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Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017

Edward S. Herman, the economist, Wharton School professor emeritus, and prolific author, died this week at age 92. The following article by Edward Herman appeared in the July-August issue of Monthly Review .

It has been amusing to watch the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets express their dismay over the rise and spread of “fake news.” These publications take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward, unbiased, fact-based reporting. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of fake news, often by disseminating false or misleading information supplied to them by the national security state, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power

An important form of mainstream media fake news is that which is presented while suppressing information that calls the preferred news into question. This was the case with “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down,” the title of a January 18, 1988, Times editorial referring to a propaganda claim of five years earlier that the editors had swallowed and never looked into any further. The lie—that the Soviets knew that Korean airliner 007, which they shot down on August 31, 1983, was a civilian plane—was eventually uncovered by congressman Lee Hamilton, not by the Times.

Mainstream media fake news is especially likely where a party line is quickly formed on a topic, with any deviations therefore immediately dismissed as naïve, unpatriotic, or simply wrong. In a dramatic illustration, for a book chapter entitled “Worthy and Unworthy Victims,” Noam Chomsky and I showed that coverage by Time, Newsweek, CBS News, and the New York Times of the 1984 murder of the priest Jerzy Popieluzko in Communist Poland, a dramatic and politically useful event for the politicized Western mainstream media, exceeded all their coverage of the murders of a hundred religious figures killed in Latin America by U.S. client states in the post-Second World War years taken together.1 It was cheap and safe to focus heavily on the “worthy” victim, whereas looking closely at the deaths of those hundred would have required an expensive and sometimes dangerous research effort that would have upset the State Department. But it was in effect a form of fake news to so selectively devote coverage (and indignation) to a politically useful victim, while ignoring large numbers whose murder the political establishment sought to downplay or completely suppress.

Fake news on Russia is a Times tradition that can be traced back at least as far as the 1917 revolution. In a classic study of the paper’s coverage of Russia from February 1917 to March 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz found that “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all…. They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.”2 Lippmann and Merz found that strong editorial bias clearly fed into news reporting. The editors’ zealous opposition to the communists led the paper to report atrocities that never happened, and to predict the imminent collapse of the Bolshevik regime no fewer than ninety-one times in three years. Journalists uncritically accepted official statements and relied on reports from unidentified “high authority.” This was standard Times practice.

This fake news performance of 1917–20 was repeated often in the years that followed. The Soviet Union was an enemy target up to the Second World War, and through it all, Times coverage was consistently hostile. With the end of the war and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a military rival, and soon a competing nuclear power, the Cold War was on. In the United States, anti-communism became a national religion, and the Soviet Union was portrayed in official discourse and the news media as a global menace in urgent need of containment. With this ideology in place and with U.S. plans for its own global expansion of power established, the Communist threat would help sustain the steady growth of the military-industrial complex and repeated interventions to counter purported Soviet aggressions.3

An Early Great Crime: Guatemala

One of the most flagrant cases in which the Soviet threat was exploited to justify U.S.-sponsored violence was the overthrow of the social democratic government of Guatemala in 1954 by a small proxy army invading from U.S. ally Somoza’s Nicaragua. This action was provoked by government reforms that upset U.S. officials, including a 1947 law permitting the formation of labor unions, and plans to buy back (at tax-rate valuations) and distribute to landless peasants some of the unused property owned by United Fruit Company and other large landowners. The United States, which had been perfectly content with the earlier fourteen-year-long dictatorship of Jose Ubico, could not tolerate this democratic challenge, and the elected government, led by Jacobo Arbenz, was soon charged with assorted villainies, based on an alleged Red capture of the Guatemalan government.4

In the pre-invasion propaganda campaign, the mainstream media fell into line behind false charges of extreme government repression, threats to its neighbors, and the Communist takeover. The Times repeatedly reported these alleged abuses and threats from 1950 onward (my favorite: Sidney Gruson’s “How Communists Won Control of Guatemala,” March 1, 1953). Arbenz and his predecessor, Juan Jose Arevalo, had carefully avoided establishing any embassies with Soviet bloc countries, fearing U.S. reprisals—to no avail. Following the removal of Arbenz and the installation of a right-wing dictatorship, court historian Ronald Schneider, after studying 50,000 documents seized from Communist sources in Guatemala, found that not only did Communists never control the country, but that the Soviet Union “made no significant or even material investment in the Arbenz regime,” and was at the time too preoccupied with internal problems to concern itself with Central America.5

The coup government quickly attacked and decimated the new social groups that had formed in the democratic era, mainly peasant, worker, and teacher organizations. Arbenz had won 65 percent of the votes in a free election, but the “liberator” Castillo Armas quickly won a “plebiscite” with 99.6 percent of the vote. Although this is a result familiar in totalitarian regimes, the mainstream media had by then lost interest in Guatemala, barely mentioning this electoral outcome. The Times had claimed in 1950 that U.S. Guatemala policy “is not trying to block social and economic progress but is interested in seeing that Guatemala becomes a liberal democracy.”6 But in the aftermath, the editors failed to note that the result of U.S. policy was precisely to “block social and economic progress,” through the installation of a regime of reactionary terror.

In 2011, more than half a century after 1954, the Times reported that Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom had apologized for that “Great Crime,” the violent overthrow of the Arbenz government, “an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.”7 The article mentions that, according to president Colom, the Arbenz family is “seeking an apology from the United States for its role” in the Great Crime. The Times has never made any apology or even acknowledgement of its own role in the Great Crime.

Another Great Crime: Vietnam

Fake news abounded in the Times and other mainstream publications during the Vietnam War. The common perception that the paper’s editors opposed the war is misleading and essentially false. In Without Fear or Favor, former Times reporter Harrison Salisbury acknowledged that in 1962, when U.S. intervention escalated, the Times was “deeply and consistently” supportive of the war policy.8 He contends that the paper grew steadily more oppositional from 1965, culminating in the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. But Salisbury fails to recognize that from 1954 to the present, the Times never abandoned the Cold War framework and vocabulary, according to which the United States was resisting another nation’s “aggression” and protecting “South Vietnam.” The paper never applied the word aggression to this country, but used it freely in referring to North Vietnamese actions and those of the National Liberation Front in the southern half of Vietnam.

The various pauses in the U.S. bombing war in 1965 and after, in the alleged interest of “giving peace a chance,” were also the basis of fake news as the Johnson administration used these temporary halts to quiet antiwar protests, while making it clear to the Vietnamese that U.S. officials demanded full surrender. The Times and its colleagues swallowed this bait without a murmur of dissent.9

Furthermore, although from 1965 onward the Times was willing to publish more reports that put the war in a less favorable light, it never broke from its heavy dependence on official sources, or from its reluctance to confront the damage wrought on Vietnam and its civilian population by the U.S. war machine. In contrast with its eager pursuit of Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge after April 1975, the paper rarely sought testimony from the millions of Vietnamese refugees fleeing U.S. bombing and chemical warfare. In its opinion columns as well, the new openness was limited to commentators who accepted the premises of the war and would confine their criticisms to its tactical problems and domestic costs. From beginning to end, those who criticized the war as an immoral campaign of sheer aggression were excluded from the debate.10

The 1981 Papal Assassination Attempt

The mainstream media gave a further boost to Cold War propaganda in reporting on the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Rome in May 1981. At a time when the Reagan administration was seeking to demonize the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the shooting of the pope by Turkish fascist Ali Agca was quickly tied to Moscow, helped by Agca’s confession—after seventeen months of imprisonment, interrogations, threats, inducements, and access to the media—that the Bulgarians and Soviet KGB were behind it all. No credible evidence supported this connection, the claims were implausible, and the corruption in the process was remarkable. (Agca also periodically claimed to be Jesus Christ.) The case against the Bulgarians (and implicitly the KGB) was lost even in Italy’s extremely biased and politicized judicial framework. But the Times bought it, and gave it prolonged, intense, and completely unquestioning attention, as did most of the U.S. media.

During the 1991 Senate hearings on the nomination of Robert Gates to head the CIA, former agency officer Melvin Goodman testified that the CIA knew from the start that Agca’s confessions were false, because they had “very good penetration” of the Bulgarian secret services. The Times omitted this statement in its reporting on Goodman’s testimony. During the same year, with Bulgaria now a member of the “free world,” conservative analyst Allen Weinstein obtained permission to examine Bulgarian secret service files on the assassination attempt. His mission was widely reported, including in the Times, but when he returned without having found anything implicating Bulgaria or the KGB, several papers, including the Times, found his investigations no longer newsworthy.

Missile Gap

From roughly 1975 to 1986, much of the reporting on the purported “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union was little more than fake news, with Times reporters passing along a steady stream of inflammatory official statements and baseless claims. An important case occurred in the mid-1970s, as right-wing hawks in the Ford administration were trying to escalate the Cold War and arms race. A 1975 CIA report had found that the Soviets were aiming only for nuclear parity. This was unsatisfactory, so CIA head George H. W. Bush appointed a new team of hardliners, who soon found that the Soviets were achieving nuclear superiority and preparing to fight a nuclear war. This so-called Team B report was taken at face value in a Times front page article of December 26, 1976, by David Binder, who failed to mention its political bias or purpose, and made no attempt to consult experts with differing views. The CIA finally admitted in 1983 that the Team B estimates were fabrications. But throughout this period, the Times supported the case for militarization by disseminating false information, much of it convincingly refuted by Tom Gervasi in his classic The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy, a book never reviewed in the Times.

Yugoslavia and “Humanitarian Intervention”

The 1990s wars of dismantlement in Yugoslavia succeeded in removing an independent government from power and replacing it with a broken Serbian remnant and poor and unstable failed states in Bosnia and Kosovo. It also provided unwarranted support for the concept of “humanitarian intervention,” which rested on a mass of misrepresentations and selective reporting. The demonized Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević was not an ultra-nationalist seeking a “Greater Serbia,” but rather a non-aligned leader on the Western hit list who tried to help Serb minorities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo remain in Yugoslavia as the United States and the European Union supported a legally questionable exodus by several constituent Yugoslav Republics. He supported each of the proposed settlements of these conflicts, which were sabotaged by Bosnian and U.S. officials who wanted better terms or the outright military defeat of Serbia, ultimately achieving the latter. Milošević had nothing to do with the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serbs took revenge on Bosnian Muslim soldiers who had been ravaging nearby Bosnian Serb villages from their base in Srebrenica under NATO protection. The several thousand Serb civilian deaths were essentially unreported in the mainstream media, while the numbers of Srebrenica’s executed victims were correspondingly inflated.11

The Putin Era

The U.S. political establishment was shocked and delighted by the 1989–91 fall of the Soviet Union, and its members were similarly pleased with the policies of President Boris Yeltsin, a virtual U.S. client, under whose rule ordinary Russians suffered a calamitous fall in living standards, while a small set of oligarchs were able to loot the broken state. Yeltsin’s election victory in 1996, greatly assisted by U.S. consultants, advice, and money, was, for the editors of the Times, “A Victory for Russian Democracy.”12 They were not bothered by either the electoral corruption, the creation of a grand-larceny-based economic oligarchy, or, shortly thereafter, the new rules centralizing power in the office of president.13

Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, gradually abandoned the former’s subservience to Western interests, and was thereby perceived as a menace. His reelection in 2012, although surely less corrupt than Yeltsin’s in 1996, was castigated in the U.S. media. The lead Times article on May 5, 2012, featured “a slap in the face” from Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers, claims of no real competition, and “thousands of antigovernment protesters gathered in Moscow square to chant ‘Russia without Putin.’”14 There had been no “challenges to legitimacy” reported in the Times after Yeltsin’s tainted victory in 1996.

The demonization of Putin escalated with the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and subsequent Kiev warfare in Eastern Ukraine, Russian support of the East Ukraine resistance, and the Crimean referendum and absorption of Crimea by Russia. This was all declared “aggression” by the United States and its allies and clients, and sanctions were imposed on Russia, and a major U.S.-NATO military buildup was initiated on Russia’s borders. Tensions mounted further with the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over southeastern Ukraine—promptly, but almost surely falsely, blamed on the “pro-Russian” rebels and Russia itself.15

Anti-Russian hostilities were further inflamed by the country’s escalated intervention in Syria from 2015 on, in support of Bashar al-Assad and against rebel forces that had come to be dominated by ISIS and al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda. The United States and its NATO and Middle East allies had been committing aggression against Syria, in de facto alliance with al-Nusra and other extremist Islamic factions, for several years. Russian intervention turned the tide, frustrating the U.S. and Saudi goal of regime change against Assad, and weakening tacit U.S. allies.

The Times has covered these developments with unstinting apologetics—for the February 2014 coup in Kiev—which it has never labeled as such, for the U.S. role in the overthrow of the elected government of Victor Yanukovych, and with anger and horror at the Crimea referendum and Russian absorption, which it never allows might be a defensive response to the Kiev coup. Its calls for punishment for the casualty-free Russian “aggression” in Crimea is in marked contrast to its apologetics for the million-plus casualties caused by U.S. aggression “of choice” (not defensive) in Iraq from March 2003 on. The paper’s editors and columnists condemn Putin’s disregard for international law, while exempting their own country from criticism for its repeated violations of that same law.16

In the Times‘s reporting and opinion columns Russia is regularly assailed as expansionist and threatening its neighbors, but virtually no mention is made of NATO’s expansion up to the Russian borders and first-strike-threat placement of anti-missile weapons in Eastern Europe—the latter earlier claimed to be in response to a missile threat from Iran! Analyses by political scientist John Mearsheimer and Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen that noted this NATO advance were excluded from the opinion pages of the Times.17 In contrast, a member of the Russian band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, was given op-ed space to denounce Putin and Russia, and the punk rock group was granted a meeting with the Times editorial board.18 Between January 1 and March 31, 2014, the paper ran twenty-three articles featuring Pussy Riot and its alleged significance as a symbol of Russian limits on free speech. Pussy Riot had disrupted a church service in Moscow and only stopped after police intervened, at the request of church authorities. A two-year prison sentence followed. Meanwhile, in February 2014, eighty-four-year-old nun Sister Megan Rice was sentenced to four years in prison for having entered a U.S. nuclear weapons site in July 2012 and carried out a symbolic protest. The Times gave this news a tiny mention in its National Briefing section, under the title “Tennessee Nun is Sentenced for Peace Protest.” No op-ed columns or meeting with the Times board for Rice. There are worthy and unworthy protesters, just as there are victims.

In Syria, with Russian help, Assad’s army and allied militias were able to dislodge the rebels from Aleppo, to the dismay of Washington and the mainstream media. It has been enlightening to see the alarm expressed over civilian casualties in Aleppo, with accompanying photographs of forsaken children and stories of civilian suffering and deprivation. The Times’ focus on those civilians and children and its indignation at Putin-Assad inhumanity stands in sharp contrast with their virtual silence on massive civilian casualties in Fallujah in 2004 and beyond, and more recently in rebel-held areas of Syria, and in the Iraqi city of Mosul, under U.S. and allied attack.19 The differential treatment of worthy and unworthy victims has been in full force in coverage of Syria.

A further phase of intensifying Russophobia may be dated from the October 2016 presidential debates, in which Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump would be a Putin “puppet” as president, a theme her campaign began to stress. This emphasis only increased after the election, with the help of the media and intelligence services, as the Clinton camp sought to explain their electoral loss, maintain party control, and possibly even have the election results overturned in the courts or electoral college by attributing Trump’s victory to Russian interference.

A major impetus for the Putin connection came with the January 2017 release of a report by the Office of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Background of Assessing Russian Activities and Intention in Recent US Elections. More than half of this short document is devoted to the Russian-sponsored RT news network, which the report treats as an illegitimate propaganda source. The organization is allegedly part of Russia’s “influence campaign… [that] aspired to help President-elect Trump’s chances of victory when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to the President-elect.” No semblance of proof is offered that there was any planned “campaign,” rather than an ongoing expression of opinion and news judgments. The same standards used to identify a Russian “influence campaign” could be applied with equal force to U.S. media and Radio Free Europe’s treatment of any Russian election—and of course, the U.S. intervention in the 1996 Russian election was overt, direct, and went far beyond any covert “influence campaign.”

Regarding more direct Russian intervention in the U.S. election, the DNI authors concede the absence of “full supporting evidence,” but in fact provide no supporting evidence at all—only speculative assertions, assumptions, and guesses. “We assess that… Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2015,” they write, designed to defeat Mrs. Clinton, and “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” but provide no proof of any such order. The report also contains no evidence that Russia hacked the communications of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) or the emails of Clinton and former Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, or that it gave hacked information to WikiLeaks. Julian Assange and former British diplomat Craig Murray have repeatedly claimed that these sources were leaked by local insiders, not hacked from outside. Veteran intelligence experts William Binney and Ray McGovern likewise contend that the WikiLeaks evidence was leaked, not hacked.20 It is also notable that of the three intelligence agencies who signed the DNI document, the National Security Agency—the agency most likely to have proof of Russian hacking and its transmission to WikiLeaks, as well as of any “orders” from Putin—only expressed “moderate confidence” in its findings.

But as with the Reds ruling Guatemala, the Soviets outpacing U.S. missile capabilities, or the KGB plotting to assassinate the pope, the Times has taken the Russian hacking story as established fact, despite the absence of hard evidence. Times reporter David Sanger refers to the report’s “damning and surprisingly detailed account of Russia’s efforts to undermine the American electoral system,” only to then acknowledge that the published report “contains no information about how the agencies had … come to their conclusions.”21 The report itself includes the astonishing statement that “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.” Furthermore, if the report was based on “intercepts of conversations” as well as on hacked computer data, as Sanger and the DNI claim, why has the DNI failed to quote a single conversation showing Putin’s alleged orders and plans?

The Times has never cited or given op-ed space to William Binney, Ray McGovern, or Craig Murray, leading dissident authorities on hacking technology, methodology, and the specifics of the DNC hacks. But room was found for Louise Mensch’s op-ed “What to Ask about Russian Hacking.” Mensch is a notorious conspiracy theorist with no relevant technical background, described by writers Nathan Robinson and Alex Nichols as best-known for “spending most of her time on Twitter issuing frenzied denunciations of imagined armies of online ‘Putinbots,’” making her “one of the least credible people on the internet.”22 But she is published in the Times because, in contrast with the informed and credible Binney and Murray, she follows the party line, taking Russian hacking of the DNC as a premise.

The CIA’s brazen intervention in the electoral process in 2016 and 2017 broke new ground in the agency’s politicization. Former CIA head Michael Morell announced in an August 2016 op-ed in the Times: “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton,” and former CIA boss Michael Hayden published an op-ed in the Washington Post just days before the election, entitled “Former CIA Chief: Trump is Russia’s Useful Fool.” Morell had yet another op-ed in the Times on January 6, now openly assailing the new president. These attacks were unrelievedly insulting to Trump and laudatory to Clinton, even portraying Trump as a traitor; they also made clear that Clinton’s more pugnacious stance toward Syria and Russia was preferable by far to Trump’s leanings toward negotiation and cooperation with Russia.

This was also true of the scandal surrounding former Trump Defense Intelligence nominee Michael Flynn’s telephone call with the Russian ambassador, which may have included a discussion of the incoming administration’s policy actions. The political possibilities of this interaction were quickly grasped by outgoing Obama officials, security personnel, and the mainstream media, with the FBI interrogating Flynn and with widespread expressions of horror at Flynn’s action, which could have allegedly exposed him to Russian blackmail. But such pre-inauguration meetings with Russian diplomats have been a “common practice” according to Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under Reagan and Bush, and Matlock had personally arranged such a meeting for Jimmy Carter.23 Obama’s own ambassador to the country, Michael McFaul, admitted visiting Moscow for talks with officials in 2008, even before the election. Daniel Lazare has made a good case not only that the illegality and blackmail threat are implausible, but that the FBI’s interrogation of Flynn reeks of entrapment. “Yet anti-Trump liberals are trying to convince the public that it’s all ‘worse than Watergate.’”24

The political point of the DNI report thus seems to have been, at minimum, to tie the Trump administration’s hands in its dealings with Russia. Some analysts outside the mainstream have argued that we may have been witnessing an incipient spy or palace coup that fell short, but still had the desired effect of weakening the new administration.25 The Times has not offered a word of criticism of this politicization and intervention in the election process by intelligence agencies, and in fact the editors have been working with them and the Democratic Party as a loose-knit team in a distinctly un- and anti-democratic program designed to undermine or reverse the results of the 2016 election, on the pretext of alleged foreign electoral interference.

The Times and the mainstream media in general have also barely mentioned the awkward fact that the allegedly hacked disclosures of the DNC and Clinton and Podesta emails disclosed uncontested facts about real electoral manipulations on behalf of the Clinton campaign, facts that the public had a right to know and that might well have affected the election results. The focus on the evidence-free claims of a Russian hacking intrusion have helped divert attention from the real electoral abuses disclosed by the WikiLeaks material. Here again, official and mainstream media fake news helped bury real news.

Another arrow in the Russophobia quiver was a private intelligence “dossier” compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent working for Orbis Business Intelligence, a private firm hired by the DNC to dig up dirt on Trump. Steele’s first report, delivered in June 2016, made numerous serious accusations against Trump, most notably that Trump had been caught in a sexual escapade in Moscow, that his political advance had been supported by the Kremlin for at least five years, under Putin’s direction, in order to sow discord within the U.S. political establishment and disrupt the Western alliance. This document was based on alleged conversations by Steele with distant (Russian) officials: that is, strictly on hearsay evidence, whose assertions, where verifiable, are sometimes erroneous.26 But it said just what the Democrats, the mainstream media, and the CIA wanted to hear, and intelligence officials accordingly declared the author “credible,” and the media lapped it up. The Times hedged somewhat on its own cooperation in this tawdry campaign by calling the report “unverified,” but nevertheless reported its claims.27

The Steele dossier also became a central part of the investigation and hearings on “Russia-gate” held by the House Intelligence Committee starting in March 2017, led by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff. While basing his opening statement on the hearsay-laden dossier, Schiff expressed no interest in establishing who funded the Steele effort, the identity and exact status of the Russian officials quoted, or how much they were paid. Apparently talking to Russians with a design of influencing an American presidential election is perfectly acceptable if the candidate supported by this intrusion is anti-Russian!

The Times has played a major role in this latest wave of Russophobia, reminiscent of its 1917–20 performance in which, as Lippmann and Merz noted in 1920, “boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled” characterized the news-making process. While quoting the CIA’s admission that it had no hard evidence, relying instead on “circumstantial evidence” and “capabilities,” the Times was happy to describe these capabilities at great length and to imply that they proved something.28 Editorials and news articles have worked uniformly on the false supposition that Russian hacking was proved, and that the Russians had given these data to WikiLeaks, also unproven and strenuously denied by Assange and Murray.

The Times has run neck-and-neck with the Washington Post in stirring up fears of the Russian information war and illicit involvement with Trump. The Times now easily conflates fake news with any criticism of established institutions, as in Mark Scott and Melissa Eddy’s “Europe Combats a New Foe of Political Stability: Fake News,” February 20, 2017.29 But what is more extraordinary is the uniformity with which the paper’s regular columnists accept as a given the CIA’s assessment of the Russian hacking and transmission to WikiLeaks, the possibility or likelihood that Trump is a Putin puppet, and the urgent need of a congressional and “non-partisan” investigation of these claims. This swallowing of a new war-party line has extended widely in the liberal media. Both the Times and Washington Post have lent tacit support to the idea that this “fake news” threat needs to be curbed, possibly by some form of voluntary media-organized censorship or government intervention that would at least expose the fakery.

The most remarkable media episode in this anti-influence-campaign was the Posts piece by Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” which featured a report by a group of anonymous “experts” entity called PropOrNot that claimed to have identified two hundred websites that, wittingly or not, were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” While smearing these websites, many of them independent news outlets whose only shared trait was their critical stance toward U.S. foreign policy, the “experts” refused to identify themselves, allegedly out of fear of being “targeted by legions of skilled hackers.” As journalist Matt Taibbi wrote, “You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike.”30 But the Post welcomed and promoted this McCarthyite effort, which might well be a product of Pentagon or CIA information warfare. (And these entities are themselves well-funded and heavily into the propaganda business.)

On December 23, 2016, President Obama signed the Portman-Murphy Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, which will supposedly allow the United States to more effectively combat foreign (namely Russian and Chinese) propaganda and disinformation. It will encourage more government counter-propaganda efforts, and provide funding to non-government entities to help in this enterprise. It is clearly a follow-on to the claims of Russian hacking and propaganda, and shares the spirit of the listing of two hundred tools of Moscow featured in the Washington Post. (Perhaps PropOrNot will qualify for a subsidy and be able to enlarge its list.) Liberals have been quiet on this new threat to freedom of speech, undoubtedly influenced by their fears of Russian-based fake news and propaganda. But they may yet take notice, even if belatedly, when Trump or one of his successors puts it to work on their own notions of fake news and propaganda.

The success of the war party’s campaign to contain or reverse any tendency to ease tensions with Russia was made dramatically clear in the Trump administration’s speedy bombing response to the April 4, 2017, Syrian chemical weapons deaths. The Times and other mainstream media editors and journalists greeted this aggressive move with almost uniform enthusiasm, and once again did not require evidence of Assad’s guilt beyond their government’s claims.31 The action was damaging to Assad and Russia, but served the rebels well.

But the mainstream media never ask cui bono? in cases like this. In 2013, a similar charge against Assad, which brought the United States to the brink of a full-scale bombing war in Syria, turned out to be a false flag operation, and some authorities believe the current case is equally problematic.32 Nevertheless, Trump moved quickly (and illegally), dealing a blow to any further rapprochement between the United States and Russia. The CIA, the Pentagon, leading Democrats, and the rest of the war party had won an important skirmish in the struggle over permanent war.

Notes

  1. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 2008), chapter 2.
  2. Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, A Test of the News (New York: New Republic, 1920).
  3. On the Grand Area framework, see Noam Chomsky, “The New Framework of Order,” inOn Power and Ideology (Boston: South End, 1987).
  4. Edward S. Herman, “Returning Guatemala to the Fold,” in Gary Rawnsley, ed.,Cold War Propaganda in the 1950s (London: Macmillan, 1999).
  5. Ronald Schneider,Communism in Guatemala, 1944–1954 (New York: Praeger, 1959), 41, 196–97, 294.
  6. Editorial Board, “The Guatemala Incident,”New York Times, April 8, 1950.
  7. Elisabeth Malkin, “An Apology for a Guatemalan Coup, 57 Years Later,”New York Times, October 11, 2011.
  8. Harrison Salisbury,Without Fear or Favor (New York: Times Books, 1980), 486.
  9. Richard Du Boff and Edward Herman,America’s Vietnam Policy: The Strategy of Deception(Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs, 1966).
  10. See Chomsky and Herman, Manufacturing Consent, chapter 6.
  11. Editorial Board, “A Victory for Russian Democracy,”New York Times, July 4, 1996.
  12. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,”Monthly Review 59, no. 5 (October 2007); Herman and Peterson, “Poor Marlise: Her Old Allies Are Now Attacking the Tribunal and Even Portraying the Serbs as Victims,” ZNet, October 30, 2008, http://zcomm.org.
  13. Stephen F. Cohen,Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (New York: Norton, 2000).
  14. Ellen Barry and Michael Schwartz, “After Election, Putin Faces Challenges to Legitimacy,”New York Times, March 5, 2012.
  15. Robert Parry, “Troubling Gaps in the New MH-17 Report,” Consortium News, September 28, 2016, http://consortiumnews.com.
  16. Paul Krugman says, “Mr. Putin is someone who doesn’t worry about little things like international law” (“The Siberian Candidate,”New York Times, July 22, 2016)—implying, falsely, that U.S. leaders do “worry about” such things.
  17. A version of Mearsheimer’s article appeared as “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,”Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2014. The paper likewise rejected Stephen Cohen’s 2012 article “The Demonization of Putin.”
  18. “Sochi Under Siege,”New York Times, February 21, 2014.
  19. Michael Kimmelman, “Aleppo’s Faces Beckon to Us, To Little Avail,”New York Times, December 15, 2016. Above this front-page article were four photographs of dead or injured children, the most prominent one in Syria. The accompanying editorial, “Aleppo’s Destroyers: Assad, Putin, Iran,” omits some key actors and killers. See also Rick Sterling, “How US Propaganda Plays in Syrian War,” Consortium News, September 23, 2016.
  20. William Binney and Ray McGovern, “The Dubious Case on Russian ‘Hacking,’” Consortium News, January 6, 2017.
  21. David Sanger, “Putin Ordered ‘Influence Campaign’ Aimed at U.S. Election, Report Says,”New York Times, January 6, 2017.
  22. Nathan J. Robinson and Alex Nichols, “What Constitutes Reasonable Mainstream Opinion,”Current Affairs, March 22, 2017.
  23. Jack Matlock, “Contacts with Russian Embassy,” Jack Matlock blog, March 4, 2017, http://jackmatlock.com.
  24. Daniel Lazare, “Democrats, Liberals, Catch McCarthyistic Fever,” Consortium News, February 17, 2017.
  25. Robert Parry, “A Spy Coup in America?” Consortium News, December 18, 2016; Andre Damon, “Democratic Party Floats Proposal for a Palace Coup,” Information Clearing House,” March 23, 2017, http://informationclearinghouse.info.
  26. Robert Parry, “The Sleazy Origins of Russia-gate,” Consortium News, March 29, 2017.
  27. Scott Shane et al., “How a Sensational, Unverified Dossier Became a Crisis for Donald Trump,”New York Times, January 11, 2017.
  28. Matt Fegenheimer and Scott Shane, “Bipartisan Voices Back U.S. Agencies On Russia Hacking,”New York Times, January 6, 2017; Michael Shear and David Sanger, “Putin Led a Complex Cyberattack Scheme to Aid Trump, Report Finds,”New York Times,January 7, 2017; Andrew Kramer, “How Russia Recruited Elite Hackers for Its Cyberwar,”New York Times, December 30, 2016.
  29. Robert Parry, “NYT’s Fake News about Fake News,” Consortium News, February 22, 2017.
  30. Matt Taibbi, “The ‘Washington Post’ ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting,”Rolling Stone, November 28, 2016.
  31. Adam Johnson, “Out of 47 Media Editorials on Trump’s Syria Strikes, Only One Opposed,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, April 11, 2017, http://fair.org.
  32. Scott Ritter, “Wag the Dog—How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump and The American Media,” Huffington Post, April 9, 2017; James Carden, “The Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria: Is There a Place for Skepticism?”Nation, April 11, 2017.

November 15, 2017 Posted by | Fake News, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Russophobia | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Washington Post Pushes More Dubious Russia-bashing

By Robert Parry | Consortium News | September 25, 2017

Some people are calling the anti-Russian hysteria being whipped up across the U.S. mainstream news media a new “golden age of American journalism,” although it looks to me more like a new age of yellow journalism, prepping the people for more military spending, more “information warfare” and more actual war.

Yes, without doubt, President Trump is a boorish and dangerous demagogue, now highlighted by his reckless speech before the United Nations last week, his schoolyard Tweet taunts toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and his ugly denunciation of black athletes for protesting against police killings of often unarmed African-Americans.

And, yes, I know that some people feel that the evidence-lite and/or false allegations about “Russian meddling” are the golden ticket to Trump’s impeachment. But the unprofessional behavior of The New York Times, The Washington Post and pretty much the entire mainstream media regarding Russia-gate cannot be properly justified by the goal of removing Trump from office.

Ethically in journalism, the ends – however much you might wish them to succeed – cannot justify the means, if those means involve violating rules of evidence and principles of fairness. Journalism should be a place where all sides get a fair shake, not where some get a bum’s rush.

But the U.S. mainstream media has clearly joined the anti-Trump Resistance and hates Russian President Vladimir Putin, too. So, we are given such travesties of journalism as appeared as a banner headline across the front page of Monday’s Washington Post, another screed about how Russia supposedly used Facebook ads to flip last November’s election for Trump.

The article purports to give the inside story of how Facebook belatedly came to grips with how the “company’s social network played a key role in the U.S. election,” but actually it is a story about how powerful politicians bullied Facebook into coming up with something – anything – to support the narrative of “Russian meddling,” including direct interventions by President Obama and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a key legislator regarding regulation of high-tech industries.

Finding the ‘Evidence’

In other words, Facebook was sent back again and again to find what Obama and Warner wanted the social media company to find. Eventually, Facebook turned up $100,000 in ads from 2015 into 2017 that supposedly were traced somehow to Russia. These ads apparently addressed political issues in America although Facebook has said most did not pertain directly to the presidential election and some ads were purchased after the election.

Left out of the Post’s latest opus is what a very small pebble these ads were – even assuming that Russians did toss the $100,000 or so in ad buys into the very large lake of billions of dollars in U.S. political spending for the 2016 election cycle. It also amounts to a miniscule fraction of Facebook’s $27 billion in annual revenue.

So the assertion that this alleged “meddling” – and we’ve yet to see any evidence connecting these ads to the Russian government – “played a key role in the U.S. election” is both silly and outrageous, especially given the risks involved in stoking animosities between nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed America.

Even the Post’s alarmist article briefly acknowledges that it is still unclear who bought the ads, referring to the purchasers as “suspected Russian operatives.” In other words, we don’t even know that the $100,000 in ads over three years came from Russians seeking to influence the U.S. election. (By comparison, many Facebook advertisers – even some small businesses – spend $100,000 per day on their ads, not $100,000 over three years.)

But this diminutive effort by “suspected Russian operatives” doesn’t stop the Post from going on and on about “fake news” and “disinformation,” albeit again without offering evidence or specifics of any Russian “fake news” or “disinformation.”

It has simply become Official Washington’s new groupthink to say that everything linked to Russia or its international TV network RT is “fake news” or “disinformation” even though examples are lacking or often turn out to be false accusations themselves.

For instance, there is nothing in the Post’s article acknowledging that nothing from the various Democratic email disclosures, which have been blamed on Russia (again without real evidence), has been identified as untrue. So, how can truthful information, whether you like how it was obtained or not, be “fake news” or “disinformation”?

Falsehood as Fact

But Monday’s Post exposé simply asserts the claim as flat fact. Or as the article asserts: “what Russian operatives posted on Facebook was, for the most part, indistinguishable from legitimate political speech. The difference was the accounts that were set up to spread the misinformation and hate were illegitimate.”

In responsible journalism, such an accusation would be followed by a for-instance, giving an example of “the misinformation and hate” that the “Russian operatives” – note how they have been magically transformed from “suspected Russian operatives” to simply “Russian operatives” – were disseminating.

But there is no example of the Russian “misinformation and hate,” a classic violation of the reporting principle of “show, don’t tell.” In this story, it’s all tell and no show.

Indeed, what is shown in the article is often contradictory to the story’s conclusion. The article says, for instance, “A review by the company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government. But amid the mass of data the company was analyzing, the security team did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts.”

So, Facebook initially – after extensive searching – did not find evidence of a Russian operation. Then, after continued pressure from high-level Democrats, Facebook continued to scour its system and again found nothing, or as the Post article acknowledged, Facebook “had searched extensively for evidence of foreign purchases of political advertising but had come up short.”

That prompted Warner to fly out to Silicon Valley to personally press Facebook executives to come up with the evidence to support the Democrats’ theory about Russia paying for carefully targeted anti-Clinton ads in key districts.

The Post’s article reported that “Finally, [Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex] Stamos appealed to Warner for help: If U.S. intelligence agencies had any information about the Russian operation or the troll farms it used to disseminate misinformation, they should share it with Facebook. The company is still waiting, people involved in the matter said.”

Under Pressure

Still, faced with extraordinary pressure from senior Democrats, Facebook finally delivered the desired results, or as the Post reported, “By early August, Facebook had identified more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues that ran in the United States between 2015 and 2017 and that appear to have come from accounts associated with the [St. Petersburg, Russia-based] Internet Research Agency.”

So, the ads covering three years, including post-election 2017, only “appear” to be “associated” with some private Russian operation that only allegedly has ties to the Kremlin. And the total sums of the ad buys are infinitesimal compared to what it actually takes to have any real impact on Facebook or in a U.S. presidential election.

If the context of this story were changed slightly – say, it was about the U.S. government trying to influence public opinion in another country (which actually does happen quite a bit) – the Post would be among the first news outlets to laugh off such allegations or dismiss the vague accusations as a conspiracy theory, but since these allegations fit with the prejudices of the Post’s editors, an entirely different set of journalistic standards is applied.

What the article also ignores is the extraordinary degree of coercion that such high-level political pressure can put on a company that recognizes its vulnerability to government regulation.

As Facebook has acknowledged in corporate filings, “Action by governments to restrict access to Facebook in their countries could substantially harm our business and financial results. It is possible that governments of one or more countries may seek to censor content available on Facebook in their country, restrict access to Facebook from their country entirely, or impose other restrictions that may affect the accessibility of Facebook in their country for an extended period of time or indefinitely. …

“In the event that access to Facebook is restricted, in whole or in part, in one or more countries or our competitors are able to successfully penetrate geographic markets that we cannot access, our ability to retain or increase our user base and user engagement may be adversely affected, we may not be able to maintain or grow our revenue as anticipated, and our financial results could be adversely affected.”

Avoiding Reality

In other words, another way to have framed this story is that powerful politicians who could severely harm Facebook’s business model were getting in the face of Facebook executives and essentially demanding that they come up with something to support the Democratic Party’s theory of “Russian meddling.”

The Democratic leaders wanted this finding as an explanation for Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat, rather than going through the painful process of examining why the party has steadily lost ground in white working-class areas across the country.

What is missed in these Russia-bashing articles is that the Democratic brand has been sinking for years, including massive losses in statehouses across the country as well as in Congress. The party’s decline was not a one-off event with Donald Trump suddenly snaking away with significant parts of the white working class because the Russians bought some Facebook ads.

However, instead of looking in the mirror, national Democrats demanded that Facebook executives ferret out whatever tiny or imaginary information there might be about some Russians buying Facebook ads – and then allow those coerced findings to be fed into the excuse industry for why Hillary Clinton lost.

And, what about the Post’s repeated accusations about Russia engaging in “disinformation” and “fake news” without offering a single example? Apparently, these assertions have become such articles of faith in the U.S. mainstream media that they don’t require any proof.

However, honest journalism demands examples and evidence, not just vague accusations. The reality is that the U.S. government has stumbled again and again when seeking to paint RT as a disinformation outlet or a vehicle for undermining American democracy.

For instance, the Jan. 6 report on alleged Russian “cyber operations,” released by Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, included a lengthy appendix, dated from 2012, which decried RT for such offenses as allowing a debate among third-party presidential candidates who had been excluded from the Republican-Democratic debates; covering the Occupy Wall Street protests; and citing the environmental dangers from “fracking.”

The idea that American democracy is threatened by allowing third-party candidates or other American dissidents to have a voice is at best an upside-down understanding of democracy and, more likely, an exercise in hypocritical propaganda.

False Accusations

Another misfired attempt to discredit RT came from Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel, who issued a “Dipnote” in April 2014, which helped establish the narrative of RT as a source of Russian disinformation.

For instance, Stengel claimed that RT reported a “ludicrous assertion” that the United States had spent $5 billion to produce Ukraine’s “regime change” in February 2014.

But what Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine, apparently failed to understand was that RT was referring to a public speech by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to U.S. and Ukrainian business leaders on Dec. 13, 2013, in which she told them that “we have invested more than $5 billion” in what was needed for Ukraine to achieve its “European aspirations.” In other words, the RT report wasn’t “ludicrous” at all.

Nuland also was a leading proponent of “regime change” in Ukraine who personally cheered on the Maidan demonstrators, even passing out cookies. In an intercepted pre-coup phone call with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, Nuland discussed who should run the new government and pondered with Pyatt how to “glue” or “midwife this thing.”

So, Stengel was the one disseminating false information, not RT.

Similarly, senior U.S. politicians, including Hillary Clinton, and the U.S. mainstream media have falsely asserted that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies signed off on the Russia-did-it hacking claims.

For months, that canard was used to silence skepticism. After all, how could you question something that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed to be true?

But it turned out that – as DNI Clapper, himself a hardline Russia-basher, belatedly acknowledged – the Jan. 6 report on the alleged Russian hacking was the work of “hand-picked” analysts from only three agencies, the CIA, FBI and NSA, and the “assessment” itself admitted that it was not asserting the Russian conclusion as fact, only the analysts’ opinion.

The New York Times finally retracted its use of the fake claim about “all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies” in late June 2017 although it wouldn’t let the lie lie, so instead the Times made misleading references to a “consensus” among U.S. intelligence agencies without using the number.

Recent studies by former U.S. intelligence experts have punched more holes in the certainty by raising doubts that the email downloads could have been accomplished over the Internet at the recorded speeds and more likely were achieved by an insider downloading onto a thumb drive.

Deciding What’s Real

So who is guilty of “fake news” and “disinformation”?

One positive from the current PBS series, “The Vietnam War,” is that despite its bend-over-backwards attempts to make excuses for the “good faith” decisions by U.S. politicians, no one can watch the series without encountering the chasm between the upbeat Official Story being peddled by the U.S. government and the ghastly on-the-ground reality.

Yet, given how little accountability was meted out then for journalists who served as conveyor belts for pro-war propaganda in Vietnam – or more recently over the fraudulent reporting that rationalized the U.S. aggressive war against Iraq – it is perhaps not surprising that similar false group thinks would coalesce around Russia now.

Careerist journalists understand that there is no danger in running with the pack – indeed, there is safety in numbers – but there are extraordinary risks to your career if you challenge the conventional wisdom even if you turn out to be right. As one establishment journalist once told me, “there’s no honor in being right too soon.”

So, for the Post reporters responsible for the latest journalistic violation of standards – Adam Entous, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg – there will be no penalty for the offense of telling about Russia’s alleged “disinformation” and “fake news” – rather than showing, i.e., providing actual examples. When it comes to Russia these days – as with the Vietcong in the 1960s or Iraq in 2002-03 – you can pretty much write whatever you want. All journalistic standards are gone.

Yet, what is perhaps most insidious about what we are seeing is that – in the name of defending democracy – the U.S. mainstream media is trampling a chief principle of the Enlightenment, the belief that the marketplace of ideas is the best way to determine the truth and to create an informed populace.

The new U.S. mainstream media paradigm is that only establishment-approved views can be expressed; everything else must be suppressed, purged and punished.

For instance, if you question the State Department’s narrative on alleged Syrian government sarin attacks – by noting contrary evidence that points to staged incidents by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate – you are called an “apologist” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

If you question the one-sided State Department narrative regarding the Ukraine coup in 2014 – indeed even if you use the word “coup” – you are denounced as a “Kremlin stooge.”

No ‘Other’ Side

It is now not okay to even consider the other side of these stories, just as it was anathema to suggest that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government may have been telling the truth in 2002-03 when it declared repeatedly that it had destroyed its WMDs. That made you a “Saddam apologist.”

The hostility toward Americans who dare question the current anti-Russian hysteria was highlighted by an article last Thanksgiving Day by one of the authors of the new Post article, Craig Timberg.

In another front-page Post story, Timberg allowed an anonymous group called PropOrNot to malign the professionalism and patriotism of 200 Web sites, including our own Consortiumnews, that were lumped together in a McCarthyistic smear that they were somehow guilty of disseminating “Russian propaganda.”

The unnamed accusers – granted anonymity by the Post – acknowledged that they had no evidence that the sites were part of some grand Russian conspiracy but made the judgment based on PropOrNot’s analysis of the Web sites’ content.

In other words, if you questioned the State Department’s narratives on Ukraine or Syria – regardless of how well-supported those critiques were – you got smeared as a “Russian propagandist” – and the Post, which didn’t even bother to contact the accused, considered that sort of analysis to be worthy of its front page.

The story fed into another frenzy about the need to use algorithms and artificial intelligence to hunt down and suppress or purge such dissenting views from the Internet, supposedly to protect the sanctity of American democracy and spare Americans from exposure to “fake news.”

So, well-meaning Americans who may hope that Russia-gate will somehow bring down Trump are getting recruited into a movement that intends to silence dissent and allow the U.S. establishment to dictate what information you will get to see and hear.

And that officially approved “information” will surely lead to new global tensions, more military spending. and additional warfare up to and possibly including nuclear war with Russia.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.

September 25, 2017 Posted by | Deception, Fake News, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Russophobia | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments