Conspiracy phobia is being used to defame real news by linking it to Russia
If you think about the word conspiracy, it means any time two or more people collude to accomplish a task. By that definition, conspiracies happen in government every day. When you think about conspiracy theory, it generally refers to belief in some kind of secretive talk within the government, or peripheral organizations that influence the government, that excludes the populace, and may exclude members of the elected government, the president, Congress, etc.
By this definition, many conspiracy theories are in fact based on real undercover machinations. The Gulf of Tonkin got us into Vietnam, despite our leaders knowing it was bogus. Dick Cheney pressured CIA agents to get information that could justify hitting Iraq after 9/11. General Wes Clark went on Democracy Now! and listed seven governments the Secretary of Defense had marked in 2003 to take out within five years, a veritable who’s who of countries we are currently at war with for nebulous reasons (Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, and the cherry-on-top — Iran).
Seymour Hersh detailed how the 2012 Syrian chemical weapons attack was likely the product of collusion between Turkey and insurgents, not Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. Hersh’s wealth of credible detail calls into question every accusation against the Syrian government regarding the use of chemical weapons, particularly if that use occurs when the rebels are near defeat and such use would draw in the US and international community against Assad. Hersh’s perspective would also explain why, after Obama drew his “red line” in the sand, he failed to enforce it with no reason given. Had it been exposed that Turkey instigated the chemical attack, blame would have shifted from Syria to one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Such a situation would have been awkward at best.
Another backroom arrangement came to light when the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, were published by Wikileaks. The emails revealed that on October 6, 2008, Podesta had received lists of suggestions for Obama’s transition team appointees. These lists came from Citibank, one of Obama’s major donors — and the “recipient of the largest bailout from the federal government during the financial crisis.” Almost all of the eventual appointees came from these lists. This revelation shows a clear conspiracy in that influential individuals talk behind the scenes to make deals regarding power without the knowledge of the public or even the rest of the government at large.
At the end of the 2016 election season, the Clinton campaign launched several accusations against Russia. They claimed that the emails released by Wikileaks were hacked by Russian operatives bent on supporting the Trump campaign while weakening the US “establishment,” which was almost completely behind Clinton. But apart from the “hack” (a theory that has many holes), their campaign accused Russia of promoting “fake news.”
After the election, claims that Russian actors “with ties to the Kremlin” had worked to influence the outcome took off. The website PropOrNot published a list of sites that were supposedly “peddling Russian propaganda.” A look at the list shows RT and Sputnik, which are both funded by the Russian government, but it also includes leftwing outlets known for being critical of the US foreign and economic policy, such as Naked Capitalism, Truth-Out, and TruthDig. Also listed are the Ron Paul Institute, InfoWars, the Drudge Report, and the bogeyman itself, Wikileaks. PropOrNot lays out its standards for inclusion on “The List” as follows:
When an outlet establishes a pattern of behavior, by consistently, uncritically, and one-sidedly echoing, repeating, being used by, and redirecting their audiences to Russian official and semi-official state media, it is in an important sense irrelevant whether they are a paid Russian proxy, an honest true believer, or commercially opportunistic. The outcomes of serving strategically deceptive narratives to the American public are the same. We usually cannot know the motivations of the people involved in spreading Russian disinformation. While some investigative reporting has given us a strong idea of these motivations, motivations are ultimately less important to us than behavior. Because we focus on both outlets (websites, YouTube channels, social media accounts, etc.) rather than individuals, and on behaviors, we do not accuse individuals of deliberate wrongdoing or lawbreaking.
PropOrNot provides a 32-page report on how they determine whether an outlet is pushing Russian disinformation. The main sin that gets you on the list is “echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line.’” There isn’t any clear definition of what the “line” is; anyone who criticizes the US is ripe for accusation.
There is a valid point in maintaining skepticism of any news outlet. In Manufacturing Consent, by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, one of the “filters” of the US media is the need for financial capital to establish and maintain production. This means that anyone who wants to create a media company and is not already a billionaire must court wealthy patronage, which forces the outlet away from stories that might be detrimental to those patrons.
Since Russia sponsors RT and Sputnik, we should look again when they run a story on actions taken by Putin. But we should also apply this principle to other news organizations. Who is funding MSNBC? During the Iraq War, GE, a defense contractor, held a major stake in the news channel. There was little coverage of the war that was critical, despite the fact that it wasn’t going well.
Jeff Bezos, mega-billionaire and CEO and owner of Amazon, owns the Washington Post. He also has a $600 million deal with the CIA to run a cloud service for them, and he sits on a Pentagon board. Given this, we should be absolutely critical of any stories coming out of WaPo that present US war efforts in a positive light — however loudly the same voices scream “Russian AgitProp” or “dezinformatsiya” or any of the Cold War buzzwords that have replaced actual reporting on Rachel Maddow.
War: What Is It Good For? Profit
RT America employs many US media figures. Russiagate theorists are targeting them as either agents of the Kremlin or “useful idiots” (another Cold War term that has become the New Hotness). Larry King apparently has sold out his country. But Ed Schultz and Chris Hedges used to work for MSNBC and The New York Times, respectively. Why are they working for RT? Hedges was banned from speaking about the Iraq War after he criticized the occupation at a commencement address. He spent fifteen years as a war correspondent in the Balkans and other areas of intense conflict. His 2002 book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning is one of the darkest, most chilling examinations of human nature I have ever read, and it turns the Old Lie over in ways that few have ever dared to examine. No one is more qualified to speak about the intoxication, necessity, and folly of war than Hedges. But when he told the truth, his microphone was cut, he was booed and jeered, and the Times reprimanded him, saying it damaged the papers “impartiality” when he spoke critically of the war.
Military officers who appear on media to champion war and weapons are not considered damaging to impartiality, even if it comes out later that they were paid by defense contractors. Judith Miller wrote bogus stories inflating Saddam Hussein’s WMD capability and stockpile and was not disciplined for her uncritical parroting of Ahmad Chalabi’s evidence. Chalabi was later revealed to be an extremely dubious source, even a “putative Iranian spy,” and the Times has labored to repair its image after their failure was revealed. Miller wrote a book attempting to rehabilitate her image as a reporter. Yet Miller and others are still considered relevant journalists for parroting pro-establishment talking points while critical thinkers the likes of Hedges are marginalized.
Schultz recently came out and admitted to Washington Free Beacon, a conservative-leaning outlet that does decent reporting, that MSNBC president Phil Griffin micromanaged coverage to an alarming degree, even killing a live announcement of Bernie Sanders launching his presidential campaign five minutes before it was to go on air. To any objective viewer, exclusive coverage of a live presidential campaign announcement, especially one that was considered as unique as Sanders’, would have been “a good get” for MSNBC, and Schultz argued in favor of airing the story, but to no avail. And a little over a month later, Schultz was fired.
MSNBC: MainStream Nutters with Biased Coverage
In the wake of coverage of the Deadspin video of Sinclair Broadcasting issuing a caveat against “false news,” in which some 200 local news outlets read the same marching order in an eerie example of top-down news management, this top-down management of MSNBC and their own patron bias has only begun to come out. Schultz is not the only MSNBC host to suffer for integrity. Ashleigh Banfield, Phil Donahue, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jesse Ventura and Cenk Uygur were all let go from MSNBC for not following orders. Despite this clear bias, MSNBC is not held to the same standard as independent news outlets. In fact, Maddow remains the biggest prophet of a Russian doomsday lurking near.
Media bias was a reality even before Randolph Hearst turned it into an art form. The five filters identified in Manufacturing Consent include news outlets’ need for “access” to figures in government or business, a practice that leads to blunting critical stories lest journalists be barred from those sources, allowing friendlier outlets to get all the “scoops.” This results in the word of access figures being taken uncritically, meaning war propaganda enjoys higher status than questioning war.
The media led us into the Spanish-American War, promoted both World Wars, catapulted the Cold War through anti-communism, swayed a hesitant population into invading Iraq the first time, and helped promote the false idea of WMDs to bring us into Iraq the second time, which has led to an unending quagmire in the Middle East that has resulted in enormous loss of life, limb, and home for the civilians in these countries, and the shattering of the minds and bodies of soldiers returning to the US.
News outlets have spent decades developing reputations that their followers can trust. This trust is critical to news consumers, who have other responsibilities and often cannot fact-check on their own. When the outlets we rely on to bring us information on the state of the world and empower us to make crucial choices like voting cannot be trusted, we lose the ability to navigate the world competently.
A Nail In The Kauffman
Lately, we have seen a concerted effort to damage the credibility of the media. But this is not simply an assault on the credibility of major outlets, which can be laudable if an outlet isn’t credible, especially if they have demonstrated extreme bias on a subject; and as Herman and Chomsky demonstrated, all major US papers (Times, WaPo, Newsweek, etc.) parrot talking points from the US intelligence community. Rather, this effort is focused on destroying the credibility of anyone who challenges mainstream news.
In the Georgia 6th District’s special election in 2017, in a common mudslinging tactic, rightwing groups attempted to smear Jon Ossoff as linked to Al-Jazeera, the “mouthpiece of terrorists.” Although it is true that Ossoff’s documentary company sold products to Al-Jazeera, it sold the same products to other outlets as well. A media company sells media to media outlets. No nefarious motives required. Since Al-Jazeera is funded by the Qatari government, any reporting it produces regarding the Qatari government should be taken with a grain of salt — just as we should question any RT and Sputnik reporting about Russia, but that does not automatically infect every piece of news these outlets air.
On April 18, 2018, Johnny Kauffman of WABE, NPR’s Atlanta outlet, published a story in which he tied Atlanta-based activist and host of The Way With Anoa podcast, Anoa Changa, and host of the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) podcast, Eugene Puryear, to Kremlin propaganda. BAMN, according to its tagline on the Apple store, “elevates the people and narratives that while often ignored are driving some of the most important changes in the world.” However, BAMN is suspect because it is carried by Radio Sputnik.
Changa loses credibility, according to Kauffman, by going on podcasts hosted by Sputnik, as it is financed by Russia. But as with Ossoff’s videos, Changa’s work has appeared on other platforms. She has her own podcast, she has written for The Nation, and she has been on many independent media outlets, including the Michael Brooks Show and the Benjamin Dixon Show (Dixon refers to Changa as his “sister from another mister,” and they both manage Progressive Army). More apropos, Adam Johnson points out that Changa has also been on another state-funded outlet: The BBC. But Kauffman does not mention this in his piece, as it would counter his narrative.
It is easy to tie a Russian state-funded media outlet to purported Putinesque shenanigans; even independent media outlets whose bias is less easy to pinpoint can be tied into the “useful idiot” category. After all, anyone could unknowingly spread false information (Judith Miller would point to her own history). But Changa’s message has been consistent. She has always been critical of US race relations, US empire, and capitalism in general. And Kauffman fails to show that Changa’s appearance on BAMN changed her from an earnest, local community activist to a frothing Kremlin apologist who forgives Putin’s crimes and swoons over his shirtless horseback riding. To tie her to Russian propaganda without proving a switch in her rhetoric, he would have to show a connection; and the only connection he has is her appearing on two podcasts carried by Sputnik (Loud & Clear being the other). To report that she had the exact same interaction with the BBC would either admit Kauffman’s link as weak, at best, or it would force Kauffman to say that the BBC has become a victim or perpetrator of the same propaganda.
Apart from this being a continuation of the racist Cold War effort to attach Black activism to Russia, it delegitimizes the conversation around US power. If questioning state-sponsored violence at home or abroad cannot be entertained without being a tool of the Kremlin, it leads to Johnson’s conclusion: “Stating facts about the world that are unflattering to US centers of power is now per se destructive.” Is the problem regarding police violence, specifically against Black communities, that US police kill scores more people per year than other developed nations, or is it Black people objecting to it? Kauffman would apparently say the latter.
Not only that, but the narrative that somehow the Black community has to be told by Russia to be angry about US policy is extremely racist. This conclusion presupposes that not only is the Black community without the agency required to independently agitate against US policy on its own without direction from White people, but that, prior to tensions between the US and the USSR/Russia, Black people were happy with their lot in the US. Slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, and segregation were just slightly inconvenient until those meddling Russkies came in and told the poor, helpless Black people lies about America The Beautiful. Do I have to explain how ridiculous, patronizing and ahistorical that is? Were Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass on the Kremlin payroll?
Kauffman may not be aware of how racist he is being (though the level of deception he used in securing access to Changa would indicate he knew his intentions were problematic). After all, he is just continuing a narrative that can be seen anywhere on the mainstream media. Russian trolls are everywhere. Russian hackers are targeting our elections. Desinformatsya. Kompromat. Something, something, Trump, Russia. That doesn’t excuse sloppy, if not malicious, propaganda masquerading as journalism.
Slamming The Dore
CNN sent reporters to speak to hundreds of companies regarding their ads being featured on “extremist channels.” Though the network failed to send reporters to Standing Rock, Flint Michigan, or countries in which our military is dropping bombs, they have plenty of resources to spend telling corporations that their names are supporting websites featuring North Korean propaganda, Nazism, and left-wing comedy. TYT-affiliated host Jimmy Dore had his name included at the bottom of the list of sites that promote “pedophilia” and “white supremacy” due to the fact that he “peddles conspiracy theories.” Dore’s sin, highlighted in the CNN story, is his questioning of the Syrian chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7, 2018. As previously mentioned, Seymour Hersh reported on the 2012 chemical weapons attack being a “false flag,” with plenty of evidence. Hersh is no one’s “conspiracy peddler” — he is a respected journalist of the highest order, and Dore based his initial skepticism of the two more recent chemical weapons attacks on Hersh’s earlier reporting. This would be the third time that Assad supposedly, on the brink of victory against the rebels, launched an illegal chemical weapons strike against his enemies that was guaranteed to bring the might of the world down upon him.
When Trump retaliated against the first attack during his administration, he was greeted with praise from Fareed Zakaria, who said Trump “became president last night,” and Brian Williams, who melted in an on-air climax over the sight of US missiles headed toward Syria as though they would personally confront Assad and send him to hell.
Trump has twice responded to alleged chemical weapons attacks by Assad, but he has failed to do any significant damage. There are hypotheses as to why, because the secrecy of government breeds speculation. The establishment claims that Assad is backed by Russia and Iran, and as Trump is a “Putin puppet,” he wouldn’t dare harm a fellow friend of Vladimir. However, Obama failed to enforce the “red line” when in almost the same situation. Famously, Trump criticized Obama for wanting to go into Syria; and even when Obama failed to enforce the “red line,” he credited Obama’s “weakness and indecision.”
If Hersh is correct, and if Obama reneged his threat in light of evidence Assad never committed the attack, it is reasonable to suspect that whoever is perpetrating these attacks saw a change in leadership under Trump. If it was Assad, perhaps he believed they shared a benefactor and Trump wouldn’t retaliate. But after the first strike, the second one increased the pressure for a more meaningful retaliation. However, if the chemical weapons strike was perpetrated by another actor, then perhaps they saw a more belligerent president in the White House, and initiated the attacks believing that they could goad the US into retaliation. Without clear evidence about who exactly perpetrated the attacks, this kind of speculation festers. These conclusions are predicated on “ifs” and “therefores,” and ultimately require further data.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has finally been allowed into Douma to perform an investigation. Up until April 20, they were denied access to the country while the US pursued its response of choice. As of Wednesday, April 25, 2018, the OPCW has begun investigating the second attack site in Douma. So while maybe the White Helmets aren’t related to al-Qaeda, as some suggest (or maybe they are, according to Carla Ortiz), there is plenty of reason to question the mainstream narrative.
Why has Assad risked US intervention under two administrations of notoriously different temperaments? Why did those two administrations fail to do any meaningful damage to Assad’s military? Why was the OPCW denied access to do what it does better than anyone in the world before a counterstrike was initiated? Why are groups backed by the CIA fighting groups backed by the Pentagon? How many times have false stories dragged us into war? Is this a continuation of the efforts that have us attacking Yemen, with whispers of terrorists in Somalia, bringing General Clark’s list dangerously near completion? To tie someone like Jimmy Dore in with theorists who promote a malicious narrative like Alex Jones serves to annihilate any question of US military power. We have seen where that road leads, and it’s not pretty.
Propaganda War Threatens Real Peace
Nietzsche wrote in The Wanderer And His Shadow, one of his collections of aphorisms, that “The Means To Real Peace” (#284) is disarmament, not to “prepare for war,” as the old adage goes. The maintenance of standing armies is based on two assumptions: one’s own nation is beneficent and moral, and other nations are malevolent and immoral. These assumptions are clearly evident in the media narrative today.
All media outlets require funding. The Young Turks and other independent media boast membership funding, but large outlets rely on corporate (MSNBC, CNN, FOX, OAN, any Sinclair affiliate) or state (RT, Sputnik, BBC, TeleSur, Al-Jazeera) funding or a mixture (NPR). That is not to say that TYT and other independent media sources are beyond reproach. In fact, they often advise viewers to check their reporting, providing the sources they use. But when a media outlet that relies on wealthy benefactors who have a clear agenda tells the world that other outlets cannot be trusted because they rely on another benefactor with a clear agenda, they are replacing ethical journalism with accusations of immorality on the other side while boasting of their own morality. It’s a propaganda arms race that only leads to more war — and more death. As with any war, innocents get caught in the crossfire. In the rush to smear Russia as a bogeyman that cannot be trusted, media outlets that maintain skepticism of US empire are collateral damage.
Traditional media is feeling the pinch, as their previously held monopoly on ad revenue shifts when people “cut the cord” or simply no longer rely on them for information, turning instead to digital platforms. Competition over revenue drives the propaganda war. As Josef Goebbels has been credited with saying, “Accuse the other side of that which you are guilty.” When MSNBC warns that RT is nothing but a puppet show for its shadowy Kremlin masters, one should question why the moment that Jeffrey Sachs criticizes US action in Syria, Willie Geist cuts to an admiral who all but pats Sachs on the head with fatherly condescension, “Sure, you’re tired and emotional, but endless war is necessary. Leave it to the adults.”
There are other examples. The right has been attempting to sabotage the media for decades, from bleatings of “liberal bias” to Trump’s battle cry, ironically torn from the Hillary campaign, “fake news,” to the latest conspiracy claiming that the media is covering for powerful sex criminals as Trump wages war on child sex-slavery.
In a particularly disgusting display, CNN’s Drew Griffin went to the home of a Trump supporter unannounced and demanded she account for her Facebook group being “infiltrated” by Russians. Dennis Kucinich has been accused of having an anti-Syrian-war bias after receiving $20,000 from pro-Assad groups (as we all know, it takes some hefty donations to make the US’s most anti-war politician anti-war). Britain’s Sky News hosts accused a Twitter user of being a “bot,” and he subsequently made fools of them. YouTube carries a disclaimer that RT is funded by the Russian government; however, MSNBC and CNN carry no such warning about their funders.
Anyone who challenges the narrative of power faces accusations on social media — and now actual mainstream media platforms — of being a stooge, a “chaos agent,” or a Russian bot. To paraphrase an old song, “You Ain’t Done Nothin’ If You Ain’t Been Called A Bot.”
Matt lives in Columbia, SC with his wife and two kids. He’s a volunteer activist, and would very much like to receive regular checks for the work he has been doing (call me, Mr. Soros. Or Bloomberg. Or whomever).