When the Trump administration blamed Cuba for a “sonic attack” on U.S. diplomats, a New York Times reporter did something unusual for his newspaper: he tried objectively to assess the evidence.
OPINION — I often criticize The New York Times, Washington Post and other major mainstream media outlets for a very simple reason: they deserve it – especially for their propagandistic, unprofessional and reckless coverage of foreign crises.
But there are occasional moments when some reporter at an MSM outlet behaves responsibly and those instances should be noted at least under the classic definition of “news” – something that is unexpected – or as the old saying goes, “dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news.”
One such moment occurred earlier this month when a Times science editor assigned science reporter Carl Zimmer to look into the mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats in the recently reopened U.S. embassy in Cuba.
About two dozen U.S. diplomats supposedly were suffering hearing loss and cognitive difficulties due to what has been labeled a “sonic attack.” The Trump administration blamed the Cuban government even though the Cubans claimed to be mystified and would seem to have little motive for disrupting a long-sought détente with Washington along with the expected boon to their tourist industry. President Trump “retaliated” by expelling 15 Cuban diplomats.
Zimmer recounted the background to his story in a reporter’s notebook piece on Oct. 6: “On Tuesday, Michael Mason, my editor on the science desk, shot me an email. Would I consider writing an article about ‘this sonic “attack” business’? I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had been vaguely puzzled about this business for months.”
Checking Out the Story
Zimmer then did what professional journalists are supposed to do: he started contacting impartial experts to get their assessments of what was possible, what was likely, and what didn’t make sense.
“I decided to try to find something out — not as a political reporter but as a science writer,” Zimmer wrote in the sidebar that accompanied his news article. “I usually base my ideas on scientific research that has matured far enough that it is beginning to get published in peer-reviewed journals. … I knew that an article on sonic weapons would be very different from the ones I usually write. …
“I learned there was not even an official medical report. I decided to try to draw some boundary lines for all the speculation swirling around the story. Is the idea of a sonic attack plausible, based on what scientists know about sound and the human body? …
“So I hit the phone. I didn’t want to talk with just anyone — I looked for people with lots of experience in research that had direct bearing on this question. I started with Timothy Leighton, whose job title at Southampton University is, literally, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics. Better yet, Dr. Leighton has published the only thorough recent scientific review of the effects of environmental ultrasound that I’m aware of.
“When I interviewed Dr. Leighton and others, I made clear I didn’t expect them to solve this mystery; I just wanted them to reconcile the question with what we know through science. …
“The consensus was that it was extremely unlikely the diplomats were the victims of a sonic weapon. It would be necessary to rule out less exotic possibilities before taking that one seriously.”
Yet, despite this skeptical scientific consensus among experts, Zimmer noted, “The notion [of a sonic attack] has ricocheted like mad around the press, making it possible for readers to assume that [the sonic attack explanation] has been generally accepted by experts. But it most certainly has not. I’ll be curious to see if articles like mine can put the brakes on the speculation.”
Well, Zimmer could have read the Times editorial in the same day’s (Oct. 6) newspaper for a partial answer. While critical of the Trump administration for rushing to judgment in blaming the Cuban government and expelling 15 diplomats, the editorial concluded: “The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”
So much for the editorial writers reading their own newspaper, but clearly they were driven by a higher agenda. A New York Times editorial about some unpleasant topic anywhere in the world these days wouldn’t be complete without taking the opportunity to blame Russia or, in this case, at least suggest Russia as a possible villain in the mystery.
The Times wrote: “Other parties, most notably Russia, must also figure as suspects: President Vladimir Putin would probably welcome a setback to American-Cuban relations.”
Yes, every possible conspiracy theory must somehow circle back to Vladimir Putin, a real-life Dr. Evil. When he is not plotting how to flood Facebook with images of puppies or manipulate Americans in their pursuit of Pokemon Go characters, he is building secret sonic weapons to disorient U.S. diplomats in Havana and provoke President Trump to act rashly (when we all know how cool and collected Trump normally is).
But I thought the earlier conspiracy theory was that Putin had secret videos of Trump cavorting with prostitutes in a five-star Moscow hotel – knowing years ago that Trump would surely become the U.S. president – and thus all Putin would have needed to do was call Trump up and tell his Manchurian Candidate to ship home some Cuban diplomats.
Why would the evil Putin go to the trouble of inventing a sonic weapon when simply pulling Trump’s puppet strings would have done the trick? Perhaps it’s just that Putin is so evil that he delights in dastardly tricks for the sheer sadistic joy of hurting people. Yes, that must be the ticket!
Once again, the Times editors seem to be onto something – if only they could rein in their one journalist who still seems to think it’s necessary to report a story by seeking out genuine experts who don’t have some ax to grind or some lucrative government contract to audition for. It saves so much time and energy to just blame Putin.
Top photo | The New York Times building in New York, New York. (Photo” Scott Beale/Flickr)