Why 'Russiagate' Trumps Ecocide at CNN
“So, my boss, I shouldn’t say this. … Just to give you some context, Trump pulled out of the climate accords and for a day and a half, we covered the climate accords. … The CEO of CNN [Jeff Zucker, the network’s president] said in our internal meeting … ‘Good job everybody covering the climate accords, but we’re done with that. Let’s get back to Russia.’ … So, even the climate accords, he was like ‘OK, a day or so, but we’re moving back to Russia.’ ”
So said CNN co-producer John Bonifield to an undercover guerilla journalist with the conservative media watchdog group Project Veritas (PV).
By “the climate accords,” Bonifield was referring to President Trump’s decision last month to keep his campaign promise to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. The accord, at least symbolically, committed the U.S. to joining the rest of the world in reducing carbon emissions with the hope of averting human extinction through anthropogenic global warming.
‘To See Trump Get Really Scrutinized’
PV caught Bonifield on the same tape expressing doubts about the Russia and Trump story. Bonifield told PV that CNN had been running with this story to an extraordinary degree in pursuit of liberal eyeballs—and the advertising dollars that follow with a growing audience:
PV journalist: So you think the Russia thing is a little crazy, right?
Bonifield: Even if Russia was trying to swing the election, we try to swing their elections, our CIA is doing shit all the time, we’re out there trying to manipulate governments. You win because you know the game and you play it right. She [Hillary] didn’t play it right.
PV: Then why is CNN like constantly, Russia this, Russia that?
Bonifield: Because it’s ratings. Our ratings are incredible right now. … There are a lot of, like, liberal CNN viewers who want to see Trump get really scrutinized. If we would have behaved that way with President Obama, and scrutinized everything he was doing with as much scrutiny as we applied to Donald Trump, I think our viewers would have been turned off. They would have felt like we were attacking him. … I’m not saying all of our viewers are super-liberals, but there’s just a lot of them.
PV: So Trump’s good for business, you’re saying.
Bonifield: Trump is good for business right now.
Just for the record, as of this writing CNN has mentioned Russia on air 16,000 times since Trump’s inauguration.
A ‘Mostly Bullshit Nothing Burger’
The undercover journalist pressed further:
PV: But, honestly you think the whole Russia shit is just bullshit.”
Bonifield: Could be bullshit. I mean, it’s mostly bullshit right now. Like, we don’t have any big giant proof. But then they say, “Well, there’s still an investigation going on,” and you’re like, “Yeah.” I don’t know, if [they] were finding something, we’d know about it. … The way these leaks happen, they’d leak it. They’d leak. If it was something really good, it would leak. … I think the president is right to say like, “Look, you are witch-hunting me. Like, you have no smoking gun. You have no real proof.”
Consistent with Bonifield’s skepticism on Russiagate, the PV reporter also caught Van Jones, a leading CNN talking head, referring to “the Russia thing”—the main theme in CNN’s reportage for months now—as “a big nothing burger.”
Jones, you may recall, first rose to prominence as an activist for climate sanity and racial justice. His widely read book “The Green Collar Economy” eloquently advocated giant jobs programs that would employ millions of poor black and other lower- and working-class Americans in the building and maintenance of an environmentally sustainable economy.
Yes, Project Veritas Is Republican
It’s good to note that PV is a “conservative” (translation: Republican) outfit. We should always be alert to potential political bias in news sources. But here’s the thing: PV has Bonifield’s and Jones’ comments on tape. The video and audio doesn’t lie. CNN did not bother to question the veracity of the Bonifield tape (I have no idea if it responded to Jones’ culinary metaphor). It even issued the following statement: “CNN stands by our medical producer John Bonifield. Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong, we welcome it and embrace it.”
Score one for right-wing media activists. Even a broken clock tells time accurately twice a day.
‘It’s TWITTR, not Just TWITT’
While PV deserves credit for its findings, its interpretation of what it found is not all that impressive. By PV’s account, the Bonifield tape is merely an indication of the “mainstream” and “corporate media’s” (PV’s words) desire to make money off Trump’s unpopularity with liberal viewers. There’s something to that, no doubt. But leaving matters there begs the question of why CNN’s “This Week in Terrible Trump” (TWITT) obsession is so strongly focused on the Russia connection. At CNN, as in other major U.S. media outlets, “Trump, Trump, Trump” is linked above all to “Russia, Russia, Russia.” It’s mainly TWITTR: “This Week in Trump Treason with Russia.”
Why skewer Trump and attract liberal viewers so disproportionately with the Russia angle? Trump is terrible in many ways from a liberal perspective. There’s plenty of horrible Trump news to attract liberal and other viewers beyond the president’s alleged Russia ties. Why wouldn’t liberals want to see Trump get equally “scrutinized” on his arch-plutocratic classism, his virulent racism, his disgusting sexism, his noxious white-nationalist nativism, his reckless militarism and, last but not least, the grave threat he poses to the environment?
Why the manic and constant focus on the unsubstantiated Russia charges when there’s so much more of undeniable substance to investigate (“scrutinize”) and report on regarding Trump? Why run so hard and insistently with Van Jones’ “nothing burger” and John Bonifield’s “mostly bullshit” story?
To Keep the New Cold War Going
Without knowing what goes on the minds of top media managers, I suspect that media and allied Democratic Party elites that loathe Trump for various reasons (some noble and some not) have calculated among other things that the Russia story is the best way to kill or cripple him politically. It carries the whiff of treason, after all.
That’s the most charitable explanation for their rabid Russia madness. There are darker motives that deserve equal consideration, however. Another part of the secret behind the dominant media’s obsessive Russianization of Trump is likely the simple fact that the president campaigned and came into office in opposition to the U.S. “foreign policy” (imperial) elite’s consensus in favor of provoking Russia. Herr Donald called for a normalization of relations with Moscow. We need not join the Russian historian Stephen Cohen in strangely calling Trump courageous and statesmanlike to acknowledge that dialing down tension with the great nuclear power, Russia, was a surprisingly sane and reasonable thing for Trump to advocate.
It was also a big “deep state” no-no. It’s a real nonstarter and threat to sound imperial policy for the reigning Russophobic, Clintonite, neoliberal Council on Foreign Relations, the neocon crowd, the military-industrial complex, the “intelligence community” and their many “liberal” (Democratic) media allies (including the owners and managers of The New York Times, The Washington Post and most of the major television networks). Part of the Russia madness regarding Trump is about the foreign policy and media establishment working overtime to keep the U.S.-led New Cold War with Moscow alive.
Externalization Is Preferred
A different likely incentive for the Russia obsession is more domestic. The nation’s reigning and bipartisan inequality and power structures—of which leading state-corporate media like CNN are key propagandistic components—go scot-free when the topic is Russia. That’s much less the case when the subject matter is class disparity, sexism, racism, imperialism and/or, last but not least, ecocide.
Constant screaming and fearmongering about Russia deflects attention from the richly bipartisan “homeland” problems of inequality, capitalism (class rule and disparity), corporatism, plutocracy, police-statism, racism, sexism, militarism, propaganda and ecocidalism. The ruling class that owns U.S. media and both major political parties (the radically regressive and reactionary Republicans and the dismal dollar Democrats) doesn’t score well on those topics. That helps make Trump the Russian Colluder a much more attractive story for media elites than Trump the Plutocrat, Trump the Racist, Trump the Militarist, Trump the Sexist, Trump the Nativist, Trump the Enemy of the Poor and Trump the Wrecker of Livable Ecology.
Jeff Zucker: A Leading Creator of Trumpenstein
At the same time, Russiagate distracts attention from the dominant U.S. media’s central and embarrassing role in creating the Trump atrocity. The corporate media gave ridiculously outsized coverage to the faux-populist Donald’s every outrageous statement, facial expression, gesture and tweet during the presidential primary campaign last year. This was done while badly underplaying Bernie Sanders’ actual populist candidacy. They powered up the rising beast. The Insane Clown President is their Frankenstein. Non-Fox media managers recognized their mistake too late. Blaming Russia helps them avoid responsibility.
And curiously enough, no top media actor did more to create the orange-tinted beast than Jeff “Back to Russia” Zucker. As Adam Johnson notes on AlterNet:
It was Zucker, after all, who as the new head of NBC Entertainment gave Trump his start in reality TV with “The Apprentice” and then milked the real estate developer’s uncanny knack for success for all it was worth in ratings and profits. …
Zucker let Trump stay on as host of “The Apprentice” long after he repeatedly trafficked in the race-baiting of Obama birtherism; long after he bashed “illegal aliens” on Fox News; long after he smeared women with sexist insults for decades; and long after he accused the first African-American president of cheating his way into an Ivy League college.
Masha Gessen’s Warning
Jones’ “nothing burger” comment reminded me of that liberal Russian human rights activist and Vladimir Putin critic, Masha Gessen. In a brilliant commentary in The New York Review of Books in March titled “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap,” Gessen tried to warn U.S. liberals and progressives against putting too many of their anti-Trump eggs in the Russia basket. Gessen felt that the Russiagate gambit would flop given a lack of smoking-gun evidence and a lack of sufficient public interest, particularly among Republicans. Gessen also worried that the Russia obsession was a deadly diversion from issues that ought to matter more to those claiming to oppose Trump in the name of democracy and the common good:
[T]he Russia allegations will [probably] not bring down Trump. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables … to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” …
Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and sub-literate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office. [Emphasis added.]
Gessen’s take was not without flaws. It gave Trump too much detrimental credit. The destruction of American democratic institutions and principles is a richly bipartisan, ruling-class project that has been well underway since at least the 1970s. There are other right-handed parts of the state (i.e., the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) beyond the Pentagon that the Trump White House doesn’t wish to dismantle, of course.
It’s not completely clear yet that Russiagate can’t collapse Trump. It has clearly helped cripple him—keeping the Trump administration in semipermanent “crisis mode.” You never know what new Russia-Trump bomb is going to explode in the next news cycle.
The recent revelation about Trump’s idiot son’s meeting last year, alongside Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, with a Russian lawyer claiming to represent the Putin government and to possess damaging information about Hillary Clinton is undeniable fuel for the Russiagate narrative. So is presidential son-in-law Kushner’s willful failure to report encounters with Russian officials. There’s some meat on the Russia Trumpburger, sometimes, it seems—enough to cause real problems for the Terrible One in the Oval Office.
’Enough With Russia!’
But Gessen’s most relevant concern looks spot-on fourth months later. The dubious Russian conspiracy story may or (more likely given the partisan balance in Congress) may not take Trump down. Either way, it has distracted millions of citizens from other undeniable crimes and outrages of the Trump administration—crimes in which the neoliberal Democrats (who arguably elected Trump for all intents and purposes) are deeply complicit.
The mad, CNN-led, neo-McCarthyite Moscow obsession has helped move the Democrats far off issues that any self-respecting left or even moderately liberal opposition to Trump would be fighting on: racism, ethnic voter suppression (which may well have elected Trump, by the way), health care as a human right, plutocracy, police- and prison-state-ism, immigrant rights, economic exploitation and inequality, sexism and environmental ruination. You know, stuff like that.
Much of the politically engaged populace has noticed the problem. According to the Washington political journal The Hill, three weeks ago, “Frustrated Democrats hoping to elevate their election fortunes have a resounding message for party leaders: Stop talking so much about Russia. … Rank-and-file Democrats say the Russia-Trump narrative is simply a non-issue with district voters, who are much more worried about bread-and-butter economic concerns like jobs, wages and the cost of education and healthcare.” [Emphasis added.]
Imagine that. As the left Green Party blogger Craig Gordon recently told me: The Democrats are “pissing in the wind of Russiagate while millions of ordinary working- and middle-class Americans are screaming like Al Pacino in the movie “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Hey, I’m dying over here … enough with Putin and Russia, we can’t afford health care … our jobs are in the tank.”
It’s not just jobs, health care, social justice and democracy that are going in the tank while the dominant mass media obsesses endlessly over TWITTR. It’s life itself that’s going down the tubes—yes, life itself. The thing that leaped out at me first and foremost when I initially viewed the Project Veritas exposé quoted at the top of this report was Jeff “Back to Russia” Zucker’s crass and rapid dismissal of the climate issue. That’s because “anthropogenic” (really capitalogenic) global warming is not just one among numerous “single issues” that concern progressive and serious liberals. As the left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu told me six years ago, global warming is “the biggest issue of our or any time.” Atmospheric carbon parts per million (ppm) recently reached a shocking 409.21, nearly full 10 points higher than it was just four years ago. We are on pace for 500 ppm by 2050. We would likely hit 600 sooner than 2100. Carbon saturation on that scale is the end of the planet’s life support system. It is the final melting of the cryosphere, the frozen water part of the earth system.
If this unfolding environmental catastrophe isn’t averted soon, Noam Chomsky explained five years ago, then “everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” All bets are off on prospects for a decent future unless homo sapiens acts quickly to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy—a technically viable project. Standard liberal and progressive struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed and controlled (and for whom) lose their luster when the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find it riddled with disease and decay? Who hopes to inherit a dying earth from the wealthy few?
Unlike many of the other issues ordinary citizens, liberals and progressives rightly care about, there are no letter grades with the climate issue. It’s pass-fail. We either quickly (historically speaking) make the leap across the chasm and move from fossil fuels and the madness of nuclear power to water, wind and solar, or we fail to survive. There’s very little room for cutting an incremental deal here. You don’t negotiate with physics.
Of all the endlessly infuriating and insane things about the malignant narcissist Donald Trump, the most dangerous of all is his climate change-denialist promise to “deregulate energy”—rightly described by Chomsky last year as “almost a death-knell for the species.” Not that the Paris agreement offered anything like a full solution, but Bonifield was right to be amazed to see “even the climate accords” trumped by the Trump-Russia story at CNN. With the Russian “nothing [or perhaps something] burger,” the corporate media-politics system is deadening the citizenry to the most significant existential threat the species has ever faced.
Surely, Van “Green Collar Economy” Jones must reflect darkly on all this as he collects his no-doubt impressive paycheck from CNN, where the Russiagate “nothing burger” regularly trumps the biggest story of our, or any, time.