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Tell the Truth (About Ukraine) and Run

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COMMENT: The late anti-fas­cist, inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist George Seldes pub­lished a book called Tell the Truth and Run.

That advi­so­ry applies to the Orwellian, McCarthyesque intel­lec­tu­al land­scape tak­ing hold of the U.S. in con­nec­tion with the Ukraine cri­sis.
When we explore the stun­ning events occur­ring around the re-insti­tu­tion of the OUN/B fas­cists in Ukraine in our next pro­gram about Ukraine, we will dis­cuss the arti­cle below at greater length.
Suf­fice it to say that this pro­pos­al cor­re­sponds to laws being insti­tut­ed in Ukraine and infor­ma­tion war­fare being waged inside and out­side of that unfor­tu­nate coun­try. It also cor­re­sponds to the Nazi tract Ser­pen­t’s Walk, about which we will have more to say in weeks to come. Suf­fice it to say that polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty are being fun­da­men­tal­ly per­vert­ed.

 The cru­sade to ban Rus­sia pol­icy crit­ics

As a result of the civ­il war that has raged in Ukraine since April 2014, at least 7,000 peo­ple have been killed and more than 15,400 wound­ed, many of them griev­ously. Accord­ing to the Inter­nal Dis­place­ment Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­tre, 1.2 mil­lion east­ern Ukraini­ans have been inter­nally dis­placed, while the num­ber of those who have fled abroad, main­ly to Rus­sia and Belarus, has reached 674,300. Fur­ther, the Unit­ed Nations has report­ed that mil­lions of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly the elder­ly and the very young, are fac­ing life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions as a result of the con­flict. Large parts of east­ern Ukraine lie in ruins, and rela­tions between the Unit­ed States and Rus­sia have per­haps reached their most dan­ger­ous point since the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis of 1962.

And yet a spe­cial report pub­lished last fall by the online mag­a­zine the Inter­preter would have us believe that Russ­ian “dis­in­for­ma­tion” ranks among the gravest threats to the West. The report, titled “The Men­ace of Unre­al­ity: How the Krem­lin Weaponizes Infor­ma­tion, Cul­ture and Mon­ey,” is a joint project of the Inter­preter and the Insti­tute for Mod­ern Rus­sia (IMR), a Man­hat­tan-based think tank fund­ed by the exiled Russ­ian oli­garch Mikhail Khodor­kovsky. Cowrit­ten by the jour­nal­ists Michael Weiss and Peter Pomer­ant­sev, this high­ly polem­i­cal man­i­festo makes the case for why the Unit­ed States, and the West gen­er­ally, must com­bat what the authors allege to be the Kremlin’s extrav­a­gantly designed pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. If imple­mented, the mea­sures they pro­pose would sti­fle demo­c­ra­tic debate in the West­ern media.

The report seeks to awak­en a pur­port­edly som­no­lent Amer­i­can pub­lic to the dan­ger posed by the Kremlin’s media appa­ra­tus. Accord­ing to Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev, the Russ­ian government—via RT, the Krem­lin-fund­ed inter­na­tional tele­vi­sion out­let, as well as a net­work of “expa­tri­ate NGOs” and “far-left and far-right movements”—is cre­at­ing an “anti-West­ern, author­i­tar­ian Inter­na­tionale that is becom­ing ever more popular…throughout the world.”

While it would be easy to dis­miss the report as a pub­lic­ity stunt by two jour­nal­ists attempt­ing to cash in on the Rus­so­pho­bia so in vogue among Amer­i­can pun­dits, their the­sis has gained wide accep­tance, nowhere more so than in the halls of Con­gress. On April 15, Pomer­ant­sev tes­ti­fied before the House For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee on the sup­posed threat posed by “Russia’s weaponiza­tion of infor­ma­tion.” Com­mit­tee chair Ed Royce and rank­ing mem­ber Eliot Engel are now expect­ed to rein­tro­duce a 2014 bill to reform the Voice of Amer­ica, which fell into dis­ar­ray fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. In his open­ing state­ments at the hear­ing, Royce argued that the bill “will help us fight Putin’s pro­pa­ganda,” though some crit­ics believe it would turn the fed­eral government’s inter­na­tional broad­cast­ing ser­vice into “some­thing fun­da­men­tally not Amer­i­can.”

Who Are These Guys?

Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev are an unlike­ly pair. Weiss, youth­ful yet pro­fes­so­r­ial in man­ner, has become a near­ly con­stant pres­ence on cable news because of his sup­posed exper­tise on, among oth­er things, Rus­sia, Syr­ia, and ISIS. A long­time neo­con­ser­v­a­tive jour­nal­ist, he began his rise to cable-news ubiq­uity as a pro­tégé of the late Christo­pher Hitchens. After work­ing with Hitchens, he made his way to the Hen­ry Jack­son Soci­ety (HJS), a Lon­don-based bas­tion of neo­con­ser­vatism that, accord­ing to a report in The Guardian, has “attract­ed con­tro­versy in recent years—with key staff crit­i­cised in the past for alleged­ly anti-Mus­lim and anti-immi­grant com­ments.”

The his­to­rian Marko Atti­la Hoare, who resigned in protest from the HJS in 2012, has writ­ten that the orga­ni­za­tion pub­lishes “polem­i­cal and super­fi­cial pieces by aspir­ing jour­nal­ists and pun­dits that pan­der to a nar­row read­er­ship of extreme Euro­pho­bic British Tories, hard­line US Repub­li­cans and Israeli Likud­niks.” Accord­ing to Hoare, Weiss rein­vented him­self at the HJS “as an expert on Russia—about which he has no more aca­d­e­mic exper­tise than he does about the Mid­dle East.” Weiss served as HJS com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor before mov­ing on to found the Inter­preter under the aus­pices of the US-based IMR in 2013. Solid­i­fy­ing his main­stream-media cre­den­tials, he will join the Dai­ly Beast as a senior edi­tor on June 1.

Where Weiss’s mod­er­ate demeanor belies a deep com­mit­ment to neo­con­ser­v­a­tive ide­ol­ogy, Pomer­ant­sev exudes a kind of louche non­cha­lance. A British cit­i­zen of Russ­ian extrac­tion, this rum­pled tele­vi­sion pro­ducer has par­layed his career in the less-than-rep­utable dis­tricts of the Russ­ian media land­scape into a role as a kind of lat­ter-day Cas­san­dra, sound­ing a clar­ion call about the dan­ger that Russ­ian state pro­pa­ganda pos­es to the West.

An assid­u­ous self-pro­mot­er, Pomer­ant­sev chron­i­cled his jour­ney into the bel­ly of the Russ­ian media beast in a recent book, Noth­ing Is True and Every­thing Is Pos­si­ble. A launch par­ty in ear­ly 2015 at the Lega­tum Insti­tute, a Lon­don-based research orga­ni­za­tion with close links to the IMR, offered a glimpse of the esteem that Pomer­ant­sev enjoys. At the event, the Amer­i­can direc­tor of the institute’s Tran­si­tions Forum,Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Anne Apple­baum, told the audi­ence that she believes his book is “an extra­or­di­nary achieve­ment.”

Pomer­ant­sev, it turns out, is an expe­ri­enced lob­by­ist too. In his book he recalls vis­it­ing the British Par­lia­ment in 2013 to make the case for “why Europe needs a Mag­nit­sky Act.” The orig­i­nal ver­sion of the bill, pushed by British hedge-fund mag­nate Bill Brow­der and passed by the US Con­gress in 2012, imposed bans on a group of Russ­ian offi­cials deemed respon­si­ble for the prison death of Russ­ian whistle­blower Sergei Mag­nit­sky. This in itself is notable, since Brow­der was an enthu­si­as­tic sup­porter of Vladimir Putin’s deci­sion to jail Khodor­kovsky in 2003.

Like Weiss, Pomer­ant­sev has become a fre­quent pres­ence in the US media. He appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times last Decem­ber to inform read­ers that at the core of the Kremlin’s infor­ma­tion strat­egy is “the idea that there is no such thing as objec­tive truth.” Two months lat­er, he was the sub­ject of a fawn­ing Times pro­file in which he described his book as being “about the Faus­t­ian bar­gain made by an ambi­tious young­ster work­ing in Russia’s medi­a­land of oppor­tu­nity.” In join­ing forces with the edi­tor of a Khodor­kovsky-fund­ed webzine, he seems to have trad­ed one Faus­t­ian bar­gain for anoth­er.

Because of his decade-long impris­on­ment, Khodor­kovsky has attained the stature of a sec­u­lar saint in some cir­cles. But it should not be for­got­ten that the oil tycoon made his for­tune in a spec­tac­u­larly cor­rupt and some­times vio­lent fash­ion. Indeed, in 2000, For­eign Affairs described him and his fel­low oli­garchs as “a dan­ger­ous posse of plu­to­crats” who “threat­en Russia’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy and free mar­kets” as well as “vital US inter­ests.”

Accord­ing to a recent pro­file of Khodor­kovsky in The New York­er, staff mem­bers of a Riga-based news out­let in which he planned to invest object­ed. “He’s a tox­ic investor,” said a per­son “close to the project.” The arti­cle added that “his views of jour­nal­ists haven’t changed much since the nineties, when reporters could be bought and sold, and ‘hit’ pieces could be ginned up for the right price.” Khodorkovsky’s agenda—to bring regime change to Russia—is faith­fully reflect­ed in the work of IMR, the Inter­preter, and the “Men­ace of Unre­al­ity” report.

With the report’s pub­li­ca­tion, Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev have joined the long line of West­ern jour­nal­ists who have played to the public’s dark­est sus­pi­cions about the pow­er, inten­tions, and reach of those gov­ern­ments that are per­ceived as threats to the Unit­ed States. In his sem­i­nal essay on McCarthy­ism, “The Para­noid Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics,” the his­to­rian Richard Hof­s­tadter wrote that in the world­view of these oppor­tunists, “very often the ene­my is held to pos­sess some espe­cially effec­tive source of pow­er: he con­trols the press; he has unlim­ited funds; he has a new secret for influ­enc­ing the mind (brain­wash­ing).” There exists no bet­ter pré­cis of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s view of Putin and the Russ­ian government’s media appa­ra­tus.

The report asserts that Putin’s Rus­sia is “arguably more dan­ger­ous than a com­mu­nist super­power.” Any effec­tive response to the virus of Russ­ian pro­pa­ganda, Weiss insists, must com­bine “the wis­dom of Orwell…with the savvy of Don Drap­er.” Read­ers will cer­tainly cede that the duo has led by exam­ple, since the report and its set of “mod­est rec­om­men­da­tions” are noth­ing if not Orwellian.

The authors call for the cre­ation of an “inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized rat­ings sys­tem for dis­in­for­ma­tion” that would fur­nish news orga­ni­za­tions and blog­gers with the “ana­lyt­i­cal tools with which to define forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” While they throw in an oblig­a­tory caveat that “top-down cen­sor­ship should be avoid­ed” (exact­ly how is left unex­plained), they nonethe­less endorse what amounts to a media black­list. “Vig­or­ous debate and dis­agree­ment is of course to be encour­aged,” the authors write, “but media orga­ni­za­tions that prac­tice con­scious decep­tion should be exclud­ed from the com­mu­ni­ty.”

What qual­i­fies as “con­scious decep­tion” is also left unde­fined, but it isn’t dif­fi­cult to sur­mise. Orga­ni­za­tions that do not share the authors’ enthu­si­asm for regime change in Syr­ia or war with Rus­sia over Ukraine would almost cer­tainly be “exclud­ed from the com­mu­nity.” Weiss, for instance, has assert­ed repeat­edly that Rus­sia is to blame for the July 2014 down­ing of Malaysia Air­lines Flight MH17. But would a news orga­ni­za­tion like, say, The Atlantic or Der Spiegel be “exclud­ed from the com­mu­nity” for writ­ing about a Ger­man intel­li­gence report that indi­cated the mis­sile in ques­tion did not come from Rus­sia? Would jour­nal­ists like Robert Par­ry be black­listed for ques­tion­ing the main­stream account of the tragedy? Would schol­ars like the Uni­ver­sity of Ottawa’s Paul Robin­son be banned from appear­ing on op-ed pages and cable-news pro­grams for chal­leng­ing the notion that there is, in the words of Ukraine’s ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States, “no civ­il war in Ukraine,” but rather a war “start­ed and waged by Rus­sia”?

Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev accuse the Krem­lin of “mak­ing decep­tion equiv­a­lent to argu­men­ta­tion and the delib­er­ate mis­use of facts as legit­i­mate as ratio­nal per­sua­sion.” Maybe so. But these tac­tics are hard­ly unique to the Krem­lin. In Decem­ber, a group of Kiev par­lia­men­tar­i­ans pre­sented pho­tographs to the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee pur­port­ing to show Russ­ian troops and tanks invad­ing east­ern Ukraine. Sub­se­quent reports revealed that the images had been tak­en dur­ing the Russ­ian-Geor­gian war in 2008. Did the Inter­preter denounce the Ukrain­ian del­e­ga­tion for try­ing to pass off doc­tored pho­tos? No. Its warn­ings about dis­in­for­ma­tion cut only one way.

So do its oft-expressed con­cerns about trans­parency. Time and again, the authors call on pun­dits and think tanks to be more trans­par­ent with regard to their affil­i­a­tions, finan­cial inter­ests, and fund­ing. But the Inter­preter doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily prac­tice what it so ardent­ly preach­es. In addi­tion to the sup­port pro­vided by Khodor­kovsky, the pub­li­ca­tion iden­ti­fies its oth­er ini­tial source of fund­ing as the Herzen Foun­da­tion of Lon­don. Weiss respond­ed to a query ask­ing about the prove­nance of the foun­da­tion by admit­ting, “I don’t know Herzen’s cur­rent orga­ni­za­tional sta­tus, board of direc­tors, etc. You are most wel­come to inquire with the Char­i­ties Aid Foun­da­tion in the UK.” Mul­ti­ple requests to the Char­i­ties Aid Foun­da­tion, with which Herzen had claimed to be reg­is­tered, have all gone unan­swered. Indeed, there is no evi­dence Herzen exists.

The authors believe active mea­sures must be tak­en to shield gullible Amer­i­cans from the depre­da­tions of Putin’s pro­pa­ganda. That Amer­i­can news­pa­pers employ pub­lic edi­tors to mon­i­tor their news reports isn’t enough; they should also staff “counter-dis­in­for­ma­tion edi­tors” who “would pick apart what might be called all the news that is unfit to print.” Such pro­fes­sional cen­sors are nec­es­sary, we are told, because the Krem­lin “exploits sys­temic weak spots in the West­ern sys­tem, pro­vid­ing a sort of X‑ray of the under­belly of lib­eral democ­racy.” Worse, the authors charge, are the legions of “senior West­ern experts” pro­vid­ing aid and com­fort to the ene­my, whether by appear­ing on RT, accept­ing posi­tions on the boards of Russ­ian com­pa­nies, or sim­ply attend­ing Russ­ian-spon­sored forums. “The blur­ring of dis­tinc­tions between think tanks and lob­by­ing helps the Krem­lin push its agen­da with­out due scruti­ny,” they write.

Accord­ing to Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev, the most severe threat is the one posed by RT, a net­work to which they impute vast pow­ers. They are hard­ly alone. In Jan­u­ary, Andrew Lack, then chief exec­u­tive of the Broad­cast­ing Board of Governors—the fed­eral agency that over­sees the Voice of Amer­ica, Radio Free Europe/Radio Lib­erty, and oth­er US-fund­ed media out­lets—likened RT’s threat to those posed by “the Islam­ic State in the Mid­dle East and groups like Boko Haram.” (Lack was recent­ly named chair­man of NBC News.)

RT is alleged­ly so skill­ful at mask­ing its nefar­i­ous mes­sage that “any­one tun­ing in would not imme­di­ately know it is Krem­lin-run or even asso­ciate it with Rus­sia,” the authors write—even though the network’s news broad­casts begin with the state­ment “Com­ing to you live from Moscow, this is RT.”

The Phan­tom Men­ace

The lead­ing author­ity on Sovi­et and Russ­ian mass media, Duke Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Ellen Mick­iewicz, dis­putes the entire premise of Weiss and Pomerantsev’s report. She told me that the hypo­der­mic mod­el of media effects (in which mes­sages are “inject­ed” into the audi­ence sim­ply by virtue of being dis­sem­i­nated) was sci­en­tif­i­cally dis­proved decades ago. “It’s the most sim­ple­minded mis­take you can make in eval­u­at­ing media effects,” she said.


Slouch­ing Towards McCarthy­ism

One might expect that such neo-McCarthy­ism, reek­ing as it does of a bare­ly con­cealed attempt to cen­sor and intim­i­date, would have touched off protests, if not con­dem­na­tion, in the estab­lish­ment media. But the Inter­preter has been giv­en a rap­tur­ous recep­tion on both sides of the Atlantic.

Among its most vis­i­ble pro­po­nents has been the Lega­tum Insti­tute. As Mark Ames recent­ly report­ed in the online pub­li­ca­tion Pan­do­Daily, Lega­tum is the brain­child of bil­lion­aire ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Christo­pher Chan­dler. Like Brow­der and Khodor­kovsky, Chan­dler made his bil­lions in post-Sovi­et Rus­sia. Accord­ing to Ames, he and his broth­er “report­edly were the sin­gle biggest for­eign ben­e­fi­cia­ries of one of the great­est pri­va­ti­za­tion scams in his­tory: Russia’s vouch­er pro­gram in the ear­ly 1990s.”

To mark the pub­li­ca­tion of the “Men­ace of Unre­al­ity” report, Lega­tum host­ed a pan­el dis­cus­sion that fea­tured such lumi­nar­ies as Anne Apple­baum, US Ambas­sador to Ukraine Geof­frey Pyatt, for­mer US ambas­sador John Herb­st, and Ukrain­ian Ambas­sador at Large Olexan­der Scher­ba. All expressed grave con­cern over the threat that Putin’s pro­pa­ganda machine pos­es to the West.

The event was fol­lowed by sim­i­lar ses­sions host­ed by the Har­ri­man Insti­tute and the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­racy. At the lat­ter event, Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev were joined by Free­dom House direc­tor David Kramer; a young func­tionary of the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive For­eign Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive; and the NED’s Inter­na­tional Forum exec­u­tive direc­tor, Christo­pher Walk­er, who tout­ed the endowment’s “close ties” with both the Inter­preter and the Insti­tute for Mod­ern Rus­sia.

Two of the report’s most vis­i­ble sup­port­ers have been Apple­baum and Edward Lucas, a senior edi­tor at The Econ­o­mist. Soon after the launch par­ty at Lega­tum, Apple­baum took to the pages of The Wash­ing­ton Post and The New York Review of Books to plug Weiss and Pomerantsev’s cru­sade. In an essay for the for­mer, she warned that “for democ­ra­cies,” Russ­ian dis­in­for­ma­tion pos­es “a seri­ous chal­lenge.”Russia’s use of what Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev refer to as Inter­net “trolls” is espe­cially wor­ry­ing to Apple­baum, who fears read­ers will be undu­ly influ­enced by their “neg­a­tive or mock­ing remarks.”


In the end, apart from being a frontal attack on the core tenets of free speech, the Weiss-Pomer­ant­sev cru­sade lets West­ern pun­dits and pol­i­cy-mak­ers off the hook for their com­plic­ity in the Ukraine cri­sis by dis­cour­ag­ing any kind of crit­i­cal think­ing or recon­sid­er­a­tion of US pol­icy. The inces­sant focus in “The Men­ace of Unre­al­ity” on the Kremlin’s media appa­ra­tus obscures the human­i­tar­ian cat­a­stro­phe unfold­ing in Ukraine, as well as the grow­ing dan­ger of a larg­er US-Rus­sia war. The pol­icy of bel­liger­ence toward Rus­sia that Weiss and Pomer­ant­sev so staunch­ly sup­port has been one of the pri­mary cul­prits in the Ukraine cri­sis. The fact that they now seek to silence, smear, and even black­list crit­ics of that pol­icy makes their project all the more egre­gious.

One would have hoped that jour­nal­ists, of all peo­ple, would object to this project in the strongest pos­si­ble terms. That no one has yet done so is an omi­nous sign.



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