Cold War flashback: Media’s flawed coverage of the Trump-Russia story is not helping the left

CNN's terrible week was just the latest example of sloppy, hysterical Russia coverage that only feeds Trump

Published July 2, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Dmitry Serebryakov.Salon)
(Getty/Dmitry Serebryakov.Salon)

CNN did not have a great week.

First, the network had to retract a Russia-related story that linked Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund. The story, which turned out to contain serious inaccuracies, was published using one anonymous source. After the “massive, massive fuckup,” three reporters, including an executive editor, resigned. An internal investigation found that standard editorial practices had not been observed.

On the heels of that embarrassment, a video emerged of CNN producer John Bonifield calling the entire Trump-Russia story “mostly bullshit” and saying that CNN continues to give it so much coverage “because of ratings.” He also claimed that CNN head Jeff Zucker had skimped on coverage of Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accords after one day, so the network could “get back to Russia.”

It may be tempting to dismiss the entire Bonifield video out of hand on the basis that he is not a news or politics producer but a health reporter based in Atlanta — and that the video’s creator, the notorious James O’Keefe, is a bona fide scam artist and pro-Trump worm. Those are legitimate criticisms. But this particular O’Keefe video can’t really be called a scam.

Bonifield did actually say those things and mean them. CNN has confirmed the authenticity of the video. Whether you agree with Bonifield’s analysis of the Russia story and the nature of CNN's coverage is entirely up to you — but there’s no question that this is his opinion. It’s interesting to hear that perspective from a CNN producer who sits in internal meetings listening to Zucker discuss the network’s ratings and coverage.

These are just two of the latest examples displaying the often extreme carelessness with which the media has treated the Russia story. The standard mode of operation when it comes to anything Russia-related has been to first embellish and overstate — then offer a correction, retraction or editor's note later.

This tendency toward sensationalism is understandable on some level. When it comes to Russia, many Westerners still view Moscow through a Cold War lens — and journalists aren’t exempt. The story fits like an old glove.

Cold War nostalgia has taken hold not only of newsrooms, but of pop culture in general. The success of FX’s "The Americans" — the addictive TV series about two deep-cover Soviet spies living in 1980s suburban Washington — speaks to this revived interest in Cold War culture.

It’s almost as if the drama, intrigue and prospect of treason is too exciting to let go. At the same time, there’s a safety to it all. Russia is a comfortable enemy. You can talk ad nauseam about how Moscow has nuclear weapons and could wipe the United States off the map, but you don’t actually believe it’s ever going to happen.

Just after the Iron Curtain fell on Eastern Europe, John Steinbeck and renowned war photographer Robert Capa traveled to the Soviet Union with no other agenda other than to report what they saw and heard. The result was "A Russian Journal," a remarkable and fascinating memoir published in 1948. As one online blurb for the book puts it, “Unlike other Western reporting about Russia at the time, 'A Russian Journal' is free of ideological obsessions.”

Regrettably, there is scarcely anything published about Russia in the West today that we could say the same about. When I read "A Russian Journal" years ago, one quote stood out to me — and it comes to mind regularly during these days of Russia-gate. It was Steinbeck’s reading of the seemingly unshakable mistrust between Russians and Americans:

We found that thousands of people were suffering from acute Moscowitis — a state which permits the belief of any absurdity and the shoving away of any facts. Eventually, of course, we found that the Russians are suffering from Washingtonitis, the same disease. We discovered that just as we are growing horns and tails on the Russians, so the Russians are growing horns and tails on us.

Back in the present, networks like CNN have nurtured a modern version of Moscowitis and knowingly and dangerously created a huge appetite for sensationalized Russia stories. It’s simply naive to believe it’s all just some crusade for the truth. With lowered standards and few scruples in newsrooms, the Russia story will be the gift that keeps on giving. It’s interesting, it’s mysterious, it’s a little bit scary — and it drives clicks and ratings. But what it doesn’t do is improve the media’s credibility or help get to the truth.

Shoddily sourced Trump-Russia sources won’t change the minds of any of President Trump's supporters. Like it or not, to them, the media is like that pathological liar whom you’d stopped believing long before he finally said something true. On the other hand, if Trump said the Holocaust was fake news, they’d believe it — so journalists need to be far more careful than they are right now.

The media has been so utterly convinced that Trump has personally colluded with the Russians that rather than treating new information with a critical eye, they jump for joy and hit publish on stories that are sometimes entirely evidence-free and based only on anonymous sources. Even the most boring and loosely sourced installments of Russia-gate read like some kind of mafia mystery.

Remember that entirely untrue story about Russian hackers targeting the U.S. power grid? Or the debunked story about a secret server Trump’s people were using to communicate with a Russian bank? Or the widely panned blacklist of websites published by the Washington Post branding numerous mainstream websites as Kremlin propaganda, based on the say-so of a shady anonymous group? It’s not a coincidence that journalists keep leaping before they look on Russia stories. The fervent determination to find that smoking gun means that basic standards and ethics too often fall by the wayside.

Will Rogers wrote something about Russia in 1926, which still resonates today: “Anything I don't know about the country, I can make up. For Russia is a country, that no matter what you say about it, it's true. Even if it's a lie, it's true. If it's about Russia.”

Trump, in my estimation, is probably too clueless, childish, thin-skinned and erratic to be part of an international conspiracy with the Russians. The chances are close to zero that he wouldn’t have tweeted about it by now. Those same qualities, his overt childishness and erratic behavior, seem to lead him to say things that make him sound guiltier than he actually is.

That does not mean there is absolutely nothing to the Russia story. There may have been wrongdoing or some kind of collusion between Russian officials and Trump’s associates — and that should be investigated. In the meantime, favoring sensationalism and speed over accuracy is helping no one.

By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist, writing mostly on geopolitics and media. She is based in Budapest, but has also lived in the U.S., Germany and Russia. Follow her on Twitter.

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