Brian Stelter here at 11:33pm ET on Sunday, July 18 with a look at a big week ahead from Texas to Tokyo. Plus: The “Peppa Effect,” Jeff Bezos, “Black Widow,” and more…
Snooping on a global scale
Scores of journalists from seventeen news outlets worked together to expose evidence of industrial-scale spying that targeted journalists, activists, politicians, and business executives.
And the revelations are only just beginning.
The consortium began to publish its findings on Sunday. The stories indicate that numerous members of the media were “possible candidates for surveillance,” as The Guardian put it. Forensic tests affirmed the presence of spyware on some phones.
More will be coming out in the days ahead. The participating news outlets are dubbing this the “Pegasus Project,” teeing off the name of the spyware, Pegasus, which is ostensibly licensed by NSO Group to track terrorists and major criminals. How has the spyware been used? Has it been abused? Those are two of the key questions.
First things first…
How did this investigation begin? Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee explained it in a letter from the editor on Sunday afternoon. “The project was conceived by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, which, along with Amnesty International, a human rights group, had access to records that formed the basis of our reporting: a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers concentrated in countries known to surveil their citizens and also known to have been clients of NSO Group,” Buzbee wrote.
“Although the purpose of the list could not be conclusively determined, it is a fascinating document,” Buzbee wrote. “Out of the more than 1,000 identities that could be confirmed, there were at least 85 human rights activists, 65 business executives, several members of Arab royal families, 189 journalists, and 600 government officials and politicians, spread across more than 50 countries.”
Amnesty’s Security Lab was able to examine 67 smartphones. “Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration,” WaPo reported. “For the remaining 30, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.”
WaPo interviewed some of the affected individuals, including Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of The Wire, a nonprofit news outlet in India. “This is an incredible intrusion, and journalists should not have to deal with this,” he said after learning that his phone was infected. “Nobody should have to deal with this.”
Who’s on the list?
Here’s what WaPo reported: “Among the journalists whose numbers appear on the list, which dates to 2016, are reporters working overseas for several leading news organizations, including a small number from CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde in France, the Financial Times in London and Al Jazeera in Qatar.”
There’s a whole lot of uncertainty associated with this, as Devan Cole noted in a story for CNN.com. But Amnesty’s secretary-general, Agnes Callamard, came out swinging. “The number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice,” Callamard said Sunday.
I was also struck by this line in the WaPo story: “After the investigation began, several reporters in the consortium learned that they or their family members had been successfully attacked with Pegasus spyware.”
“Out in the open…”
CNN has not independently verified the findings of the Pegasus Project probe. The seventeen participating outlets are Forbidden Stories, The Washington Post, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, The Guardian, Daraj, Direkt36, Le Soir, Knack, Radio France, The Wire, Proceso, Aristegui Noticias, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Haaretz and PBS “Frontline.”
For an overview of the findings thus far, “Frontline” is running a live blog linking to major stories from the other partners.
Here’s the key quote from Dana Priest, one of the bylines on the WaPo report, who is also featured in a “Frontline” report. “For the first time,” Priest said, “we’ve been able to give readers a sense of just how enormous the private and unregulated spying business has become. It’s been a unique, and actually thrilling, experience to work with so many foreign journalists to pool our sources and resources to bring this difficult story out in the open, where it should be.”
NSO Group’s response
Quoting from Devan Cole’s story: “In a lengthy statement to CNN on Sunday, NSO Group strongly denied the investigation’s findings, saying in part that it sells its ‘technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts.'”
NSO Group also said it “does not operate the system and has no visibility to the data.” It said it will continue to investigate “all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action based on the results” of such investigations…
FOR THE RECORD, PART ONE
— Haaretz’s lead: “The Israeli Cyber Weapon Oppressive Regimes Used Against 180 Journalists…” (Haaretz)
— Another example of the Pegasus findings: “Saudis behind NSO spyware attack on Jamal Khashoggi’s family, leak suggests…” (Guardian)
— “In Orban’s Hungary, spyware was used to monitor journalists and others who might challenge the government…” (WaPo)
— Crucial context: “NSO Group’s methods to infect its victims have grown so sophisticated that researchers say it can now do so without any user interaction, the so-called ‘zero-click’ option…” (AP)
— “Apple and other smartphone manufacturers are years into a cat-and-mouse game with NSO and other spyware makers,” WaPo notes. Apple says it “unequivocally condemns cyberattacks against journalists, human rights activists and others seeking to make the world a better place…” (WaPo)
— I opened Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” with a lesson from the late French philosopher Paul Virilio: “When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.” (CNN)
Media week ahead calendar
Monday: President Biden delivers remarks on the economic recovery…
Monday: Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit continues, with speakers like Mike Pompeo and Kimberly Guilfoyle…
Tuesday: Netflix reports earnings after the bell…
Wednesday: CNN holds a town hall with Biden in Cincinnati, OH, moderated by Don Lemon…
Thursday: AT&T reports earnings before the bell; Twitter and Snap after the close…
This week’s new releases
Tuesday’s new nonfiction releases include Julie Brown‘s “Perversion of Justice,” about her reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein case and her own life as a reporter; “I Alone Can Fix It” by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, about the destruction of Trump’s final days in office; and “The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion” by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell. Here is Katie Rosman’s powerful “We” review…
NBC is in pre-game mode in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony on Friday. Stars like Savannah Guthrie are already on site. More are arriving every day. There is “plenty at stake for NBC,” as The AP’s David Bauder writes. “Peacock is the new wrinkle this year,” as it is “experimenting with Olympics content.” For complete access, however, you’ll need cable.
The Olympics are arguably more of a straight-up “news story” than usual due to Covid-19 and the numerous controversies engulfing the games. “Should the Olympics be held?” is not normally a question that hovers over the competitions, but this time it does, as Drudge’s Sunday night splash indicates:
There are 58 confirmed cases “now linked to the Games, including officials and contractors,” per CNN. Vaccinated and unvaccinated cases are distinct, but only if the entities involved take pains to make the distinctions…
Sports and entertainment calendar
Tuesday: “In a first, an MLB game will be called entirely by women,” the NYT reports…
Tuesday: Game Six of the NBA Finals starts at 9pm ET…
Friday: Two toy-based premieres: “Masters of the Universe: Revelation” on Netflix, and “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” in theaters…
Friday: “Ted Lasso” season 2 drops on Apple TV+…
Jeff Bezos, who practically never gives interviews, is granting at least five of them before he lifts off for the edge of space on Tuesday. Bezos will be on NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “GMA,” “CBS This Morning,” and CNN’s “New Day” on Monday morning. He’ll be joined by his fellow aspiring astronauts – Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen – for the round of short pre-taped interviews.
Michael Strahan will lead the ABC interview; Hoda Kotb for NBC; Gayle King for CBS; and Rachel Crane for CNN. Fox’s Neil Cavuto will also interview the crew, for airing on his Fox Biz and Fox News shows later in the day…
>> Some top TV anchors will also be in Van Horn, Texas for the launch on Tuesday…
>> Sunday’s front page of the Houston Chronicle, describing the space race between Bezos and Elon Musk: “Along the southern beaches and western mountains of Texas, two of the world’s richest men are launching rockets…”
FOR THE RECORD, PART TWO
— Paul Farhi says “books about Trump may be the most popular, and populous, nonfiction genre since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks inspired a publishing boom…” (WaPo)
— Susan Glasser, who’s working on another book about the Trump years, said on Sunday’s “Reliable,” “the truth is we’re not done with the Trump story yet…” (CNN)
— “In a raft of new books about Donald Trump and one about Facebook, there are a panoply of famous people trying to deny and exfoliate their past culpability,” Maureen Dowd writes… (NYT)
Facebook exec breaks his silence
“A recent Facebook VP speaking out like this is a big deal,” NYT tech columnist Kevin Roose said Sunday. He was referring to Brian Boland, who left the company late last year after more than a decade. Roose interviewed Boland for this column about FB’s “data wars.” Then I interviewed Boland on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” telecast. His message is clear: The company isn’t doing enough to understand what it has built. “It can impact communities large and small in ways that we don’t understand,” he told me.
I said to him, point blank, “Is Facebook a radicalization engine? Is it radicalizing millions of Americans?” And Boland’s answer was striking: “I don’t know, and I’d love to know.” He said “a great way for us to understand that is to have more access to the data that will give researchers and journalists and teams the ability to do that hard work.”
That’s what he is calling for – a lot more transparency. Facebook, for its part, says it is more transparent than its rivals. CNN’s Alexis Benveniste has more here…
“Facebook and the Biden administration engaged in an increasingly rancorous back and forth over the weekend,” the NYT’s Cecilia Kang wrote. Her story included a nod to the Boland interview. For what it’s worth, I think vaccine rejection is so much more complicated than blaming a single platform or place. As Charlie Warzel wrote Sunday, “We should attempt to hold Facebook to account… but we should also recognize that the problem is much bigger than Facebook. This not a reason to let Facebook off the hook, it is merely a fact.”
— Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to Dana Bash on “State of the Union:” “The platforms have to recognize they’ve played a major role in the increase and speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading…”
— Dr. Anthony Fauci to Jim Acosta on “CNN Newsroom:” “We probably would still have smallpox and we probably would still have polio in this country if we had the kind of false information that’s being spread now…”
The surgeon general’s dodge
Oliver Darcy writes: “We know that the Biden White House believes that Facebook is ‘killing people’ with vaccine misinfo. But Fox News? Dana Bash asked Dr. Vivek Murthy whether conservative media hosts ‘are killing people too’ with irresponsible rhetoric. But Murphy dodged the question by only saying he believes the media has a ‘responsibility to share the truth about health.’ As I pointed out in Friday’s edition of the letter, it’s worth noting that the misinfo on Fox is distributed intentionally, while Facebook is at least putting some effort to combatting it. And yet, this admin is for some strange reason focusing most of its energy on the social platform…”
FOR THE RECORD, PART THREE
By Oliver Darcy:
— ER doctor says that he doesn’t “blame my patients for their refusal” to get vaccinated. “I do blame Fox News and other right-wing media outlets for poisoning the minds of millions of Americans with the deceptive propaganda they spray into living rooms 24/7…” (NBC News)
— “Tucker Carlson hyped these fringe COVID theories. The science just fell apart…” (Daily Beast)
— Peter Kafka’s point: “Fox News has many millions of viewers who trust it and pay for the privilege of being misinformed by it. Liars exploit social media, conventional media and politics, and the commonality isn’t a business model: It’s an audience that embraces the lies…” (Twitter)
— Disinfo expert Renee DiResta posted a must-read thread on vaccine misinfo and the role social media played giving life to the anti-vax movement over the years… (Twitter)
When gunshots rang out…
Ed Meagher writes: “On Friday night, CNN DC bureau chief Sam Feist was honored at the Washington Nationals game for his 30 years of work and leadership at CNN. On Saturday night, he was back at the ballpark when gunshots went off nearby. As fans scrambled for cover, not knowing what was happening, we spoke by phone. He was our eyes and ears at the field. And on Sunday, between the games, he came out and did liveshots with Suzanne Malveaux outside the Center Field gate. At this pace, he’ll be playing Second Base for the Nats by next week.”
>> On a serious note, Meagher adds: “This weekend is a good example of the kind of boss he is, and how much of this place he holds up on his shoulders.” I’ll second that…
This is some concise and clear-eyed writing by a team at the LA Times:
“A cocktail of propaganda, conspiracy theory and disinformation — of the kind intoxicating to the masses in the darkest turns of history — is fueling straight-up delusion over the agonies of Jan. 6. Hate is ‘love.’ Violence is ‘peace.’ The pro-Donald Trump attackers are patriots.”
The story points out that attackers are being recast as martyrs and heroes. “It is rooted in the basic formula of potent propaganda through the ages: Say it loud, say it often, say it with the heft of political power behind you, and people will believe.” Read on…
FOR THE RECORD, PART FOUR
— Michelle Goldberg‘s column about the aforementioned Julie Brown is a must-read: “A Reporter’s Fight to Expose Epstein’s Crimes — and Earn a Living…” (NYT)
— “New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is exploring a run for Oregon governor,” Rachel Monahan reports… (WW)
— “California has released a list of candidates who qualified to run in the Sept. 14 recall election that could remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office,” and “radio talk show host Larry Elder did not make the list after having announced his campaign earlier this month…” (AP)
— Twenty five years after TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the waters off Long Island, “the questions and conspiracies live on…” (USA Today)
— In part one of my interview with Michael Wolff, he talked about Rupert Murdoch and Fox’s programming, saying “Rupert hates Donald Trump – hates him – but Rupert loves money…”
— In part two, the interview turned rather meta, with Wolff saying “you are why one of the reasons people can’t stand the media.” He also said “the media exists in its own bubble,” and I certainly agreed with him on that. Here’s the clip…
— Earlier in the hour, Charlotte Alter explained “Tuckerism,” saying it’s “more of a posture or an attitude than a real ideology:” It’s “walking right up to a conspiracy theory, putting your toe in the water, then kind of jumping back when you’re challenged and wrapping yourself in the mantle of free speech…”
— Alter also observed that the “right-wing media apparatus” seems to “take objectivity as a sign of conformity, and conformity as a sign of cowardice…”
— Perry Bacon Jr. urged newsrooms to adopt “clear cut values we can articulate.” Here’s why…
“Binge-Watching ‘Peppa Pig’ Has Preschoolers Speaking Colourfully”
That’s the A-Hed in Monday’s WSJ, co-bylined by Preetika Rana and Meghan Bobrowsky. It describes the “Peppa Effect,” something I have experienced firsthand with my 2- and 4-year-olds. “Children across the US have binge-watched ‘Peppa Pig’ over the past year” and they are “emerging from the pandemic with an unusual vocabulary and a British accent just like the show’s namesake character,” the reporters write.
My wife Jamie tweeted an example of this: Our kids “call a shopping cart a ‘trolley’ because of Peppa and it’s the most charming thing ever…”
Brian Lowry writes: “A pattern is emerging regarding box-office numbers during the pandemic. It appears to have exacerbated the dynamic that those really committed to seeing a movie in theaters do it right away – opening night, or at least the first weekend – and those more marginally interested are content to watch at home. That’s the best explanation of the week-to-week decline in ‘Black Widow’ numbers, which per Deadline marks the steepest second-weekend drop for a Marvel movie released by Disney. That trend seems likely to continue as long as the at-home option – either via a regular streaming-service subscription (a la HBO Max) or at an additional premium (see Disney+) – exists.”
>> The National Association of Theatre Owners weighed in on Sunday evening, stating that the “Black Widow” rollout “demonstrates that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life.” This tug of war is only just beginning…
The next test…
Lowry adds: “The next test is when Disney’s ‘Jungle Cruise’ sets sail on July 30. And one more footnote: Disney didn’t release additional data for premium-streaming revenue for ‘Black Widow,’ after breaking precedent by doing so for the premiere last week. One suspects those numbers were front-loaded too, but again, we’re left guessing. For its part, NATO took aim at what looks like underperforming results for ‘Widow,’ both looking to protect its turf/business model and advance the entirely plausible if self-serving case that studios aren’t just hurting theaters, but are also leaving money on the table for themselves…”
FOR THE RECORD, PART FIVE
— “Space Jam: A New Legacy” brought in an estimated $31.6 million in its North America opening this weekend. “That exceeded industry expectations, which projected the film to bring in closer to $20 million for its debut,” Frank Pallotta writes… (CNN)
— “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” did “big business in its box office debut over the weekend, scoring the biggest weekend opening for a documentary — or any specialty film — during the pandemic era…” (THR)
— Whoops! “Spike Lee announced the winner of the Palme d’Or in error early in the Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony after a miscommunication…” (CNN)
#FreeBritney activists celebrate win for Britney Spears
Chloe Melas writes: “I spoke with some of the devoted fans who started Free Britney LA about what Spears’ court hearing meant to them, and her shout out to the #FreeBritney activists on Instagram. Here’s the story. The next hearing is scheduled for September 29…”
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST…
Pet of the day
Reader Jim Hay emails a photo of his dog Salomon: “This is my couch, my pillow and I am not spoiled 😄. Being a Golden Doodle and having to be so cute and loyal is a lot of work, not to mention I am Jim’s Service Dog, so yes I do have a job 😉…”
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