How the U.S. media failed in Russiagate

Many of the journalists who pushed the Trump-Russia theory were also the ones responsible for the Iraq WMD fiasco

Published: 15th April 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th April 2019 01:15 PM   |  A+A-

Many of the journalists who pushed the Trump-Russia theory were also the ones responsible for the Iraq WMD fiasco.

The scope of the American media’s failures in recent years–especially with regard to the sprawling, sordid saga commonly referred to as “Trump/Russia”–are almost incomprehensibly vast. Central to the debacle was the running theory that US President Donald Trump had engaged in a long-term treasonous conspiracy with Russia, a premise finally debunked for good last month by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the much-heralded prosecutor tasked with investigating every conceivable aspect of this spectacular claim. Yet day after day for nearly three years, journalists employed all manner of dubious methodologies, slippery innuendos, and unethical tactics to force-feed down the public’s throats the wildly outlandish notion that Trump had been compromised by a hostile foreign power. It was not atypical for media figures to outright proclaim that the office of the presidency had been literally subverted by Vladimir Putin. From the start, none of this ever made any sense. Yet the media egged it on with unrelenting vigor, and that’s why their reputation with a huge portion of the country is currently in the gutter. Rather than focusing on Trump’s actual misdeeds–his newfound subservience to the Republican donor class, his brazen attempts to overthrow the government of Venezuela, his prolonging of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, just to name a few–elite journalists instead became transfixed on an international espionage melodrama that was predicated on a complete fiction.

To understand the structural reasons for this calamity, it’s worth revisiting a previous media failure of epochal poroptions: that of Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction, wherein journalists played a central role in generating the hysteria seized upon by the George W Bush Administration to launch preemptive war. Many of the very same figures who were complicit in that fiasco were never held accountable, continued their disreputable conduct, and also contributed mightily to the Trump/Russia disgrace.

Take, for instance, Jonathan Chait. One of the country’s preeminent liberal opinion writers, Chait rose to national notoriety when he wrote an October 2002 cover story in The New Republic magazine which made the case for why liberals should support Bush’s war. Giving the Iraq misadventure the appearance of bipartisan credibility was crucial, and so it’s no overstatement to say that Chait was among the writers most personally responsible for fostering the political climate which created the conditions for invasion. Chait chastised liberals as being "blinded by their hatred of George W. Bush" and failing to recognize that "America's prospective war with Iraq isn't merely defensible. It's defensible on explicitly liberal grounds." Unsurprisingly, prominent Democrats ranging from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden–the latter of whom is currently leading polls for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination–ultimately voted in favor of the war, invoking rationale similar to that outlined by Chait.

Chait later admitted “mistakes” with respect to his pro-war boosterism, but this epic failure never impeded him from rising through the ranks of media respectability. Rather, his reach only grew–the perverse dynamic that characterizes all of elite US media, where the worst journalistic offenders are not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with greater power and influence. This came to its logical conclusion in July 2018 when Chait published another incendiary cover story, this time for New York magazine, which alleged that Donald Trump had been colluding with Russia since 1987. Yes, according to Chait, the conspiracy was so monumental in scale that it literally went back several decades. Chait’s theory was laughable at the time, and looks even more so now. But because he has never been held accountable for any of his past grave offenses, Chait has had the audacity to “double down” and insist that he was actually proven right about his crackpot Trump fantasy. It’s got to be one of the most shocking exercises in journalistic self-humiliation ever.

That Chait is even in the position to be making such preposterous claims again speaks to the fundamental irrationality of the US journalism industry: the more catastrophic your wrongdoings, the more swiftly you ascend up the ladder of elite prestige. Another illustrative example is Jeffrey Goldberg, the writer who in 2002 published a long article in the New Yorker magazine charging that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda, a falsehood that came to be believed by  supermajorities of the American public on the eve of the invasion -- proving the cruel efficacy of the propaganda. (Dick Cheney himself touted Goldberg’s debunked story.) But rather than atone for his grievous failings which contributed to one of the most cataclysmic actions the US government has ever undertaken, Goldberg also “doubled down”–insisting that he bore no responsibility, and eventually gained more and more power within the profession. He is now editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, the elite prestige magazine funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the Apple founder.

Sure enough, Goldberg was one of the first to posit, in July 2016, that Trump was an “agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin”–a storyline that was then echoed across the rest of the respectable media, and formed the basis of the all-consuming three-year conspiracy narrative that would envelop the entirety of American politics. In addition to spouting this theory, Goldberg also elevated actual Bush Administration officials like current Atlantic senior editor David Frum, who helped coin the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’ and contributed forcefully to the government PR initiatives which precipitated the 2003 invasion. Naturally, Frum has also been a leading proponent of the Trump/Russia conspiracy theory–again highlighting the conspicuous overlap between these two discreditable categories. As is always the case when extreme failure goes unpunished, the lack of accountability ever imposed on these people for their malfeasance during the Bush years enabled them to commit yet another act of grand malfeasance during the Trump years. And they will almost certainly never be held accountable for this, either. So it’s only a matter of time, tragically, before the next catastrophe arrives.


New York-based journalist and writer

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