Media Disinformation

This article is about preventing the release of information to the media, and preventing editors and other members of the media from publishing what they know. See also Stopping Leaks for when these measures fail. Based on Media Disinformation Discussion.

On 9 June 1998, Graeme Price asked the DGML:

Just wondering. Is there a specific mechanism by which the Government can censor the news media (print, radio, TV or all three) in the US?

I know that the constitution protects free speech and so on, but I guess there would have to be a mechanism to gag the press regarding matters of national security.

In the UK, there is a mechanism called the D-Notice which used to be used to stop the press reporting on matters which affected state secrets and national security (although I'm not sure if HMG still issues D-Notices). Anyone got any more up to date info on this?

Various responses

  • The brutal method is to intimidate or harm news-related people who have obtained the dangerous information. Very imposing men in your doorway tell you to stop talking about it. It is the right of the media to broadcast what they want, but if the military or government can cover something up, the major problem is the risk of being caught, either having the silencing itself exposed or the original secret along with it. (Duran Goodyear)
    • The agenda of most US news media is “make money”. (Gerry Mckelvey)
  • Look at the 1998 White House strategy for dealing with their problems: Deny everything, tell the opposite story, and attack the credibility of your accuser. Delay the story and stonewall any investigation. It's easier to redirect an investigation when you've let it grind on for about a year. Make effective use of people's short attention span. Sooner or later most people will go away and find something more interesting to do, or you could give them something more interesting to do. (Gerry Mckelvey)
    • A good way to "cover" information, of course, is for something much more "newsworthy" to happen; if something is going to break, a sudden application of "mad gunman" can make it drop off relatively unnoticed. (This will work better on smaller stories, for the most part; Pakistan's nukes and the Oregon school-shootings didn't cancel each other out, but what *did* get buried, hmmm?) (Don Juneau)
  • There really isn't a firm definition of "national security," making it a useful device for restricting the flow of information. Look at the history of executive orders and restrictions on publishing classified materials, for example. Also check out Title 18 of the US Code, with particular emphasis on Chapter 37 Espionage and Censorship (Chapter 10 deals with biological weapons, BTW) and the Department of Justice's Freedom of Information Act page. (Steven Kaye) (non-functional links redacted)
  • Give and take (i.e. a newspaper keeps its press-conference privileges etc. in exchange for not doing certain things) is common and effective these days, as opposed to relying on publishers to "do right" by the intelligence community. Patriotism could fairly reliably get a publisher to suppress a book or story in 1929; in the 1990s I think few would be quite that cooperative without some more concrete incentive. Politics and patriotism go a lot farther if they're helped along by the bottom line. (Shane Ivey)
  • When it comes to the intelligence community, most sensitive agencies require their employees to sign documentation avowing that they won't spill secrets afterward, since Yardley's book on the Black Chamber in 1929. There the situation is not government censorship of a press or publisher, but sanctions against an employee in violation of contract and federal law. (Shane Ivey)

J. Frederick MacKenzie made a more elaborate reply:

The US Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutional right to free speech as allowing the Federal Government a very limited power of "prior restraint". Prior restraint is the censoring or blocking of information being released and will only be authorized in situations involving a "clear and present danger" to national security.

In order to exercise prior restraint, the government must get a court to order that the information involved may not be released. The court will demand proof that the information really poses a threat. The classic example given is that a schedule of troop ships leaving port could not be published in wartime.

A famous test case for prior restraint was the "Pentagon Papers". A detailed and sensitive history of the Vietnam War was leaked to two newspapers. This report contained information that could compromise intelligence assets in place in North Vietnam. One court ruled that the New York Times (I think) couldn't publish. Another court ruled that the Washington Post could publish, but with a few names deleted.

Please keep in mind that the rules were very different in the first half of the 20th Century. During World War I, World War II, and the "red scares" of the 1920s and 1950s, blocking information was much easier and the courts went along with almost any government claim that the "Espionage Act" had been violated.

Another thing to bear in mind is that although the Feds can't always stop the release of information, they can still often punish those who release classified or sensitive information. Massive fines and jail sentences are possible. Espionage charges are a capital crime, punishable by death (although not in the 1990s).

As a final note: An employee of the CIA once told my father, "If someone might be handing out secrets to the Soviets, sometimes it's just easier for everyone if they fall in front of a subway train."

To which the The Man in Black added:

  • Or have a tragic hunting accident,
  • or slip and fall in the shower,
  • or commit suicide,
  • or be crushed in a fatal traffic collision,
  • or trip down a flight of stairs,
  • or eat some really bad seafood,
  • or shoot themselves while cleaning their gun,
  • or be electrocuted by that bathtub radio,
  • or overdose on illegal narcotics,
  • or have an allegic reaction to medication,
  • or suffer a lethal stroke/heart attack,
  • or be devoured by an escaped pitbull.

Post-Grenada US military handling of the media

One story on the first Gulf War commented about how the US Gov't. "controlled" the media. All the various regulations and special press "briefings" kept them from going out and getting into things the way they'd done in Vietnam. The article, which may have been in Wired magazine, also bitched about how the media, for the most part, sucked it up and said "please, sir, may I have another?" (Don Juneau)

A 10 June 1998 letter by Joseph Camp in response to Juneau:

Quite correct. The media were masterfully handled during the Gulf War conflict, a practice that began in earnest during the Grenada invasion of Reagan's term.

What it amounts to is that a pool of journalists are selected from the major media outlets and are allowed to accompany select missions, surveys, briefings, and whatnot. To be a part of this pool, you surrender certain rights as to the nature of your reportage—what you can take pictures of, what details you can discuss, and so forth. Nominally, this is to protect classified information that, if revealed, could lead to casualties in the field: the locations of troops, specific procedures, secret technology, etc.

In practice, of course, the result was that the media allowed into Iraq during the war were only shown carefully selected portions of the events there. The daily briefings, which focused on smart missiles and the like, were scripted to give the impression of a clean war consisting of surgical strikes and nothing being damaged (on screen, at least) besides impersonal buildings. In reality, as the Pentagon later admitted, the smart missiles were a very small portion of the overall armaments deployed - the vast majority of which were your basic "dumb" missiles and bombs - and even they performed poorly. The few notable successes they achieved became the source for the video we saw on the evening news.

The assumption of the Pentagon was that uncensored footage of dead and dying Iraqi and American soldiers would quickly kill Americans' support for the war, damaging the coalition that the Bush administration had assembled.

All told, the handling of the media during the Gulf War was an immensely successful operation - arguably more successful than the Gulf War operation itself. Agents and case officers are encouraged to study this case as an example of how to get the job done without drawing the wrong kind of attention.

Americans no longer have the stomach for a questionable war. Norman Swartzkopf was the toast of the country when the Gulf War was over, but later became a real persona non grata because his command allowed 56 American casualties, some of them from friendly fire. The Gulf War was one of the most one-sided massacres in history. 30,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed, America lost less than 100, and STILL Swartzkopf got nailed for allowing those deaths. (The Laughing Priest, in 1998, before the 21st-century wars in the Middle East added embedding and other techniques to reduce these problems)

The UK (and Australia) D(A)-notice system

The D-notice system was probably still in operation as of 1998, though not used often (correct, but the name changed to DA-notice for “Defence Advisory” in 1993; as of 2006 there are five of these notices in constant effect – editor's note). It's more of a stick approach to editors. The D in D notice refers to the Defense of the Realm Act which, as usual under UK law, is fairly broad and can be widely interpreted. This is the Act under which notices to prevent publication can be issued. One was issued in the Spycatcher case in the UK to prevent the newspapers publishing transcripts of the trial or book from Australia where HMG v Peter Wright was in full swing. The government also tried to stop publication in Australia, and failed. Usually, if a D-notice is served we won't hear anything about it, because it's probably an offense under either DORA or the Official Secrets Act to mention the reason for, or the serving of, a D-notice. Anyway the UK print media tends to be part of the "Establishment", the old-boy network is enough to prevent publication, or if needed a knighthood here a Lordship there, or a few favours by the Gov, such as talking to the Italian Prime Minister on behalf of Rupert Murdoch who wanted to take over a TV station there. (Robert Thomas)

A D-notice is a veiled give-and-take threat by the government: "If you publish this story our press office will no longer send you any parliamentary information, you will no longer be allowed to send your journalists to governmental press releases, your political correspondants will be shunned, etc." In DG, use of D-notices and the Official Secrets act can provide great cover. (ITDCJB)

After doing some research and posting now-obsolete links, Adam Crossingham wrote:

I was surprised to find the whole D-notice system was a voluntary mechanism. But I wonder just how 'voluntary' it is, and how far news organisations can get away without co-operating with it. Any news organisation depends on finding news - but if this is stopped - perhaps official departments stop talking to it, forget the press releases, refuse the press passes - how long will they be effective as a news gathering organisation?

And given the fact that many news organisations are owned by people in the establishment, these organisations will also co-operate with the system as it won't rock the boat, won't hinder the chairman's forthcoming knighthood, etc. They may consider themselves, or be considered by the establishment as 'one of us'. This has been the case traditionally. The Press are the fourth estate after all… The 'Daily Mail' is known in some quarters as the 'Daily MI5', given it's reactionary conservative outlook.

The exception to this argument are news organisations with international links. An example could be the Murdoch-owned UK newspapers (The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World). The fact that Rupert Murdoch is a non-British establishment, Republican, American/ex-Australian international businessman who is prepared to compromise truth-in-news reporting in exchange for business opportunities with totalitarian governments could suggest to some that the actions of his papers and the views of the owner are connected in some way. These News International publications don't have market sector dominance but have been very influential on the rest of the industry.

Following the Murdoch-press lead, British newspapers have developed a more confrontational (or rather a less obliging) approach to the British establishment over the last couple of decades. Under the guise of investigative journalism secrets, cock-ups and scandals (perhaps the same thing <g>) have been exposed; the defence always being that 'the Public has a right to know' about facts, hitherto only known to an informed elite. The threat of an unfettered or hostile press can be seen by the fact that the last two British governments have made strenuous efforts to win over, or, not to irritate Murdoch. Maybe Murdoch has sat on state secrets in return for relaxed media ownership laws in the UK.

Limited information rights laws have now been passed in the UK, but the 'In the Public Interest' defence has been removed from recent secrets legislation. Sound like things being given in one hand and taken away with the other?

Perhaps the best way to avoid media scrutiny or suppression in modern Britain is to make sure the press don't find out about it. I remember being taught in college that the guiding principle of British government is secrecy - what isn't known can't hurt you. Therefore compartmentalise the exposure, deny everything to anybody other than an official enquiry. If forced by an official enquiry to give evidence obfuscate, then give/apologise/retract/_clarify_ the evidence. The Official Secrets Act should take care of the rest of the mess if it gets that bad. If the Press do find out - act before they publish and confiscate all materials relating to the story including confidential sources, and use the Official Secrets Act to prevent their disclosure.

Media treatment examples

  • Look at the hatchet job the American media did on poor Pierre Salinger who used to be one of their own. He was probably full of shit, but the handling he received assured no one would EVER look into his allegations. (Phil A Posehn)
  • The publication of the San Jose Mercury News articles about the CIA pushing drugs in inner cities is one example. Americans just aren't as interested in human rights violations (except good ones on video tape) or government scandals anymore (as of 1998 - editor's note). Nerve gas used on Americans got a one-day headline, and that's it. (John)
  • The name Karen Silkwood springs to mind. (Ian/Cath Ford)
  • Judy Barry was one of the leaders of Earth First!, a radical environmentalist group dedicated to preserving old growth redwoods in California, among other things. In 1991 a bomb exploded under the seat of her VW seriously injuring her and her companion. The bomb was filled with an explosive and about a pound of nails, obviously an antipersonnel device. The FBI insisted that miss Barry and her companion were the builders of the bomb in spite of a large body of evidence indicating that the bomb was exactly what it appeared to be, an attempt on the life of Barry. The ensuing lawsuit is still in court as of 1998. Sadly Ms Barry died last year of breast cancer. (Phil A Posehn)

Alexander Beckers was on to something:

Police were raiding a suspected drug den, and set the building on fire. Interesting notes:

The report focused on the innocent family who lived downstairs and are now homeless. There was no mention of or pictures of the accused drug dealers.

The one reference to drug operation was made by a neighbor that I can only describe as "sketchy". He stammered a lot.

The claim is that the house was set on fire by a flash grenade throw into a 2nd story window.

The news anchor said, "One police casualty — one officer was bitten by a dog." They don't say whether it was a fatality or merely an injury.

So we have a building set ablaze as part of a police raid of never-seen "drug dealers", and one of them was bit "by a dog", possibly fatally.

What do YOU think?

I'll tell you, if DG has had only one impact on my life outside gaming, it's that I'm even MORE paranoid and skeptical of news reports. You bastards! YOU did this to me!

Plot hook: Gaming company releases supplement subtly designed to increase uneasiness and paranoia in its readers, who are then more likely to react in… interesting ways… to stress.

J. Frederick MacKenzie commented on this case:

A real failure of police "Spin Control". This is why police will often have an official spokesman promptly issuing a statement of "what just occurred". Approximately 90 % of news stories have their sources in press releases of some sort, so the media give these officials respectful attention in most cases.


The reporters usually enter into a situation with preconceptions of what to expect. They tend to craft a story consistent with those preconceptions direct their camera crew or photographer accordingly. This results in vague and inaccurate reports. Additionally, stock footage will often be used as visuals, introducing outdated and inappropriate pictures.

I hear you saying: "So What?" You can use the media as a great foil for investigators.

MacKenzie proceeded to make the following recommendations:

  1. News reports will reach the investigators' supervisors before they can explain what they were doing: "This is Bert Smalley on the scene! Federal agents are attempting to stop what is apparently a rampaging elephant! You can see the trail of destruction behind me…"
  2. Intrepid reporters can get in the middle of things just in time for the situation to cook off: "Tango Leader, I have a clean shot at the cult leader… no, wait - there's some guy filming him!" Offing local reporters is likely to be noticed.
  3. The team's enemies may use some spin control of their own: "I'm speaking with William Greed, attorney for the alleged cultists. So, Mr. Greed, you say you have proof that your clients were framed by corrupt federal agents?"
  4. Inaccurate reports can give misleading information: "So, acting on information we received from the FBI, my deputies were able to round up this entire band of dangerous drug smugglers." (except for the three that got away).
  5. Various government agencies will issue contradictory statements as they attempt to pass blame: "Just in; the missing convoy was transporting experimental medical supplies, not weapons as originally reported."
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