that the ban on sex discrimination had this meaning would have induced gales of laughter, followed by the defeat of the legislation as drafted.

Nor, except through shameless punning, is it plausible to find a ban on transgender discrimination in the plain words of the statute. Holder asserts that “Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination ‘because of … sex’ encompasses discrimination founded on sex-based considerations, including discrimination based on an employee’s transitioning to, or identifying as, a different sex altogether.”

But as Ed Whelan points out:

A man who identifies as a woman. . .is still a man. Indeed, when anyone points out this elementary biological reality, transgender activists insist that gender is fundamentally different from sex.

Holder’s position contradicts the one DOJ has consistently taken. It accords with the view taken by the EEOC, an outpost of extreme leftism.

EEOC receives no deference when it takes positions like this in court, except from leftist judges already prepared to use Title VII to remake public policy in ways unimaginable to those who wrote the law. DOJ is unlikely to fare any better in advancing Holder’s view that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on an individuals decision to identify with, or attempt to transition to, another gender.

Instead, the law likely will remain this: (1) Title VII protects males from employment discrimination for being male; (2) Title VII protects females from employment discrimination for being female; (3) Title VII doesn’t protect the transition from, or actions associated with pretending to be, one or the other.

Accordingly, the impact of Holder’s move probably won’t be terribly significant. Indeed, it feels more like a gesture than a transforming event, at least in the short term.

Nonetheless, Holder’s move constitutes more than a “micro-aggression” against our system of government. It’s another attempt at executive usurpation of Congress’ role. As Adams concludes:

When someone wants to expand protected classes under civil rights laws, Congress passes a new law. That’s how it works in America. But in the age of Obama, lawlessness is the quicker, more expedient way to impose the views of the outvoted minority onto the rest of the country.

On North Korea, Obama Leads From Behind

On November 24, the news broke that Sony Pictures’ computer system had been hacked. Today, 25 days later, President Obama finally addressed the issue in one of his rare press conferences. In the meantime, Sony had already announced that it is killing the movie that was the apparent cause of the intrusion, “The Interview;” showings of another film, “Team America,” had been canceled, and production of a third film that referenced North Korea was canceled. This is what Obama had to say:

Q. North Korea seems to be the biggest topic today. What does a proportional response look like and did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie, or does that set a dangerous precedent?

A. Let me address the second question first. Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats made against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.

Knuckling under to terrorists, Obama said, is not the American way:

We cannot have a society in which some dictator starts imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like or news reports they don’t like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start to engage in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.

No one can listen to this without thinking about Benghazi. About how Obama and Hillary Clinton blamed a well-organized attack by terrorists armed with mortars on a YouTube video that no one saw, and then arrested the video maker. And about how taxpayers then paid for excruciating advertisements, played in Pakistan, where Clinton apologized for the otherwise-unknown video. That’s our Barry, the tireless defender of free speech! And if North Korea’s attempt to censor Sony is such an obvious affront to our democracy, then where has our president been for the last 25 days, while Sony has been twisting in the wind?

So, according to Obama, Sony made a mistake. What was it?

Again, I am sympathetic that Sony has worries about liability. I wish they had spoken to me first. I would’ve told them do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.

Right. The idea that anyone would turn to Barack Obama for inspiration to stand up to terrorists is laughable. But, in any event, if Obama is so eager to preserve the American way of life, why does he have to wait for the phone to ring? Why couldn’t he call Sony’s CEO and tell him not to cave into the North Koreans–don’t worry, the government has your back?

Not only did Obama not do any such thing, Sony’s CEO promptly told reporters that his company did, in fact, reach out to the White House:

[Sony Pictures CEO Michael] Lynton reacted to Obama’s comment that he wished Sony had reached out to them. “We definitely spoke to a senior advisor in the White House to talk about the situation. The fact is, did we talk to the president himself? … The White House was certainly aware of the situation.”

That they didn’t connect with the president is not surprising. It has been obvious for a long time that there is no one home at the White House.

This whole episode is a classic example of Obama’s leading from behind. He lies low for nearly a month and is nowhere in sight when Americans, attacked by a foreign power, come looking for help. Isn’t this why we have a federal government? Then, when the dust has settled, Obama emerges from his hideout and points the finger of blame at others.

As for the “proportional response,” Obama offered no clue as to what it might be:

They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally and in a place and time and manner that we choose. It is not something I will announce here today at a press conference.

We can only hope. But retaliation doesn’t seem to be in the forefront of Obama’s thinking. He continued:

More broadly, though, this should be cause to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the internet and cyber operates. Right now, it is the Wild West.

Working with the “international community” to increase regulation of the internet–now there is something Obama can get excited about! I hope I am wrong, but I suspect the North Koreans won’t need to lie awake at night, worrying about Obama’s proportional response.

And, needless to say, no reporter asked whether it was the North Koreans, the Russians or someone else who hacked into the White House’s own computer system just two months ago.

On the Sony hack, a CTO speaks

Reader Jonathan F. writes in response to John’s post on our pathetic response to the Sony hack. Having worked in IT since 1996, Jonathan is the Chief Technology Officer at his company. He has been involved in the security side of IT at least part time since 2000. He is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional, the certification bestowed by (ISC)2. He also has a CompTia Security+ certification. His corporate responsibility includes cybersecurity for his company, and also as a contractor for some government projects. He is therefore focused on the defense side of cybersecurity. I think his comments add a context to events in the headlines that is worthy of consideration. He writes:

You raised a lot of questions in your post. Most of your questions can be summed up as “How bad is the cybersecurity situation?” and “What are we doing to prevent these attacks?” I am not going to delve into the political aspects of the “proportionate” response. I will leave that up to you.

The answer to the first question is as depressing as it is easy. We are under pervasive and constant attack. According to GAO testimony to Congress in April this year (GAO-14-487T), there were 61,214 cyber incidents, of which 46,160 were deemed cyberattacks (GAO-14-354). The remaining were not considered cyber-attacks. For instance, losing a PC would be an “incident,” but not an “attack.” Note that these are only the incidents that were noticed and reported to the government for tracking. Some incidents are unreported and others are unknown. So, these numbers are considerably lower than reality. Additionally, per the same reports, the attacks are rapidly increasing in number, rising over 100 percent between 2009 and 2013.

As for what we are doing, the answer to that question is more complicated. It also is somewhat depressing. The simple fact is, we can harden networks against most attacks, especially the amateur script-kiddies, but a really determined professional attacker likely will find a way in. To really secure your network, you need to disconnect from the Internet. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for most entities.

Due to the above reality, really critical infrastructure (like nuclear power plants) is supposed to be completely disconnected from the Internet. I worked for a power company for several years and from personal experience I can tell you that they took this very seriously. I can also tell you that it is very easy to run a cable from one network switch to another and that this can be very hard to spot. In other words, while they are not supposed to have any critical infrastructure on the Internet, and there is a real effort to ensure this is the case, accidents can (and do) happen.

This Sony hack has been widely reported as the “first cyberwar,” which we have supposedly lost. This is utter nonsense. Has everyone already forgotten Stuxnet and Iran? You mentioned the Executive Office hack and Target. This is merely one more skirmish, one which was dealt with very poorly (or pathetically, as you suggest). Everything I have read about the Sony hack leads me to believe that they did not take security very seriously to start with, and they responded poorly. It’s always easy to be an armchair quarterback, especially with little information, so I will refrain from saying more about that.

The truth is that the black hats are winning right now. The white hats are playing a defensive game. We do what we can, but mostly it is monitoring the networks to hope we spot something in time. If we don’t, things like Target and Sony happen. Things like the White House attack (and thousands of others you are not even aware of) happen. For instance, did you know that 48,000 Federal employees recently had their information stolen?

Anti-virus software is no longer nearly as effective as it used to be. Why? Malware writers now have their programs modify themselves when they install. This means that the old method of running a static check (usually using something called an MD5 checksum) no longer works. It’s like a bank robber wearing a disguise – if it’s good, no one can tell the real identity of the perpetrator. While heuristic algorithms that can see through this disguise have been developed, they are still a few steps behind and tend to turn up false positives.

The Federal Government is better at cyber-security than most private enterprises, but even they admit that they are not well prepared for a full-scale cyber-attack. I recommend reading the entire article, as it is not technical, and provides some additional insights into the preparedness of our government for similar attacks. It also contains this gem, which I find very interesting; in light of the whole Lois Lerner lost emails farce: “Federal auditors have uncovered one bright spot in resiliency — at the Internal Revenue Service. The tax agency has processes in place to recover data, including up-to-date contingency plans it has rehearsed, according to an April Government Accountability Office report.”

As for your questions about how the White House and State department tried to suppress information on the breach in November, it probably wasn’t just politics. Indeed, it is easy to argue that it wasn’t even primarily politics. It is a good method for handling breaches like that, especially when you are able to glean useful information from them – or feed false information to the attackers. When a security breach happens, and is caught, a good practice is to isolate the breach, and then carefully monitor the hackers, their tools, and their methodologies. Then, when you have the information you want, you close it down.

If you suspect that the attackers are politically motivated (e.g., foreign government, espionage, etc.), you can also feed them false data, effectively turning your breach into a sort of double agent. It is also possible to present vast quantities of worthless information, thus slowing the hackers down. Their search goes from “needle in a haystack” to “sand grain in the Sahara.”

This article presents more information on the rationale behind delayed (or very subdued) reporting of incidents, and how they can be used against the attackers. It is presented in non-technical language, and provides a good overview of the issues involved in the decision of whether and when to go public with breach information.

I trust that other knowledgeable readers will weigh in in the comments.