The Empire’s Weakness Is That It Still Needs Normal People To Turn Its Gears

Caitlin Johnstone
5 min readMar 2, 2024

Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Tim Foley):

Imperial propaganda outlet The New York Times is currently embroiled in a massive scandal over its reporting which alleges mass rapes on October 7 — and the scandal is being fueled in part by leaks from its own staff.

In case you haven’t been following the story, back in December the Times published an article titled “‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7” which was riddled with glaring plot holes that were exposed by research from outlets like The Grayzone, Electronic Intifada, and Mondoweiss. Later it came out with the help of an anonymous Twitter account named zei_squirrel that one of the three authors of the New York Times piece — Anat Schwartz — is a genocide-supporting Israeli intelligence veteran who had never worked in journalism before, and that another author of the piece — a food writer named Adam Sella — is her partner’s nephew.

In late January a report from The Intercept revealed that there was a major internal conflict at The New York Times about the strength of the reporting in “Screams Without Words”, with a Times podcast dedicated to the article postponed and then abandoned when staff couldn’t agree whether to stick to the original reporting and risk an embarrassing retraction, or present it in less certain light and tacitly advertise that they didn’t have confidence in their report.

The other day The Intercept printed a follow-up piece which included more information from New York Times sources, as well as damning admissions Schwartz made in Hebrew on an Israeli podcast about the process of publishing “Screams Without Words”. Schwartz’s comments make it clear that everywhere she looked at the beginning of her investigation turned up zero evidence of sexual assault, only finding “evidence” when she moved on to thoroughly discredited sources like the ultra-orthodox group Zaka. It also makes it clear that it was The New York Times who approached Schwartz to help write “Screams Without Words” of their own initiative — so this scandal is all theirs.

In response to the leaks in the first Intercept article, The New York Times has launched a major leak investigation to determine who disclosed the information about internal strife at the paper to outside sources. Multiple anonymous New York Times staffers told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein that they couldn’t remember any such inquisition having taken place before, and that they found it disconcerting.

“It’s not something we do,” a source told Klein. “That kind of witch hunt is really concerning.”

So not only are New York Times staff leaking information about internal strife behind the scenes at the paper, they’re also leaking information about the investigation into those leaks.

And now the Times Guild has sent a letter to New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger (whose family has published the paper for over a century), claiming NYT management have been singling out Arab and Muslim staff for interrogation on suspicion of leaking the information. Just imagine the outrage if a news outlet was explicitly singling out Jews on suspicion of betraying its interests over a story relating to Israel.

This is happening because the propaganda necessary to run cover for an active genocide diverges so wildly from what journalists have been trained to expect from a news outlet that even the fairly establishment-loyal staff of the mainstream press are becoming alarmed by it. The New York Times’ coverage of Israel’s destruction of Gaza has been so blatantly biased in favor of US and Israeli information interests that it’s starting to shake people awake within the outlet itself — people whose unofficial job is to write propaganda for the US-centralized empire.

This is one of the weaknesses of the empire: that it depends on ordinary people to turn the gears of its institutions, and those ordinary people have been lied to about what those institutions are and what they do. We saw this illustrated recently in the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell, who according to his friend Levi Pierpont initially joined the US Air Force to get out there and see the world but was quickly radicalized by what he saw on the inside of the US war machine. We’ve also seen this with the way CNN staff have been feeding information to other outlets about the network’s policies of pro-Israel bias, and with the internal protests and resignations in the Biden administration over Gaza.

The western empire cannot operate without (A) ordinary people and (B) nonstop lies and propaganda, and the more overt and ham-fisted (B) becomes the more it’s necessarily going to conflict with its need for (A). The empire is going to struggle to get people dropping its bombs, moving its war machinery, churning out its propaganda and running its government agencies if it keeps acting in ways which dramatically conflict with what westerners have been taught to believe about their society, their media, their government, and their world.

This is why you’ll sometimes see the empire step back from taking the most horrific actions it could take. It doesn’t happen because the empire is moral or kind, it happens because it can’t afford to wake too many people up to its depravity. That’s the line the empire has been tightrope-walking these last five months, and the more attention we ordinary people can draw to the conflict between its actions and its narratives about itself, the more we shake that slender wire its feet struggle to balance upon.


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