By Alan Macleod
The November 6 midterms are fast approaching, yet much of the media is still looking back to the 2016 elections, and specifically the alleged Russian interference in them.
The New Yorker (10/1/18) published a 7,000-word article headlined “How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump.” Considering other explanations for Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss, such as her tactical campaign errors, gerrymandering, vote suppression, racism and the actions of James Comey for only a paragraph, it quotes one expert claiming, “It stretches credulity to think the Russians didn’t” win it for him.
Meanwhile, the New York Times (9/20/18) released an intensive 10,000-word history and analysis of the Trump/Russia story, explaining to its readers that it was Putin’s “seething” ambivalence towards the West and his “nostalgia for Russia’s lost superpower status” that were the driving forces behind Russia’s nefarious actions.
There is also a great deal of fear about supposed hacking of the upcoming midterms. USA Today (10/9/18) warned, “As Russia and perhaps other foreign governments seek to undermine democratic elections, Congress and states need to get serious about defenses.” The PBS NewsHour (10/11/18) quoted one official who noted, “Given our experiences of 2016 and what we saw the Russians attempt to do across the nation’s election equipment, the election infrastructure, we certainly have a degree of concern of what their capability is.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post(9/26/18) writes, “While Russia is clearly trying to influence the 2018 elections, this time the United States is prepared and taking action to counter it.”
There is little concrete evidence offered in these reports; see Gareth Porter in Consortium News (10/10/18) for a dash of cold water on the New York Times’ narrative. Yet even the lack of evidence is an ominous sign for some. The Daily Beast (10/8/18) published an article headlined, “No Evidence That Russia Is Messing with Campaign 2018—Yet.” Despite that lack of evidence, the article asserted that the US should brace itself: “Russia has an arsenal of disruption capabilities… to sow havoc on election day,” it said, and “everyone is expecting the 2016 shock and awe” again.
The concern of the media over Russian actions has not resonated with the public more generally; a July Gallup poll reported that the number of Americans who considered Russia a top problem for the country was less than 1 percent. On the subject of the midterms and threats to their legitimacy, NPR (9/17/18) found that large majorities feel voter fraud or suppression to be a much greater danger to election integrity than foreign interference. Yet these concerns are not addressed nearly as thoroughly by the media. A search for “Russia” and “election” in the New York Timesdatabase generates 4,489 stories since the start of 2017, as compared to just 234 for “voter suppression” and “election,” 306 “gerrymandering” and “election” and 727 “racism” and “election.”
The question is not whether Russia, like other countries with extensive intelligence apparatuses, seeks to influence the elections of foreign nations. The question is why corporate media are concentrating on foreign interference, and not the other threats to democracy. In a previous article (FAIR.org, 7/27/18), I argued that the Democrats are using Russia to deflect anger and discontent away from their own failings. If Russia is to blame, there is no need for introspection, nor to address the deep race and class divides in the country that are addressed by surging political movements on the left, from Sanders to Black Lives Matter, and exploited by Trump and the alt-right. The focus on Russia as the sole reason for Trump’s victory allows establishment Democrats to continue as normal, without need for radical internal or policy change. As Clinton said, “America is already great.” To deflect pressure from the left, they can construct a narrative to explain why they lost to the most unpopular candidate ever.
For corporate media, the story of Russia covertly influencing the country promotes a climate where they can re-tighten their grip on the means of communication by accusing alternative media on both left and right of being Russian-sponsored “fake news.” As previously reported (FAIR.org, 8/22/18), under the guise of protecting readers, big media companies like Google, YouTube and Bing have changed their algorithms, resulting in devastating drops in traffic for reputable alternative media sites. Alternative media has been deleted, de-ranked, de-listed and de-monetized, effectively sidelining them. In response to ostensible Russian meddling, media giant Facebook announced last week (Washington Post, 10/11/18) it had shut down over 800 US accounts and pages for “inauthentic behavior,” a term even more nebulous than “fake news.” Included in the 800 were several police accountability watchdog groups and other alternative media, adding to its recent (temporary) deleting of TeleSUR English.
However, the best example of fake news and “inauthentic behavior” by media outlets in the modern age remains the manufacture of consent for the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, with the crucial assistance of corporate outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and NBC (FAIR.org, 11/1/01; 3/18/03; 10/23/17). Forty-five percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, but it seems doubtful the tech giant will remove accounts belonging to those publications.
While it is clear that Moscow has an interest in who the US elects and doesn’t elect, the media’s focus on Russiagate through the midterm elections has as much to do with its political utility as with the evidence. With President Trump accusing China of midterm interference (CNN, 8/26/18), it appears that both major parties have sown doubt into the process and have a pre-made excuse if they fail on November 6. Both sides undermining trust in the democratic process does not augur well for the future of US politics.