The “Iran Bank Hack” story and the New York Times: propaganda and lazy journalism exemplified

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January 11, 2013

The “Iran Bank Hack” story and the New York Times: propaganda and lazy journalism exemplified

UPDATE: Highly recommended: “It’s blame Iran week” over at MoonofAlabama

These four stories, all in the same week, blame Iran for this or that without any proof. All these stories base their claims on this or that anonymous U.S. official or secret intelligence. All these stories are pretty likely to have no Iran involvement at all.

Nicole Perlroth and Quentin Hardy published a story in the NY Times with the title “Bank Hacking Was the Work of Iranians, Officials Say“.

Now, nevermind for the moment that no actual officials are cited as saying anything of the sort. The closest we get is a former official expressing his own view. In fact the article itself states, “American officials have not offered any technical evidence to back up their claims” — though apart from that one sentence, the entire rest of the article tries to make the opposite case that Iran must have been behind the attack.

So, setting all that aside, we next are presented with a series of computer and international security experts making all sorts of claims that are used to justify the thrust of the article, including quite a bit of “officials say” or “experts say” statements — mostly unidentifed experts and officials, mind you, contrary to the New York Times’ own policy against using such anonymous sources. As Sean Lawson wrote in Forbes way back in October 2012: “Anonymous Sources Provide No Evidence of Iran Cyber Attacks” but I guess the editors at NY Times didn’t care.

Then we are presented with list of rather shabby arguments for why the attack must have been state sponsored, and furthermore that state must have been Iran: first, because of the scope and professionalism of the attack, and second because no money was stolen. Even assuming these claims are true, the NY Times never explains how that implicates Iran. And note that there’s no effort at any sort of balance. For example, there are no computer experts cited who have differing opinions on the matter. Why?

I mean, it is not as if such experts don’t exist. Information Week was certainly able to find them and carried an article by Matthew J Schwarts entitled “Bank Attacker Iran Ties Questioned By Security Pros” which quotes a computer security expert:

You can tell that it was planned and executed pretty well,” said Carl Herberger, VP of security solutions at Radware, which has been investigating the attacks on behalf of its customers.

But Herberger noted that project management skills aren’t evidence of Iranian backing. “The best way I can probably say this is we’ve seen no irrefutable evidence that it’s a single nation state or single actor that’s participating in the attacks,” he said. “There’s nothing we’ve seen that can’t be perpetrated by a small amount of knowledgeable individuals, whether they be associated with a nation state or otherwise.”

So, here’s a named expert directly contradicting the first argument proferred by the NY Times for why this must have been an Iranian attack. Turns out, while the attacks were professionally-done, that doesn’t exclude “a small amout of knowledgeable individuals” from carrying out the attack without state-sponsorship after all. Even non-state sponsored actors can show professionalism and expertise, after all.

Gee, was this fella somehow not available to the NY Times when Perloth and Hardy wrote their article? Or did they simply not bother to seek out any viewpoints that contradicted the official “Iran did it” spin as Information Week did?

The NY Times’ second claim implicating Iran is: “experts said” that the “hackers chose to pursue disruption, not money” and that was  “another earmark of state-sponsored attacks,” but the authors didn’t bother mentioning any other possible explanations for why money wasn’t taken — for example, because the hackers simply were ideologically-motivated rather than state-sponsored or financially-motivated. In fact, back in November 2012, Schwartzwrote an article  in Information Week about an interview that the self-described hacktivists had given in which they specifically denied any connection to Iran. They also explained that their motives were primarily ideological — to mete out “punishment” for an Islamophobic movie — and not financial, which is why they didn’t try to steal any money in the attacks. That discredits the second argument that the NY Times put forth to implicate Iran.

But the NY Times never bothered to seek out any of this information which discredited their claim that Iran was behind the attacks. Just a quick listing of the lapse of journalistic ethics: unnecessary use of anonymous sources making wild claims without justification and failure to balance viewpoints. Perlroth and Hardy never posed any sort of hard or critical questions about the claims of Iranian involvement, they included no criticism of the claim, and in fact apparently went out of their way totally disregarded information that went against the spin.

Why?

The NY Times is still demonizing Iran and pushing an agenda. They are doing what they did in the build-up to the Iraq war, even though the NY Times had supposedly promised not to make the same mistake again, and for example one of the reforms they were supposed to implement was limiting the excessive reliance on anonymous sources — however when it came to Iran coverage that promise disappeared rather quickly. (Remember the Michael Gordon/Clark Hoyte fiasco after Gordon had written an article claiming Iran was sending IEDs into Iraq, using nothing but a series of entirely anonymous govt sources? Digby at  Tiny Revolution caused a minor riot with his satire of the whole affair when he declared that “Michael Gordon is actually a voice-activated tape-recorder.“)

The funny thing is that editors at the NY Times themselves admit that they’re violating their own rules about anonymous sources but haven’t been able to do anything about it. Steve Rendall of FAIR pointed this tendency by the NY Times to rely on anonymous sources way back in 2007. Later in 2008, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote in the American Journalism Review:

The New York Times and Washington Post published mea culpas about their deficient coverage, admitting mistakes were made. The media community entered a period of introspection. Some of the most glaring failures – the lack of skepticism, failure to verify information, lack of tough questions – were right out of Newsgathering 101.

And then she asks:

Is history repeating itself with Iran?

Well, obviously, yes.

Posted on January 11, 2013 at 10:12 AM | Permalink

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