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The man behind the Whitewater non-scandal strikes out again


I saw somebody on Twitter refer to a massive new Columbia Journalism Review report on “Russiagate.” I was amazed to see the byline of Jeff Gerth. For the young people out there, Gerth’s greatest hits include inventing Whitewater, a scandal so empty an extremely partisan and unscrupulous special prosecutor with nearly unlimited resources couldn’t find anything to pin on the Clintons. He also completely botched coverage of the When Ho Lee case, leading to the latter being falsely accused of stealing nuclear secrets.

When you turn to Gerth you’re looking to get a predetermined answer, and needless to say in this case the answer is that Russiagate was a media hoax. The argument, thought, is the same kind of misdirection you see from total in-the-tank hacks like Taibbi and Greenwald: an obsessive focus on minor issues like Russian bots and whether everything in the Steele Dossier (which was not covered at all during the 2016 campaign) was accurate, while ignoring the actually material Russian ratfucking of 2016: hacking and strategically releasing emails with a generally misleading anti-Clinton pro-Trump spin, generating enormous amounts of negative media coverage for Clinton. David Corn explains:

Gerth finds plenty of ammo for his assault on the media. But here’s where he goes wrong: He misrepresents the scandal that is the subject of the media coverage he is scrutinizing. He defines the Trump-Russia affair by only two elements of the tale: the question of Trump collusion with Moscow and the unconfirmed Steele dossier. This is exactly how Trump and his lieutenants want the scandal to be perceived. From the start, Trump has proclaimed “no collusion,” setting that as the bar for judging him. That is, no evidence of criminal collusion, and he’s scot-free. And he and his defenders have fixated on the Steele dossier—often falsely claiming it triggered the FBI’s investigation—to portray Trump as the victim of untrue allegations and “fake news.” Gerth essentially accepts these terms of the debate. 

Yet the focus on collusion and the Steele material has been a purposeful distraction meant to obscure the basics of the scandal: Vladimir Putin attacked the 2016 election in part to help Trump win, and Trump and his aides aided and abetted this assault on American democracy by denying such an attack was happening. Trump provided cover for a foreign adversary subverting a US election. Throughout the thousands and thousands of words Gerth generates, he downplays or ignores these fundamentals and how the media in 2016 covered them (which was shoddily). Instead, he zeroes in on the reporting related to collusion and Steele. In doing so, he offers an examination predicated on a skewed view of reality.

Gerth sets off a worrying signal in the fifth paragraph of this opus, when he writes that there was “an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth.” Hyperbolic version of the truth? What does that mean? Gerth does acknowledge that the Washington Post “has tracked thousands of Trump’s false or misleading statements,” but to cast Trump’s lies as “hyperbolic” truth—as if there are two morally equivalent sides here—indicates this analysis is not going to fare well. (Trump, of course, lied repeatedly about his doings in Russia.)

Throughout the four parts, Gerth lowballs the Russian attack on the election and Trump’s assistance. He quotes academic studies that conclude the secret Russian campaign to exploit social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube—to influence the election did not have a significant measurable impact. Yet he barely mentions the Russian hacking operation that led to WikiLeaks releasing daily derogatory material about Hillary Clinton in the final month of the campaign—including a trove of stolen documents dumped on the day the Washington Post revealed Trump’s Access Hollywood comments. (That move appeared to be a naked attempt to distract from Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” remark.) This is where Moscow undoubtedly got its biggest bang, producing weeks of negative stories that prevented the Clinton campaign from advancing its own messaging. The American political press eagerly lapped up these tidbits without highlighting the larger story that the scoops were the results of Russian information warfare mounted to shape the election. In a race as close as 2016, those weeks of bad press were likely one of several decisive factors that determined the outcome.

One quick way of determining whether a Russiagate report is on the level is whether it cites the report of a Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, which demonstrates in detail that Russia materially ratfucked the 2016 campaign, with the encouragement and cooperation of the Trump campaign. Gerth, as far as I can tell, doesn’t. It’s just straight propaganda.

There is a media scandal here: the mainstream press was manipulated into an endless stream of negative stories about Clinton — the most important of them drowning out the Access Hollywood scandal — based on hacked emails that in the end had virtually nothing of substantive or even prurient interest. The Russian ratfucking only worked because the emails released were not approached with any kind of critical distance or careful evaluation of the motives of the hackers. That’s an important story, but not one Gerth wants to tell, because 7 years later he’s still in on it.

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