War in the media age: Hysteria over Trump's supposed Russian ties made headlines, but the "story" is remarkably flimsy

A case study in how a co-opted press manufactures foreign policy consent

Published August 18, 2016 7:29PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/RIA Novosti/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/RIA Novosti/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)

From one week to the next, I note with mounting anxiety the media’s habit of using innuendo, loaded suggestion, assemblages of proximate facts, implication short of assertion and omission to avoid factual news reports. We, the reading and viewing public, are invited to draw conclusions about major events with ever-increasing degrees of uncertainty. Forget enlightenment. We grow endarkened.

Just as alarming are the numbers of us who are perfectly willing to take part in this pervasive ruse. Shrill conviction follows, and a dangerous undertow of fear, animus and belligerence follows.

There is nothing new in this. Americans have been easy marks for those practiced in the manipulation of crowds at least since newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst provided Theodore Roosevelt, then secretary of the Navy, with the righteous frenzy he needed to start the Spanish-American War. But things are far graver now. There is incalculably more at risk. This nation faces large, consequential decisions but insists on rendering itself ever less capable of making them.


That is what it comes to. Consider the distance, in numerous recent events, between what occurred, what we know, what we are told we know (less in each case) and what we are then duped into assuming. It is large. And it is consequential.

Three weeks ago we had the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s electronic mail: The Russians did it. Last week we were warned that Russia is amassing troops and matériel in Crimea in response to a Ukrainian incursion: What incursion? President Vladimir Putin must be planning an invasion of Ukraine.

Now we are treated to a Swiss-cheese review of Paul Manafort’s business dealings in Ukraine prior to the U.S.-cultivated coup in 2014: Trump’s campaign manager must be some kind of under-the-table agent working on behalf of Moscow and an assortment of Russian oligarchs. On Monday Trump gave a foreign policy address that was reckless once again.  Never mind that Trump’s thinking amounts to a reprise of Bush II’s — which was endorsed by the very newspapers now intent on “scaring hell out of the American people,” to borrow an infamous Cold War coinage.   

The press, with the, in my educated opinion, government-supervised New York Times conspicuously in the lead, builds sandcastles atop each of these events. Each is somewhere along the progression — no, regression — described in this space after the DNC’s mail hack: An unsubstantiated assertion with useful political implications is followed by intimations, then more adventurous insinuations. These devolve into a probability, then a belief. After more innuendo, the blur between truth and suggestion is sufficient to state the still-unverified assertion as simple fact.

Who is not complicit? Too many of us accept not-facts as facts, even as nothing has been established and little is actually known.


For the record:

  • While we still have no evidence about who hacked the DNC’s mail — and probably never will — all goes quiet, as you may have noticed. This is because the job is done: Nobody is talking about the committee’s corruption, and — high art — the Clintonians have managed to tie Trump to our reigning Russophobia.
  • Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, now distributes nickel-plated proof that extremist Ukrainian militias barely under Kiev’s control attempted (another) sabotage operation on the border with Crimea. The Germans saw it Monday; you never will. You are instead offered a rolling barrage of fact-free innuendo to explain Moscow’s decision to take defensive steps. Any kind of implausible skullduggery will do — and we must read Vladimir Putin’s name by the second sentence — to avoid the perfectly logical explanation of recent events.
  • Paul Manafort is nothing more than your standard mercenary who flacks for anybody. Such people have no politics. Yes, Manafort worked for the ousted Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine — and also for Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, Bush I and for Bob Dole. They surely served as Manafort’s references when Trump hired him. The Ukrainian regime that now alleges his complicity in corruption is more corrupt than Yanukovych’s. As to Kiev’s “evidence”—  the best it has is a scribbled page of numbers that does not even bear Manafort’s name. (The Times reproduced this Sunday, of course.)
  • Trump’s foreign policy speech was remarkably unremarkable. It promises a vigorous revival of Bush II’s “war on terror” and refines — if this is the word — his position on barring immigrants from “the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world.” So what? This is nothing more than a variant of what the U.S. is already doing as a matter of routine. All you have to do is not vote for it — without forgetting that Trump declares against the Pacific trade pact (persuasively, unlike Clinton) and is willing to work with Russia to resolve the Syria conflict (also unlike Clinton).

One more thought on all this: How dare the Times publish some of its worst-ever flimflam on every one of these developments, given its record of supine compliance with Bush II after the Sept. 11 events and its demonstrably dishonest coverage of Ukraine since the 2014 coup? In an astonishing confessional published on Page One last week, our friends on Eighth Avenue acknowledged that they are incapable of covering Trump with any objectivity. So much for the Times, one has to say. (Who drives the bus over there, I wondered when I read that piece. The copyboys?)

“The information age is actually a media age,” John Pilger, the noted Australian-British journalist, said in a late-2014 speech. “We have war by media, censorship by media, demonology by media, retribution by media — a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.”

Washington’s enemies du jour are the targets in this war. But so are we, readers. If the Vietnam War taught the policy cliques anything — a debatable proposition — it was that they cannot conduct foreign adventures in the interest of empire without domestic consensus. The media’s task devolves into nothing more than securing your consent by any means necessary. And the truth generally does not do it.

There are casualties, as there are in all wars. One is sound judgment on any given question. A short-term deflecting of attention from the DNC’s political chicanery, for instance, renders us less able to understand how cooperation with Russia is by far the wiser course. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia!” Trump exclaimed not long ago. That it would is perfectly obvious, but only to those few who do not partake of the Kool-Aid.   

The press is a casualty, too, but no tears here. Abjectly short of guts, members of our media long ago surrendered any notion of themselves as an independent pole of power in deference to political (and corporate) power. In the current context, I hope these people (and myself, too) are still around when — or if — the time comes to embarrass them for all the hyperbolic dishonesty they now indulge in.

The national conversation is poisoned to the point it is no longer a conversation and bears little relation to reality. We can neither hear nor think. This is what I mean when I assert we disarm ourselves in the face of tasks that will determine our success or demise in the 21st century. Never mind Trump: He is merely the flower of the American right’s 30-odd year revival.

We must all read or reread our Edward Bernays, given our predicament. Bernays, the diabolically cold-blooded flack who made collective mind control into his life’s work, was 30 years away from publishing “Manipulating Public Opinion” when Hearst got Americans hopped up for the war against Spain. High among Bernays’ many debased undertakings was his role in doing the same thing as the Dulles brothers got us all ready to topple the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954.

Bernays, the pioneer of public relations, invented the game as we have it. There are no rules in the game. There is no room for principle or detachment. Public space is turned into a littered chaos. Has it ever been more important that we know the game and how it's played so that we reject our positions on the game board in favor of salvaging our crippled democracy?

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at Patreon.com. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Crimea Dnc Email Hack Donald Trump Foreign Policy Paul Manafort Ukraine Vladimir Putin