Republicans have a Putin problem — and the media need to stop glossing over it

Madison Cawthorn. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Madison Cawthorn didn’t get the memo.

Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.

So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.

WRAL.com of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”

Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.

In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.

No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.

Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.

Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.

All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.

Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)

That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.

As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”

Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”

There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.

Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.

In Georgia, a partisan news site replaces local journalism with false election claims

Here’s what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of local news in your community: partisan websites that look like local news pop up in order to push a political point of view. Most of them are right-wing, although there are also a few that lean left.

Last week NPR’s Stephen Fowler had a terrific piece about The Georgia Star News, a Trump-oriented project that is aligned with Steve Bannon, although it doesn’t sound like Bannon has an official role. “It’s very populist, it’s very nationalist, it’s very MAGA, it’s very American First,” Bannon reportedly said.

The lead story right now: “Merrick Garland’s Case Against Georgia Is a Loser, According to Legal Scholars and Journalists,” aggregated from The Federalist and opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

What the Star News and sites like it do is work the media food chain. The website’s publisher, John Fredericks, has a radio talk show whose guests have included Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Fredericks’ talk show and website haved pushed false information about absentee ballots. (According to Fredericks’ website, his show was recently booted off YouTube. Gee, I wonder why?)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the integrity of Georgia’s elections when it really mattered, nevertheless called for an investigation based on the Star News’ story. From there the story was injected into the mainstream, since legitimate media outlets are in the habit of quoting Raffensperger. And, before you know it, Trump himself was praising the Star News for “the incredible reporting you have done.”

Fredericks claims his operation is profitable thanks to an injection of ads from Republican politicians.

As these “pink slime” operations go, Fredericks’ is rather modest — eight sites, compared to the 1,300 documented last fall by The New York Times. And Fredericks’ sites are statewide — they’re not promising the sort of hyperlocal news that, say, a right-wing site like the Macon (Georgia) Times does.

Still, the Star News points to the dangers of what can happen when we lose reliable local and regional news.

A resignation provides some rare insight into the Murdoch media’s smear campaigns

Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo (cc) 2019 by Prachatai.

Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night just by sitting behind President Biden during his joint address to Congress. As the understudy to our oldest president, Harris may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 if Biden decides not to seek re-election.

And Harris, who is not just the first female vice president but also the first Black person and Asian American to fill that role, is driving the right crazy. Back in 2019, when she was running her own presidential campaign, the main critique of her was that she was too conventional and too close to law enforcement. Now the right-wing media echo chamber portrays her as the fifth member of the Squad.

The latest attack on Harris backfired in an unusually spectacular manner, and illustrates the corrosive effect that the Murdoch media are having in this country.

On Saturday, Murdoch’s New York Post devoted its cover story to a report that immigrant children at the border were being given goodie bags that included taxpayer-purchased copies of Harris’ children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere.”

The story immediately became fodder for Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. But the only evidence was a photo of one copy of the book, and the tale quickly unraveled — though that didn’t stop the Post, in a follow-up, from claiming that “thousands” of copies were distributed.

Then, on Tuesday, we received a rare moment of clarity. Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the story, tweeted that she had resigned. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point,” she wrote. Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times has all the details.

Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then you’re thinking that this happens all the time. One part of the Murdoch media empire runs with something false, exaggerated or, at the very least, unverified; other parts of the empire amplify it; and we have a full-blown fake scandal about Democrats on our hands. (Note: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. See below.)

Last fall, for instance, in what was surely the lamest attempt at an October surprise ever, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon attempted to feed a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to Fox News. Taking the sensible position that the story couldn’t be verified, Fox’s news division actually passed on it — only to see it pop up in the New York Post.

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But not before some internal hand-wringing, as the Times’ Katie Robertson reported. The Post reporter who wrote most of the story refused to let his byline be put on it since he was afraid it would blow up, and several others declined as well. But Fox News, whose journalists had enough scruples not to take the story, recycled it endlessly on its opinionated talk shows, running “nearly 25 and a half hours, which included 420 segments” between Oct. 14 and 23, according to Rob Savillo of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America.

Today the laptop story exists in kind of a weird limbo, neither proven nor disproven, and in any case telling us nothing of relevance about President Biden.

After stumbling a bit after Election Day and allowing pure Trumpist outlets like Newsmax and OANN to move in on its territory, Fox News has resumed its dominance, according to Ted Johnson of Deadline — although the three major cable news channels, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are on the decline.

Morever, Fox, fed by the New York Post, remains the most dominant force in Republican politics, making it impossible for the party to move beyond Trump or even to think about compromising with Biden.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently testified before his country’s parliament about the harm his fellow Australian Murdoch has done. Among other things, he said:

What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other. That is exactly what Murdoch has done: Divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.

On Thursday we learned that Giuliani’s home and office were raided by the FBI, reportedly in connection with his murky dealings in Ukraine as he attempted to draw a connection between alleged corruption by Hunter Biden and his father. Bannon has faced criminal charges since last August over an alleged fundraising scheme involving Trump’s wall at the southern border.

The Murdoch media, though, just goes on and on, smearing without truth or consequences. You’ll be hearing false stories about Kamala Harris’ book for the rest of her political career. Mission accomplished.

Update: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. The Times’ Grynbaum tweets:

Anatomy of a smear: How Rudy Giuliani’s latest Biden ‘drug deal’ (almost) went mainstream

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Palácio do Planalto.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.

The occasion was a tweet by CBS News reporter Bo Erickson, who announced to his 28,500 followers that he’d asked the former vice president about it — and who, in turn, was none too pleased.

“He called it a ‘smear campaign’ and then went after me,” Erickson wrote, quoting Biden as saying: “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”

Biden does indeed appear angry in the accompanying video. And why shouldn’t he? In fewer than three days, an unsupported allegation based on emails of dubious provenance had slithered up the media food chain from Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy scandal sheet to what we once called the Tiffany Network. Now the story was “Biden denies,” and if — as appears more than possible — it was the work of disinformation agents, then they must have taken great satisfaction in a job well done.

The details of the story hardly matter. Even if the emails are genuine, all they show is that Joe Biden may have met with an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board. Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. But as this piece by PolitiFact explains, it has long since been established that the prosecutor himself was corrupt, and that Joe Biden was acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the Western alliance.

What does matter is that the Post story has all the earmarks of disinformation from the campaign of President Donald Trump, from Russian interests or from both.

Consider that the two sources were former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers. One of Bannon’s best-known maxims is that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.” Because, inevitably, the media just can’t resist reporting on it, even it’s to debunk it or, in the case of Erickson, to get the victim to say something about it.

Moreover, The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had warned months ago that Giuliani was “the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence,” and that he was passing along Russian disinformation to the president as part of his so-called investigation into the Bidens’ connections with Ukraine. Trump’s reported response: “That’s Rudy.”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it was a straight line from the New York Post to CBS News. There have been more than a few zigzags along the way.

For instance, there is the matter of why Giuliani’s latest “drug deal,” to recycle John Bolton’s apt phrase, found its way into the Post rather than a more respectable sector of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. If the story had been broken by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, we’d all be taking it seriously.

As it turns out, what Giuliani was peddling was too rancid even for Fox News, yet another Murdoch property. According to Mediaite, the news department at Fox rejected Rudy’s pitch because the veracity of the emails — allegedly found on a laptop that Hunter Biden had left at a Delaware repair shop — couldn’t be verified.

Crisis averted? Hardly. That’s not how the media food chain works. Because after the story appeared in the Post, Fox News hosts immediately began talking it up. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the story was discussed more than 100 times between Wednesday and Friday — not just on the opinion shows, but on the news side as well, even though the operation’s actual journalists had taken a pass on it.

And even within the Post, the story proved toxic. The New York Times reported that there were such misgivings in the Post’s newsroom that those involved in writing it refused to have their bylines put on it. In the end, the bylines of two women who may not have had much to do with it were placed atop the story. One, according to the Times’ sources, had “little to do with the reporting and writing of the article” and “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”

The smear led to the usual handwringing at Facebook and Twitter as well. As The Guardian reported, both platforms took steps to limit the reach and distribution of the story on the grounds that the emails had not been verified. And that, in turn, led to the usual complaints from Republicans that the two services were censoring news that had a rightward slant. “Twitter’s censorship of this story is quite hypocritical,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, “given its willingness to allow users to share less-well-sourced reporting critical of other candidates.”

As I wrote recently, the media for the most part have been less gullible in covering the presidential campaign than they were four years ago, when Hillary Clinton’s emails were conflated into a massive scandal despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, for instance, the press treated unproven claims by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who charged that Biden sexually assaulted her a generation ago, with the skepticism they deserved.

But Giuliani, in particular, has refused to let go of the Ukraine story. And it’s got to be damaging to Biden on at least some level for it to resurface just a few weeks before the final day of voting. You can be sure it will come up at this Thursday’s debate, and it is exactly the kind of complicated tale that can’t be refuted with a soundbite. The challenge for Biden will be explaining it in simple terms while Trump is interrupting him and yelling at him, regardless of whether his mic has been cut.

A few minutes after Bo Erickson tweeted out Biden’s response, his CBS News colleague Paula Reid came to his defense. “Biden adopts Trump playbook” by “attacking” Erickson, she tweeted, adding: “Fine to attack the story, but why personally insult Bo?”

The “Trump playbook”? Seriously? Biden’s response was sharp and a little rude, but hardly out of line given that Erickson was giving mainstream credibility to an unverified smear. Fortunately for Biden, the media for the most part appear not to be taking it seriously.

But the question of how to handle such unproven and unprovable allegations remains unanswered. Ignore them, and you’ll be accused of bias — and the story will get out there anyway. Debunk them, and you’re giving them wider play. Ask the target about them, and you run the risk of #bothsides-ism.

It’s a miserable dilemma. But that’s the state of media and politics in 2020.

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Yes, Steve Bannon is a racist

Steve Bannon. Photo (cc) 2010 by Don Irvine.
Steve Bannon. Photo (cc) 2010 by Don Irvine.

I was thinking of this in light of a conversation we had on Facebook last week. As you read today’s New York Times profile of Steve Bannon, you’ll see that a number of people close to Bannon insist he’s not a racist. Yet there are numerous details about how he’s been willing to exploit and indulge racism in order to accomplish his goals, which is really just another way of being a racist. Then there’s this:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

Jones, by the way, is not an unfriendly witness. Elsewhere there is this: “Ms. Jones, Mr. Bannon’s former film collaborator, who describes herself as very liberal, said, ‘Steve’s not a racist.'”

Steve is a racist.

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