American News

The Latest Version of Russiagate

Ever faithful to its commitment to variations on a theme, The New York Times offers us the latest version of Russiagate.
Russiagate, Russia news, Russian interference, Russia COVID 19, Russia coronavirus, coronavirus news, NY Times, New York Times, US news media, Peter Isackson

Manhattan, New York City on 6/6/2019. © Askolds Berovskis / Shutterstock

July 31, 2020 13:37 EDT

The New York Times keeps slogging away at a four-year-old theme that it refuses to allow to die a natural death. Should we call it Russiagate 2.0 or 3.0 or 7.0? Whatever we call it, Russiagate has made its way back into The NYT’s headlines. Perhaps we should adopt the same convention as the health authorities who called the disease caused by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 because it first appeared in 2019. So, this could be Russiagate-20, although the number of minor versions that have appeared since the beginning of the year might make it Russiagate-20.3.

The latest article’s title is “Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic,” followed by the subtitle, “Declassified U.S. intelligence accuses Moscow of pushing propaganda through alternative websites as Russia refines techniques used in 2016.”

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The logic of the crime perpetrated by the recidivist known as Russia is well-known. The scenario is as familiar as any Hollywood remake. The authors of the article, Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, want to make sure that the new variation on a story about Russian interference with American democracy does not suffer from the criticism leveled at anticlimactic events such as the Mueller report. Some will remember that in August 2019, The Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, embarrassingly admitted that the paper was “a little flat-footed” when it doggedly followed an editorial line that consisted of hyping Russiagate on the pretext that it looked “a certain way for two years.” It was the look that kept the story alive even though the narrative contained no substance.

To make their point about the seriousness of this story, Barnes and Sanger take the trouble to cite, though not to name, “outside experts” who can confirm its reality. “The fake social media accounts and bots used by the Internet Research Agency and other Russia-backed groups to amplify false articles have proved relatively easy to stamp out,” The Times reports. “But it is far more difficult to stop the dissemination of such articles that appear on websites that seem legitimate, according to outside experts.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


A synonym for publication that subtly suggests something underhanded, implying that the content of what is being broadcast consists of lies or disinformation

Contextual Note

What all these stories boil down to is a pair of simple facts with which readers should now be familiar. The first is the revelation that Russians and, more particularly, Russian intelligence agencies lie, just in case readers weren’t aware of that. The second is that the Russians are clever enough to get at least some of their lies published on the internet.

For these well-known and oft-repeated “truths” to become newsworthy, the reader must believe something exceptional has occurred, following the man-bites-dog principle. The exceptional fact The Times wants its readers to understand is that, unlike the stories that looked “a certain way” for two years with reference to the 2016 US presidential election, this one is no remake. It is undeniably news because it is about the COVID-19 pandemic, which only became an issue this year.

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To the discerning reader, the message is exactly the same as the idea behind the “flat-footed” campaign Baquet mentioned. But the content has changed. In both cases, processing the message requires that readers accept the implicit premise that Russians have a monopoly on lying or, alternatively, that that’s the only thing Russians know how to do. They are the only people on earth who invest in inventing contestable takes on the news and getting their lies published on the internet. There can be no legitimate reason to suspect any other nation, especially the United States, of telling lies about other nations and even managing to get them published on the web. How does The Times know that? Because its anonymous sources hailing from the very reliable US intelligence agencies have dutifully provided it with the data.

If the story had focused only on COVID-19, it probably would not have justified a full-length article. Understanding this, the journalists sought evidence of Russian interference on “a variety of topics,” including a major one: NATO. “The government’s accusations came as Mandiant Threat Intelligence, part of the FireEye cybersecurity firm, reported that it had detected a parallel influence campaign in Eastern Europe intended to discredit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Barnes and Sanger write.

How extraordinary, Times readers must be thinking, that Russia might be trying to discredit NATO. That really is news, at least for anyone who has failed to pay attention to everything that has happened in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Do readers of The New York Times belong to that category of the deeply (or simply willfully) ignorant readers of the news? The Times has, after all, published a few articles at least since 1994 alluding to what historians now understand was a persistent act of betrayal by Western powers of the promises made to Russian leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin not to expand NATO… before aggressively doing the contrary over decades.

In an article in The Nation from 2018, the distinguished Russia expert Stephen Cohen highlighted the role of Western media — and The New York Times, in particular — in failing (or refusing) to cover that ongoing drama. It should surprise no one that even today, The Times not only neglects that vital bit of context, but it also uses its feigned ignorance to express its shock at the idea that the Russians might feel impelled to discredit NATO in Eastern Europe. This is not a case of Russian meddling in US elections. It’s an attempt to limit the damage the Russian government feels has resulted from Western perfidy.

The latest Times article doesn’t stop there. It offers us this insight: “While the Mandiant report did not specifically name Russia and its intelligence agencies, it noted that the campaign was ‘aligned with Russian security interests’ in an effort to undermine NATO activities.” In other words, the reporters admit there is no direct evidence of Russian involvement. They simply expect Times readers to conclude that because there appears to be an “alignment,” Russia is to blame. This is a perfect encapsulation of everything that took place around Russiagate. Alignment is proof of collusion.

Historical note

During the Cold War, Americans were thrilled to find their vocabulary enriched when the word “propaganda,” derived from Latin, was imported from their enemy, the Soviet Union. The term literally means “what is to be propagated.” The Soviets used it as the official term to describe their communications operations modeled on the same logic as the “voice of America.” In both cases, it was all about teaching third parties why their system was better than their opponent’s.

Americans sneered at the dastardly evil concept of propaganda. They clearly preferred the idea of PR (public relations). This was about the time that Vance Packard’s best-seller, “The Hidden Persuaders,” revealed how — as The New Yorker described it at the time — “manufacturers, fundraisers and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give or vote at their command.”

The monumental effort of Madison Avenue stepping in to dominate a rapidly expanding economy conveniently distracted most people’s attention from the magnificent work the CIA was undertaking across the globe in the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) dissemination of misinformation. The more Americans suspected advertising was lying to them, the less concerned they were by the skullduggery of the military-industrial complex and its intelligence agencies. It clearly went well under their radar as they focused on consumer pleasures.

That gave the US a double advantage over the Soviet Union. It had two powerful industries working in parallel to feed a regular diet of lies to the American people, whereas the Soviet Union had only the government to supply them with glaringly obvious lies. The Russians were already beginning to receive its messages with growing skepticism. The US enjoyed another advantage to the extent that the fun of advertising and the pleasures of the consumer society took the sting out of their growing awareness that they too were being constantly lied to.

Can there be any doubt today that The New York Times is committed to propaganda? Like most of the media sympathetic to the Democratic Party, it not only accepts uncritically the “assessments” of the intelligence community, but it also amplifies its messages. It even extrapolates to draw conclusions they dare not affirm.

If the notion of dissemination has a negative connotation linked to the idea of propaganda, The New York Times is a master disseminator.

*[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. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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