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Russiangate in NYT is the greatest tragic comedy of modern journalism

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Russiangate in NYT is the greatest tragic comedy of modern journalism

Matt Bivens, MD

In its Russiagate coverage, The New York Times has repeatedly offered a graphic accusing the President’s retinue of “more than 100 contacts with Russian nationals.” This decision to question the loyalty of people who have had contact with a Russian national — so, for just knowing or meeting a Russian — has been a staple of New York Times coverage.

“More than 100 contacts with Russian nationals.” It’s incredible that this can even be an allegation — in our paper of record — there in explainer graphics almost every day, for more than two years now.

It smacks of the famous Senator Joseph McCarthy speeches in the 1950s: “I have in my hand a list of 205 [or 57, or 81]…”

And yet no one ever seemed to mind.

After all, as former intelligence chief (and liar to Congress) James Clapper has asserted on television, “Russians are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor.” Worse, I may have already been co-opted and penetrated without even knowing it! As Clapper said recently on CNN when asked if Trump could be “a Russian asset,” it is “a possibility, and I would add to that a caveat, whether witting or unwitting.”

Unwitting!

So you can be an unwitting traitor?

Infected with Russian mind-control, like a zombie?

Yes. As mainstream media have argued repeatedly and quite explicitly.

Consider the stunning set of short films on The New York Times op-ed webpages titled “Operation Infektion: How Russia Perfected the Art of War”.

Over a sinister animation of black and white human cells being penetrated by bright red virus particles, the narration begins: “The thing about a virus is it doesn’t destroy you head-on. Instead, it brings you down — from the inside. Turning your own cells into enemies.”

This incredible film is well worth watching to see how ill our body politic has become. As the red virus invades cell after cell, the narration goes on: “This story is about a virus — a virus created five decades ago by a government, to slowly and methodically poison its enemies. But it’s not a biological virus, it’s more like a political one. And chances are, you’ve already been infected.”

Animation cuts abruptly to Donald Trump.

The evil genius behind this virus? The Leonid Brezhnev-era KGB. (Really! I’m not making this up!)

“If you feel like you don’t know who to trust anymore, this might be the thing that’s making you feel that way,” the narrator says, as the animation shows more and more black and white cells hopelessly succumbing to the red virus — reds spreading everywhere, bringing us down from within, as it were. “If you feel exhausted by the news, this could be why. And if you’re sick of it all and you just want to stop caring, then we really need to talk.”

Animation cuts to a human eye, now filled like a zombie’s with infected red sclera.

Amazing. I thought I was exhausted by the news and sick of it all because the journalists have all become exhausting and sickening; because whenever I turn on NPR or open up The New York Times, I feel like Jennifer Connelly in “A Beautiful Mind” when she walks into the garage and discovers it’s a shrine to paranoid schizophrenia, and realizes with horror that Russell Crowe’s back home with the baby about to give it a bath.

But no. “Chances are,” I’m already infected by a KGB virus. Cut to face of Donald Trump.

Makes sense. After all, I have personally had “more than 100 contacts with Russian nationals.” I guess I better turn myself in. (For anti-viral treatments? Re-education? A struggle session?)

A Tragedy of Journalism

I lived and worked in Russia for a decade. Married a beautiful Ukrainian girl from St. Petersburg. We had two beautiful daughters, who have a foot in both Russia and America, speak both languages, and have grandparents in both countries. In St. Petersburg, where I worked as a newspaper reporter and later editor of the city’s English-language paper, The St. Petersburg Times, I often bumped into then-Deputy Mayor Vladimir Putin. (I literally once joined other journalists in booing when Deputy Mayor Putin apologetically appeared instead of his boss the mayor: “Not this guy again! Boo!”)

Later I covered the war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times; broke the story of the K-19 nuclear submarine disaster that became a Hollywood blockbuster film starring Harrison Ford; and edited The Moscow Times, a daily that during my years of association was a thorn in the side of both the Yeltsin and Putin regimes. Particularly as a newspaper editor moving in Moscow political circles, I came to know wonderful people like Anna Politkovskaya (who wrote opinion pieces for me), Galina Staravoitova and Boris Nemtsov — all of them murdered, clearly for their political and/or journalistic activity.

And then — ready for a change — I left journalism, to become an emergency room doctor. Now, instead of traveling the world in search of excitement, I have exciting things brought to me.

But you don’t just throw away half a lifetime of professional experience. I’ve kept in touch with old friends and I’ve keenly followed events in both America and Russia. Mostly I’ve been content to stay on the sidelines. But that’s been getting harder and harder.

I was not surprised to see politicians up on their hind legs, panting mindlessly about Russians. But to see journalists at CNN, The New York Times, NPR, MSNBC, competing to be even dumber … hot on the trail of a non-story, recklessly discarding fairness and professionalism … dragging us gleefully down every rabbit hole … applauding the collateral damage to bystanders, as they indulge their collective rage against Donald Trump, their hysterical certainty that he must be a Russian asset … What can I say? It’s been heart-breaking.

I know of smart, progressive-leaning journalists who politically oppose Donald Trump, but who feel like strangers in their own newsrooms, afraid to speak out against this mob psychosis. When I meet old colleagues, we have to feel each other out cautiously, until with relief we realize: Thank God, you’re not one of them — not one of the pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that might point at me and scream.

I would hear their tales of the lunacy in their journalistic operations, shake my head in concern, wish them the best. And then I’d go back to my job in the emergency department, taking care of people with heart attacks and strokes and broken bones.

Watching from afar, I would cheer on those few brave enough to ask questions — people like Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Aaron Maté of The Real NewsJohn Solomon of The HillMasha Gessen at The New York Review of Books, and my old friends Leonid Bershidsky at Bloomberg and especially Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. And I would wait for the madness to end. But it didn’t.

And then Stephen Cohen of The Nation, another voice of reason, sent me a copy of his book, “War With Russia?” It’s a collection of his heretical writings about our new, unnecessary Cold War, and the opening essay, adapted from a talk he gave in Washington D.C., made me ashamed of my silence.

“Some people who privately share our concerns — again, in Congress, the media, universities and think tanks — do not speak out at all. For whatever reason — concern about being stigmatized, about their career, personal disposition — they are silent. But in our democracy, where the cost of dissent is relatively low, silence is no longer a patriotic option,” Cohen wrote, adding, “We should exempt from this imperative young people, who have more to lose. A few have sought my guidance, and I always advise, ‘Even petty penalties for dissent in regard to Russia could adversely affect your career. At this stage of life, your first obligation is to your family and thus to your future prospects. Your time to fight lies ahead’.”

Well, what was my excuse?

Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller has now turned in his findings, and there’s not much there. For weeks beforehand, mainstream media warned about this — exhorting readers against succumbing to feeling “disappointed”.

Disappointed? I guess, as my friend Taibbi has noted, it would have been an immense relief had the U.S. president been found to be a high-level traitor. We could have all brought picnic lunches to his execution.

Right before the species-ending war with Russia.

In their fanatic loyalty to the narrative, what used to be my favorite media have stridently reminded us that, Mueller aside, “it’s not over!” The “focus of the investigation” will move now to the New York prosecutors, to House committees. The American intelligentsia will continue to dream up wild theories — they’ll be Scotch-taped on every vertical surface, connected by bits of yarn and magic marker scribbles and hyperverbal mania.

The question now is, has the Mueller report finally freed up the rest of us to challenge the more insane flights of fantasy? Or is it instead so close to the 2020 presidential elections — and so legally dangerous for some of the intelligence insiders who have tried to bring down the president — that skeptical journalists more than ever will be bullied to keep silent?

Rootless Whataboutism

As a test case — a first step on the road to journalistic recovery — can I suggest we at least retire the insane, Orwellian term “whataboutism?”

Whataboutism really deserves consideration as a “Word of the Year”, and not in a good way. There have been multiple non-ironic media reports about this odious concept, on NPR, in the Huffington Post, in The Washington Post, you name it.

“His campaign may or may not have conspired with Moscow,” The Washington Post told us awhile back, “but President Trump has routinely employed a durable old Soviet propaganda tactic … ‘whataboutism,’ the practice of short-circuiting an argument by asserting moral equivalency between two things that aren’t necessarily comparable.”

NPR’s version also claims that whataboutism is a Soviet-tainted practice. “It’s not exactly a complicated tactic — any grade-schooler can master the ‘yeah-well-you-suck-too-so-there’ defense,” NPR says. “But it came to be associated with the USSR because of the Soviet Union’s heavy reliance upon whataboutism throughout the Cold War and afterward, as Russia.”

Yet in my experience, it’s not so much a Soviet tactic as an American one — specifically, it’s a way of demanding a loyalty oath to the anti-Trump resistance.

I have occasionally dared express skepticism about the entire overblown story that Russia was involved in our 2016 elections at all. That’s right. I don’t buy it. I am not entirely convinced that “Russian bots and trolls” infected anyone’s mind by, say, taking positions both for and against gun control after the Parkland high school mass shooting, or by setting up anti-masturbation hotlines, or by giving bad reviews to “Star Wars: the Last Jedi.”

I am also not entirely convinced that the Russians, having supposedly decided at the highest levels of their government to try to sink Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, couldn’t think of anything more clever than to spear-phish campaign manager John Podesta’s G-mail.

Nor do I share the concerns of The Times of London that the Russian animated cartoon “Masha and the Bear” is part of a soft propaganda drive to weaken the minds of Estonian children ahead of their eventual annexation by Red Army tanks.

Yet before I can even offer any subtler qualification of all this — sure, there is Russian-government, let’s say, “illicit computer and social media activity” out there, mixed with a lot of other noise signals (click-bait farms, which explains at least some of the infamous Internet Research Agency’s activities; ordinary Russians with pro-Kremlin positions and personal Facebook accounts; and yes, people sitting on their beds who weigh 400 pounds), but it has to be weighed against — I’ll be cut off.

“That’s whataboutism,” I’ve been told flatly.

It’s actually not — that doesn’t even meet the absurd quasi-official definitions of this new Kafkaesque term — but that’s the whole point. Disagreement is by its very nature whataboutist. Every skeptical question, after all, could technically begin, “But what about …?”

Of course, it’s far, far worse if I truly commit a whataboutism and — God forbid! God forbid!– I express curiosity about The New York Times reporting about millions flowing to the Clintons and associated with the Russian purchase of American uranium mines.

Whataboutism! It’s so comparable to the old Soviet thought crimes — Trotskyite, wrecker, cosmopolitan, rootless cosmopolitanism … Every time I hear someone flag a statement as guilty of whataboutism, I mentally add “rootless whataboutism.”

People tell me Mueller missed the point. It’s about Russian oligarch and Kremlin money, invested in Trump real estate — it’s not over! All hail the Southern District prosecutors! OK, let’s see it, I’m open to that possibility. But if all Russian money is tainted just because it’s “oligarchical” — good luck defining that! — then is it O.K. for the spouse of then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to take $500,000 for a single hour’s work, a speech in Moscow, for one of the most famous “oligarch” banks?

“That’s whataboutism! NPR and The Washington Post say that’s a Soviet-favored tactic! Your loyalty is thus suspect two-fold. Have you had contact with any Russian nationals?”

Communists and Crickets

“EVIDENCE POINTS TO RUSSIA AS MAIN SUSPECT IN BRAIN INJURY ATTACKS ON DOZENS OF U.S. DIPLOMATS” was the report by MSNBC in September 2017, and they flogged that big scoop for months, and have never really apologized for it.

Two dozen American diplomats in Cuba suffered headaches, dizziness and other vague symptoms they blamed on strange sounds — sounds some of them tape-recorded and supplied to journalists, doctors and the government. “It sounds sort of like a mass of crickets,” was the opening line of the Associated Press report about the recordings (which you can listen to yourself here).

But no. Not crickets. As MSNBC reported, our intelligence services had intercepted Russian communications (!) revealing the sounds were “some kind of microwave weapon,” one so sophisticated that our top government minds were at a loss.

We might not know how it works, MSNBC reported, but we did know it was a weapon, and “now Russia is the leading suspect.”

“This is not an accident,” reported anchorwoman Andrea Mitchell then. “This is not a microwave listening device gone bad. This is an attack — against American diplomats and intelligence officers, and this was targeting.”

What an amazing allegation. The Russian government was beaming a mysterious, high-tech weapon at our citizens; we had intercepted communications that made this clear.

For more than a year, I and colleagues with Russia-reporting experience would be grilled about this, and would just have to shrug apologetically. We just didn’t know what to say. It didn’t make a lot of face-value sense — why exactly would Russian agents, amid all this rabid anti-Russia hysteria, beam a secret brain-frying weapon at two-dozen random American diplomats and their family members in Cuba, for weeks apparently? What would be the logic behind giving these random-seeming people headaches and making them dizzy and even causing “brain injuries similar to concussions”?

As a physician, I also shared the skepticism of colleagues published about this in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Playing odds, I agreed with those critics that I would have assumed either a mass psychogenic illness or a viral infection more likely etiologies than a secret Siberian death ray. I also read “brain injuries similar to concussions” as, “brain injuries that don’t show up on objective testing.” (Of course, I’ve not examined any of these patients or reviewed their cases so it’s not for me to say.)

But in our fevered Russophobic environment, no one wanted to entertain alternative scenarios — after all, we don’t even understand this sophisticated weapon, which our intelligence agencies assure us (anonymously) they have intercepted Russian communications bragging about, so how dare we debate the logic behind its use? (Maybe this is how they control the president!)

Then three months ago, American scientists published in a peer-review journal their analysis of the dastardly recordings and identified the sounds: Crickets. Caribbean crickets.

Specifically, the echoing call of the male, short-tailed indies. During mating season.

But did MSNBC apologize, or retract?

Crickets.

Instead, during a historically cold week this winter, MSNBC star Rachel Maddow used the excuse of a government panel about energy security to go on a Jack D. Ripper about Russia someday deciding to freeze middle America to death.

“It is like negative 50 degrees in the Dakotas right now. What would happen if Russia killed the power in Fargo today? What would happen if all the natural gas lines that service Sioux Falls just ‘poofed’, on the coldest day in recent memories, and it wasn’t in our power whether or not to turn them back on?” Maddow asked.“What would you do if you lost heat indefinitely — as the act of a foreign power! — on the same day the temperature in your front yard matched the temperature in Antarctica? I mean, what would you and your family do?”

Gee, I don’t know Rachel. What would my family and I do if Russia launched a nuclear weapon at my front yard? I guess we’d all die. I guess I don’t know who to trust anymore, I feel exhausted by the news, sick of it all, I just want to stop caring, and you seem to feel the same, and omigosh Rachel, we’ve been infected by the red virus!

‘They Hate our Freedoms’

James Comey, the former FBI director, testified before the Senate after his firing that the Russians are “coming after America,” because, “They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.”

Right. It’s because “they hate our freedoms.”

Where have I heard that before?

People had been waiting breathlessly for Mueller’s report, but in reality, everything we needed to know was right there in the first report — the January 6, 2017, grand announcement, the big reveal by our Intelligence Community — the consensus of CIA, FBI and NSA — “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.”

I remember finishing that report at the time and thinking: Holy Cow, they have nothing.

Nothing!

Of the 15 pages with any meat to them in that report, seven were a long, bizarre complaint about the existence and activities of RT (formerly RussiaToday), the Kremlin-sponsored English-language news channel.

Our intelligence agencies reported that RT has become “the most-watched foreign news channel in the UK,” had more YouTube viewers than the BBCor CNN, and was surpassing al-Jazeera in New York and Washington D.C. (Voice of America, which is the U.S. government version of RT, has no sense of humor or passion and so no viewers anywhere outside of Foggy Bottom.)

RT’s success was, per the intelligence report, thanks to a combination of lavish Kremlin funding and an alluring editorial slant. The intelligence report quoted RT’s editor as saying her station got lots of new viewers after offering sympathetic coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The intelligence report continued:

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of democracy” in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a “sham.” … RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a “surveillance state” and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use … RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse … RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health …

This was hilarious of course — a public snit by our intel communities about Russians racking up big numbers among American viewers in Washington and New York, just by offering mildly critical takes on drone killings and fracking and “alleged Wall Street greed” (“alleged”? Really?). We were promised a major assessment of any improper Russian influences on our 2016 electoral process and we got — this? A formal complaint that Russian TV gave Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein too much air time?

All this bitching and moaning about RT — which, remember, is not some secret plot, but just a public TV station you can go watch on YouTube or not watch — takes up well more than half of that grand intelligence community assessment. It really speaks volumes about what was on their minds. And again, my conclusion reading it two years ago was: So, they’ve got nothing.

The one caveat, though, was that there was a classified appendix. There’s always a classified appendix. So, who knew what was in that? After all, immediately and in the two years since, intelligence officials have occasionally been cited — always anonymously! — in The GuardianThe New Yorker, and The New York Times — as claiming to have intercepted communications between the Trump team and the Russian government.

Well, by now, we should realize the appendix is a myth.

First, we now know that at least part of it — and, I would guess, probably all of it — was nothing more than the Steele report, the infamous document first posted on BuzzFeed, that collection of anti-Trump opposition research paid for by the Hilary Clinton campaign. (You know — the pee tape stuff.)

And we now also know, courtesy of Robert Mueller’s report, that there are no “intercepted communications” between Russians and the Trump campaign teams. Just like there are no Russian intercepts about secret Siberian brain-frying rays in Cuba, because that, again, was the mating call of a short-tailed Caribbean cricket.

I don’t know what’s funnier about all of this — and it is damned funny, really — the fact that all of this has actually happened, or the fact that I feel the need to come out of journalistic retirement to help point it out.

A President With a Traitor’s Heart — for Six More Years

And that’s the way it is, and has been, all along for these past two years. There have been non-stop media allegations that, one way or another, our narcissistic, loud-mouthed, overtly racist U.S. president has a traitor’s heart. Any errors or inaccuracies — and there have been a shocking number of retracted “scoops,” as well as screwups like the Caribbean crickets that have just been ignored — are excused in service of this larger truth: Our president has a traitor’s heart.

But I already knew that! We all did!

We knew it the moment he said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — referencing some official e-mails of Hilary Clinton’s that were improperly handled and got deleted. (Among the onion layers of irony to this political season is that Trump pioneered the 21st century witch hunt. There has never been any evidence that Clinton’s deleted emails represent anything at all — yet Trump hammered away at this as if it mattered, until one day it did. And he didn’t even suggest investigations, he skipped straight to “lock her up!”).

Being racist, or stupid, or sexist, or a bully, or a New York real estate developer — all of these are deep character flaws. They are not always crimes. (Sexually assaulting someone is always a crime, however, even if you are a TV star and remember your breath mints.)

And yet, again, we already knew all of this. Remember this transcript from The New York Times?

Trump: I did try and fuck her. She was married … and I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.” I took her out furniture — I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. …

Trump: Yeah, that’s her [peeking out a trailer window at a different target, an approaching actress]. … I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Billy Bush [a fawning minor TV personality]: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

I share your pain. And I have no doubt he’d trade his own son for majority ownership of a moderately nice golf course. But I’m also, frankly, no longer very interested in him. I’m much more interested in us — the rest of us.

What happened to us?

Well, I’ll amend that slightly. I am of course quite interested in seeing Donald Trump leave office. I suspect, however, that these two-plus years of journalistic malpractice — a politically-motivated Red Scare at a time when we don’t even have any Reds anymore, just Russians — has locked in his second term. (What’s that? Impeachment you say? Oh please. He’d set up a government-in-exile in Mar-a-Lago and then he’d be around for twenty more years instead of six. And he’d have half the nation with him the entire time.) So thank you for that, MSNBC and NPR and New York Times.

USE Journal

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