The Art of Deflection

As the gentle reader of this blog will know and as Greg has stated in the About text (upper right hand side on the page), we have a particular interest in the intersection of news from America and the way in which these news are delivered to the Danish people.

It was therefore with a keen interest that I noted the way in which Berlingske Tidende in its opinion pages recently gave room for an internal argument on the credibility of Berlingske itself in relation to the Russian Collusion story and its coverage of Donald Trump. This took place on Saturday Nov 27 2021.

Regular contributor to Berlingske, Bent Blüdnikov asked in his opinion piece “Doesn’t Berlingske have a moral responsibility for the false rumors about Donald Trump?” (as usual with Berlingske, the full article is behind a paywall, so I will summarize extensively below)

Fair warning, this will be a lengthy post.

Blüdnikov provides a summary of the Russian Collusion story and accuses Berlingske and other Danish media of uncritically serving the now discredited stories directly from left leaning American media to its own readers without doing any vetting or checking of their own. And he asks if Berlingske doesn’t have a responsibility to tell its readers the truth.

Naturally, something like this cannot go unanswered, so Berlingske also provided space on the same page to a rebuttal from the paper’s editor of the foreign desk, Birgitte Borup, “Bent Blüdnikov thinks that we at Berlingske get up in the morning and refuse to open one eye,” (which sounds pretty much as clunky in Danish as it does in English, by the way).

Media introspection! How deliciously tantalizing! Let’s have a closer look, shall we?

First off, let us tip the hat to Berlingske for allowing the question to be raised in the first place. That does not happen very often, so it is certainly worthy of praise when it does. One huzzah duly delivered, let us press on…

A digressionary note on source criticism, before we begin

One of the key points of criticism in Blüdnikov’s piece is the accusation that Berlingske has failed to conduct the elementary source criticism that should be expected of a serious paper. Source criticism (Da: kildekritik) is a discipline that was first identified and described as such by German historians in the early part of the 19th Century. It can be described loosely as the study of how various sources of information should be evaluated. In its original use by historians it seeks to classify and evaluate historical sources both in relation to each other, and in particular in relation to the use that is being made of the source. To that end, critical questions need to be asked in order to determine how valuable a given source is for the use the historian wishes to make of it. So, for example, generally anonymous sources have less weight than named sources, and sources with a personal interest in a matter may be less reliable than sources without such an interest. (and a physical piece of evidence, such as a Roman gold coin found in a Danish bog along with organic material carbon dated to the 2nd Century AD has more weight than a historical note made around 1400 by a Frenchman to the effect that there was no trade between Rome and the Germanic tribes after the battle of Teutoburger Forest in 9 AD, to take a hypothetical example).

Source criticism is supposed to be an important tool for journalists as well as historians, in particular when reporting on stories involving accusations of wrongdoing against political figures.

Say, who is this fellow?

It makes sense for Bent Blüdnikov to zero in on this aspect, because he was originally trained as a historian and before working as a journalist, he worked as an archivist and researcher at the Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet). It should also be noted that Blüdnikov is not an uncontroversial figure in the Danish media landscape. He has several times criticized fellow journalists and historians for plagiarism or for being too soft on totalitarians (especially those on the left) or simply historically inaccurate and sloppy. He has forced the retraction of several books by other authors (including Danish biographies of Kissinger, Che Guevara, and John F. Kennedy, as well as a book on a WW2 German Parachute Division, whose hagiographic approach to its subject rightly offended Blüdnikov).

Blüdnikov has often times argued that Danish journalists present a slanted and essentially unfair coverage of Donald Trump. To say that he is not a well loved figure among Danish journalists is like saying that the Hatfields and the McCoys didn’t see entirely eye to eye.

On the one hand

Bent Blüdnikov provides a fairly straightforward summary of the origin of the Russian Collusion story, including the use of the salacious bits of the bogus Steele dossier to jumpstart FBI investigations and the Carter Page wiretaps, and the way the mainstream American media took the story, ran with it and continued to run with it, even as the bits and pieces unravelled. He then excoriates how Berlingske jumped onto that bandwagon and allowed the “flow of accusations” to reach their readers unimpeded by critical questions or indeed, any attempt at source criticism.

He quotes two different articles in Berlingske from March and Nov 2017 as examples of anonymous accusations being promulgated without any attempt to qualify the reliability of the charges, and with no opposing points of view being presented.

And he then states that his article really doesn’t have anything to do with Trump, but that he is chiefly wondering how Danish media, in particular Berlingske, can avoid having pangs of conscience at the way they filled their pages with anonymous and unsubstantiated claims for years. Do these media not have a responsibility to tell the truth as it is now known and assume some responsibility for the sorry state of affairs, he is essentially asking.

That is a pretty good question.

So let us see how Berlingske responds…

And on the other..

Birgitte Borup’s rebuttal is interesting for what it does and for what it does not.

She starts out by acknowledging that Blüdnikov is criticizing the coverage of the Steele report, which is partially correct in that Blüdnikov is certainly also doing that, although his criticism is by no means limited only to that particular piece. She mentions that Blüdnikov specifically attacks two articles “published four-five years ago” and that he asks if Berlingske does not have a responsibility to tell the truth.

She then states that truth is far from as unambiguous (entydig) as he makes it out to be, and immediately follows that by pointing out that she didn’t work at Berlingske when the two articles mentioned were written.

So the defense presented by Berlingske the paper (who is the entity Borup represents and is responding on behalf of) starts out with “Well, truth is complicated, it was long ago, and I wasn’t even here at the time”

(We note that Blüdnikov is not accusing Borup personally, only at the newspaper berlingske Tidende and Danish media in general)

At this point the reader could be forgiven for suspecting that Borup is busy distancing herself personally from the subject at hand, and that she may not have a lot of really solid arguments to refute the criticism being levied. She states that she was in the US at the time and acknowledges that American media indeed let themselves be polarized in political trench warfare at that time. (since Berlingske’s coverage of America relies so massively on the same few left leaning media, the admission that American media was polarized is actually almost a tacit (if well concealed) admission that Berlingske’s coverage itself was polarized)

She then states that the leakage of the Steel dossier was a major news story and was covered as such, and she acknowledges that the most infamous claims regarding the micturating exploits of some Russian prostitutes were not credible.

However, she informs us, her review of the various articles published by Berlingske do not give her any occasion for regret or penance on behalf of the paper. “On the contrary,” she retorts, it is Blüdnikov’s claims that are lacking in precision.

She then states

“you make it seem as if Berlingske has uncritically adopted its coverage from American left-wing media. This is not true. Berlingske has consistently covered the Steele-report with clear reservations. The common throughline is that the report’s claims have not been documented, and Berlingske already described the report’s lacking credibility, when it was revealed that it was partially financed by the Democrats.”

Well now.

With regards to the two articles, Blüdnikov states that these articles reported accusations with no source criticism (factually true), that they did not report from any sources that disagreed with or questioned the accusations (also factually true), but only used media and quoted sources that supported the collusion narrative (again, factually true). He then states that these articles were “not atypical” of the coverage in general, meaning that this type of article was typical, hence implying that not all articles necessarily fall completely into the pattern described. So, he is allowing that on occasion there might have been articles with more nuance, but that generally the two articles are representative.

Anyone who follows American news closely and who reads Berlingske regularly would in this reader’s opinion be hard pressed to conclude anything except that Blüdnikov is far more correct here than Borup is. She pretends that Blüdnikov is saying there is not a single instance of uncritical coverage and dismisses that claim by referencing that there are indeed some instances where criticisms or reservations have been communicated.

This is akin to the common practice of shouting the scandalous lede in large headlines on the front page and then including some nuance or reservation of the claims in small print ten paragraphs into a story on page 19, and then claiming to have reported fairly.

Similarly she dismisses Blüdnikov for saying that Berlingske “reported loose and anonymous accusations without source critique” by stating that “generally Berlingske was in fact critical of the validity [of the Steele dossier]”. As if the uncritical publication of bullshit one day is totally undone by publishing some moderate nuance on another day.

incidentally, Borup does not provide any details on what time period she is referring to when the report was revealed to have been financed by the Democrats, so it is conveniently opaque when exactly Berlingske began reporting on the credibility problems. If you followed reporting outside the mainstream media, it was quite clear that the report had issues many months before the official provenance of the report was established, which I suppose became impossible to ignore when Washington Post laid out the connections between the DNC and Fusion GPS on Oct 24 2017. Is this when Berlingske began mentioning the credibility issues? Or maybe it was by Aug 9 2017, when Glenn Kessler (also in WAPO) laid out ties to the Democrats. Or how about June 19 2017 with this prescient headline in Forbes: Is Russiagate really Hillarygate? And of course there were questions being raised about the origin of the report from the very beginning. Here is the Daily Caller on January 11 2017 looking at Fusion GPS. Note that this was one day after Buzzfeed published the Steele Dossier after it had been circulating in various forms among Washington insiders for months.

Chutzpah a go-go

With admirable gall she then accuses Blüdnikov of being the one who is greatly simplifying matters by him saying that the relationship between Trump and the Russians were “conspiracy rumors” and therefore hinting it was not even worth reporting on. She then posits a number of claims that Trump did in fact have suspicious ties to the Russians and therefore reporting credulously on a bogus unverified report is totally legit, guys.

Before we move to that part, I do wish to parse exactly what Blüdnikov wrote and see if the characterization ascribed to him by Borup is reasonable. Here is the first sentence of Blüdnikov’s article:

Allerede før Donald Trump blev valgt til præsident i 2016, sivede der rygter ud om hans konspiration med Ruslands præsident Putin om at kuppe sig til magten.

In my translation:

Already before Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, rumors were leaking of his conspiring with Russia’s President Putin to gain power through a coup.

The only other mention of the word rumor is found in the first sentence of Blüdnikov’s second paragraph:

Rygtet om en konspiration mellem Trump, hans stab og russerne baserede sig på en rapport, som i USA blev kaldt “Steele-rapporten”

or, in English

The rumor of a conspiracy between Trump, his staff and the Russians was based on a report which in the US was called the “Steel-report”

So, the claim from Blüdnikov seems pretty straight forward. There were rumors that Trump and Putin were engaged in a conspiracy, and the rumor of such a conspiracy was based on the Steele dossier.

Borup’s claim here is that Blüdnikov called the relationship itself between Trump and the Russians for “conspiracy rumors”. She also manages to put “conspiracy rumors” in quotation marks, even though the two words to not occupy adjacent spaces in his text. She thus ties together two completely different parts of Blüdnikov’s claim as referring to Trump’s relationship itself, as opposed to the rumors referring to the idea that Trump and Putin were engaged in a conspiracy to unlawfully make Trump President. That is nothing short of deliberate misrepresentation.

Of course Borup immediately goes about decapitating the handy strawman she has just erected.

It’s just this war and that lying son-of-a-bitch, Johnson!

She says that there was legitimate wonder at how Trump acted towards Putin, which presumably (because she does not elaborate) refers to the widespread outrage in the media that Trump would offer flattering if noncommittal words towards various dictators. Further, she refers to a famous meeting held in 2016 in Trump tower as another data point supporting suspicion, and finally she refers to how Trump was dismissive of US intelligence reports and generally supportive of Putin during a press conference in Helsinki.

Amusingly, here she is essentially backing up Blüdnikov’s claim, since the facts around the infamous June 9 2016 meeting in Trump Tower does nothing to lend credence to the conspiracy charge. Willis Krumholz from the Federalist had a walkthrough of that whole matter way back in July 2018, and his article holds up very well today. For those who were paying attention, the absurdity of making that meeting an indication of nefarious dealings was evident all the way back to the Fall of 2016. But clearly not for Birgitte Borup and others who rely mainly on the New York Times and the Washington Post to tell them what is happening.

The unwillingness of Trump to speak ill of rivals with whom he expects to have to negotiate, is strange only to those who refuse to read Art of the Deal and understand the focus he puts on maximizing options, as well as his general (well known) personality trait of speaking well of those who flatter him while attacking those who criticize him. You can easily make the case that flattering a thug like Putin is unseemly, or unwise, or counter-productive, or just plain icky, but to make it into circumstantial evidence of a secret conspiracy that the conspirators presumably would want to keep hidden and not announce to the world is frankly unbecoming of a serious newspaper.

Finally, Borup rolls out the Senate report that while it concluded that the Steele report was bogus, also concluded that yes, Russia did in fact try to tamper with the election and that some Russians had close ties to members of Trump’s staff, so obviously Berlingske was totally justified in covering the Russia Collusion story!

Excuse me, while I pick up my eyes; they rolled right down on the floor.

No one, not even Bent Blüdnikov, has stated that the Russian Collusion story should not have been covered. The problem, which Borup tries to sidestep is the credulous way it was being reported.

Anyway, Russia trying to interfere in a US election is like getting wet if you stand out in the rain – it happens every single time. In 2016 we know that Russia tried using Facebook ads to sway voters, although we also know their efforts in that area were feeble and pathetic.

As for members of Trump’s staff having ties to Russians, that is the kind of thing that sounds alarming until you start to think about it for more than a few seconds. Here is a little secret: by the criteria being used, nearly every single member of a think tank, journalist or international businessman will have ties to Russia. Take a look at the wiki page for Links between Trump associates and Russian officials, if you feel so inclined. I won’t link to it because these days every wiki page touching on politics is garbage, but even so you will see that the ties listed in many cases consist of being present in meetings where there was a Russian present. ZOMG! Eleventy!!!11!

And every so often you will have a person like General Michael Flynn who may have been paid money to give a talk in Russia about a subject in which he was knowledgeable, the dirty rat bastard! And of course, while it will then be pointed out that Flynn was convicted in a court, it will usually not be mentioned that this had nothing to do with any collusion with Russians, and indeed that the treatment of Flynn was an Orwellian outrage.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, you really should have something actually tangible in the way of evidence before you initiate a full-scale war against a President for treason, which is what the media and Democrats (but I repeat myself) colluded with the administrative state to effectuate during the four years of Donald Trump’s term of office.

And finally, I suppose it should be mentioned in passing that using the Senate intelligence Committee report published Aug 17 2020 as ex post facto justification for Berlingske deciding to take up the Russia Collusion story to begin with is pretty funny. Does that mean that if the committee’s findings had been different, Borup would have changed her tune?

Wrapping it up

Having slain the dastardly straw man, Borup goes on to wax a bit lyrical. She allows that she is not here to acquit Berlingske of mistakes (which is surprising, given that she has so far acknowledged exactly no errors by Berlingske), and she states that Trump’s election was “an electroshock” to media worldwide, and further that news, misinformation and polarization merged into a river that was hard to navigate, which is a lovely image. She then claims that most media certainly have re-evaluated their coverage of the US along the way.

Alas, there is no information as to whether Berlingske is among those media, and certainly no indication of how that re-evaluation looks like at Berlingske, if indeed it has been carried out.

But now we are getting to the crux and Birgitte Borup is here to tell us that she once and for all rejects what she says appears to be Blüdnikov’s central thesis, namely that at Berlingske they get up every morning with the express ambition to deliver as one-sided and untrustworthy journalism as possible!

And here she delivers a statement so remarkable that it has to be seen to be believed:

Sandheden er, at vi på udlandsredaktionen dækker Joe Biden og Demokraterne lige så kritisk, som vi dækkede Trump.

We better translate that, because this is a sentence I will not tire of soon, in whatever shape it comes

The truth is, that at the foreign desk we are just as critical in our coverage of Joe Biden and the Democrats as we were of Trump.

Yes, she actually wrote that.

The mind boggles.

Doubling down

And not only that, she informs us, every day the good folks at Berlingske are doing their utmost to steer clear of errors and bias. They acquaint themselves both with the right and the left, they cross check sources, always examine the origin of the stories, and dive deep into reports, court documents and more, in order to ensure that their journalism is true and balanced.

Bracing stuff, that is.

She then uses her last two paragraphs to mention an article about the Trojan Horse that Berlingske had to pull due to it being completely false, and that the author of that article was, haha, Bent Blüdnikov himself. Pwned!

This happy turn of events allows her to close with a zinger to the effect that while anyone is welcome to get up on the high horse and criticize the media, one should take care lest the horse is trojan. This – rather like the obvious nefariousness of having associates with ties to Russia – sounds good at first glance and then falls apart when you start to think about it. Isn’t the visual point of sitting on the high horse the fact that you are sitting high, not whether the horse is hollow and filled with Greek hoplites? But never mind.

Apart from which, without knowing the particulars of the supposed phony Trojan horse story, whether or not Bent Blüdnikov was guilty of writing falsehoods either accidentally or deliberately may be interesting, but in no way changes the situation regarding Berlingske’s coverage of Donald Trump. Pointing out that the little boy’s clothes were dirty would not affect the non-existence of the Emperor’s clothes one whit. But it is telling that this is the way Borup chose to close her rebuttal.

Additionally, at this point I feels compelled to point out that while Blüdnikov listed two articles as examples in support of his larger point (and the space accorded him would hardly have allowed for more), at no point does Birgitte Borup claim that his examples are not correct, nor does she offer any defense for them, (beyond that it was a long time ago and before her time). The list of admirable journalistic practices that follows the frankly bizarre claim about covering Democrats and Trump equally, is interesting mainly in that if in fact those were the practices of Berlingske when it came to covering American news in general, and Donald Trump in particular, it would hardly have been possible to get things wrong to anywhere near the degree that they did during the Trump years. There are plenty of examples in this very blog.

Or maybe they do consider both sides, only to reflexively reject one side, maybe they do examine the origin of the stories before publishing them, provided they are damaging to Trump, and maybe they really do think they are practically free of bias – after all, maybe they just agree with Jim Rutenberg who effectively said on the NYT’s front page, that one cannot in good conscience cover a man like Donald Trump objectively, he is much too orange bad, man!

It is possible, I suppose, that if one were to peruse every single article mentioning Donald Trump from late 2015 until now that a more nuanced picture of Berlingske’s coverage might actually appear, but based on the way Birgitte Borup chose to respond to Bent Blüdnikov’s accusations, it seems extremely unlikely to be the case.

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greg nagan
7 months ago

“Sandheden er, at vi på udlandsredaktionen dækker Joe Biden og Demokraterne lige så kritisk, som vi dækkede Trump.” …I want to print that out, poster size, and frame it, and worship it as the absolute quintessential metaphysical platonic ideal answer to the Jeopardy question: “What is bullshit?”