For President Trump, negative news coverage must be the handiwork of partisan enemies.
Ironically, the intelligence agencies took much the same approach when they assessed Russian interference in the election. Though it got much less attention than the analysis of hacking, the report released on January 6 includes a lengthy discussion of the Kremlin-funded TV network RT. No less than Trump’s diatribes about “the dishonest media,” the agencies’ examination of RT serves to remind us that media criticism isn’t a job for the federal government.
According to the intelligence report, RT played a key role in the Russian campaign to undermine the 2016 election. Its “consistently negative” coverage of Hillary Clinton “focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism.” RT also lionized WikiLeaks and gave Julian Assange “a platform to denounce the United States.” (The report makes no mention of the network’s promo, set in 2035, featuring Edward Snowden as U.S. president.) Further, RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets.”
If 2016 RT sounds like Fox News, 2012 RT turns out to be Mother Jones, according to an appendix to the intelligence report. During the Obama-Romney campaign, the network painted the United States as a land of police brutality, oppressive surveillance, corporate greed, and a bogus two-party system. It harped on “alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties,” lauded the Occupy movement, and warned of the environmental hazards of fracking.
All of this matters, the intelligence report says, because RT “has positioned itself as a domestic U.S. channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian government.” (The effort seems to be a flop. I have yet to see an article about RT that doesn’t lead off with the Kremlin connection. The intelligence report itself later quotes RT editor Margarita Simonyan as saying that “RT receives budget from the state.”) The report includes bar graphs showing that RT has a lot of Facebook likes and Twitter followers. We’re also told that the network “requires its hosts to have social media accounts.” What we don’t learn—the intelligence agencies say it’s beyond their mandate—is whether RT has enough of an American audience to affect public opinion, or whether it’s a Potemkin Village.
Ultimately, the intelligence report amounts to this: the federal government is accusing a media organization of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Imagine President Trump making such a charge against American journalists.
Outlets financed by foreign governments stand apart, of course, but in times of trouble, that line can get blurred. History shows that the weapons used against an RT can get turned against mainstream American media.
In the 1940s, the Justice Department didn’t prosecute just Tokyo Rose, the woman who did English language propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese. It also prosecuted the managers of the U.S. bureau of Berlin-based Transocean News Service in 1941, and then in 1942 went after the anti-Semitic founder of the Silver Shirts, William Dudley Pelley, for his pronouncements in The Galilean. In both cases, federal prosecutors relied on an expert witness, the pioneering communications scholar Harold D. Lasswell, who traced thematic similarities between Transocean/Galilean content and Axis propaganda. The Seventh Circuit gave its blessing to this “scientific research.” Other prosecutions followed. The Roosevelt administration also banned Father Charles Coughlin’s Social Justice from the mails on the ground of its “striking similarity” to Axis propaganda.
Alongside fringe outlets run by foreigners and anti-Semites, the administration targeted the newspaper with the second largest circulation in the country, Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s anti-FDR Chicago Tribune. Once again, Lasswell’s team detected an “identity of thinking.” Both Axis and Tribune charged that communists ran the U.S. government, that the President was corrupt, and that the administration was bungling the war effort. “Whether this is deliberately contrived by seditious elements,” the analysts said, “or is the honest view of patriotic but blind Americans is of minor importance; the result is the same.” (After studying the evidence, officials at the Justice Department declined to prosecute.)
With its chilling effect on speech, “identity of thinking” is a particularly nasty form of guilt by association. Redbaiters of the 1950s loved their purported transitive property of communism: You say segregation is wrong; communists say segregation is wrong; therefore, you are a communist. Or, as Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague put it earlier, in 1938, “We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and a free press. Every time I hear these words I say to myself, ‘that man is a Red, that man is a communist.’ You never heard a real American talk in that manner.”
If “identity of thinking” became the test now, you might need to think twice before characterizing Trump as reckless, or ascribing his election to ignorant voters, or predicting that his anti-Islam rhetoric will help ISIS recruit. According to the International Business Times, ISIS supporters expressed all those views after the election.
“Identity of thinking” can’t substitute for testing the truthfulness of statements. In contending that RT coverage advances the interests of the Russian government, the intelligence report says almost nothing about RT’s accuracy--even when debunking would seem easy, as in the case of RT videos titled “Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money” and “How 100% of the Clintons’ ‘Charity’ Went to … Themselves.” Likewise, the agencies make no effort to evaluate RT’s anti-fracking coverage. They simply say it benefits Gazprom. Does RT misrepresent fracking? You won’t find the answer here.
When RT says that President Obama leaves behind a “vast, unaccountable permanent warfare state,” or that levels of economic inequality in the West are “obscene,” or that Trump “terrifies European leaders,” it’s worth asking if it might be Russian disinformation. But it’s also worth asking if it might be true. Distrust but verify.
In 1945, George Orwell noted the liberal prohibition in England against criticizing the Soviet Union: “What you said might possibly be true, but it was ‘inopportune’ and ‘played into the hands of’ this or that reactionary interest.” The intelligence report likewise tells us who benefits but not who’s right. What replaces truth in a post-truth age? The answer shouldn’t be “Cui bono.”
With the power to persecute and prosecute journalists, the American government is a dangerous media critic. Judging by the report on RT, it’s also a lousy one.