What's that cyber-breach story doing at the top of the Journal's Page One?

Media criticism.
April 23 2009 3:38 PM

Mach-3 Hype From the Wall Street Journal

What's that cyber-breach story doing at the top of Page One?

Wall Street Journal. Click image to expand.

There's nothing like squirting a shot or two of hot sauce onto a news story to alert readers to its existence, but the smartest editorial chefs know that routine overspicing doesn't fool the clientele for long.

The Wall Street Journal undercut a perfectly levelheaded news story about cyber-spying on the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet with a Page One banner headline in its April 21 edition that reads "Computer Spies Breach Fighter-Jet Project."

After excitedly noting that terabytes of pilfered data will "potentially" make it easier for U.S. foes to defend against the F-35, the Journal points to other recently reported examples of dangerous hacking: the Air Force's air-traffic-control system computers were recently "breached" in cyber-attacks, and "spies abroad" have infiltrated computers that control U.S. electrical distribution.

But by paragraph five, the Journal'sfighter-jet story turns as bland as vanilla yogurt, reporting:

Many details couldn't be learned, including the specific identity of the attackers, and the scope of the damage to the U.S. defense program, either in financial or security terms. In addition, while the spies were able to download sizable amounts of data related to the jet-fighter, they weren't able to access the most sensitive material, which is stored on computers not connected to the Internet. [Emphasis added.]

Why weren't the spies—suspected by the Journal's unnamed sources to be Chinese—able to access the most sensitive material? At about the halfway mark in the piece, the Journal's unnamed sources explain that "the plane's most vital systems—such as flight controls and sensors—are physically isolated from the publicly accessible Internet." What the spies accessed was data "responsible for diagnosing a plane's maintenance problems during flight," and the systems they breached may include those of F-35 contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems.

In the time-honored journalistic tradition of pissing on your competition's big story, the Washington Post (owned by the same company that owns Slate) downplayed the Journal's scoop. Its April 22 followup—"Officials Say Hackers Didn't Steal Critical Data About New Fighter Jet"—collects quotations from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin, defense industry consultant Jim McAleese, and its own unnamed sources to pooh-pooh the Journal's take. From the Post:

"They'll have very little information other than how you maintain the aircraft," [McAleese] said. "They'd know, for example, at what number of hours do the engines get checked, or the procedures for maintaining the stealth coding," but "they wouldn't have information about key parts," he said.

In other words, the Chinese now know how many miles the F-35 can fly before its timing belt must be replaced, its oil changed, and its tires rotated.

The New York Times was even meaner to the Journal, using the final paragraphs of a short April 22 piece about Pentagon plans to phase out the F-22 (the F-35's predecessor) to discount the computer-breach story.

Again, the Journal's cyber-story appears to be a well-reported work, and nothing in the Times and Post accounts really diminishes the facts it presents. But the computer spy story isn't is a Page One must-read, and the editors' attempt to make the story look big only makes the Journal look small.

******

While we're on the subject of the Journal and its packaging, please read Scott Sherman's dissection of the paper in the new Nation. He writes, Rupert "Murdoch has not corrupted the Journal. Instead, he has smothered it and made it ordinary." Meanwhile, I await the attempts by Chinese spies and Journal editors to probe my Twitter or goose my e-mail, which is slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Lightning in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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