Trump, Russia, and the Washington Post: Reader Beware

"... there is a real risk that media hostility toward Putin, even if deployed as a way to get at Trump, could produce a conflict no one actually wants—just as the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers’ yellow journalism, rife with “melodrama, romance, and hyperbole,” more or less brought about the Spanish-American War."

 

August 14’s Washington Post print edition featured news articles, op-eds, an editorial, and three letters to the editor all attacking Donald Trump. And the paper’s other bête noire, Vladimir Putin, was featured in the front-page lead story as well as in an op-ed. On the preceding Friday, Putin had been attacked in an editorial for allegedly seeking to start a war in Ukraine.

Trump is running for president and certainly has dropped enough verbal bombs to justify many of the attacks against him. But there is a certain danger inherent in the media’s slanting its coverage to such an extent as to be making the news rather than just reporting it. And when it comes to Russia, the way the stories are reported becomes critically important, as there is a real risk that media hostility toward Putin, even if deployed as a way to get at Trump, could produce a conflict no one actually wants—just as the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers’ yellow journalism, rife with “melodrama, romance, and hyperbole,” more or less brought about the Spanish-American War.

As a case in point, examine the aforementioned front-page story, entitled “Russia’s Tactics Roil Europe” in the print edition and “Alleged Russian involvement in DNC hack gives U.S. a taste of Kremlin meddling” online. It is credited to Michael Birnbaum, the Post’s correspondent in Brussels.

In its lead-in, the article claims that “Russia has tried hard in recent years to tug Europe to its side, bankrolling the continent’s extremist political parties, working to fuel a backlash against migrants and using its vast energy resources as a cudgel.” It goes on to relate that “Obama administration officials say that the Kremlin may now be engaging in similar trickery in the U.S. presidential campaign in an effort to boost Russia-friendly Republican nominee Donald Trump.”

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The evidence cited regarding Trump and Putin evidently comes from unnamed members of President Obama’s team, which has pulled out all the stops to defeat the GOP candidate, including denouncing Trump as unfit to be president. Part of the anti-Trump drive orchestrated by the Democrats and Hillary Clinton has been to associate the candidate with Russia at every turn, implying that he is somehow disloyal or worse for seeking to establish friendly relations with Putin.

The article goes on to rely heavily on unnamed sources. “Officials and analysts say” or variations of the expression appear frequently, and when a source is cited by name, it is normally someone who is demonstrably anti-Russian. Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, finds “deepening ties” between the Kremlin and some European political parties. But even he concedes that Russia is exploiting unrest rather than creating it, that Russia’s influence is waning, and that its power to influence developments is clearly limited. The article cites a vote last spring in which French mainstream parties agreed to eliminate sanctions on Russia (imposed over Ukraine), yet the Post provides no evidence that Moscow had a hand in the producing the outcome. In any event, the European Union actually extended sanctions a month later, suggesting that if the Russians were interfering, they were not very good at it.

Another named source, Andrew Foxall, claims that a clever Russia “use[s] different approaches at different times and in different countries” to “achieve its goals,” which he doesn’t bother to define. Foxall is director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society in London, named after former U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a noted Cold War hawk. The society is considered to be neoconservative in orientation, a point Birnbaum fails to note.

A further attempt to subvert European institutions cited by Birnbaum relates to the French anti-EU National Front’s having obtained a $10.4 million loan from a Moscow-based bank after “being shunned by mainstream lenders.” He also notes that right-wing parties in Greece and Germany are alleged to have suspicious ties with Russia because they have attended conferences in Moscow or have party-to-party relationships with Putin’s ruling United Russia. The article also claims, without providing any details, that “Russia has courted politicians from Germany to Hungary to Slovakia to France.”

Reverting to its anonymous sources, the article asserts that Eastern European “leaders suspect the Kremlin of funding environmental groups that opposed measures that would make their countries less dependent on Russian energy.” In most of the world, supporting environmental groups would be considered commendable.

Birnbaum throws in plenty of what must be his own analysis that Putin is building support for his “vision” of the world, seeking to “preserve his domestic power by favoring authoritarian leaders over democratically elected ones,” yet he provides no evidence that this is necessarily the case. Putin is, most would agree, highly pragmatic.

But while Europe provides the backdrop, the real thrust of the article is domestic. Birnbaum uses his largely unsubstantiated claim that Russia is covertly interfering in European politics to speculate that the “propensity to cause mischief in other nations’ political systems may be behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, officials say.” Unnamed “officials” go on to elaborate that it remains “unclear whether the hacking was performed as part of routine foreign espionage or whether the DNC was specifically targeted to sway the election.” The article does not bother to note, presumably because it would weaken the argument, that even the Obama administration, which hacks the communications of friend and foe alike, has balked at blaming the cyber-intrusion on the Russian government—so the assumption that there was any kind of political objective behind it is little more than speculation.

So an article loaded with innuendo has appeared on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper, located in Washington, DC, stating that Russia is engaged in widespread subversion in Europe and is trying to do the same on behalf of Donald Trump in the United States. But the evidence presented in the story does not support what is being suggested, and spreading tales about foreign-government misbehavior can have unintended consequences. It is particularly shortsighted and even dangerous in this case, as a stable relationship with a nuclear-armed and militarily very capable Moscow should rightly be regarded as critical.

It is almost as if some journalists believe that deliberately damaging relations with Russia is a price worth paying to embarrass and defeat Trump. If that is so, they are delusional.

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