Fake News on Russia in the New York Times, 1917-2017
It has been amusing watching the New York Times (Times) and its fellow mainstream media (MSM) cohort express their dismay over the rise and spread of “fake news.” They take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward and unbiased fact-based news. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of genuinely fake news, often in disseminating false or misleading information supplied them by the CIA, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power. An important form of MSM 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.
MSM fake news is especially likely where a party line is quickly formed on a topic, with deviationism therefore immediately looking naïve, unpatriotic or simply wrong. In a dramatic illustration, in 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 MSM, exceeded their coverage of the murders of 100 religious figures killed in Latin America by U.S. client states in the post-World War II years taken together.1 It was cheap and free of any negative feedback to focus heavily on the “worthy” victim, whereas looking closely at the deaths of the 100 would have required an expensive and sometimes dangerous research effort and would have upset the State Department. But it was a form of fake news to discriminate so heavily with news (and indignation) on a politically useful victim while ignoring large numbers whose murder the political establishments wanted downplayed or completely suppressed.
The Fake News Tradition on Russia in the New York Times
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 the Russian revolution 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 very much wanted the communists to lose, and serving this end caused the paper to report atrocities that didn’t happen and the imminent fall of the Bolshevik regime on a regular basis (at least 91 times). There was a heavy and uncritical acceptance of official handouts and reliance on statements from unidentified “high authority.” This was standard Times practice.
This fake news performance of 1917-1920 was repeated often in the years that followed. The Soviet Union was an enemy target up to World War II, and Times coverage was consistently hostile. With the end of World War II and the Soviet Union at that point a major military power, and soon a rival nuclear power, the Cold War was on. Anti-communism became a major U.S. religion, and the Soviet Union was quickly found to be trying to conquer the world and needing containment. With this ideology in place and U.S. plans for its own real global expansion of power well established,3 the communist threat would now help sustain the steady growth of the military-industrial complex and repeated interventions to deal with purported Soviet aggressions.
An Early Great Crime: Guatemala
One of the most flagrant cases in which the Russian threat was used to justify U.S.-organized 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 government plans to buy back (at tax rate valuations) and distribute to landless peasants some of the unused land owned by United Fruit Company and other large landowners. The U.S., which had been perfectly content with the earlier 14-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, with the main fake news base of an alleged Red capture of the Guatemalan government.4
In the pre-invasion propaganda campaign the unified MSM leveled a stream of false charges of extreme repression, threats to its neighbors, and the communist takeover. The Times featured these alleged abuses and threats repeatedly 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. reactions. But it was to no avail. Following the removal of Arbenz and 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 the communists never control the country, but that the Soviet Union “made no significant or even material investment in the Arbenz regime” and was too preoccupied with internal problems to concern itself with Central America.5
The coup government quickly attacked and decimated the organized groups that had formed in the democratic era, like 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 MSM had lost interest in Guatemala and barely mentioned this electoral outcome. The Times had claimed back 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,” and via the installation of a regime of terror.
In 2011, more than half a century after 1954, Elizabeh Malkin reported in the Times that Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom had apologized for that ”great crime [the violent overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954] …an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.” (“An apology for a Guatemalan Coup, 57 Years Later,” October 20, 2011). Malkin mentions that, according to president Colom, the Arbenz family is “seeking an apology from the United States for its role” in the “great Crime.” There has never been any apology or even acknowledgement of its role in the Great Crime by the editors of the New York Times.
Another Great Crime: Vietnam
There were many fake news reports in the Times and other mainstream publications during the Vietnam war. The claim that the Times was anti-Vietnam-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.7 He contends that the paper became 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 paper never abandoned the Cold War framework and language of apologetics, according to which the U.S. was resisting somebody else’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 halts in the U.S. bombing war in 1965 and later in the alleged interest of “giving peace a chance” were also fake news, as the Johnson administration used the 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.8
Furthermore, although from 1965 onward the Times was willing to publish more information that put the war in a less favorable light, it never broke from its heavy dependence on official sources or its reluctance to check out official lies or explore the damage being 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 out 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 costs–;to us. From beginning to end those who criticized the war as aggression and immoral at its root were excluded from the debate by the Times.9
The 1981 Papal Assassination Attempt. The “Missile Gap,” and “Humanitarian Intervention” in Yugoslavia
Papal Assassination Attempt. A major contribution to Cold War propaganda was provided by fake news on the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in Rome in May 1981. This was a time when the Reagan administration was trying hard to demonize the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The shooting of the Pope by the Turkish fascist Ali Agca was quickly tied to Moscow, helped by Agca’s confession, after 17 months imprisonment, interrogations, threats, inducements, and access to the media, that the Bulgarians and Soviet KGB were behind it. There was never any credible evidence of this connection, the claims were implausible, and the corruption in the process was remarkable. (See Manufacturing Consent, chapter 4 and Appendix 2). And 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 long, intensive and completely uncritical attention, as did most of the U.S. media.
In 1991, in Senate hearings on the qualifications of Robert Gates to head the CIA, former CIA 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 by Goodman in reporting on his testimony. In 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 papal assassination attempt. His mission was widely reported when he went, including in the Times, but when he returned without having found anything implicating Bulgaria or the KGB, a number of papers, including the Times, found this not newsworthy.
Missile Gap. There was a great deal of fake news in the “missile gap” and other gap eras, from roughly 1975 to 1986, with Times reporters passing along official and often false news in a regular stream. An important case occurred in the mid-1970s, at a time when the U.S. war-party was trying to escalate the Cold War and arms race. A 1975 report of CIA professionals 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 getting ready to fight a nuclear war. This 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 by tapping experts with different views to get at the truth. The CIA admitted in 1983 that the Team B estimates were fabrications. But throughout this period, 1975-1986, the Timessupported the case for militarization by disseminating lots of fake news. Much of this false information was convincingly refuted by Tom Gervasi in his classic The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), a book never reviewed in the paper despite the paper’s frequent attention to its subject matter.
Yugoslavia and “Humanitarian Intervention.” The 1990s wars of dismantlement of 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 did provide unwarranted support for the new concept of “humanitarian intervention,” which rested on a mass of fake news. The demonized Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic 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 U.S. and EU supported a legally questionable exodus by several constituent Yugoslav Republics. He supported each of the proposed settlements of these conflicts, sabotaged by Bosnian and U.S. officials who wanted better terms or the outright military defeat of Serbia, the latter of which they achieved. Milosevic had nothing to do with the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which involved Bosnian Serbs taking 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 MSM, while the numbers of Srebrenica executed victims were correspondingly inflated. The Times’s reporting on these events was fake news on a systematic basis.10
The Putin Era: A Golden Age of Fake News
The U.S. establishment was shocked and thrilled with the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Union, and its members were happy with the policies carried out under President Boris Yeltsin, a virtual U.S. client, under whose rule ordinary Russians suffered a calamity but a small set of oligarchs was able to loot the broken state. Yeltsin’s election victory in 1996, greatly assisted by U.S. consultants, advice and money, and otherwise seriously corrupt, was, for the editors of the Times, “A Victory for Russian Democracy” (NYT, ed, July 4, 1996). 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.11
Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, by gradually abandoning the Yeltsin era subservience was thereby perceived as a steadily increasing menace. His re-election in 2012, although surely less corrupt than Yeltsin’s in 1996, was treated harshly in the media. The lead Times article on May 5, 2012 featured “a slap in the face” from OSCE observers, claims of no real competition, and “thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Moscow square to chant ‘Russia without Putin’” (Ellen Barry and Michael Schwartz, “After Election, Putin Faces Challenges to Legitimacy”). There had been no “challenges to legitimacy” reported in the Times after Yeltsin’s corrupt victory in 1996.
The process of Putin demonization escalated with the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and its sequel of Kiev warfare against 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 U.S. and its allies and clients, sanctions were imposed on Russia, and a major U.S.-NATO military buildup was initiated on Russia’s borders. Tensions mounted further with the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over southeastern Ukraine, effectively, but almost surely falsely, blamed on the “pro-Russian” rebels and Russia itself.12
A further cause of demonization and anti-Russian hostility resulted from the escalated Russian intervention in Syria from 2015 in support of Bashar al-Saddad and against ISIS and al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda. The U.S. and its NATO and Middle East allies had been committing aggression against Syria, in de facto alliance with ISIS and al-Nusra, for several years. Russian intervention turned the tide, the U.S. (Saudi, etc.) goal of removing Saddad was upset and the tacit U.S. allies ISIS and al-Nusra were also weakened. Certainly demonic behavior by Putin!
The Times has treated these further developments with unstinting apologetics–for the February 2014 coup in Kiev, which it never calls a coup, with the U.S. role in the overthrow of the elected government of Victor Yanukovych suppressed, and with anger and horror at the Crimea referendum and Russian absorption, which it never allows to be a defensive response to the Kiev coup. Its call for punishment of the casualty-free Russian “aggression” in Crimea is in marked contrast with its apologetics for the million-plus-casualty–rich U.S. aggression “of choice” (not defensive) in Iraq from March 2003 on. The editors and liberal columnist Paul Krugman angrily cite Putin’s lack of respect for international law,13 with their internalized double standard exempting their own country from criticism for its repeated violations of that law.
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 authority Stephen F. Cohen that featured this NATO advance could not make it into the opinion pages of the Times.14 On the other hand, a member of the Russian Pussy Riot band, Maria Alyokhina, was given op-ed space to denounce Putin and Russia,15 and the punk-rock group was granted a meeting with the Times editorial board. Between January 1 and March 31, 2014 the paper had 23 articles featuring the Pussy Riot group 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 upon police intervention, which was at the request of the church authorities. A two year prison sentence followed. In contrast, in February 2014, 84 year old Sister Megan Rice was sentenced to four years in prison in the U.S. for having entered a nuclear weapons site in July 2012 and carried out a symbolic protest action. 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 as well as victims.
As regards Syria, with Russian help the Assad forces were able to dislodge the rebels from Aleppo, to the dismay of Washington and the MSM. It has been enlightening to see how much concern has been expressed over casualties to civilians in Aleppo, with pictures of forsaken children and many stories of civilian distress. The Times focused heavily on those civilians and children, with great indignation at Putin-Assad inhumanity,16 in sharp contrast with their virtual silence on civilian casualties in Falluja in 2004 and beyond, and recently in rebel-held areas of Syria, and in Mosul (Iraq), under U.S. and allied attack.17 The differential treatment of worthy and unworthy victims has been in full sway in dealing with Syria, displayed again with the chemical weapons casualties and Trump bombing response in April 2017 (discussed below).
A further and important phase of intensifying Russophobia may be dated from the October 2016 presidential debates, where Hillary Clinton declared that Mr. Trump would be a Putin “puppet” as president, and her campaign stressed this threat. This emphasis increased after the election, with the help of the media and intelligence services, as the Clinton camp sought to explain the election loss, maintain party control, and possibly get the election result overturned in the courts or electoral college by blaming the Trump victory on Russia.
The Putin connection was given great impetus by the January 6, 2017 release of a report of the Office of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), on Background of Assessing Russian Activities and Intention in Recent US Elections This short document spends more than half of its space describing the Russian-sponsored RT-TV network, which it treats as an illegitimate propaganda source given its sponsorship and sometimes critical reports on U.S. policy and institutions! RT is allegedly part of Russia’s “influence campaign,” and the DNI says that “We assess the influence campaign 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.” There is no semblance of proof that there was a planned “campaign” rather than an ongoing expression of opinion and news judgments. All the logic and proofs of a Russian “influence campaign” could be applied with at least 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 “influence campaign.”
As regards the DNI’s proof of a more direct Russian intervention in the U.S. election, the authors concede the absence of “full supporting evidence,” but they provide no supporting evidence—only assertions, assessments, assumptions and guesses. It states that “We assess that …Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2015” designed to defeat Mrs. Clinton, and “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” but it provides no evidence whatsoever for any such order. It also provides no evidence that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the e-mails of Clinton and former Clinton campaign manager 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 by anybody. And the veteran intelligence agency experts William Binney and Ray McGovern also contend that the WikiLeaks evidence was surely leaked, not hacked.18 It is also notable that among the three intelligence agencies who signed the DNI document, only “moderate confidence” in its findings was expressed by the National Security Agency (NSA), the agency that would most clearly be in possession of proof of Russian hacking and transmission to WikiLeaks as well as any “orders” from Putin.
But the Times has taken the Russian hacking story as established fact, despite the absence of hard evidence (as with the Reds ruling Guatemala, the “missile gaps,” etc.). Times reporter David Sanger refers to the report’s “damning and surprisingly detailed account of Russia’s efforts to undermine the American electoral system,” but he then acknowledges that the published report “contains no information about how the agencies had …come to their conclusions.”19 The report itself includes the amazing statement that “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.” This is a denial of the credibility of its own purported evidence (i.e., “assessments”). Furthermore, if the report was based on “intercepts of conversations” as well as 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 to destabilize the West?
The Times never cites or gives editorial space to William Binney, Ray McGovern or Craig Murray, who are dissident authorities on hacking technology, methodology and the specifics of the DNC hacks. But op-ed space was given to Louise Mensch’s “What to ask about Russian hacking” (NYT, March 17, 2017). Mensch is a notorious conspiracy theorist with no technical background in this area and who is described by 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’” and is “one of the least credible people on the internet.”20 But she is published in the Timesbecause, in contrast with the well-informed and credible William Binney and Craig Murray, she follows the party line, taking Russian hacking of the DNC as a premise.
The CIA’s brazen intervention in the election process in 2016 and 2017 broke new ground in secret service politicization. Former CIA head Michael Morell had an August 5, 2016 op-ed in the Times entitled “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton”; and former CIA boss Michael Hayden had an op-ed in the Washington Post just days before the election, entitled “Former CIA Chief:- Trump is Russia’s Useful Fool” (November 3, 2016). Morell had another op-ed in the Times on January 6, now openly assailing the new president (“Trump’s Dangerous Anti-CIA Crusade”). These attacks were unrelievedly insulting to Trump and laudatory to Clinton, even making Trump a traitor; they also make it clear that Clinton’s more pugnacious approach to Syria and Russia is much preferred to Trump’s leanings toward negotiation and cooperation with Russia.
This was also true of the further scandal with former Trump Defense Intelligence nominee Michael Flynn’s call from the Russian Ambassador, which possibly included exchanges about future Trump administration policy actions. This was quickly grasped by the outgoing Obama officials, security personnel and MSM, with the FBI interrogating Flynn and with widespread expressions of horror at Flynn’s action, allegedly possibly setting him up for 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.21 Obama’s own Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, admitted visiting Moscow for talks with officials in 2008 even before the election. Daniel Lazare makes a good case that not only are the illegality and blackmail threat implausible, but that the FBI’s interrogation of Flynn also reeks of entrapment. And he asks what is wrong with trying to reduce tensions with Russia? “Yet anti-Trump liberals are trying to convince the public that it’s all ‘worse than Watergate’.”22
So the political point of the Assessment seems to have been, at minimum, to tie the Trump administration’s hands in its dealings with Russia. Some non-MSM analysts 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.23 The Times has not offered a word of criticism of this politicization and intervention in the election process by the intelligence agencies, and in fact the editors have been working with them and the Democratic Party as a loosely-knit team in a distinctly un- and anti-democratic program designed to reverse the results of the 2016 election, while using an alleged foreign electoral intervention as their excuse.
The Times and MSM in general have also barely mentioned the awkward fact that the allegedly Russian-hacked disclosures of the DNC and Clinton and Podesta e-mails described uncontested facts about real electoral manipulations on behalf of the Clinton campaign that the public had a right to know and that might well have affected election results. The focus on the evidence-free claims of a Russian hacking intrusion helped divert attention from the real electoral abuses disclosed by the WikiLeaks material. So here again, official and MSM fake news helped bury real news!
Another arrow in the campaign quiver labeling Trump a knowing or “useful fool” instrument of Putin was a private intelligence “dossier” written 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 the direction of Putin, and with the further aims of sowing discord within the U.S. and disrupting the Western alliance. This document was based on alleged conversations by Steele with distant (Russian) officials; that is, strictly hearsay evidence, whose assertions, where verifiable, are sometimes erroneous.24 But it said just what the Democrats, MSM and CIA wanted said, so intelligence officials declared the author “credible” and the media lapped this up, with the Times covering over its own cooperation in this ugly denigration effort by calling the report “unverified” but nevertheless reporting its claims.25
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 (he produced 17 individual reports), the identity and exact status of the Russian officials who were the hearsay sources, and how much they were paid. Apparently talking to Russians with a design of influencing a U.S. presidential election is perfectly acceptable if the candidate supported by this Russian intrusion is anti-Russian!
The Times has played a major role in this Russophobia-enhancement process, reminiscent of its 1917-1920 performance in which, as noted back in 1920 “boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled” characterized the news-making process. While quoting the CIA’s admission that they were showing no hard evidence, but were relying on “circumstantial evidence” and “capabilities,” the Times was happy to spell these capabilities out at great length and imply that they proved something.26 Editorials and news articles have worked uniformly on the supposition that Russian hacking was proved, which it was not, and that the Russians had given these data to WikiLeaks, also unproven and strenuously denied by Assange and Murray. So these reiterated claims are arguably first class “fake news” swallowed as palatable facts.
The Times has run neck-and-neck with the Washington Post in stirring up fears of the Russian information war and improper 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, 2017.27 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 (e.g., Bill Moyers, Robert Reich, Ryan Lizza, Joan Walsh, Rachel Maddow, Katha Pollitt, Joshua Holland, the AlterNet web site, etc.).
Both the Times and Washington Post have given 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 Times has treated uncritically the Schiff hearings on dealing with Russian propaganda, and its opinion column by Louise Mensch strongly supports government hearings to expose Russian propaganda. Mensch names 26 individuals who should be interrogated about their contacts with Russians, and she supplies questions they should be asked.
The most remarkable media episode in this anti-influence-campaign campaign was the Washington Post‘s piece by Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” (November 24, 2016). The article features a report by an anonymous author or authors, PropOrNot, that claims to have found 200 web sites that wittingly or unwittingly, were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” While smearing these web sites, the “experts” refused to identify themselves allegedly out of fear of being “targeted by legions of skilled hackers.” As Matt Taibbi says, “You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike.”28 But the Post welcomed and featured 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 this country to more effectively combat foreign (Russian, Chinese) propaganda and disinformation. It will encourage more government counter-propaganda efforts (which will, by patriotic definition, not be U.S. propaganda) and provide funding to non-government entities that will 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 200 knowing or “useful fools” of Moscow featured in the Washington Post. Perhaps PropOrNot will qualify for a subsidy and be able to enlarge its list of 200. 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 wake up, 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 overthrow any tendencies of Trump to ease tensions with Russia was dramatically clear in the Trump administration’s speedy bombing response to the April 4, 2017 Syrian chemical weapons deaths. The Times and other MSM editors and journalists greeted this aggressive move with almost uniform enthusiasm,29 and once again did not require evidence of Assad’s guilt beyond their government’s say-so. The action was damaging to Assad and Russia, but served the rebels well. But the MSM never ask cui bono? in cases like this. In 2003 a similar charge against Assad, which brought the U.S. to the brink of a full-scale bombing war in Syria, turned out to be a false flag operation, and some potent authorities believe the current case is equally problematic.30 But Trump moved quickly (and unlawfully) and any further rapproachement between this country and Russia was set back. The CIA, Pentagon, liberal-Democrats and rest of the war party had won an important skirmish in the struggle for and against permanent war.