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  December 12, 2017

Media or Cult? CNN Buries a Massive Russiagate Gaffe

Instead of explaining how it reported a false story on Russiagate, CNN brought on neocon David Frum to defend it. Max Blumenthal says that's a "window into a cult created around Russiagate."
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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His most recent book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. His other book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller. Max is co-host of the podcast Modern Rebel.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. On Friday, CNN reported what sounded like a bombshell story.

KATE: There's a lot that you have gotten in the past day plus, lay out your new reporting today on this effort to give Trump access to WikiLeaks documents.

SPEAKER: Well, Kate, this email on September 4th, 2016 was sent to Donald Trump, then candidate Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and others in the Trump organization, including Donald Trump Jr's personal secretary or personal assistant I should say. In this email it actually has a decryption code and a link to a web address where purportedly, they could have received the hacked WikiLeaks document.

AARON MATÉ: If this story was correct, that would have meant that the Trump campaign was offered the hacked Democratic Party emails before WikiLeaks published them. The problem is the story was totally false. Hours later, it emerged that the email that Trump campaign received was dated after WikiLeaks published the emails. In other words, somebody sent the Trump campaign a link to the hacked emails that have already been made public. The story was retracted but not before fueling a new ground of innuendo over alleged Trump-Russia collusion.

The biggest question is how this mistake was made. Both CNN and other outlets confirmed that the story was given to them by multiple sources. How did all these multiple sources get it so wrong? Well, neither CNN nor MSNBC or CBS have explained their mistake. In fact on Sunday, the CNN show reliable sources head on David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who coined the phrase "axis of evil." Frum said that the mistake is a reason why the media should be trusted.

DAVID FRUM: You asked the question, Brian, why should, given these mistakes, why should people trust the media. I would say the mistakes are precisely the reason the people should trust the media. Astronomers make mistakes all the time because science is a process of discovery of truth. Astrologers never make mistakes or at least they never own up to them because what they are offering is a closed system of ideology and propaganda. Faced with wrongdoing, circled by lies, the process of piercing the lies to uncover the truth about the wrongdoing is inherently not only difficult but adversary because the people who are trying to find the truth are operating against bad-faith actors engaged in concealment. They get partial pieces of the truth. In the process, there are going to overshoots and undershoots.

AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Max Blumenthal, senior editor of Alternet's Grayzone Project, co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels. Max, I want to start again just by replaying that clip from David Frum, but just the key part where he says that the mistake by the CNN is why we should trust them.

DAVID FRUM: You asked the question, Brian, why should, given these mistakes, why should people trust the media. I would say the mistakes are precisely the reason the people should trust the media.

AARON MATE: That's David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, champion of the Iraq war, the man who coined the phrase "axis of evil," speaking to CNN on Sunday. It's just so remarkable, Max, that after this massive screwup, CNN offers no explanation for how it happened. And again, brings on the guy who helped sell the Iraq war to say that mistakes are why we should be trusting the media. Your comments on what David Frum said?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, we should also acknowledge that David Frum has been involved with Rob Reiner in this initiative, the Committee to Investigate Russia, which we previously penned that featured Morgan Freeman. David Frum has been drumming up the Russiagate narrative, and it appears pretty clear from this latest episode that the Russiagate narrative is falling apart in this pack of opportunistic journalists that have followed it down a rabbit hole are really desperate for new stories and they can't really find anything. There's no “there” there increasingly, which leads them into these embarrassing journalistic cul-de-sac where they are producing erroneous reports. I mean, this follows Brian Ross' embarrassing report.

They basically drummed up a narrative, which was designed to get Trump into a kind of investigation he couldn't get out of, that would eventually lead to him having to testify, him being subpoenaed and eventually, the president being indicted and impeached. As far as I can tell watching Mueller's investigation, it's not really going in that direction and it's because the narrative of Russiagate is just that. It's not rooted in fact.

What we witnessed on this really remarkable episode of Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter was a window into a cult that's been created around Russiagate. And we've seen the research on cults that when the millennial promise by the cult leader of deliverance is discredited or the cult leader is exposed as a fraud, when the underlying narrative that brought people into the cult is exposed, the cult members deepen their conviction instead of falling into disillusionment. That's kind of the paradox of cult thinking and that's what's happened here. David Frum comes on and says that we should trust the media because of mistakes and that the media aren't the ones who are relying on cult thinking, it’s its targets.

In fact, there's very little factual basis for them to go on to link WikiLeaks to Russian Intelligence Services. That was really the essential basis of the CNN story is accepting the CIA's version of WikiLeaks which is that it's a hostile foreign intelligence operation instead of a public platform for whistleblowers to expose how the sausage is made in diplomacy and in covert operations. That's another fact that hasn't really been discussed here.

And then finally, David Frum talks about the media as these brave truth tellers, who are devoting lots of resources and energy to try to find out the truth. That's not what happened here. Throughout Russiagate, what we've mostly seen with the journalists who are making their names and careers off of it, is a total lack of shoe leather. They're basically sitting at their desks and waiting for the latest leak to come in, to arrive in their email, either from retired members of the intelligence community like John Brennan or from the House Intelligence Committee.

And it appears what happened here is that the House Intelligence Committee, which is driving the Russiagate narrative through leaks, substantially through the office of Representative Adam Schiff, who's the ranking Democrat on the committed, provided false information to CNN, NBC, independently confirmed it through Ken Dilanian, who is the reporter who I think lost his previous job because he had been clearing articles with the CIA prior to publication and promising the CIA positive coverage. I think CBS also reported the same story. So many of these stories are coming out of the House Intelligence Committee through these staffers who are subpoenaing emails from the Trump administration or Don Jr, the Fredo of the Trump crime family and then they're leaking them to opportunistic reporters who are basically, stenographers. For once, one of the reporters or a series of reporters got caught.

But this really needs to go to the House Intelligence Committee and raise questions about their agenda and the veracity of their leaks and how they've created a narrative that really rests on, at best, a very shaky foundation which is that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russian Intelligence Services to subvert American democracy and throw the results of the election.

AARON MATÉ: Max, and this is why we're probably not hearing the explanation for how this story was screwed up so massively.


AARON MATÉ: Because as you say, this was not just based on one source. CNN and MSNBC and CBS all said that they had independently confirmed it through multiple sources, but yet nobody has explained who these sources were and how they all got it so wrong. This was the key point raised by Glenn Greenwald in the big article on this topic in The Intercept on Saturday. Brian Stelter, who hosted David Frum and also Carl Bernstein on the show, on Sunday, in that segment that we played that clip from. I emailed Brian Stelter and I asked him, "Why didn't you raise the issue of how this massive mistake happened," because he didn't. He said on the show that the mistake happened and was retracted but he didn't get into the issue of how it happened. And I asked him, "Why didn't you raise the issue and do you plan on raising it?" He referred me to a CNN's spokesperson who said that they had no comment.

A refusal, first of all, to demand accountability for how the mistake happened and then when you ask those who are supposed to be the watchdogs, the media critics like Brian Stelter if they plan on finding out, they have no comment on why they're not seeking the truth.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: First of all, Brian Stelter has put himself in an uncomfortable position because he has rejected any skepticism around the Russiagate narrative and even badgered Trump administration officials who have just merely attempted to deny that they colluded with Russia. Whatever you think about the Trump administration, and I definitely don't think very highly of it and I doubt many viewers of this will, the notion of collusion between the political campaign in the US and Russian Intelligence Services is at least or should at least be a matter of debate. But Brian Stelter has attempted to take that debate off the table for the purpose of what I consider kind of grandstanding.

And then there's the more salient issue of sourcing Sam Husseini at FAIR, the media monitoring group, wrote a great piece earlier this year asking whether journalists should expose sources who deliberately lie to them or deceive them. In this case, what we have is a case of high-level deception of journalists and yet the journalists continue to protect the sources that lied to them. Why are they protecting the sources that lie to them? Without those sources, it's like they're pretty much going to watch their watering hole evaporate. The parrots in the parrot jungle aren't going to have their bird feeder anymore because that bird feeder is the House Intelligence Committee that's been feeding them all these leaks while they just sit at their desks, wait for the leaks to arrive and then report them and frame them as sharply as possible, like the good little stenographers they are. They would basically be depriving themselves of their journalistic lifeline, if you can even call it journalism at all.

I think media critiques, a principled media critique would start asking questions about what's going on inside the House Intelligence Committee and whether this really is an investigation or a political ploy to create a narrative that is actually having, I would consider, dangerous diplomatic effects and ramifications from the rating of Russian Consulates to the sanctioning of Russia over the objections of European countries to a total collapse of US coordination with Russia in conflict areas like Syria.

To a lot of people in the media, this isn't just about making their careers but this is having real world consequences.

AARON MATÉ: Max, you mentioned how some journalists are convincing themselves that they're challenging Trump by focusing so intently on the whole Russia issue, while at the meantime ignoring voices like yours, who are skeptical of the whole Russiagate narrative. Our friend, Brian Stelter, who we've mentioned I have an example of that, he had White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway on a show earlier this year and he confronted her for not doing enough to protect America from Russian interference. This is that clip.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Russia collusion, which has to do with the campaign. You're not talking about here as we're governing, right? That all has to do with the campaign, correct?

BRIAN STELTER: The way that Russia attacked us last year is the biggest story I can think of.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Now you're talking about the campaign.

BRIAN STELTER: Russia continues to attack us today.


BRIAN STELTER: They're going to attack us in the midterms, Kellyanne and I don't see your boss doing enough to protect us.

AARON MATÉ: "I don't see your boss doing enough to protect us," Brian Stelter says to Kellyanne Conway. I just thought, Max, this is such a good snapshot of where our media is at now. Ignoring dissenting voices, ignoring for the most part, Trump's actual policies and trying to go after him so hard on this Russia issue, which as both you and I have covered extensively, and as you mentioned earlier, the evidentiary basis of it is so thin, yet the refusal by the media to jump off the wagon.

MAX BLUMENTHAL:: Yeah. I mean, if they jump off the wagon, well they're circling the wagon. They're in a kind of a logger right now and that's what we saw in Brian Stelter's latest Reliable Sources. Carl Bernstein is brought on also because he has been sort of in the limelight to indulge the liberal delusion that Russiagate is Watergate; that there is a real scandal afoot. Carl Bernstein isn't a working journalist who's investigating. He doesn't know anything about Russia. He's just there as a symbol for liberals to convince themselves that impeachment is over the horizon and that this is, as Brian Stelter said, “the biggest story right now,”

and that Russia attacked us and that on skepticism is possible.

Skepticism means giving in to Trump for the hardcore partisan liberals who started this shabby narrative. Now they put themselves in a really impossible situation where it's not really adding up. The Michael Flynn indictment was a perfect example. It didn't show a collusion with Russia. It showed Michael Flynn, first of all, beseeching Russia not to implement any counter measures against US sanctions which any diplomat would do, basically begging Russia not to retaliate. Russia asked for nothing of Michael Flynn. And the collusion that it showed was with Israel which we have discussed previously, with Jared Kushner acting on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu dispatching Flynn to ask Russia to use its veto power at the UN Security Council to stop a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. So, one of these is adding up really.

The best they have are these bit players like George Papadopoulos, who I previously thought was the father of the child sitcom's star, Webster before I heard about him in this investigation. But they're not able to issue accountability for each other because they've all played into this narrative in one way or the other. It's not just corporate media, it's also progressive media. I mean, Mother Jones took all of this money from a right-wing oligarch who's behind the RealClearPolitics empire to start its Russia investigation. The Center for American Progress had its Moscow Connection Project. Democracy Now! has been pushing the Russiagate narrative.

I've seen it in so many places that it's really hard for anyone to take accountability. We're basically going to have to wait for Mueller's investigation to end. But just one quick point there is that I see a lot of similarities between what's called the Russia investigation, although it almost only peripherally deals with Russia now and Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation. You go back to the Clinton Era when the Clintons fell under investigation for maybe a shady land deal and it wound up with Bill Clinton's impeachment for his sexual peccadilloes.

This investigation could continue for a long time and wind up having nothing to do with Russia. But what's important for many liberals and for a media that feels like it's under attack from Trump is simply to get the president and it doesn't matter if it proves their narrative or not, as long as they can all escape accountability.

AARON MATÉ: Two things, just for those who weren't around the '80s. Max was referring to Webster, the TV series, starring Emmanuel Lewis where the father's character's name was George Papadopolis, similar to the name of George Papadopoulos, this low-level Trump aid who has been indicted for lying to the FBI, who says he was told by some people that they have contacts with the Russian government.

And the second thing, on Israelgate, Max, I just want to mention, you and I covered that story...

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Can we play a quick clip of a Webster judging the Merriam-Webster dictionary competition on South Park?

AARON MATÉ: Maybe next time, maybe next time. The second thing, on Israelgate, Max, you and I covered that immediately here on The Real News and it's been striking to watch that for all this focus over the past year on foreign meddling, foreign influence all over Trump, there has been almost no coverage at all of Israelgate except for you. You wrote a big piece on it on Alternet. I wrote about it also myself in The Nation. It's just been quite striking to watch that absence. But maybe that will change, probably not. We have to leave it there, though.

Max Blumenthal, senior editor of Alternet's Grayzone Project, co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels, thank you.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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