The Silence of the Media Lambs

One of America’s biggest broadcasting networks was knocked out for two days last month by a cyber-attack from a hostile nation. But the biggest U.S. newspapers and TV news channels never reported it.

This silence of the lambs of the American media in neglecting to cover the cyber-attack on eight of Radio Free Europe Europe./Radio Liberty’s broadcasting web-sites is an even bigger story than the attack itself. It rates the significance of what Thomas Jefferson called a fire-bell in the night — a warning of looming threats to the security of this nation. 

You might have thought that a full-scale cyber-attack that knocked out a major international broadcasting network of the United States Government for two days was a significant news story. You might have thought that since the prime suspect for carrying out the attack was one of Russia’s closest allies, that would make the story even more important. And when the cyber-attack was followed by the expulsion of 10 U.S. diplomats from the Belarus capital Minsk on April 30, you might well have thought the main newspapers and news networks of the United States might really get their teeth into a story a bit more significant than Mariah’s new husband, Britney’s latest pratfalls or Hillary’s tear.

You might have thought all of that. But you would be wrong.

On Saturday, April 26, the web site of the Belarus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a news service funded by the U.S. Congress to broadcast independent news and information to the former Soviet republics and other major nations throughout Asia and parts of the Middle East, was knocked out for two days by a Distributed Denial of Services, or DDOS cyber-attack The attacks were carried out through botnets — groups of personal computers that run software automatically as “robots” — and overwhelmed the RFE/RL Belarus site server with millions of fake requests for information.

The attack was so serious that Jeffrey Gedmin, the president of RFE/RL, compared it to the operations of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in trying to jam U.S.– backed broadcasts to their nations during the Cold War. "The character of the attack shows that the Belarusian authorities continue to block information on the Internet," he said.

Natalia Radina, the editor in chief of Charter 97’s website, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. "Usually this happens during protest actions and election campaigns. What is particular to this case is that it was not just the case of (state telecom agency) Beltelekom blocking a site. It was a DOS attack. This is evidence that the Belarusian authorities use criminal actions against opposition sites."

The cyber-attack was hardly any secret. RFE/RL immediately posted the full details on their web site. But in the seasoned news judgments of Time magazine, Newsweek, CNN, the New York Times, the LA Times, CBS, ABC News, NBC, and all the other usual suspects it wasn’t news at all. In the week after the attacks, amazingly, not a single one of those news outlets carried the story. They didn’t investigate it or, or republish news service reports even though the Associated Press carried the story on Monday, April 28. But in the entire North American continent, only the Kansas City Star picked up the AP account.

United Press International reported the attack on April 29 and so did Agence France-Presse (in English as well as French) and UPI did a second, fuller report on May 2. The Wall Street Journal Europe rightly played the story big and devoted an editorial to it on April 29. A few specialist IT outlets including Register, UK, IT Business Edge in Kentucky and Web Host Industry Review carried it. But apart from them — zilch, zippo, absolutely nothing. National Public Radio did not report a word on the story. Nor did the PBS NewsHour.

There are two major stories here, not just one: It really does matter to the American people that a major American official broadcasting service was cyber-attacked and briefly silenced by forces directed by or closely associated to one of the most notorious dictatorships left on the European continent, and a close ally of Russia at that.

Also, RFE/RL is neither unimportant nor small. It has 2,000 news correspondents across Eurasia that give it a bigger news gathering net than any of the pathetic shadows of international news gathering that ABC, CBS and NBC news have all been reduced to. It has more correspondents covering Eurasia than any cable news network, or any major U.S. newspaper apart from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Silence RFE/RL and you blind the American public and U.S. policymakers to the day by day realities of what is going on across all of Eurasia beyond NATO and the European Union. By any accounts, that cyber attack should have been a Page One story across America all by itself.

The free, huge and still fabulously wealthy U.S. news media — in some ways even more than our intercontinental ballistic missiles, Patriot anti-ballistic missile batteries or orbiting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites —  are this nation’s first line of defense against the myriad dangers ready to raise their hydra heads against us around the world. Silence the few remaining alert guards on the ramparts, like RFE/RL, and you destroy that defense. When one major media outlet is attacked, intimidated or silenced, then the other ones are duty bound to rally to its aid. But despite the clear warning that was in fact sounded by the AP, UPI and AFP wire services, not a single other U.S. major news outlet (except for the Kansas City Star) acted on it and picked up the story.

The enemies of America, clearly, do not have to worry about silencing the giants of the American news media. They have already done a great job of silencing themselves.

The major U.S. news outlets did not even have to part with a few hundred dollars of their precious travel budgets to let any of their remaining European correspondents travel to Prague to investigate the story at first hand. All they had to do was to click on to the RFE/RL web-site and read the story for themselves before picking up their telephones and making a few calls to verify the details. No danger, no cost, not even any inconvenience.
A score of hotshot, young whizkids from the likes of Slate and should have been able to put the story together while still sipping their morning lattes. And after all, it was a cyber-security story. Cool, hot stuff, right?

But as Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Against stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain." Compared with the invincible complacency and laziness of the smart, sophisticated U.S. media of the 21st century, and its wired-up young swingers, even Nietzsche’s stupidity looks smart.