“Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing)…” —Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964
On November 24, The Washington Post published what at first glance looked to be a deeply troubling report on the far-reaching, insidious influence of the Kremlin on the American media. The Post’s national technology reporter Craig Timberg writes that “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of…helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
According to Timberg, a group which goes by the moniker PropOrNot, a “nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds” has identified “more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.”
PropOrNot, which has yet to identify its members or its source of funding (its executive director spoke to Timberg on the condition of anonymity) accuses the right-wing Drudge Report, left-wing Counterpunch, Consortium News (whose founder and editor was recently awarded the I.F. Stone Medal from Harvard University), the libertarian Antiwar.com, Naked Capitalism, David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Truth-Out, TruthDig, as all being “useful idiots” of the Kremlin.
Still worse, “PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.” Yet, like much else about this anonymous outfit, how it came up with this figure is something of a mystery.
It should be noted that the PropOrNot Web site shares the same hallmarks of the very disinformation campaigns it warns against: a complete lack of transparency, a shoddy methodology, and zero information about its funders, claiming that its members “are anonymous for now, because we are civilian Davids taking on a state-backed adversary Goliath, and we take things like the international Russian intimidation of journalists, “Pizzagate”-style mob harassment, and the assassination of Jo Cox very seriously.”
This is a group that has assembled a media blacklist and smeared working journalists as agents of the Kremlin, all the while cravenly wrapping itself in a cloak of anonymity.
The group’s intentions are clear. They are “calling for formal investigations by the US government” of these Web sites because they think “the American people have the right to know when foreign governments are trying to mess with them.” What is more, they “strongly suspect that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws, but determining that is up to the FBI and the DOJ.”
That the Post would rely on the “findings” of a shoddy, anonymous blacklist that seeks to stifle dissent on Russia policy is deeply troubling.
In the days following the publication of the report, I e-mailed both Timberg and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron asking whether it was appropriate for the paper to cite the “findings” of an anonymously authored blacklist. Timberg’s initial response was, “If you want a hand in reporting what I reported on—what researchers say about Russian efforts to influence the election—I am happy to lend a hand on background.”
When I followed up by asking, “What convinced you to run a story based partly on the ‘data’ and claims of this group—which doesn’t identify its members or funders and has named some very respectable outlets like Naked Capitalism and Consortium as Russian ‘propaganda’?,” Timberg quickly withdrew his offer of assistance, writing, “Questions about decisions about what the Post publishes and why are properly directed to Marty Baron.”
Baron has yet to respond.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time a media blacklist of journalists critical of US policy towards Russia has been promoted in the mainstream media. In late 2014 the Mikhail Khodorkovsky–funded Interpreter magazine (now part of the US government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network) issued a report calling for an “internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation” that would furnish news organizations and bloggers with the “analytical tools with which to define forms of communication.” The report also urged newspapers to staff “counter-disinformation editors” who would “pick apart what might be called all the news that is unfit to print.”
The Interpreter report was praised in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Yet at the time I wrote that “one would have hoped that journalists, of all people, would object to this project in the strongest possible terms. That no one has yet done so is an ominous sign.”
An ominous sign, as well as a sign of things to come, since, as we have seen, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, much of the liberal commentariat worked itself into a neo-McCarthyite frenzy from which it has not yet recovered. By this point it hardly needs pointing out that some liberal pundits have themselves been actively engaged in a disinformation campaign for some time. How else can one describe former New Republic editor Franklin Foer’s thoroughly debunked piece on the Trump Organization’s “secret email server” connected to a Russian bank.
Not surprisingly, almost as soon as the Washington Post report appeared, prominent members of the liberal commentariat tweeted it out to hundreds of thousands of people, as though it were hard-won vindication of their collective efforts to portray Trump’s surprise victory as the work of the Russian government. This despite the Obama administration’s statement of November 26 that the election results “accurately reflect the will of the American people.”
That these journalists and high-profile Clinton supporters would promote the PropOrNot blacklist is a measure of how debased our politics have become.