As I recently wrote, Bellingcat.com, a mostly volunteer organization of British video gamers and internet geeks, are, in my opinion, among the best investigative journalists in the world. These young people are the most adept at using new technology to solve cases that the “old” media have abandoned. Moreover, Bellingcat gets superior results with dramatically less funding than any of the media giants. The cable and TV networks spend billions of dollars on their “news” divisions every year, but most of the money goes to pay the inflated salaries of visually appealing news anchors.
Happy news, infotainment has squeezed down the minutes for reporting real news to a fraction of their former airtime. Budgets for investigative research have been cut to the bone. Overseas bureaus have been eliminated in favor of college kids in low-paying internships who find foreign news on the internet, if they can find it at all.
Blame the network bosses who ordered their accountants to measure their news divisions only as profit centers and not as a public service. The bean counters have lowered the bar for American journalism and watered down the news product in pursuit of higher ratings and higher prices for their commercials.
The truth is that in the United States, the news is for sale to the highest bidder, even if the bidder for airtime is a corrupt corporation or political movement peddling false information in the form of news-like propaganda from imitation journalists of the left and right.
Those who purchase large amounts of commercial airtime from the networks may also buy the influence to bend or even bury the news. There are no more Mike Wallaces, Sam Donaldsons or Walter Cronkites. These days, TV anchors are just men and women who read other people’s stories on the air. They are repeaters, not reporters.
Apparently, it does not matter to anyone that the TV networks sometimes relabel other people’s work as their own “breaking news.” What I love about real investigators, like Bellingcat, is that they do not care who gets the credit as long as the news gets out. They even teach the news networks how to use their new investigative technology to make the world a better place.
Consider the case of the secret Russian assassination squad that uses a unique and (usually) untraceable poison called Novichuk. The Russians did not invent nerve agents. They modified an internationally banned organophosphate toxic nerve agent previously discovered by Nazi scientists. Mengele gave that information to a family member who worked for Hitler’s weapons testing unit, who was taken into custody by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) at the war’s end.
The SIS was riddled with Communist double agents who stole the results of Dr. Mengele’s experiments and gave them all to Moscow. That is how the Russians knew that these poisons would be fatal even if only a few minuscule drops were sprayed on the skin.
Novichuk was the direct descendant of these original Nazi nerve agents. Putin ordered that this “untraceable” poison be used to assassinate a Russian defector living in Salisbury, England. All the British police had was some video footage of two suspicious tourists named Boshirov and Petrov, who had Russian passports. They had arrived in Salisbury just before the poisoning and left immediately afterward. After British police published photos of the two murder suspects, Bellingcat took up the hunt. The names were obviously fakes, but the photos were the first solid clue.
While traditional Western reporters wasted their time with fruitless document requests to government offices in Moscow, Bellingcat partnered with tech-savvy Bulgarian and Russian sources who told them how to get official files through the back door. Underpaid Moscow employees often made digital copies of government records and sold these computer disks on the black market. Paradoxically, this low-level corruption was the friend of investigative journalists—and the enemy of government military secrets.
As The Guardian reported with admiration, Bellingcat simply went shopping. “Russian markets sold CDs of mass official information: home addresses, car registrations, telephone directories and other bulk indexes. For £80 or so, you could buy traffic police records. With the right contacts and a modest cash payment, it was even possible to gain access to the national passport database.”
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