We are the propagandists: The real story about how The New York Times and the White House has turned truth in the Ukraine on its head

A sophisticated game of manipulation is afoot over Russia: power, influence and money. U.S. hands are not clean

Published June 3, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark Lennihan/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Mark Lennihan/Photo montage by Salon)

A couple of weeks ago, this column guardedly suggested that John Kerry’s day-long talks in Sochi with Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, looked like a break in the clouds on numerous questions, primarily the Ukraine crisis. I saw no evidence that President Obama’s secretary of state had suddenly developed a sensible, post-imperium foreign strategy consonant with a new era. It was force of circumstance. It was the 21st century doing its work.

This work will get done, cleanly and peaceably or otherwise.

Sochi, an unexpected development, suggested the prospect of cleanliness and peace. But events since suggest that otherwise is more likely to prove the case. It is hard to say because it is hard to see, but our policy cliques may be gradually wading into very deep water in Ukraine.

Ever since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, reality itself has come to seem up for grabs. Karl Rove, a diabolically competent political infighter but of no discernible intellectual weight, may have been prescient when he told us to forget our pedestrian notions of reality—real live reality. Empires create their own, he said, and we’re an empire now.

The Ukraine crisis reminds us that the pathology is not limited to the peculiar dreamers who made policy during the Bush II administration, whose idea of reality was idealist beyond all logic. It is a late-imperial phenomenon that extends across the board. “Unprecedented” is considered a dangerous word in journalism, but it may describe the Obama administration’s furious efforts to manufacture a Ukraine narrative and our media’s incessant reproduction of all its fallacies.

At this point it is only sensible to turn everything that is said or shown in our media upside down and consider it a second time. Who could want to live in a world this much like Orwell’s or Huxley’s—the one obliterating reality by destroying language, the other by making historical reference a transgression?

Language and history: As argued several times in this space, these are the weapons we are not supposed to have.

Ukraine now gives us two fearsome examples of what I mean by inverted reason.

One, it has been raining reports of Russia’s renewed military presence in eastern Ukraine lately. One puts them down and asks, What does Washington have on the story board now, an escalation of American military involvement? A covert op? Let us watch.

Two, we hear ever-shriller charges that Moscow has mounted a dangerous, security-threatening propaganda campaign to destroy the truth—our truth, we can say. It is nothing short of “the weaponization of information,” we are provocatively warned. Let us be on notice: Our truth and our air are now as polluted with propaganda as during the Cold War decades, and the only apparent plan is to make it worse.

O.K., let us do what sorting can be done.

Charges that Russia is variously amassing troops and materiel on its border with Ukraine or sending same across said border are nothing new. They are what General Breedlove, the strange-as-Strangelove NATO commander, gets paid to put out. These can be ignored, as most Europeans do.

But in April a new round of the escalation charges began. Michael Gordon, the New York Times’ reliably obliging State Department correspondent, reported in a story with a single named source that Russia was adding soldiers and air defense systems along its border.

The sources for this were Marie Harf, one of State’s spokespeople, and the standard variety of unnamed officials and analysts. Here is how it begins:

In a sign that the tense crisis in Ukraine could soon escalate, Russia has continued to deploy air defense systems in eastern Ukraine and has built up its forces near the border, American officials said on Wednesday.

Western officials are not sure if the military moves are preparations for a new Russian-backed offensive that would be intended to help the separatists seize additional territory.

“Could,” “has continued,” “not sure,” “would be.” And this was the lead, where the strongest stuff goes.

Scrape away the innuendo, and what you are reading in this piece is a whole lot of nothing. The second paragraph, stating what officials are not sure of, was a necessary contortion to get in the phrase “new Russian-backed offensive,” which was the point of the piece. As journalism, this is so bad it belongs in a specimen jar.

Context, the stuff this kind of reporting does its best to keep from readers:

By mid-April, Washington was still at work trying to subvert the Minsk II ceasefire, an anti-Russian assassination campaign was under way in Kiev and the Poroshenko government, whether or not it approved of the campaign, was proving unable, unwilling or both to implement any of the constitutional revisions to which Minsk II committed it.

A week before the April 22 report, 300 troops from the 173rd Airborne had arrived to begin training the Ukrainian national guard. The Times piece acknowledged this for the simple reason it was the elephant in the living room, but by heavy-handed implication it dismissed any thought of causality.

Given the context, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Moscow may have put air defense systems in place. And I am not at all sure what is so worrisome about them. Maybe it is the same reasoning Benjamin Netanyahu applied when Russia recently agreed to supply Iran with air defense technology: It will make it harder for us to attack them, the dangerous Israeli complained.

Neither am I sure what is so worrisome about Russians training eastern Ukrainian partisans—another charge Harf leveled—if it is supposed to be a mystery why American trainers at the other end of the country prompt alarm in Moscow.

Onward from April 22 the new theme flowed. On May 17 Kiev claimed that it had captured two uniformed Russian soldiers operating inside Ukraine. On May 21 came reports that European monitors had interviewed the two under unstated conditions and had ascertained they were indeed active-duty infantry. This gave “some credence” to Kiev’s claim, the Times noted, although at this point some is far short of enough when Kiev makes these kinds of assertions.

On May 30—drum roll, please—came the absolute coup de grâce. The Atlantic Council, one of the Washington think tanks—its shtick seems to be some stripe of housebroken neoliberalism—published a report purporting to show that, in the Times’ language, “Russia is continuing to defy the West by conducting protracted military operations inside Ukraine.”

Read the report here. It’s first sentence: “Russia is at war with Ukraine.”

“Continuing to defy?” “At war with Ukraine?” If you refuse to accept the long, documented record of Moscow’s efforts to work toward a negotiated settlement with Europe—and around defiant Americans—and if you call the Ukraine conflict other than a civil war, well, someone is creating your reality for you.

Details. The Times described “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine” as “an independent report.” I imagine Gordon—he seems to do all the blurry stuff these days—had a straight face when he wrote three paragraphs later that John Herbst, one of the Atlantic Council’s authors, is a former ambassador to Ukraine.

I do not know what kind of a face Gordon wore when he reported later on that the Atlantic Council paper rests on research done by Bellingcat.com, “an investigative website.” Or when he let Herbst get away with calling Bellingcat, which appears to operate from a third-floor office in Leicester, a city in the English Midlands, “independent researchers.”

I wonder, honestly, if correspondents look sad when they write such things—sad their work has come to this.

One, Bellingcat did its work using Google, YouTube and other readily available social media technologies, and this we are supposed to think is the cleverest thing under the sun. Are you kidding?

Manipulating social media “evidence” has been a parlor game in Kiev; Washington; Langley, Virginia, and at NATO since the Ukraine crisis broke open. Look at the graphics included in the presentation. I do not think technical expertise is required to see that these images prove what all others offered as evidence since last year prove: nothing. It looks like the usual hocus-pocus.

Two, examine the Bellingcat web site and try to figure out who runs it. I tried the about page and it was blank. The site consists of badly supported anti-Russian “reports”—no “investigation” aimed in any other direction.

I look at this stuff now and think, Well, there may be activity on Russia’s borders or inside Ukraine, but maybe not. Those two soldiers may be Russian and may be on active duty, but I cannot draw any conclusion.

I do not appreciate having to think this way—not as a reader and not as a former newsman. I do not like reading Times editorials, such as Tuesday’s, which institutionalizes “Putin’s war” and other such tropes, and having to say, Our most powerful newspaper is into the created reality game.

A few things can be made clear in all this. Straight off the top it is almost certain, despite a logical wariness of presented evidence, that Russia has personnel and weapons deployed along its border and in Ukraine.

I greatly hope so, and whether they are on duty or otherwise interests me not at all.

First of all, it is a highly restrained approach to a geopolitical circumstance that Moscow recognizes as dangerous, Washington does not seem to and Kiev emphatically does not. In reversed circumstances, a troubled nation would have long back turned into an open conflict between two nuclear powers. Fig leafs have their place.

I have written before on the question of spheres of influence: They are to be observed if not honored. Stephen Cohen, the Russianist scholar, prefers “spheres of security,” and the phrase makes the point plainly. Russia cannot be expected to abandon its interests as Cohen defines them, and considering what is at issue for Moscow, the response is intelligently measured.

Equally, Moscow appears to recognize that without any equilibrium between the Russian-tilted east and the Western-tilted west, Ukraine will be a bloodbath. Irresponsible as it has proven, and with little or no control over armed extreme rightist factions, Kiev cannot be allowed even an attempt to resolve this crisis militarily.

One has to consider how these things are conventionally done. I had a cousin who piloted helicopters in Vietnam long ago. When we spread the conflict to Laos and Cambodia he flew in blue jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and without dog tags. “If you go down, we don’t know you,” was the O.D.

A directly germane case is Angola in the mid-1970s. When the Portuguese were forced to flee the old colony, the CIA began supplying right-wing opportunists in the north and south with weapons, money, and agency personnel. Only in response did Cuba send troops that quickly proved decisive. I remember well all the howls of “aggression”—all of them hypocritical rubbish: American efforts to subvert the movement that still governs Angola peaceably continued for a dozen more years.

The Times editorial just noted is headlined, “Vladimir Putin Hides the Truth.” This is upside-down-ism at its very worst.

It is not easy to put accounts of the Ukraine crisis side by side to compare them. Think of two bottles of unlabeled wine in a blind taste test. Now read on.

I do not see how there can be any question that Moscow’s take on Ukraine and the larger East-West confrontation is the more coherent. Read or listen to Putin’s speeches, notably that delivered at the Valdai Discussion Club, a Davos variant, in Sochi last October. It is historically informed, with a grasp of interests (common and opposing), the nature of the 21st century environment and how best outcomes are to be achieved in it.

Altogether, Moscow offers a vastly more sophisticated, coherent accounting of the Ukraine crisis than any American official has or ever will. This is for one simple reason: Neither Putin nor Lavrov bears the burden American officials do of having to sell people mythical renderings of how the world works or their place in it.

Russia’s interests are clear and can be stated clearly, to put the point another way. America’s—the expansion of opportunity for capital and the projection of power—must always remain shrouded.

The question of plausibility is a serious imbalance, critical in its implications. In my view it accounts for that probably unprecedented propaganda effort noted earlier. It has ensued apace since Andrew Lack, named in January as America’s first chief propaganda officer (CEO of the new Broadcasting Board of Governors), instantly declared information a field of battle. A war of the worldviews, we may call it.

This war grows feverish as we speak. In the current edition of The Nation, a journalist named James Carden publishes a remarkable piece detailing the extremes now approached. I rank it a must read, and you can find it here.

Carden’s piece is called “The New McCarthyism,” and any reader having a look will know well enough why our drift back toward the paranoid style of the 1950s is something we all ought to guard against. A great deal of this column would be banned as “disinformation.” Whatever your stripe, I urge you to recognize this as serious.

The focus here is on a report called “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money.” It is written by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss. It is published by an Internet magazine called The Intepreter, as a special report sponsored by the Institute for Modern Russia.

Credential problems galore. Weiss is an “expert” on flavors of the month, a main-chancer who sat at the late Christopher Hitchens’ feet and inhabited a think tank in London before taking the editor’s chair at The Interpreter. Pomersantsev was a TV producer in the most decadent corners of the Russian media circus, wheeling against it all only when he lost out. Now he is a darling of our media, naturally.

Both, most important, seem to carry water for Michail Khodorkovsky, the oligarchic crook whom Western media, from the Times on down, now lionize as a democrat because he and Putin are enemies. Khodorkovsky funds the Institute for Modern Russia, based in New York. The IMR, in turn, funds The Interpreter.

Got the fix? Ready to take this report seriously, are we?

Astonishingly enough, a lot of people are. As Carden reports, Weiss and Pomerantsev cut considerable mustard among the many members of Congress nursing the new Russophobia. Anne Applebaum, the prominent paranoid on all questions Russian; and Geoffrey Pyatt, Obama’s coup-cultivating ambassador in Kiev: Many weighty figures stand with these guys.

Carden lays out his thesis expertly. Putin’s weaponization of news makes him more dangerous than any communist ever was, “The Menace of Unreality” asserts, and he must be countered. How? With “an internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation.”

“Media organizations that practice conscious deception should be excluded from the community,” Weiss and Pomerantsev write—the community being those of approved thought.

No, Carden is not kidding.

It may seem odd, but I credit Weiss and Pomerantsev with one insight. The infection of ideology now debilitates us. Blindness spreads and has to be treated. But there agreement ends, as I consider their report to be among the more extreme cases of the disease so far to show itself.

You can follow the internal logic, but I would not spend too much time on it because there is none once you exit their bubble. There is only one truth, the argument runs, and it just so happens it is exactly what we think. There is no other way to see things. All is TINA, “there is no alternative.”

It would be easy to dismiss Weiss and Pomerantsev as supercilious hacks, and I do. But not the stance. They say too clumsily and bluntly what is actually the prevalent intellectual frame, a key aspect of the neoliberal stance. TINA, the argument Thatcher made famous, applies to all things.

To say “The Menace of Unreality” advocates a kind of intellectual protectionism is not strong enough. Their idea comes to the control of information, which is to say the control of the truth. And if you can think of a more efficient way to define the production of propaganda, use the comment box.

Fighting alleged propaganda with propaganda: This is upside down for you. It is what we get when people make up reality for us.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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