Back in the 1990s, Alexander Cockburn and I coined a term for how the mainstream press goes about disclosing acts of government villainy that the newspapers had previously connived with or worked to conceal, and often both. We called this technique the “uncover-up.”
An uncover-up unfolds something like this. A human rights group alleges that the US government has actively sponsored the torture and assassination of priests and nuns in a Latin American country. The front pages of a national paper, say the Washington Post, furiously deny the reports, citing unnamed sources deep in the intelligence community that a review had taken place and determined that the charges are unsubstantiated rumors with no factual basis. The editorial pages of the same paper then smear the sources of the story as left-wing agitators, agents of subversion or paranoids.
Weeks go by. More evidence emerges: testimonials, photos, tape-recordings of screaming victims, American bootprints in the blood. Silence. And then after the initial fury has died down, somewhere in the nether regions of the paper the atrocities are quietly confirmed in sedate tones, never to be repeated and then solemnly filed away in the archives as “old news.”
In the matter of the Washington Post’s big scoop on how Vladimir Putin swung the recent election to his best bro Donald Trump by flooding more than 200 independent media sites in the US with propaganda and fake news, we are now witnessing a journalistic phenomenon we might call the casual “come down.”
Let’s recap the story to date. On Thanksgiving, the Washington Post splashed a huge story alleging that Putin’s Russia had used 200 independent media sites to infect the minds of at least 15 million Americans with Russian propaganda and disinformation. The story was written by the Post’s technology reporter, a man called Craig Timberg.
One of Timberg’s chief sources was a tenebrous outfit called PropOrNot, which had put together a spooky list of these “suspect” media outlets that it shared with Timberg, and some members of congress, before publishing. The censorious shadows behind PropOrNot only agreed to share their blacklist with Timberg on the condition that he conceal their identity. To his and his paper’s shame, Timberg indulged the demands of his secret sources. Who were these creeps? What was their methodology? What credibility, if any, should their blacklist have for the Post’s readers?
Timberg vouched for his sources, but why trust him? Who is Timberg? He isn’t just a “technology” reporter. As Russ and Pam Martens disclosed, Timberg had previously worked as deputy editor of the Post’s national security bureau and enjoys familial ties to some of the nastier creatures in the DC cloak-and-dagger scene, including Oliver North. Like many reporters who cover intelligence agencies as part of their daily beat, Timberg traffics in anonymous tips, off the record tips over drinks at DuPont Circle bars, anonymous nuggets from the gossip rooms of Langley and Foggy Bottom. More malevolently, intelligence reporters often serve (wittingly or unwittingly) as conduits for disinformation planted by intelligence agencies, politicians or other figures on what Dick Cheney immortalized as “the dark side.”
It wasn’t long before the floor buckled and the roof caved-in on Timberg’s exposé. The manifest flaws in his reporting have been effectively exposed by in-depth stories in The Intercept, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Extra!, AlterNet, and CounterPunch, among others. The piece was an over-hyped and factually-deficient story, constructed out of tissues of conjecture by nebulous and biased sources. For his part, Timberg didn’t even bother to contact the targets of PropOrNot’s smears. In other words, Timberg’s scoop violated almost every tenet of standard journalistic practice.
Then, alas for poor Timberg, his source collapsed, too. After CounterPunch contacted PropOrNot demanding that they remove us from their blacklist and issue a retraction and an apology, they wilted. There we were: menace to society one minute, deleted the next. Other websites also began to vanish from the blacklist, as mysteriously as they had appeared in the first place. Perhaps we’ll all be back on the proscribed list next week.
Did the smear artists behind PropOrNot consult with Timberg about these curious deletions? Did he contact them for an explanation? If so, he hasn’t seen fit to report back to his readers, assuming he has any readers left.
The Post’s lawyers, however, have been hard at work covering their reporter’s ass, especially after being hit with legal notices from several of Timberg’s targets, including Naked Capitalism and Truthdig. On Wednesday of this week, a note was discreetly tacked to the top of the online version of Timberg’s story, which reads as follows:
The Washington Post on Nov. 24 published a story on the work of four sets of researchers who have examined what they say are Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy and interests. One of them was PropOrNot, a group that insists on public anonymity, which issued a report identifying more than 200 websites that, in its view, wittingly or unwittingly published or echoed Russian propaganda. A number of those sites have objected to being included on PropOrNot’s list, and some of the sites, as well as others not on the list, have publicly challenged the group’s methodology and conclusions. The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so. Since publication of The Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list.
This crafty bit of legerdemain is not a retraction or an apology, but a kind of legal mystification meant to distance the paper and its reporter from the damage they’ve inflicted, damage that can’t be undone. The Post put its credibility on the line when it agreed to quote the spectral figures behind PropOrNot as an anonymous source, investing these sinister individuals with the allure and gravitas of Deep Throat.
In short, PropOrNot is itself “prop.” And the Washington Post’s big story is fake news, a fabulation as grand as any story by Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair. But unlike Cooke and Blair (both black and both fired immediately after discovery of their faked sources), this was shoddy journalism with a political purpose. It was written in venom with the intent to harm and destroy and apparently still enjoys the full-backing of the paper’s editors and publisher, Jeff Bezos.
But the gig is up. Timberg and the Post can’t now claim plausible deniability for their hit piece–not while the ink from their smears is still fresh on their hands. We’re not going to let them get away with it. Not in this climate of manufactured hysteria. Not ever.
+ My friend John Bellamy Foster is one of the finest sociologists and environmental historians in the world. John lives about 95 miles south of me in Eugene, where he is a professor at the University of Oregon and the author of many excellent books, including The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. John is also editor of the venerable and indispensable Monthly Review.
Foster has recently been targeted by the latest rightwing witch hunt for profit, an enterprise masquerading under the name The Professor Watchlist. These little goons in bow-ties have smeared Foster as a professor of dangerous leftwing ideas such as the–brace yourself–“socialization of nature.” John has been put through this slanderous and unnerving form of harassment before, having been targeted by the sleazy David Horowitz in his 2006 book of McCarthyite trash The 101 Most Dangerous Professors.
The PropOrNot blacklist of media sites and the Professor Watchlist represent the first wave of the new nastiness. The old Red Scare has never really gone away. It lies dormant for a while and then remerges in even more toxic incarnations.
Here’s a note John sent to his colleagues describing the darkening clouds enveloping academia in the age of Trump.
This is no game. We are a different period. I have not yet seen the environmental sociology discussion on this, but I am a PEWS, Environmental Sociology, and Marxist Theory section member (a former head of the section) and I am on the list. I believe I am the only one on the list in this region (the Pacific Northwest). In my case I am on it because of the Horowitz Dangerous Professors List of a decade ago, where I was listed. The Professor Watchlist has taken over the statements by Horowitz there word for word, I believe, but now it is more serious. There is a University of Oregon Chapter of the Professor Watchlist established over the last week and I am the principal target. Next week an NPR affiliated local radio station will be interviewing the head of the Chapter in a call-in show, where that individual will no doubt pinpoint me as the local rotten apple and use that as a weapon for threatening other professors. One of my sins is to be editor of Monthly Review. I have been asked to do a separate, “adjacent” interview on the same station, in which I will be able to respond.
Here we have to learn from history. The key to developing a coherent response is the Einstein First Amendment Strategy from 1953 developed in the midst of the McCarthy Era (the initial attempt to use the First in the case of the Hollywood Ten failed) in which Einstein declared that there should be determined non-cooperation and that the goal should be to use the First to attack the inquisition itself. His letter appeared in the NYT in June 1953 and let writers Leo Huberman and Harvey O’Connor, and then Corliss Lamont, Lilian Hellman, and Paul Sweezy, all of whom were closely connected, and linked to Albert Einstein and MR, put it into practice in a succession of attempts to break McCarthyism.
Sweezy was the most successful because he refused to turn over his lecture notes and to name names and they hit him with contempt of court and consigned him to county jail and he fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Things are obviously not at that critical state yet (we are not talking about subpoenas and prosecutions with possible imprisonment at the moment), though there are calls to reestablish the House on Un-American Activities Committee.
But I think that the Einstein strategy is what we need to adopt from the start. If such a stance is taken from the beginning we may be able to head off further disasters. There should no arguing of specifics of charges, rather freedom of speech and academic freedom and challenging the goon squads should be everything. You might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire of 1957. You can find it online under its case number (354 U.S. 234).
Welcome to Gleichschaltung.
John Bellamy Foster
Perhaps this is just the excuse you needed to finally subscribe to Monthly Review.
+ In Nicolai Gogol’s 1842 masterpiece, Dead Souls, a disgraced bureaucrat named Chichikov, who has been fired for corruption, goes from town to town across the vast Russian steppe, buying up the souls of dead serfs, which he hopes to profit from in a mad scheme that prefigures the deal-making of modern day arbitragers.
Now we have our very own Chichikov in the figure of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who in a speech to CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) last week, said that the programs which provide poor children (America’s serfs-in-training) with free school lunches leave them with “empty souls” and should thus be terminated.
This is, of course, a textbook case of Freudian projection, where Ryan displaces his own vacuous moral character onto the defenseless kids he is about to screw over for his own political enrichment. Make America Great Again: Starve the Children!
+ Like those occasional corrections buried in the New York Times, the media’s new obsession with “fake news” is a way to make their own reporting seem more legitimate.
+ Some of my friends on what might loosely be described as the anti-interventionist right look at the Trump cabinet and see a gathering of peaceniks. (Of course, some of these people also thought the invasion of Grenada was a rescue operation.) When I look at Mattis, Flynn and Pompeo, I see a cabal of fanatics who are gearing up to go to war against Iran with the same fervency that charged the Bushies’ mad drive to take down Saddam.
Cockburn and I used to run a little betting game called First Blood. The goal was to pick the number of days it would take for a new president to launch his first lethal bombing raid or missile strike. Generally, it took less than a month. I give Trump two days.
Of course, in the age of drones the kill order can come in a matter of seconds and, unless Trump decides to target an American journalist on book tour in France, we might not know about the carnage for weeks.
+ Make way for the Burgereoisie! Trump is nominating fast food czar, Andy Puzder, for Secretary of Labor. Puzder is a vicious piece of work, who is a rabid opponent of almost aspiration of working people, from living wages to health care to safe working conditions. Aside from pushing piles of grease and sugar water down the throats of American consumers, Puzder is also a sexist troglodyte, who defended the soft meat porn advertising for his Carl’s Jr. franchise by saying: “I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.”
Note the revelatory syntax: “burgers in bikinis.” Apparently, the “Bikini Burger” was specially designed for his pal Trump, so that the Donald could eat his favorite food and feel as if he’s “grabbing some pussy” at the same time.
+ Dr. Ben Carson believes that housing for the poor is a malicious form of socialist coddling and indoctrination. His first act as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development will be to rename his agency the Department of Tent Cities and Sidewalks.
+ First Trump tapped Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for his National Security Advisor, then Lt. Gen. Mad Dog Mattis for Defense Secretary, followed by Gen. John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. I guess we are soon to find out exactly how many generals can dance on the point of a Pinhead.
+ Over the last 35 years, the American economy has almost doubled in size. But nearly all of that growth has been seized by the top two percent of wage earners. More than 50 percent of working Americans have experienced no growth in their wealth at all. These are the wages of Clinton/Obama neoliberal economics at work. Trump will almost certainly exacerbate these trends. But who among us could rationalize more of the same?
+ Trump’s poll numbers have reached an all-time high, breaking the 50 percent favorability threshold for the first time, largely because of the press’s slavish coverage of the ridiculous deal Mike Pence cut to bribe Carrier into a keeping a few jobs in Indiana, which will soon be wiped out by automation. Trump’s numbers will soar even higher once he brings in some Vegas showgirls to help him announce the weekly Powerball numbers Live From the Oval Office! Powerball, of course, is what Trump is planning to use to replace Social Security, Medicare and School Lunches.
+ Trump’s circle of scavengers is drooling at the prospect of privatizing Indian reservations that have reserves of oil, gas, coal and minerals. This would signal a return to the horrid termination policy of the 20th century, when treaties and tribal status were simply nullified with a stroke of the executive pen. Resistance will be fierce. But everything is a real estate deal to these jerks.
+ A new poll suggests that nearly half of all Americans now support torture. Let’s see how they feel six months from now after the new Congress allows bill collectors to use waterboarding to extract their monthly payments…
+ The ashes of Fidel Castro were entombed in a boulder this week. The stone reads only Fidel. He needed no other description. Fidel was the anti-Trump: “Fidel was always against the cult of personality until his dying days,” said Raul Castro, a couple of days after the funeral. “He was consistent with that attitude, insisting that after his death his name and figure never be used to name plazas, avenues, streets and other public places, as well as the building of statues.”
The Cuban government presented a bill to the National Assembly, which will forbid the use of Fidel’s name and image on monuments and in other public places.
+ Law professor Jonathan Turley reports that years of manipulating the rules of the senate, especially with the so-called “nuclear option” weakening the power of the filibuster, will now come back to limit the Democrats’ ability to block some of Trump’s most noxious appointments and policies. No procedural viagra will stiffen Democratic “resistance” now. They’ll have to find a way to do it all on their own.
+ A couple of hundred miles from Standing Rock, the Belle Fouche Pipeline ruptured, gushing oil into Ash Coulee Creek in North Dakota. Leak is what pipelines do, unless they are transporting natural gas in which case they leak then explode.
+ The New York Times reports that pr0-Trump students are feeling under siege on campuses across the country and are demanding “safe spaces.” But can’t all of these trembling little fascists just bunker down together in the School of Business?
+ Kathy McMorris Rodgers, nemesis of all living creatures great and small, is Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary. I have it on good authority that her husband snores like a chainsaw. It’s what attracted her to him…
+ Rejecting Ralph Nader’s advice that he divest himself of all potential financial entanglements, Donald Trump will remain Executive Producer (ka-ching!) of “Celebrity Apprentice” when it returns to the air next year. The big question: which cabinet member will Trump fire first live on TV? Ben Carson or Andy Puzder?
+ I caught some scenes from “Taxi Driver” again last night. As you might recall, DeNiro’s troubled character Travis Bickle becomes obsessed with Cybill Shepard, who works for the liberal New York senator and presidential candidate Charles Palantine, a blending of RFK and John Lindsay. His rival is a conservative named Goodwin. Goodwin’s campaign motto: “A Return to Greatness.” So, on the long list of culprits to blame for the rise of Trump we can now inscribe the name of Marty Scorcese and his screenwriter Paul Schrader.
+ By day Emily toiled as the Pistachio Girl for the Philadelphia Phillies, by night she consorted with White Nationalists. But perhaps her nutritional guidance is still sound? If so, just remember, when you go out on a long night of cross-burning, there’s nothing quite like the refreshing taste of roasted pistachios washed down with a flagon of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier to get you safely across some of the rougher lawns in South Philly. Auf weidersehen, Emily! But before you go, one last word of advice, please: can we safely compost those tiny shells?
What I’m listening to this week.
What I’m reading this week.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: “All the Real Indians Died Off”: and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans
Lucia Perillo: Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: New and Selected Poems
Beckie Elgin: Journey: the Amazing Story of OR-7, the Oregon Wolf that Made History
It Could be You!
Guy Debord: “The status of celebrity offers the promise of being showered with ‘all good things’ that capitalism has to offer. The grotesque display of celebrity lives (and deaths) is the contemporary form of the cult of personality; those ‘famous for being famous’ hold out the spectacular promise of the complete erosion of an autonomously lived life in return for an apotheosis as an image. The ideological function of celebrity (and lottery systems) is clear – like a modern ‘wheel of fortune’ the message is ‘all is luck; some are rich, some are poor, that is the way the world is…it could be you!”
— The Society of the Spectacle