9 Ways the Media Blew It in Its ‘Russiagate’ Coverage
So many in media got so much so wrong over the past two years as they put all of their eggs in the basket of Trump/Putin collusion in the 2016 election. I asked some Russiagate skeptics to share what they saw as the worst moments or biggest failings during the 22-month spree, and their tips for moving forward.
1. Encourage debate and dissent, not conspiracy theories and clicks. —Aaron Maté, journalist, The Nation
I’ll never forget that Rachel Maddow did a segment where she called some alleged Russian trolls, interfering on Bernie Sanders’ fan club page, “international warfare against our country.” Jonathan Chait came out with a story about whether Trump was a Russian military intelligence agent, and then Chris Hayes put him on his program that night, and they discussed it as if this was a serious prospect.
January 2017, basically right as Trump was taking office, was the last time someone who was skeptical of Russiagate from the left was allowed on MSNBC, because in December of 2016, Ari Melber interviewed Glenn Greenwald. But that was the last time for Glenn. And January 2017 was the last time Matt Taibbi was on MSNBC. That means that basically, throughout this entire affair, throughout Trump’s presidency, MSNBC has not allowed on a single dissenting voice. That’s extraordinary. And what does that say about a political media culture, that it’s somehow a fringe position to question the conspiracy between the president and Russia?
So the only possible victory here for politics and journalism is if there’s accountability: On the journalism front, if we learn how to follow the facts, not a narrative that benefits ratings and gets us clicks; and in politics, if we actually learn to start becoming a real resistance, mounting opposition to Trump based on opposing his policies, not based on believing in this fairy tale.
People are already writing articles accusing me and other journalists of being smug and taking a “victory lap.” I don’t feel victorious! I’d settle for being able to write about this story without being called a traitor.
Because of the way the modern news landscape is divided, we’re really susceptible to groupthink and orthodoxies. Everyone settles on narratives, and it becomes forbidden to explore any alternative themes being pursued on the “other” media. With Russiagate, it was called “shilling for Trump” to wonder about whether any part of it was untrue. That makes it very hard for young reporters, especially, to challenge this.
The only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad. That was the one option out of an infinite number of ways we could have pursued covering his presidency. That was the one thing that could have really helped him. And we did it. Not only did we do it, but we did it, basically, to the exclusion of everything else, for years.
The thing is that America’s media obsession with the Russian menace—this idea that Russia is the greatest threat to liberal civilization—predates the Mueller investigation. It predates the 2016 election, and it predates Trump. So this wasn’t a sudden mistake about a single investigation, but something that America’s been moving towards for over a decade. The Russian Menace has been a lucrative racket—paying the mortgages, car loans, kids’ college tuitions, for thousands of think-tankers, military contractors, academics and journalists.
After Trump, the Russia hysteria hit a new level of paranoia and bigotry. There was a need to blame America’s domestic political turmoil, and the failure of its political establishment, on someone or something—to deflect responsibility for what happened. So suddenly liberal media began to see “the Russians” everywhere—part of a shadowy foreign conspiracy to undermine America from within.
They weren’t just threatening Europe and NATO. They were in the White House, in American voting machines, in American electrical grids, in American children’s cartoons. They were hacking people’s minds. They were controlling both the international left and the international right—against the respectable political center. That’s how sneaky and devious and cynical they are. That’s how much they want to destroy America’s liberal democracy.
The Mueller report may provide us some much-needed respite from this insanity for a few weeks or months, but this focus on the Russian menace isn’t going away any time soon. You can already see Joe Biden’s creepy behavior with women being blamed on a devious Russian plot to help elect Bernie. So as we get closer to the election, this kind of stuff is gonna fire up again big time.
To treat this issue as a media problem that we “can solve” and “get right” in the future is a bit too optimistic, in my opinion. It assumes that our political and media establishment wants to actually “get it right.” What does getting it right mean, when they are the problem that needs to be corrected? To “get it right,” they’d have to admit that they’ve been wrong — not just about Mueller, but about the decades of bankrupt neoliberal politics they’ve been complicit in pushing on America and around the world. To get it right, our political and media elite would have to voluntarily deplatform itself. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
It’s remarkable how often the problems of Russiagate coverage came down to simple ignorance. From references to Russia as a “Communist” nation to basic translation errors, we’ve seen prominent pundits make mistakes that would embarrass a grade-school Muscovite.
This was in part a problem of people exaggerating their own credentials, but it was also a problem of the media deciding that no real expertise was needed. I don’t want to call for academic entry exams, but I think it’s clear that the media needs to move in the direction of treating Russian studies as a field of knowledge like any other. Do you speak the language? Have you spent more than a few weeks in the country? What and where have you published? Do you have a directly relevant professional background?
There are so many people who could give extraordinary answers to all of these questions, so it says everything about Russiagate when you look at who we heard from instead. From overt operatives to media hacks, corporate news is now overrun by pundits who function as PR professionals for the major parties. All of their professional and social incentives compel them to carry water for their party; if they happen to be right about a given issue, it’s purely by accident.
And with Russiagate, we saw the worst-case scenario play out: Republicans, who will defend Trump over anything, ended up being right—while Democrats, desperate to believe they had caught him in an impeachable crime, got it wrong. The only way around this problem, as far as I can tell, is to talk to pundits who are acting against their own political interests.
In this case, there were plenty of people in liberal-left media who clearly want to see Trump fail, but who were nevertheless Russiagate skeptics. Some of those voices were just being contrarians, of course, but some of them were acting from a place of conviction.
5. Don’t manipulate the truth to justify war. —Rania Khalek, journalist, host of In the Now
From the start, we were warning people that pushing this evidence-free conspiracy theory was ultimately going to empower Trump. But even worse, it actually made the world a more dangerous place. In order to prove he wasn’t in bed with the Russians, the Trump administration pushed some of the most anti-Russia policies in the post Cold War-era, moving us closer to nuclear war and increasing the likelihood of more violence in places like Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine, all to prove that Trump isn’t Putin’s puppet.
This entire affair has also resurrected the careers of the neocons, who, until Trump came along, were largely disgraced for the horrors they inflicted on Iraq. Now they’ve been embraced by liberals for being anti-Trump, and they have more influence than ever. Not to mention the new McCarthyism that frames everything, from the NRA to white nationalism to even progressive advocacy groups that challenge the Democratic Party, as agents of the Kremlin, distorting everyone’s understanding of what’s going on today.
The Russiagate narrative has been a disaster, and it’s going to continue to be a disaster, because, despite being proven to be a sham, the corporate media and the corporate Democrats are still pushing it, distracting everyone from the real reasons for our miserable status quo.
It’s regime change anniversary month for Iraq, Libya and Syria.
These countries were the targets of the US regime change playbook and all are worse off because of it. And now the regime changers have moved on to Venezuela and Iran. Will it ever end? pic.twitter.com/nd58u3VQSV
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) March 13, 2019
6. Be skeptical toward government officials and other authorities. —Branko Marcetic, journalist, Jacobin
The media seemed to replace caution and wariness with an overeager credulity towards those in power or positions of authority, whether it was the salacious, unproven tales collected by a British spy; the various false and misleading claims disseminated by mysterious, anonymous government officials; or perjury-taintedformer intelligence officials asserting that Trump was being blackmailed or controlled by Putin. They seemed to forget the lessons of the Iraq War, that these people, too, have their own agendas and interests.
Given the dangers, and with allegations this wild—particularly the idea that Trump was wittingly doing Putin’s bidding, which is what this scandal has always been about—there was always good reason to be extra careful. Instead, some of those pushing this narrative actually chided people for being too skeptical.
It also would’ve helped if the press gave weight to countervailing views and to experts (Russian journalists, coincidentally, never bought into the scandal), focused less on Trump’s Putin-curious rhetoric than on his administration’s actual policies, and resisted the temptation to take an explicitly nationalistic standpoint when reporting.
It’s not too late to salvage the media’s reputation, but they’ll have to acknowledge what they got wrong, be transparent about how they plan to rectify it and prevent a repeat, and have at least some accountability. None of that seems to be on the menu right now.
“Collusion” is a vague word that is not defined as a crime in any federal statute. There are numerous other Trump crimes to focus on, such as soliciting contributions from a foreign national, computer fraud, wire fraud, bribery of a public official, conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy to defraud the US, or even a violation of the emoluments clause.
We already know that a Saudi official paid for a “conference” and 500 rooms in Trump hotels. We know about the bizarre ties with a Turkish money-laundering case. Jared Kushner tried to get Qatar to bail him out on a bad building investment, and, when they refused, Trump took aim at Qatar. Trump cut ties with Qatar after the Saudi crown prince bragged that he had Jared Kushner in his pocket.
Since war criminals get a free pass, the media may not notice. But genocide is still illegal under international law (which the US doesn’t really subject itself to) and also under US law. Under 18 USC 1091, “transfers by force children of the group to another group” counts are genocide. During his brutal ICE detentions, Trump separated parents from children, and some of the children were adopted out.
But focusing on “collusion” allowed the media to peddle stories related to Facebook memes instead of talking about the issues, like how our elections are basically auctions to the highest bidder. Trump and Clinton spent nearly $2 billion each but instead of covering this, the media focused on whether or not a random Twitter account with eight followers interfered with bad memes.
The media ignored the brutal bloodbath in Yemen, the Rohingya situation in Myanmar. Domestically, they ignored wage stagnation, the rising prescription drug prices, housing foreclosures, the opioid epidemic.
The media promoted outright bigotry against Russian individuals. Maddow said, “These are the Russians in Davos.” Would she have done the same segment about any other group? “These are the Jews in Davos”?
They also sparked dangerous foreign policy, subjecting Trump to “tests” to prove that he wasn’t Putin’s puppet. Rachel Maddow encouraged NATO’s build-up in Ukraine. Many Democrats continued to encourage Trump to arm Azov Battalion (Nazis) in Ukraine. The only decent thing Trump tried to do was build peace with North Korea, and the media fear-mongered about that. As usual, they chose to push the “national security consensus” over the truth.
I’d say the worst example of media fails would be Maddow saying, what if Russia cut off the electricity to the middle of the country during the polar vortex. That’s just hysterical fear-mongering. I also hate the conflation of “attacking the country” with random low-level troll farms.
There’s also a concerted effort to not discuss the substance of the leaks on the DNC, and simply dismiss them because the source might be Russia. Would they do that if the leaks exposed corruption within the RNC? With 100 percent certainty, we can say no. This also gave Trump credibility, because when he screams “fake news” in the future, people won’t be as quick to reject it.
The media should focus on policy and how it impacts regular people. If they did, they would’ve spoken quite a bit about Trump’s dealings with predatory payday lenders. They donated a lot to his inauguration, and recently have been funneling him money through his golf courses. In return, he dropped an Obama-era lawsuit against them, and blocked implementation of new regulations. They’ll now make $7 billion off society’s most vulnerable. You can almost say it was “collusion” between Trump and the industry. Too bad MSNBC and CNN don’t care—and probably don’t even know—about it.
When Keith Olbermann pounded his fist on his table, screaming, “SCUM! RUSSIAN SCUM!!!” I couldn’t help but thinking, that’s the only nationality he could insert there and get away with it. He couldn’t scream “Mexican scum” or “Chinese scum” or “Indian scum.” Russian bigotry is, I think, the only acceptable bigotry among the liberal media. Totally acceptable to the liberal media.
Rachel Maddow telling her audience in the middle of a polar vortex that Russia controls their power grid and could freeze them all to death at a moment’s notice was by far the most egregious example of fear-mongering. But that’s not the only bad thing the media’s done. They’re currently pushing regime-change wars in Syria and Venezuela.
The corporate news will never regain my trust or redeem itself, because they are owned and funded by the people they’re supposed to be investigating and exposing, like the richest man in the world, for instance, Jeff Bezos. He controls 51 percent of all the internet sales in the United States, sits on a Pentagon board and has a $600 million deal with the CIA. That’s the guy running the news!
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