In a hallucinating development concerning what increasingly appears to be the unsinkable imaginary drama of overwhelming Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election, Reuters, echoed by The Hill, offer some breaking news: “Former CIA Director John Brennan said on Wednesday that at least some American voters were swayed as a result of Russia’s 2016 election interference operation, a statement that went further than the official assessments of U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers.”
Perceptive readers will ask, What does “some American voters” mean? Literally it means more than one. In contrast with Reuters matter-of-fact reporting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offers the headline, “Former CIA Chief Brennan Says Russia Changed Minds Of Voters In 2016 Presidential Election.” It provides no indication of the number of voters, but because it’s plural, it must also mean more than one and less than all. The first sentence of the article prudently reaffirms the literal meaning of the plural: “Former CIA Director John Brennan took findings from his country’s intelligence agencies a step further by saying that at least one voter was persuaded as a result of Russia’s 2016 presidential election interference machinations, but refrained from concluding that the operation influenced the vote’s outcome.”
The “some” cited by Reuters appears, in this case, to mean “at least one.” This is borne out by a quotation from Brennan who claimed that he was “sure, personally, that those Russian efforts changed the mind of at least one voter.” Consequently, in the interest of avoiding fake news, Reuters should have corrected its reporting to say “at least one American voter was swayed.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Persuaded or influenced to drift toward a position that differs from the one the speaker approves of.
Can any serious case be made that Brennan’s comments are newsworthy, let alone contain any substance at all? And yet Reuters and The Hill were among the media that ran with it. That the relic of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, promoted it should surprise no one.
Here are some of the things Brennan said, according to the articles:
“Whether it was one voter or a million voters, I don’t know.”
“[T]he impact on the vote was something the CIA ‘did not assess.’”
“Whether it changed the outcome, I don’t know.”
“But he said there was no question there was some effect — possibly affecting the final result itself, which brought Republican Donald Trump to the presidency.”
“How many, in which states, I don’t know. Whether it changed the outcome, I don’t know.”
Radio Free Europe adds its own comment: “Brennan said he was convinced the campaign had some kind of effect, perhaps on the final result.”
There has always been such a thing as true news, or straight reporting of events and facts. We now know that there is something known as “fake news.” These articles belong to a new category of what should be called “maybe news.” The dominant vocabulary cited in the articles spans a series of interesting lexical items: “at least,” “some,” “possibly,” “whether,” “something,” “sure personally,” “further” (without indicating how far), and a series of negatives affirmations: “don’t know,” “no question” and “did not assess.”
Reuters almost appears to be attempting to be informative at one point, when it offers this pseudo-clarification: “Brennan’s comments on Wednesday contrasted with conclusions published after a series of official investigations into the hacking, leaks and social media influence campaign carried out by Russian hackers in the run-up to the 2016 presidential contest.” It doesn’t mention what those conclusions were, which means the reader hasn’t an inkling of what the contrast may be. Given that Brennan himself pleads ignorance, we might ask ourselves in what way his comments contrasted with the previous “conclusions.”
This becomes even more perplexing in the following sentence: “U.S. officials have generally been careful not to make any public judgment on whether voters had their minds changed by Russian actions.” This kind of rhetorical construction in news reporting is typical of “maybe news” and illustrates how one of its strategies is to create confusion while appearing to enlighten, betting that hurried readers won’t notice.
“US officials have been careful not to” can be read in two contrasting ways: The journalist is either suggesting some kind of deliberate cover up or may be emphasizing the thoroughness of the officials’ method. The reader is left guessing. The journalist has accomplished a kind of magic trick, since those who suspect a coverup will read it as supporting their supposition of endemic foul play, and readers who see it as sincere and highly professional will feel that their idea has been confirmed.
Since 2016, the outcry over fake news has never stopped growing and will certainly continue to play an increased role in the 2020 presidential election campaign. But the world didn’t have to wait for the election of Donald Trump to discover it or complain about it. The influence of the “yellow press” became a prominent issue during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Critics accused William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers of having “swayed” a government committed to peace to declare war thanks to their effort to produce deliberately fake news about the accidental sinking of the battleship, The USS Maine, which they attributed to the Spanish enemy.
In some sense, all news is less than genuine. Over time, the media of corporate America have learned to handle the news as a pure consumer product. Like any commercial company they study their customer base and market to its needs and wishes. In terms of needs, the marketers discovered that the public clamors for and eagerly consumes a consistent story, whether it meets the test of truth or not. The one thing not perceived to be a need is what we might call enlightenment, which leads to the clarification of false impressions.
John Brennan directed the CIA from 2013 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. He now earns a living as a commentator on the corporate news channel, MSNBC. His job has become that of providing one of the voices in telling a consistent story that MSNBC offers its consumers. That story has focused on Russian influence in the 2016 election. In the current impeachment drama, House Majority Leader Nancy Polosi offered a chapter title, “All roads lead to Putin” in regards to Trump. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell invited Brennan to comment, as he has been doing for the past two years, on the Russian threat and the connection with Trump. It’s a story MSNBC’s audience never tire of hearing.
The story about Brennan’s new claim that “perhaps” one American voter was “swayed” by Russian influence in the 2016 election reveals how the new phenomenon of “maybe news” functions. Hearst’s newspapers at the end of the 19th century proclaimed that the Spanish deliberately sunk the Maine and eventually persuaded the McKinley administration to launch what became America’s archetypal imperialist war, rewarding its belligerence with the acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
Today’s new Cold War with Russia promoted by the corporate media sympathetic to establishment Democrats depends not on direct misinformation but the persistence of non-information, the suggestion that something sinister may have occurred, and citizens need to keep learning about it. That means it’s an ongoing story rather than a simple fact requiring a decisive reaction. Today’s corporate media thrive on ongoing stories in which no one is clearly engaged but through which the outline of an enemy becomes vaguely visible.
The “maybe news” of voters being swayed by unidentified Russians promoted by Democrats has an interesting historical parallel on the Republican side. For years, Republican officials have been claiming that voter fraud — in particular, “voter impersonation,” when an individual votes twice — is rampant and calls for measures that inevitably amount to voter suppression. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach created a totally unscientific tool, the Interstate Crosscheck, adopted by over 20 states, allowing them to suppress voters whose name was similar to a name in another state.
In 2017, the Brennan Center for Justice (named for former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, unrelated to John Brennan) issued its report ,“The Truth about Voter Fraud,” in which it called voter impersonation “vanishingly rare,” or more specifically, “between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.” Voter suppression, in contrast, according to investigative journalist, Greg Palast, exists on a massively more significant scale. As he reports, “last year alone, 14 million Americans were purged from voter rolls. This changes elections, because it’s not just anyone’s vote that gets stolen. Overwhelmingly, these are voters of color, young voters, and low income voters.” In the match between Palast and John Brennan on the impact of tampering with elections, the final score appears to be 14 million to 1.
Curiously, the only Democratic presidential candidate who not only has shown concern for this issue but has proposed legislation to eliminate the well-documented fraud associated with voting machines and shady electoral processes, is Tulsi Gabbard, the woman who is accused by Hillary Clinton of being a Russian asset. When questioned this week on MSNBC about Clinton’s accusation, John Brennan gave a lengthy non-committal explanation, devoid of any facts or substance, of the various ways Russians try to undermine US democracy, hinting that Gabbard is objectively aligned with Putin’s agenda. That was his way of saying the equivalent of: “I don’t know whether Gabbard is a Russian asset, but I’m sure, personally that it could be the case.” In other words, he has added his own contribution to the script of “all roads lead to Putin.”
As former director of the CIA, Brennan, now identifiably an asset of the corporate media, certainly knows something about how to “sway” people.
*[This piece has been updated.]
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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