Katie Halper interviews Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and Aaron Maté of The Nation about how much of the mainstream media glommed onto the Trump-Russia collusion story, predictably called ‘Russiagate’, for so long to the exclusion of many other important stories, and left themselves wide open to the kind of blowback that they are now experiencing because of the Mueller report seemingly saying (at least as far as the released short summary goes) that there was no such collusion. The entire interview is well worth reading but here are a few excerpts. (MT refers to Taibbi, AM to Maté, and KH to Halper.)
MT: In March 2017, I wrote an article saying this story is a minefield for the Democratic Party and particularly for journalists, because Trump had made it such an important part of his message that journalists were out to get him, that they were representatives of the elite who would stop at nothing to undermine this presidency. And to me it seemed the only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad. That was the one option out of an infinite number of ways we could have pursued covering his presidency. That was the one thing that could have really helped him. And we did it. Not only did we do it, but we did it, basically, to the exclusion of everything else, for years.
KH: What were some of the important stories the public was deprived of?
AM: Literally everything. I remember watching Rachel Maddow the day that Congress had taken a huge step forward toward taking away the health insurance of millions of Americans. I think she gave it around 30 seconds and then moved onto some element of the conspiracy theory that ended up being debunked. MNSBC didn’t mention Yemen for I think about a year.
KH: Where in Russia is Yemen?
AM: At a time when the U.S. was taking part in a genocide and killing tens of thousands of people through the Saudi bombing campaign and the famine that that campaign was causing. And one of the most crucial things it ignored was the serious escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that Trump was overseeing through carrying out policies that were far more hawkish than Obama, which we haven’t focused on, partly because they’re supported by the bipartisan foreign consensus in Washington, which the media generally goes along with, but also because to acknowledge those policies, to look at them seriously, would undercut this idea that everybody bought into that Trump was doing Putin’s bidding.
MT: There was a very telling story for me. Every year the Pentagon is responsible, under each year’s National Defense Authorization, to submit a memo that’s usually not made public on which countries we have active combat operations in. And I believe it was in early 2017 that they released one that said we had active operations in seven countries. So I did a little story basically saying, hey does anybody notice we’re at war in Niger and Somalia and Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan? Just the idea that we’ve started new military campaigns, and that this can fly completely under the radar with the public because of the Russiagate story, just speaks to the enormity of the story and how much oxygen it took up. It took up everything. We didn’t have time for anything else.
AM: [The media] imagine no endgame. This whole thing is incoherent. They were accusing Trump of doing Putin’s bidding while he consistently does the opposite: tries to overthrow Putin’s ally in Venezuela; bombs Putin’s ally in Syria twice; pulls out of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, basically setting off a whole new nuclear arms race. So basically, the actual endgame in real life is existential peril, because we are risking nuclear accidents and the threat of war based on these hawkish policies. But that doesn’t matter to those who profited off of the Russiagate narrative, like the failed neoliberal, Democratic elites, who needed an excuse to cover for the fact that they lost to Donald Trump; FBI intelligence officials who opened up this investigation on very specious grounds and who suspected Trump, in part, because he was saying nice things about Vladimir Putin. And whether you agree with that or not, to lay that as a predicate for a counterintelligence investigation is just extraordinary. Then there was the media, which, of course, got a lot of ratings and clicks by spinning this spy thriller.
MT: I think there was an element of Russiagate, and still is, that does have a logic to it. it’s a very dark logic. If you saw what happened in 2016, the political situation was that the ruling neoliberal consensus was under fire from all sides, from radical right movements both in the United States and in Europe; from leftist movements, both in the United States and Europe. The overwhelming voter sentiment everywhere had to do with the rejection of the international global consensus. You saw votes like Brexit, a complete repudiation of a number of things. But Russiagate as a political solution, as a response to that electoral phenomenon, has been extraordinarily effective. Because what it’s done is it’s completely changed the attitude of a huge portion of the population, which now sees the international security services, the global consensus, as the only saviors who are going to rescue them from the evil Trump. And therefore, we have to pursue this case and celebrate authoritarianism and celebrate the FBI and CIA and their heroism, and the European Union and NATO. This story has had some benefit from a propaganda perspective as well.
KH: So, is the idea that the intelligence community will act as the adults in the room and stop Trump from getting his finger on the button?
AM: Well, that was part of this narrative—that we’re supposed to revere and trust in these intelligence officials, forgetting their actual record, which includes giving us one of the biggest crimes in recent memory—the Iraq War. They’re the ones who spun the phony intel about [weapons of mass destruction]. And also promoting this notion that fundamentally undermines the idea of democratic government, where it’s the elected president, whether you like that person or not, who’s supposed to make the decision, not unelected intelligence bureaucrats.
AM: This didn’t start in 2016. Russophobia is in the bloodstream of American political culture. For decades, it’s been the Russians invading us and manipulating us and turning our young people into dupes, planting propaganda in our heads. That’s why this Russiagate thing could not have happened with any other country. There’s a reason we don’t hear about “Israelgate” or “Saudigate”. It survives on this very entrenched Cold War mindset that way predates 2016.
All the focus on whether Trump was colluding with Putin has taken attention away from his shady business dealings with unsavory figures like Felix Sater.
But it is not over. Think Progress, that neoliberal vehicle of the Democratic party leadership, is now making lists of those it claims are enablers of Russian propaganda or election interference and may even be Russian sympathizers or even agents. Those who warned that the media was dangerously over-reaching by assuming the worst in the absence of evidence and taking at face value the statements of intelligence officials who had lied repeatedly in the past, were accused of being unwitting or even witting tools of Russia. I wonder if we are soon going to hear the word ‘comsymp’ again used against anyone who does not reflexively think of Russia as a uniquely evil agent in the world.
The first 12 minutes of this Al Jazeera program also discussed the US media coverage of this issue.