Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.) Batchelor begins by recalling the early 1950s, when President Eisenhower finally ended Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the US government. Cohen remarks that this is what Russians call zhivaia istoriia or “living history”—remote events that continue to influence or recur in contemporary affairs, but he recalls instead Kremlin political-media practices he closely observed while living several months a year in Brezhnev-era Moscow from 1976 to 1982, when Soviet authorities denied him a reentry visa.
While emphasizing all of the important dissimilarities between that Soviet political system (prior to Gorbachev’s ending of censorship after he came to power in 1985) and the American system today, Cohen points to some similarities to current political-media practices of the US establishment’s campaign to “unmask” President Trump’s purported ties to Putin’s Kremlin. In particular, he emphasizes the need for an accusatory narrative and draws an analogy with the Soviet media’s insistence that President Nixon was driven from office in 1974 not due to Watergate crimes but to his policy of détente with Soviet Russia—a narrative that still strongly influenced Soviet media coverage of US politics when Cohen arrived two years later. In order to spread and safeguard that orthodox narrative, and others, Kremlin newspapers and broadcast media employed several well-known practices. Some of them seem to be appearing, at least to some degree, in American mainstream media today. Cohen discusses four of them:
§ Alternative or dissenting voices were excluded from leading Soviet newspapers and broadcasts. The foundational narrative of Trump’s Kremlin-related complicity is based on the allegation that Putin ordered the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers and disseminated e-mails found there through WikiLeaks in order to damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and to abet Trump’s. Leading American media outlets—among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC—have relied on this narrative virtually daily for several months. People unaffiliated with Trump’s campaign or presidency but knowledgeable about these matters and with contrarian views are very rarely, if ever, invited to appear on these opinion pages or television panels. When they appear in alternative, less-influential media, they are often stigmatized in the mainstream as “Putin apologists” or as having their own suspect “connections” to Russia, much as Soviet media labeled its dissidents “agents of American imperialism” and “CIA collaborators.”
§ When Soviet establishment figures became open dissidents, official media set out to destroy their personal reputations. Though Representative Devin Nunes is clearly no dissident, anti-Trump mainstream American media seems determined to tarnish his personal reputation for having confirmed what was already widely known: that intelligence agencies in the Obama administration were, as Trump implied, surveilling his associates prior to and after his election. The media may now be turning to the reputations of Trump family members, including his son-in-law, in addition to having already slurred the reputations of some of his “associates,” another common Soviet practice.
§ Such narratives rely on purported facts. The facts cited to support the official Soviet version of Nixon’s downfall were fake, highly selective, or examples of a conspiracy narrative relying on other conspiracy theories. Though it is possible they exist somewhere, no facts for the allegation that Putin’s Kremlin hacked the DNC have ever been presented by the American mainstream media or anyone else. The only purportedly forensic evidence was presented by CrowdStrike, a private cyber enterprise hired by the DNC. (For some reason, the FBI did not conduct its own examination of DNC computers but relied on the one done by CrowdStrike.) CrowdStrike’s claims were challenged by some independent experts from the outset, and now two aspects of its purported evidence have been discredited. None of these factual gaps in the Putin-Trump narrative have been reported in the mainstream media, only alluded to as “Russian propaganda” and “weaponized disinformation,” not unlike Soviet-era claims that inconvenient information was “American propaganda.”
§ Running through these narratives is always, of course, the covert and open role of official intelligence agencies. Soviet media often cited allegedly indisputable KGB reports and even featured “retired” KGB officials to bolster official accounts of events. The US media and congressional hunt for Trump’s “Kremlin connections” feature a slew of “intel” leaks to the press and former intelligence officials as expert TV panelists. Whatever the KGB actually did or didn’t know, the quality of US intelligence directors was revealed when FBI Director James Comey—appearing in front of Congress in his previously unknown capacity as a Russia expert, a role once played by J. Edgar Hoover—was asked by a Democratic House member if he knew what Gazprom was. (The Russia giant state natural-gas company, the largest in the world, producer of some third of Europe’s energy, and very often mentioned in the American press as an essential aspect of Putin’s power.) Comey said he had not heard of Gazprom. Nor did it help when the congresswoman explained it was an oil company. Here Cohen recalls the mainstream mantra that “17 US intelligence agencies had high confidence” in the report that Putin had ordered the hacking of the DNC. In fact, only three—the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA—even claimed to have done any serious investigation, and the NSA, which has the digital competence, said it had only “moderate confidence” in the report it co-signed.
Of course, Cohen concludes, none of this means the American political-media establishment has been sovietized. But media narratives conceived and maintained for political purposes have certain common practices, as we are witnessing today. Importantly, Soviet media narratives were directed by the Kremlin; today’s anti-Trump narrative is directed against the White House, inspired most perhaps by the Clinton campaign that lost the presidency. American dissenters can resort to alternative media, though their impact on political developments seems marginal at best. Batchelor asks what Americans can do in light of the influence of the mainstream narrative. Returning again to Soviet history, Cohen says attentive Soviet citizens were adept at reading “between the lines” of the official press, at reading it “Aesopianly,” and thereby able to detect some hidden elements of truth. Some became media dissidents, creating their own network of samizdat—typescript copies circulated from hand to hand. Ultimately, though, they had to wait for Gorbachev to introduce from above the policy of glasnost, or openness, that soon ended Soviet censorship.