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.