The last ten days or so of NSA coverage represents a dark chapter in the short history of digital journalism. This is the era of link bait -- the exploitation of the viral kneejerk outrage of readers who accept headlines at face value and circulate those headlines without questioning the accuracy of the reporting as long as it confirms their bias. The false, misleading reporting that's been hurried into the tubes recently has taken on a Fox News Channel publicity model: be the first to get the attention of the audience no matter what, then suss out the facts later (if at all) when no one's paying attention any more.
The impact of this new form of journalism, now evident in the NSA coverage, can be summarized with the often cited Mark Twain quotation: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." In the context of digital media, it's an increasingly effective formula for bigtime viral traffic.
It happened with the Washington Post's initial PRISM story, it happened with Glenn Greenwald's story in which he wrote that the NSA has "direct access" to servers owned by the various tech giants and, over the weekend, it happened in spectacular fashion with a bombshell article posted on CNET by chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh.
The headline that dispersed through social media and political blogs like the swine flu: "NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants."
When I spotted the headline, tweeted by a reporter who I otherwise respect, my first reaction was, "Wow. Okay." But as I read the article, the headline became less and less accurate -- a trend we've witnessed several times recently. In fact, McCullagh's reporting almost entirely disintegrated under just cursory scrutiny... but not before it went viral.
McCullagh reported that during a House Judiciary Committee hearing featuring FBI Director Mueller, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) revealed that the NSA, during a previous secret briefing, admitted that thousands of NSA analysts could listen to phone calls without warrants. That was the thrust of McCullagh's story. But the quotes were awkwardly truncated, the tic-toc of the story was unclear and there were highly speculative paragraphs that jumped to conclusions not supported by the reporting.
Right away, I noticed that instead of posting the exchange between Nadler and Mueller verbatim, McCullagh wrote passages in which he used parts of sentences and filled in the rest himself, like so:
If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. "I was rather startled," said Nadler, an attorney who serves on the House Judiciary committee.
Is information about that procedure "classified in any way," Nadler asked.
What was McCullagh hiding? It reminded me of the selective editing that often occurs on cable news. But this only skims the surface of why the article was so awful. Upon discovering the CSPAN video online (timecode 48:15), it was immediately clear what had happened in the hearing and how shoddy McCullagh's reporting had been. Here's the transcript via LGF:
Nadler: If you wanted to listen to the phone —
Mueller: Then you would have to get a special, a particularized order from the FISA Court directed at that particular phone and that particular individual.
Nadler: Now is the answer you just gave me classified?
Mueller: Is what?
Nadler: Is the answer you just gave me classified in any way?
Mueller: I don’t think so.
Nadler: OK, then I can say the following. We heard precisely the opposite at the briefing the other day. We heard precisely that you could get the specific information from that telephone simply based on an analyst deciding that and you didn’t need a new warrant. Other-words is what you just said is incorrect. So there’s a conflict.
Mueller: I’m not sure it’s the answer to the same question.
Neither am I. Admittedly, I had to read the article and the transcript a couple of times to grasp what was happening. Even if you don't grasp it, it's clear that this absolutely doesn't confirm that the NSA admitted anything.
It's entirely unclear who or which entity made the "opposite" statement to what Mueller testified. Nadler could've been referring to an NSA official in the meeting, or he could've been referring to a screening of the Snowden video during the meeting, or he could've simply been flummoxed about the complicated process. As you can plainly see in the above transcript, Nadler appeared to be confused between the notion of "listening" to calls and acquiring "information" from a phone, which are two very different things with varying layers of oversight. But the details and word usages were vague and scrambled and the meaning was lost. Somehow, though, McCullagh took a super-colossal leap from this perplexing back-and-forth to the bombshell conclusion that the NSA admitted to listening to phone calls at any time without a warrant.
The "admits" language in the headline obviously led readers to believe that the NSA perhaps issued a statement or offered testimony confirming claims made by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald.
However, the NSA admitted no such thing, and there was nothing from the NSA in McCullagh's article confirming such an admission. Nadler didn't even say the acronym "NSA" during the exchange. But... too late. The untrue version was out there already, hyperlinked and retweeted at light speed by otherwise smart, respectable sources.
Fast forward to Sunday morning. 19 hours later, Declan McCullagh changed his headline and some of the wording within the story, repeating what the Washington Post had done, and which Glenn Greenwald is kind of (slowly) doing. Here's a screen grab of the same article 19 hours later:
But the overall gist of the story, that NSA admitted that its analysts can listen to domestic phone calls without a FISA say-so, remained embedded in the text. McCullagh continued to claim that "thousands of analysts can listen to domestic phone calls" even though Nadler didn't say any such thing in the hearing, but it's attributed to Nadler's remarks about the NSA anyway.
It's difficult to fully encapsulate in words the violently misleading and shoddy reporting in this article. It actually makes Greenwald's leap on "direct access" seem comparatively forgivable.
Sadder still, 24 hours later, even after the headline had been revised, the original misleading headline was still out there.
These headlines continued to exist even after McCullagh changed the original and after Nadler released a clarifying statement to Buzzfeed:
“I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.”
Reuters, on Sunday, reported that an unclassified document indicated that the NSA only gathered raw information on less than 300 phone calls throughout 2012. Meanwhile, the following statement was issued by the public affairs office of the Director of National Intelligence:
"The statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress. Members have been briefed on the implementation of Section 702, that it targets foreigners located overseas for a valid foreign intelligence purpose, and that it cannot be used to target Americans anywhere in the world."
Sure, consider the source, but it's worth including the DNI statement here even though the inaccuracy of the story speaks for itself irrespective of whether the DNI is obfuscating. The NSA admitted nothing.
And finally, ZDNet, the sister site to CNET, issued the following update to its coverage of the story:
We're pulling the plug on this story, following Rep. Nadler's comments that debunk CNET's story.
Upon further investigation, it turns out McCullagh is a vocal Ron Paul supporter, which is fine, but exposes perhaps why his article is loaded with so much anti-surveillance confirmation bias. Oh, and this might shed further light on his veracity: McCullagh is the reporter who's responsible for the infamous Al Gore Said He Invented the Internet smear. McCullagh wrote, "If it's true that Al Gore created the Internet, then I created the 'Al Gore created the Internet' story."
I'm not sure if all of the shoddy reporting is coincidence or if it's deliberately inflammatory as a means on inciting public outrage, though I'm leaning toward the latter conclusion as more examples are dumped onto the heap. Instead of focusing on how we can cut away any government abuses of power, the real story, as ZDNet's Ed Bott put it, has become the collapse of journalism. In addition to the sad state of digital journalism, the truly harrowing impact of this trend is the rapid unraveling of activist credibility when, in fact, it's critical for any effort against government overreach to stand above reproach. Contrary to what I've read from critics and trolls, I support the effort, for what it's worth, to check the government's surveillance powers and to roll back anything that crosses the line into unnecessary trespasses against the Fourth Amendment -- just as I have when it comes to naked body scanners and the Bush administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping. That's why articles like the ones published by Greenwald and McCullagh infuriate me so much. It's counterproductive and embarrassing to the broader effort. There's enough fuel without all of the hyperbole to achieve the necessary checks. But when the Cause becomes tainted with so many glaring falsehoods, it becomes too easy to cast the effort as being orchestrated by alarmist crackpots and bug-eyed conspiracy theorists who deal in misinformation to get what they want.
One last thing. By the time McCullagh updated his article, it had already received 54,300 Likes on Facebook. Halfway around the world, indeed.
[Special thanks again to Charles Johnson at LGF.]