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PJ Media is one of a very few truly excellent independent news and opinion outlets. Recently they ran a piece entitled “Should Journalists Go to Jail for Spreading Russia Lies?” The writer puts forward the title question in a very straightforward way with the first instinctual answer being “no.” However, the author goes on to point out that because of the damage done through fake news and otherwise false reporting, that there should be some kind of penalty imposed for misinforming the public. After that, the author is honest enough to observe that how to determine deliberate false reporting is very much “in the weeds”, that is, difficult to ascertain.
…And when these prevarications can be shown to have been deliberate, to have been done knowingly, difficult as that may be to prove, the line to sedition may have been crossed and there is an argument the reporters involved should face legal consequences. They should also be fired.
Unfortunately, because reporting is an occupation with no official standards like law or medicine, no professional organizations to disbar them, and because, as A. J. Liebling wrote long ago, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” with media operations like CNN and NBC often encouraging those very lies, this is unlikely to happen.
Nevertheless. as Kimberly Strassel indicated in “For Fear of William Barr: The attorney general gets attacked because his probe endangers many powerful people,” heads of those who instigated the Russia probe are likely soon to roll. Shouldn’t members of the press who gave them voice be more than unindicted co-conspirators?
Who was indeed culpable when David Corn of Mother Jones and Michael Isikoff of Yahoo.com, not to mention the jejune character from BuzzFeed, were given access to and then promulgated the Steele dossier — a document that, from what we now know, might as well have had “DISINFORMATION” stamped in red on the front page with “Made in the Kremlin” printed not-so-discretely at the bottom. They are intelligent men. Didn’t they realize this?
Of course, they did. Or at least they suspected it. But the ends (the defeat of the orange man) justified the means (helping release this disinfo to the public and spread the lies). Did they do this deliberately? Are they guilty of sedition? Decide for yourselves. (Isikoff later recanted and called the dossier dubious, undoubtedly to avoid having his reputation further besmirched. After the Mueller report was published, he had no choice.)
But even though the author’s concern is correct, do you see the problem? He or she still accepts some of the premises as true. Namely, the Steele document being “made in the Kremlin”. The piece does not list these, but we can because we see numerous cases where the American conservatives also accept parts of an utterly unproven narrative:
- The notion that Russia “meddled / interfered” in any way in the American election.
- The notion that the Kremlin, Putin, et. al. is America’s enemy.
- Senator Lindsey Graham’s favorite phrase “Russia is out to get us all.”
- Russia is a communist nation / the Soviet Union, to this very day.
None of these things are true. I know this because I actually live and work in Russia, and I presently work with people very close to the highest circles of the Russian government. There is absolutely no evidence of any of these points. None. Zero. I do not know how may ways to say it, but this is what is abundantly clear.
How do you spin a web of intrigue? Make it vague!
Now, all of these points, which I will call the “central tenets of American propaganda as regards the Russian Federation” (phew!!) are deliberately vague. Much like the narrative so dear to environmentalists and their Left concerning “climate change” the key words are “provable” by any kind of evidence or none at all. When the narrative was “global warming” the planet promptly cooled off by about a degree C. When it was “global climate disruption” the number of severe hurricanes maxed, then almost disappeared. “Climate change” always works. Russia is having one of its warmest summers ever, but the Rocky Mountain West saw significant snows into July for the first time on record. The notion of “climate change” that is all the fault of humans and their evil SUV’s fits neatly to “explain” both events simultaneously, without there really being significant proof that there is a connection. (To do that we need much more data, and to get that data, we probably need another thirty to seventy years of accurate observation. Climate is very slow most of the time, and it changed before human interference as well, so determining what we are doing to it is far more difficult to discern, especially now.)
In the same way, the narrative in the West about Russia is spurious and unproven. Even the existence of the Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” in St Petersburg, is insignificant in terms of assigning real effect on the American elections coming from a Russian agency. There are literally billions of users on Facebook. A great many people, spewing a great deal of largely nonsense. The addition of a group spewing still more nonsense does not change the atmosphere much. The Internet is a cesspool of false information as much as it is a repository of truth. This is no different than the people in the office who all heard the weather forecast for tomorrow, but who all disagree as to what the forecast is. There are other elements – psychological, attention, comprehension – that exist in each individual person that affect what he or she perceives. This happens with news reporting as well, and so it should be no surprise that one hears outlandish reports from reliable people who did not understand what they heard, or got through multi-hand sources that was already distorted beyond belief. Remember the “tell a secret” game with a circle of friends, where you tell something to your friend and by the time it gets back to you from its trip around the circle it is completely outlandish? That.
In order to create a narrative that permeates all of a given society, there must be some element that grabs and holds people’s attention. The best way to do that is to make something sinister, really frightening. COVID is the example du jour these days, but Russia was before that. It is easy to play on the American cultural memory of Fear of the Reds, and this is indeed exactly what was done. By comparison, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has no misgivings about allowing NordStream 2 into her country. For her, it is just business, and very smart business at that. Why buy LNG from the US at extremely high prices due to shipping it across the Atlantic when Russia is next door and has loads of the stuff for a much lower price?
The problem of assigning the label “propagandist” is the assigner’s motive
Many conservative sites are currently “pinged” as a “right-wing, pro-Russia propaganda site” and there is not much hard evidence to support such a claim, aside from the fact that they do not report about Russia according to the accepted American narrative.
Speaking strictly for myself, I consider journalism’s highest calling to be the dissemination of information that is truthful and real, and the dissemination of opinion and analyses as expressions of freedom of thought.
Now, the US’ First Amendment makes no bones about it – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech and of the press means that the press is NOT bound to tell the truth in any way by any Congressionally passed means. In other words, fake news is protected. However, there is, and ought to be, a strong ethical code of honesty for most honest journalists. The Washington Post had this ethic in place when the Bob Woodward / Carl Bernstein research turned up all the information that turned out to be the D.C. – rocking Watergate scandal. If only to avoid being sued into bankruptcy, that paper was meticulous about source checking, making absolutely sure their sources were reliable before going to press.
Sadly, that kind of thing doesn’t happen now like it did then, and news journalism is heavily infused with “entertainment” which means that there is the desire to attract attention, buzz, gossip and so on. The objective of any news organization is far from altruistic – it is there to make money. But the criteria for doing so has changed – from honest reports that can win the trust of the readers / viewers / listeners to sensationalism, scandal, gossip and slander, in short – stoking passion about some story, usually on the basis of viewpoint. Fake news matured in this environment.
A great many of my own pieces are like this. It is regrettable, but when I report fact-only news, likely as not the pieces are rarely read. The balance is between these questions, “do people get the news they deserve, or do they get the news they are given – it just takes someone willing to give it to them?” And do journalists – real ones – believe that their carefully researched and truthful reports will be read, thought about, and acted upon?
I know my personal answer: It is emphatically, “Yes, I hope they will.”
However, I have often seen that they don’t unless there is another X-factor, the popularity of the journalist because of the way they blend facts with passion to create interest, for example. These days, Tucker Carlson is the brightest star in the conservative media as the one who brings information with a great feeling of relevance. I often write pieces that reflect on what he talks about and then try to take it a little farther, perhaps venturing into realms of thought that even Mr. Carlson is not willing to pin his career on. I know that I am committed to truth, and most of the time that truth is unpleasant to consider. That is another aspect. When you are the rebuker, the rebuked usually do not like being rebuked, so they do not like you very much.
“My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.”
I believe that people usually give pretty accurate accounts of themselves and their lives when asked, unless they are out-and-out ideologues. Thank God, there are not too many ideologues in Russia. Most of the people I know here are pretty reality-based. They know a lot is wrong with their country, but they also love it and want to see things improve. Many of them feel helpless about how to do that, and others spend more time doing and less time talking about how to make things better. I know both kinds and many others.
But the Russian people do something really interesting: They listen to me when I talk about life in America and what it is really like. They are often dismayed by the news coverage that is issued in Russia about America, and most of what is disseminated is not really propaganda, or at least not very well-done propaganda, and most Russians do not trust their networks anyway. All that Soviet time left a mark on them about that. So, they often ask me, “Seraphim, (or Aaron), is such-and-such true? We see the reports on the news about XYZ. Is that real?” and I answer them, and they are satisfied with the answer.
By contrast, many Americans refuse to listen. WE often try tell others what their reality is, whether or not it is true (example: “You are Russian, therefore, you are a Communist!!”), but we do not listen to their response. It is too inconvenient to have our worldview challenged by real testimony.
For example, Rush Limbaugh is of the the opinion that Russia still is the Soviet Union and always will be. Now, I truly love Rush, and I am a big fan of his. But he is wrong in this assessment. I have written to him to tell him so, but it is important for part of his worldview not to budge on that.
The notion of Russia “interfering” or “meddling” in American affairs is no different intrinsically than the presence of the Voice of America broadcasting in Russia now, or in the Soviet Union during its time. However, in the Internet age, Russia’s success and effecting change in the US is probably much poorer than VOA might have been during the Cold War.
I can speak directly to this from experience. I worked indirectly for the Kremlin for a period of time, because I wrote news for the Federal News Service here for a website called “USA Really?” This was a fascinating project. The FNS was trying to create an American news-only website for complete freedom of expression of ideas and issues, politics from all points in the ideological spectrum, and no news about Russia was the standing order for a period of time. All pieces needed to be about American issues. None of it was to be fake news. They also paid very well for these newspieces.
There seemed to be pretty solid responses and there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for the newspieces. However, without explanation (typical around here!) the project’s use of real American writers and staff was stopped. They still owe me money!!
The FNS still operates USA Really?, but now it only features news written by Russian writers (very easy to see from the poor quality of English), and the newspieces are complete garbage. The English is so woefully poor that a fifth-grade reader would know something was way off with it. This leads to an original thought, perhaps:
As far as propaganda goes, Russia now is really, really bad at it.
They had no effect on our election, and I doubt that anyone here even really put much effort into trying to mess with it. So I believe that the whole Russia narrative is fake news. It is just American liberals not wanting to take responsibility for the fact that they lost their grip on a large group of the American population, who went and voted for Trump.
The Russia narrative is itself fake news, but the resulting sanctions leveled against this country are real, very painful and frustrating. The narrative is baffling to the Russian people because they know they are not hostile to America, yet the American government just keeps lowering the boom for any number of arbitrary reasons. The hope that many Russians felt that Donald Trump would end this have been pretty much dashed. They still like him better than Obama and Hillary Clinton, but only on the basis of his not being these other two. They do not believe he has the strength to overcome the resistance in his own “workplace” enough to do any good.
I think this is a fair assessment and it is sad to see my beloved country, the United States of America, involved in doing bad things to Russia for no proven reason. I mean REALLY proven, not just echo chamber innuendo passed off as proof.
But, of course, when this comment goes public as a newspiece, which I expect it will, it will be flagged as fake news and Pro-Russia Propaganda.
But you, Dear Reader, ought to be able to think about this for yourself and make up your own mind. If I thought the Russians were with hostile intent towards my country or its people I would not be here. I love the United States. It is my homeland. I also love Russia, and it has also become my home. I interact with a great many Russian people, some of them in roles that touch the inner circles of the nation’s government. They are wonderful people and have given not even the slightest hint that they want any bad blood with the US. They just sigh and say, “well, we have a plan, but we do not know what the Americans will do, so…” and then they go on with life the best they can.
Imagine how it would be were it true that we worked together as the brother nations we could, were once, and ought to be again.