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How the press fell for the Russiagate conspiracy theory

The media's anti-Trump bias led them to abandon basic journalistic principles.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics USA

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It seems the Columbia Journalism Review has irked the Washington media elite with its painstaking reconstruction of the press’s coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency. The CJR certainly paints a damning picture of the press’s behaviour.

The Press versus the president’, a four-part study by former New York Times journalist Jeff Gerth, shows how journalists’ antagonism towards Trump, and their obsession with the baseless ‘Russiagate’ conspiracy theory, resulted in warped, deeply partisan coverage.

The media’s widespread anti-Trump bias was evident even before he became president. Throughout the 2016 election and during his presidency, the media characterised Trump as a ‘de facto agent’ of Russian leader Vladimir Putin (Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg) and the ‘Siberian candidate’ (New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – referencing The Manchurian Candidate).

According to Gerth, the media attack lines against Trump were provided by the Democratic Party leadership. During the 2016 elections, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) commissioned and circulated a preposterous dossier from British spy Christopher Steele. It made several outrageous claims, including that Trump had been caught by the Russian secret services in a ‘kompromat’ trap with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel (because ‘compromised’ sounds even worse in Russian). According to the dossier, Trump had paid the prostitutes to urinate on a bed. The details of the allegations were circulated among journalists, but not initially published. The story captivated insiders, who were so childishly thrilled at the prospect of bringing down Trump with this obscene story that they did not stop to ask whether they were being played.

Later, Steele and his main source admitted under questioning that the details were uncorroborated. Most intelligence analysts thought that the claims were junk. But the damage was done. The perception that Trump was in Putin’s pocket was fixed in the imaginations of Democratic Party supporters. Even if Democrats did not believe the letter of the allegations, they willed themselves to believe that there must be some truth to them.

The claim of Russian collusion originated in July 2016, when the internet pirates at Wikileaks uploaded hundreds of thousands of emails stolen by alleged Russian hackers. These emails had been sent between members of the DNC in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention, which would decide the Democratic presidential candidate. These revelations were particularly damaging for the winner of the nomination, former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The leaked emails revealed that the DNC had favoured Clinton over left-wing challenger Bernie Sanders, and had attempted to undermine the Sanders campaign. In October 2016, further leaks of campaign chair John Podesta’s emails painted Hillary in an unpleasant light. She was portrayed as a friend of big business, who was paid millions in speakers’ fees to talk at meetings for Goldman Sachs and BlackRock.

The email leaks were devastating for the Democrats. They were doubly angered when Trump, in an interview in July 2016, said that if Putin was hacking computers, he could help everyone out by dropping the 30,000 missing emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s personal server. To Democrat insiders, this was the smoking gun of Republican Party collusion, a direct sign that Trump was asking for Russian help. To most other people, it was a joke.

As Gerth explains, with Trump cast as a puppet of Putin, the mainstream media chose to view the Republican victory over Hillary Clinton as the Democrats being robbed.

This is particularly evident in the way the press covered successive official investigations into Russian interference after Trump was elected – especially the investigation undertaken by special counsel Robert Mueller for the Department of Justice. The mainstream media covered the Mueller investigation as if it would inevitably find that Trump had colluded with the Russian secret service. But instead it found no evidence to support the collusion allegations.

Gerth points out that a number of radical journalists of the Obama and Bush eras – notably Matt Taibbi (of Rolling Stone, Aaron Maté (the Nation) and Glenn Greenwald (the Intercept) – were all so shocked at the way that the mainstream media repeated the Russiagate claims that they broke ranks, and consequently fell out with their publishers.

Most poignantly, Gerth argues that the partisan and otherworldly claims made against Trump backfired on the media as a whole. The baseless allegations undermined public trust in the press to the point where in 2021, 83 per cent of Americans thought that ‘fake news’ was a problem. And as of last year, the US media had a trust rating of only 26 per cent.

Since the Columbia Journalism Review published Gerth’s analysis in late January, there has been some pushback – notably from reporter David Corn, who was mentioned in the report. But for the most part, the titles that were singled out – the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – have not responded. Presumably, they think the issue will blow over.

David Corn’s response in Mother Jones insists that Gerth is not to be taken seriously if he does not understand that Trump colluded with Russian intelligence services. Corn dismisses the polling on trust in the media, too, saying that trust has been declining since 1978. He also claims that the recent decline is only ‘among Republicans’ – as if they don’t count.

Some commentators have pointed out that Gerth ignores the fifth volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference, released in the summer of 2020. The report does assert that people in the Trump election camp were open to engagement with Russian intelligence. But these critics of Gerth ignore the fact that the same report unambiguously rubbishes the claims in the Steele dossier, the main source of the Russiagate panic.

What Gerth gets right is that the mainstream liberal media willed themselves to believe these nonsensical claims. They really did believe that Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 was gifted to him by Russian interference in the elections, and that Trump was, in effect, an agent of Russian influence.

That these claims continue to be argued and asserted without any evidence shows a significant problem not just in the media, but also in the US political process. For most Democratic insiders, belief in the conspiracy theory that Russia has been shaping US politics has gone from rumour to claimed fact. Democratic hacks insist that the Russians are behind the Republican Party’s militant wing in the same way that right-wing conspiracy theorists believe that George Soros – or Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum – is responsible for every policy they do not like. White House insiders see a Russian hand in every setback in the same way that Europeans used to see a Jewish hand there.

In barely disguised projection, Democrats insist that their Republican opponents are in the grip of conspiracy theories and fake news. But Russiagate is a conspiracy theory. It is fake news.

To be clear, it was not the Russians who put Donald Trump in the White House – it was Americans. The Trump phenomenon is not a Russian import. It is as American as apple pie. The reason that Hillary Clinton did not get enough votes in the 2016 election was that too many Americans distrusted her – not Russians, but Americans.

The Russiagate conspiracy theory was so important to the Democratic leadership and its sympathisers in the mainstream press, because it explained away the Democrats’ defeat. Rather than confronting the problem that the Democratic administration was at odds with ordinary Americans, it could hide behind a magical fantasy that Vladimir Putin put Trump in the White House.

Gerth is right to say that one of the most damaging consequences of Russiagate has been to the press, which is now understandably treated with far greater scepticism. Just as bad is the fact that the press did not do its basic job of reporting on Trump’s policies and actions. Journalists of the mainstream media instead preferred to rail at a fantasy of their own creation. Pointedly, Trump’s active base of support has not been challenged in its core beliefs – but it has been confirmed in its perception that the press will say anything to keep its friends in power.

James Heartfield’s latest book is Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020, published by Anthem Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA

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