Why you should care
Because the media is not the enemy.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.
One of the rich ironies in President Trump’s obsession with the “fake media” is that the real masters of “fake news” are the Russians he seems so reluctant to offend. Let’s hope someone is pointing this out to him as he prepares to meet with President Vladimir Putin tomorrow. If Trump raves to Putin about all his troubles with “fake media,” Putin, who long ago turned Russia’s media into his personal tool, will be smiling broadly to himself and thinking: “At last, a president who understands.”
Putin is heir to a 100-year-old tradition of pushing fake news as a matter of official Russian policy. It goes back at least as far as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the aftermath, Lenin and his revolutionaries felt embattled. Most of the world treated the Soviets as pariahs because of the revolutionary ideology they were preaching. To push back, the Russians developed tools for spreading propaganda — fake news — pumping false reports out through the front groups and communist parties they were setting up around the world. World War II and the Cold War gave them new opportunities, especially because their West European communist parties had played important roles in the anti-fascist resistance and thus became more credible vehicles for spreading Russian propaganda after 1945.
Trump should be pushing government agencies to uncover Russian fake news. And he should be looking to the U.S. media as an ally to help bring it to light.
But it was really during the Cold War when Russia turned fake news into a high art. There are numerous examples of Moscow faking things like U.S. embassy cables, and letters from White House officials, including President Ronald Reagan and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Russians circulated forged documents through their propaganda organs, presenting a challenge to Americans, who had to identify and debunk them. To anyone who understands this history and knows what Putin has done with today’s Russian media and with online fake news, it is downright laughable to put the U.S. media in the same category, as Trump does almost every day.
Skip to our recent election. With decades of practice and turbocharged by cybertools and social media, Russia played us like a violin. They issued faked messages from Google to carry out phishing attacks on a variety of U.S. government and political officials. As King’s College professor Thomas Rid pointed out in congressional testimony, American journalists were often unwitting victims of Russian fake news, not the creators that Trump accuses them of being.
Moreover, Russia used automated Twitter accounts to spread false news during the campaign. In fact, a study by Oxford University claims that if questionable WikiLeaks material and Russian-origin stories are folded in, more than 45 percent of election-related news accounts amounted to propaganda.
Rather than battling the U.S. media, Trump should be pushing government agencies such as Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Information Agency, the Department of State and the CIA to uncover Russian fake news and throw a spotlight on it. And he should be looking to the U.S. media as an ally to help bring it to light. An excellent recent study by The Washington Post documented ways in which the Europeans, who have dealt with Russian intrusions for decades, are taking such steps, working hard to make the problem visible so citizens will not be deceived.
The U.S. media is far from perfect, but Trump’s attacks on journalism are among the most reckless things he is doing. Fair enough to dispute media accounts — every administration has, to a varying degree — but he should do it on the basis of specific substantive points, not the sort of name-calling that defines autocratic views of the press throughout modern history. Add to this the sheer hypocrisy of his charges: Trump’s long campaign to prove Obama was not born in the U.S. was laughably fake, and during the campaign his seizing on a fake news story about Sen. Ted Cruz’s father being involved in JFK’s assassination shows Trump loves fake news when it works for him.
So unless Trump’s attacks on the media are just a tactic, as some supporters suggest, the danger is that he and Putin could turn out to be soul mates in their disdain for an unfettered press. Public statements on Russian hacking by Putin and Trump put them almost on the same page. Putin denies any role, saying that if it occurred, it could have been “patriotic” individuals moved to defend Russian interests (similar to his eventually retracted denial of Russian official involvement in the Crimea takeover). Trump has been equivocal about the Russian role — late last month, he was still calling it a “big Dem hoax.”
So this meeting will pose the ultimate test for Trump’s views on the Russia issue. If he comes away still expressing doubts or ambiguity about Russia’s role in our election, Putin — an old KGB officer — will have had his way. If on the other hand, Trump finds a way to acknowledge Russia’s role, he will begin to thin the mysterious cloud that still hangs over his presidency.