Steve Shabad: “Response to Matt Bivens [Re: Russiagate]”
Response to Matt Bivens (JRL #50 “Russiagate: The Great Tragic Comedy of Modern Journalism”)
From Steve Shabad
Matt Bivens’ essay on what he calls the “tragic comedy of modern journalism” made for provocative reading, and I agreed with some of his points. But it was so filled with sweeping generalizations, distortions and factual errors that I feel compelled to comment.
A few words about my Russia-related credentials. I’ve had a lifelong connection to the country-attending a Moscow high school for four years during the Cold War, writing a column on the Soviet/Russian press for 20 years and translating a variety of Russian-language material ranging from politics to the law to psychology and other subjects over many decades.
Before I get into my response, here’s where I stand on the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. I completely reject the ridiculous notion that Vladimir Putin “put Trump in the White House.” Any reasonable analyst would agree that Trump’s election-a monumental event on an enormous scale-was a result of a myriad of factors. But it is irrefutable, in my view, that Russian interference was one of those factors. How much it contributed to the result is unknowable; but the fact alone that Russians interfered should disturb all Americans. Our democracy has enough problems as it is.
Now to my issues with Matt’s piece.
1) The analogy to McCarthyism, like most analogies, is totally specious. Matt, look at the context! The 100 contacts with Russian nationals in this case were not random-God knows, I have had many Russian friends in my lifetime-but in the context of a U.S. presidential campaign! Somehow official after official of the Trump campaign had all these contacts, then lied about them, while Trump himself absolutely refused to say anything negative about Vladimir Putin and, as we later learned, he was trying covertly to negotiate a Trump Tower project in Moscow. So this has nothing to do with McCarthyism.
By the way, in another lapse of logic, you sarcastically ask if Trump could be an “unwitting traitor.” But Clapper’s suggestion (as well as John Brennan’s) was that he could be a witting or unwitting asset. As far as I know, only a witting asset could be described as a traitor. But in any case, your blanket suggestion that all of the journalists you condemn have a “hysterical certainty” that Trump must be a Russian asset is again a total exaggeration (even disregarding the gratuitous word “hysterical”). Pundits have raised the possibility, based on the reasons I mention above.
2) You name a few writers and scholars as “brave enough to ask questions” and “voices of reason.” To me, a voice of reason is someone who analyzes a subject in a balanced way, willing to see both sides of an issue. In no way can this definition be applied to Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, who have a history of gleefully and one-sidedly ripping up fellow writers, pushing their own agenda. It’s a stretch to call them journalists. And Steve Cohen, whom I have admired in the past, has lost all credibility by apparently putting 100 percent of the blame on the U.S. for all that has gone wrong in U.S.-Soviet (and -Russian relations).
3) Matt, you say Robert Mueller “has now turned in his findings, and there’s not much there.” Really? So you’ve seen the report? You must have special access. Or are you taking the word of William Barr, the man Trump hired after seeing Barr’s memo dismissing the very idea of obstruction of justice? If so, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you. Even from Barr’s summary, however, we know that Mueller’s report did not exonerate Trump. In addition, Mueller’s office has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities. And no, if Trump’s opponents are disappointed-so far-it is not because he was found not to be a traitor, but because he has gotten away with impunity with what we believe to be his criminal behavior.
4) Matt, I’m not sure you understand the meaning of “whataboutism.” It means responding to a criticism with one’s own criticism on a totally different subject. It originally referred to Soviet propagandists who, when confronted with American accusations of human-rights abuses, responded by saying, “And why do you lynch blacks?” – instead of actually dealing with the accusation of their human-rights abuses head-on. This was Trump’s tactic when asked about Putin’s connection to killings of journalists; his response essentially was, “Well, we kill a lot of people, too” – implicitly accepting the characterization of Putin, but seemingly justifying it.
5) Then you finally state you don’t buy Russian interference in the election. So you don’t believe U.S. intelligence agencies, either; Mueller’s indictments; Facebook’s acknowledgment of anonymous Russian accounts that posted fake anti-Clinton propaganda; the offer of kompromat on Hillary that Donald Jr. happily accepted for a meeting at Trump Tower; and other evidence? (No, we’re not talking about antimasturbation hotlines or “Star Wars” reviews. Be serious.)
You make some reference to the Internet Research Agency, but I don’t even understand what you think it was trying to do.
6) It’s interesting that while you reject the mountain of evidence against Trump, but you readily accept the propagandistic allegations against Hillary Clinton related to the Uranium One deal (which originated in a book by a Steve Bannon collaborator) and her speech to Goldman Sachs. Neither of those events involved any criminal wrongdoing.
Matt, I do agree with the regret running through your essay that Russia and Russians are being roundly demonized and that they are once again among the “go-to” bad guys in movie thrillers (although “The Americans” series was a brilliant exception). But that’s why I was disappointed in the bunch of flaws in your piece.
[featured images are file photos from other occasions]