Media Analysis

The Russiagate farce, or how the Russians corrupted our pristine democracy

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I have been largely agnostic about Russiagate, in part because so much of the American coverage seems to be based on melodramatic claims that Russia undermined “our democracy,” a bizarrely self-congratulatory phrase that is everywhere. You would think this meant something really big. After all, the US is no slouch when it comes to “meddling” and even admits it now and then (like when Hillary Clinton said we should have rigged the Palestinian elections). So, what did the Russians do?

It seems the Russians  spread unkind remarks about Hillary Clinton. Here you see the sick twisted minds of former KGB agents at work. This is America; what are the odds that anyone born in this country would have ever launched anything resembling a personal attack on any presidential candidate, let alone a universally respected and beloved figure like Clinton?  Oh, but the genie is out of the bottle— we will never get our democracy back.  No more will our political campaigns be a sort of  public meeting space where people have high-minded debates about the great issues of the day. Our innocence is lost forever, because of the dirty minds of Boris and Natasha.

It would not surprise me at this point if politicians actually started lying about themselves, or about their opponents and even the issues. And who knows? Private organizations funded by rich people might get into the act.  They might try to influence policy with their donations. Other countries might even get into the act. We might have countries and organizations and even idiot billionaires paying experts to work in some Washington setting— let’s call it a think tank—to spew propaganda and these experts might be cited in newspapers as though they were giving sound objective views based on facts.

I am afraid that thanks to Putin this is where we are heading. The America we knew, the one where sober consideration of reality as reported by our liberal papers led us to invade Iraq and plunge the Middle East into bloody chaos, may never be the same.

Putting the snark aside– for a mixture of reasons good and bad, both Clintons have been loathed by millions of Americans going back decades. Arguably only Trump himself is a more divisive figure.  Whether this is fair is a separate and to me largely uninteresting question, but the Russian contribution here is minor, unless they stole the emails sent to Wikileaks, and even then the emails only added details to what people already knew.  I read this post by Chris Floyd, in which he links to an article in Esquire where the terrible shocking Russian ads are finally revealed to us.  Take a look.  I’ll wait. OK, here’s one–

Russian ad aimed at swaying 2016 election.

I guess it is possible this crap swayed a few votes,  but if so we are talking about the butterfly effect. There must be countless things that swayed enough votes to change the results, including, as Floyd says, successful attempts to keep people from voting at all.  The propaganda above seems incredibly crude.  It might have worked, along with a million other things that didn’t involve Russia at all.  Add all those million things together and Trump wins.  Take some random assortment out or add yet more crap and maybe Clinton wins.  If the butterfly effect were literally true, Russian butterflies madly flapping their wings at Putin’s behest six months in advance might have caused it to rain in Clinton supporting precincts, depressing turnout. (Or maybe Ray Bradbury’s Cretaceous time travelers are responsible.)

I honestly don’t understand how someone could look at that Esquire story and not see the absurdity. Is this what people mean when they say the Russians meddled?  In fact, note the shift in the story to the claim that the Russians were just sowing chaos, because obviously some of the ads couldn’t possibly be part of such a conspiracy. So much for the intelligence agency assessment that it was all about helping Trump.

Like all forms of pseudoscience, Russiagate is an endlessly flexible theory.  Whatever truth there might be in any of the claims, the reporting resembles the material I read as a child in some of the less rational UFO literature, or, to use another analogy, the opportunistic and  incoherent arguments put out by creationists.

As others have observed, if people really care about foreign influence why not look at the influence of countries and sympathetic billionaires who exert the sort of influence that is truly effective?  The Podesta emails show that Haim Saban, a stupid Hollywood billionaire obsessed with Israel, had immense influence with the Clinton campaign. The Israel lobby rarely has to play it partisan, because both parties kowtow to its desires on Israel. That was what was so shocking about Netanyahu’s favoritism towards Romney in 2012.  Israel defenders were upset not because of the influence, but because favoring one side might weaken their overall influence. Putin, if he is doing half the things attributed to him, could only dream of having this kind of power in our politics.

Russiagate is also about the propaganda the Russians spew out, in alleged contrast to the material churned out by the people who can’t shut up about Russiagate.  So let’s look at a few examples. Let’s look at how Russia Today (a grave threat according to the New York Times) and Russia Insider covered our bombing in Yemen vs how Rachel Maddow, great heroine of the Resistance, covered the same issue last fall.

By now it has become fairly mainstream to admit that the US has been directly assisting the Saudis in their brutal war on civilians in Yemen.  It has been reported on occasion that Obama State Department lawyers were worried that we could be accused of war crimes. Well, if we were talking about Russian bombing in Aleppo last year there wouldn’t be the slightest doubt that war crimes were taking place. But where do we see the contrasting American stance pointed out?  When are American officials called out to explain it?

Here is a clip from Russia Insider (which I know little about but is presumably more Russian propaganda) where State dept spokesman John Kirby was asked last October by the Associated Press reporter Matt Lee to explain the difference between Russian bombing in Syria that kills civilians and Saudi bombing which does the same. Kirby explains that the Saudis investigate their own killing of civilians, implying that they have good intentions.

No one seriously believes the Saudis investigate themselves in good faith. Nor does this get the US off the hook for our assistance.

Here is a clip from Russia Today. Kirby’s attempt to draw a distinction between Russian bombing in Aleppo and Saudi bombing in Yemen begins around minute 7:30.

And here is a clip from Rachel Maddow last October where she gives us one of her “explanations” of a foreign policy issue. She purports to explain in a nutshell the war in Yemen. This was just a few days after the Saudi bombing of a funeral in Sanaa which attracted worldwide condemnation because more than 100 civilians were killed. Maddow says nothing about this, she says nothing about any civilian bombing or about the children who are starving because of the war, leaves out the fact that we are complicit in mass slaughter.

What she does talk about is presumed Houthi missile attacks on ships, including an American one, immediately after the bombing of civilians. Her only interest is in explaining that Trump would be a dangerous person to have in the White House, a valid point, but she misleads her audience (as Adam Johnson first pointed out at FAIR) by utterly ignoring American complicity in war crimes.  One would get the impression that America’s only role was to patrol the seas off the coast of Yemen and respond to unprovoked attacks by crazy foreigners.

So on this issue, who is giving  viewers a more accurate view of Yemen and our policy there? No doubt both Russia Insider and Russia Today are trying to make the US look bad and presumably, Kirby might be right in saying RT reporters don’t go after the Russian government when it bombs civilians.  But the notion that the Russian propaganda machine poses some uniquely dangerous threat to our civic culture is absurd on multiple levels even if you accept all the claims made so far about their actions last year.  We are soaked and marinated in distortions, misleading summaries of issues and outright lies coming from our own press, politicians, and experts paid by think tanks often funded in part by various foreign governments, corporations and idiot billionaires.

If foreign influence matters, why doesn’t our press have daily obsessive coverage of Israel and Saudi Arabia? Right now Congressional leaders have decided not to vote on the war in Yemen because it doesn’t rise to the level of seriousness needed to invoke the war powers act.  This is monstrous, but it is getting zero attention. I am not sure who is responsible. Mostly Republicans, yes, but Steny Hoyer was involved fighting against House Resolution 81.

Also, the Saudis are evidently trying to destabilize Lebanon and pick a fight with Iran. Daniel Larison at the American Conservative is almost alone in writing about this stuff while everyone obsesses about Russiagate.

The truth is that we don’t talk about the Saudis and Israel precisely because their influence in DC is enormous.

On Yemen a serious press corps would have started questioning the US government on our role there from the very beginning and officials who made absurd excuses like Kirby in the clip above would be grilled over their double standards. Matt Lee asked a good question, but most Americans would not even be aware of what he was talking about. If our press genuinely performed its watchdog role Kirby would have quickly become a national joke and more importantly, citizens of “our democracy”would know our government was and still is  helping to murder children in Yemen.  (And btw, call your congressperson and tell him or her to support House Resolution 81 to put an end to American participation in these war crimes.)

One recent  example of propaganda in the New York Times has been pointed out by FAIR.  The Times recently carried a story about the mass slaughter in Indonesia in the 60’s, saying the US supported it. The New York Times story is misleading on multiple levels.  The headline downplays the US role.  It leaves out the fact that U.S. papers including the Times were supportive in the 60’s because of widespread anti-Communism. And it leaves out that in 1990 the New York Times published a story basically denying the U.S. role. In 1990 it was still too soon to be honest about what the U.S. government had done. The New York Times comes close to honesty in the 2017 story, though not in the headline, but still suppresses its own propaganda spreading role.

No doubt Russia Today is a slanted news source, but whether the mainstream press in the US wants to admit it or not, it too is slanted and not in some minor little ways but in ways that are often drastically misleading. Only a propagandist would deny it.

P.S. I purposely left aside the Russians’ cynical exploitation of “adorable puppies” on Facebook, which according to the NYT, “spread across the site with the help of paid ads” as a way of winning the loyalties of American puppy lovers. I never want to hear the mainstream ridiculing anyone’s fringe conspiracy theory again.  If you think the Bermuda Triangle is some sort of repo collection scheme run by Lemurians residing inside a hollow earth, as far as I am concerned the New York Times is in no position to judge.

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Thank you for this article. The ludicrousness of this Russia-gate conspiracy theory would be funny if it didn’t involve life and death on such a mass scale. Of course, this is not the only example of America’s press foisting fiction on the voters. For decades every major “fact” about Israel fed to the voters has been false. 1. Israel was NOT victimized by powerful Arab armies. Zionists overpowered and victimized a defenseless, civilian Arab population.… Read more »

Donald You write that the Saudis are “evidently trying to destabilize Lebanon and pick a fight with Iran.” So true. But the Saudis are not alone. They have two powerful and popular allies in doing so: Trump and – drumbeat – Israel: I think that’s kind of a winning coalition all over the world, and especially in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Trump and Israel are teaming up to destabilize the arab world to… Read more »

> “Russiagate is an endlessly flexible theory. Whatever truth there might be in any of the claims …”

Greatest utility comes from there not being a lick of truth. Any identified truth would be a point of inflexibility. If there is no truth, then the scenario of outrage has greatest freedom to flex in any direction according to requirements.

I think your State Department spokespeople are wonderful.

Along with the anti-BDS legislation sweeping the country, a bizarre Constitutional exception to benefit only Israel, we now have also the idea that Russia alone does not have free-speech rights in the United States. The Bill of Rights does not, to my knowledge, apply only to US citizens, although public discourse and practice seems to be migrating in that direction. As evidenced by these pages, free speech includes comments made anonymously, or with a pseudonym.… Read more »