Saturday, April 9, 2016

Columbia Journalism Review: "Why the Panama Papers are a gold mine for conspiracy theorists"

A few days after the initial selective leak of some of the Panama Papers material (actually following Wednesday's China post) we made a decision not to repost any of the personal information, the thinking being that doing so made us as slimy as Gawker during the Sony emails leak-a-thon. Here's what we said about that at the time:

December 31, 2014
Sony Hackers Threaten News Organization 
It was disgusting to watch various news outlets carry the hacker's water by publishing the disclosed emails. It was hilarious to see their defenses:
“The new reality is that journalists simply do not own the news cycle: Even if Gawker, BuzzFeed News, and Fusion decided to stop covering it, others would take up the mantle,” Anne Helen Petersen writes at BuzzFeed. “The new role of journalists, for better or for worse, isn’t as gatekeepers, but interpreters: If they don’t parse it, others without the experience, credentials, or mindfulness toward protecting personal information certainly will.”
So I thought, let's go back to the CJR and see what they're saying about this latest cyber-theft.
From the Columbia Journalism Review, April 8, 2016:
At first glance, the Panama Papers seem destined to become legend in conspiracy theory circles. The investigation, published Sunday, relied on 2.6 terabytes of secret data to reveal a vast network of offshore companies that hide money tied to politicians, celebrities, and criminals worldwide. These revelations offered conspiracy theorists a sip of ambrosia, a rare and highly visible confirmation of organized malice by the elites. Not since the Edward Snowden leaks have doubters of all things official been so strongly validated.

But, perhaps predictably, conspiracy theories are now forming around the Panama Papers themselves. Some believe the work is meant to take the Benghazi heat off Hillary Clinton, while others claim the US State Department manufactured the stories to tar its political enemies. Online forum discussions, conspiracy theory magnate Alex Jones, and even WikiLeaks have cast doubt on either the origins of the documents or the integrity of the journalism. At issue, they say, are the organizations that fund the project leader, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. What’s most striking is how a misunderstanding of how the news media works can simultaneously condemn proven muckrakers and empower state-run propaganda arms. 
First, some background: The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung began receiving encrypted files from an anonymous source more than a year ago. The documents—emails, invoices, photographs, and more—belonged to the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in creating offshore companies for banks, on behalf of their clients. The newspaper came to ICIJ to lead what would become journalism’s largest-ever cross-border investigation, encompassing more than 100 newsrooms in 80 countries. Their findings were damning and the fallout intense. So far, the Panama Papers have resulted in the resignations of Iceland’s prime minister, a top FIFA official, and the head of an Austrian bank.

The coverage has also centered on Vladimir Putin. The investigation unearthed that associates of the Russian president hid billions of dollars in the coffers of offshore companies.
When the news hit, Putin and his cronies came out firing. The state’s RT television “news” network claimed that Western media was out to shake up upcoming Russian elections. Other articles questioned how much influence the US government and powerful Americans had in the publishing process.

The obvious implication: that ICIJ is a cover for more nefarious backroom players. So who are the donors behind ICIJ, and do they influence the editorial operation they fund?
ICIJ lists its supporters on its website. Some, like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, are geared toward encouraging strong journalism. Most others lean left. Open Society Foundations, for instance, is funded by wealthy liberal George Soros. The Ford Foundation, the Adessium Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation tend to support causes more associated with progressives, climate change among them. Thus, those caught in the crossfire of the Panama Papers and conservatives like Breitbart have joined in, throwing shade on the political leanings of the news organization’s funders.

Fair enough. (In fact, journalists should ask themselves whether they would call attention to the financial backers of a news organization funded by Republican heavyweights like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson. Yes is the right answer.) But ICIJ director Gerard Ryle says the folks who write ICIJ’s checks don’t write its stories. A firewall between the newsroom and its funders means they know only that a big story is coming, Ryle maintains. He says he doesn’t accept donations from sources who want to dictate coverage, and there is no evidence to such that funders like Ford try to play a hands-on editorial role. “I’ve turned away money,” he adds. “And I don’t believe in taking money just to do stories on a topic.”...MORE
Just so you know, I don't have a Secretary of State Henry Stimson attitude toward the information revealed. He famously ex post justified the shutdown of the State Department's cryptanalytic office by saying, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail."

I'm more than happy to read the mail if there is a competitive advantage to be gained (a view Stimson eventually came around to).

I just don't see the point of voyeurism for voyeurism's sake, especially when the motives of the leaker and the messengers are so murky.

Who Is Behind the Panama Papers Leak? The Russians? The CIA?
Some Of the Panama Papers Conspiracy Theories 
"Watching the ‘Panama Papers’ News in Russia" 
Americans In the Panama Papers 
And Why Is The Lack Of U.S. Names In The Panama Papers Notable?