For the past year, I have been writing about a war on truth through disinformation, propaganda and lies – often coming straight from the White House. I thought I had a good sense of how poisoned our information ecosystem had become and how dangerous that was to democracy. But last week, when I heard Hillary Clinton suggest on a podcast that she believed congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard was being “groomed” by Russia as a third-party presidential candidate and that former Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a Russian “asset,” I realized even my most pessimistic assessments came nowhere near communicating how profoundly polluted with conspiracy theories the political conversation in mainstream American life had become.
Alex Jones, sure. Donald Trump, absolutely. But you too, Hillary? You, the victim of the infamous (and false) Comet Ping Pong Pizzagate calumny, are now casting unsupported conspiracies that smear candidates for president upon the troubled waters of American political life?
I was not the only one shocked by Clinton’s words, to be sure. But in our brave new world of nanosecond news cycles, we are already moving on to the latest blasts of chaos courtesy of President Trump, like his referring Monday to the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution as “phony” while comparing himself to George Washington. … We need to hit the pause button, step back and think about the deeper meaning of what Clinton did if we want to understand how far we are today from having a dependable flow of trustworthy information that we can use to make solid decisions about our lives, like who should get our votes in 2020. Without such a stream of information, a functioning democracy is impossible.
While I have often focused on the kind of propaganda fervent Trump apologists like Boris Epshteyn, chief political analyst for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, or Fox News host Sean Hannity serve up on a daily basis, Peter Pomerantsev, author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” says attention should be paid to how conspiracy theories have been used elsewhere to attack truth.
“The media manipulation of the early Putin years didn’t try to convince you of a fabricated version of ‘truth,’ ” Pomerantsev, a former resident of Moscow now living in Britain, wrote in a recent New York Times article. “Instead, it worked by seeding doubt and confusion, evoking a world so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, had no chance to work out or change. Instead of conspiracy theories being used to buttress an ideology, as under Communist rule, a conspiratorial worldview replaced ideology as a way to explain the world, encouraging the public to trust nothing and yearn for a strong leader to guide it through the murk – a tactic that’s as common in Washington these days as in Moscow.”
… There is a method to Trump’s use of conspiracy theories. Mainly, he uses them to muddy the waters and cause confusion when he is under attack. When Trump came under impeachment-level fire after a whistleblower brought his effort to strong arm the president of Ukraine into trying to dig up dirt on Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, Trump went on the conspiracy offensive.
No, Trump said on Oct. 4, it’s Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who should be investigated – Hunter Biden for alleged corruption involving $50,000 a month in salary he received from a Ukrainian energy company that he sat on the board of, and Joe Biden for his dealings while he was vice president with a Ukrainian prosecutor. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either of the Bidens.)
I watched Trump take questions from the press before boarding his helicopter Oct. 4, and the words “Biden” and “corruption” kept ringing in my ears. He was like the Energizer Bunny linking the two words over and over during the session until all other narratives and details were lost.
… And now even Clinton is part of the problem, and the press isn’t helping. I am surprised at how some of my colleagues who know better have held their fire on Clinton for what she said on “Campaign HQ” podcast hosted by David Plouffe, architect of Barack Obama’s winning strategy in 2008.
CNN host Van Jones, a former aide to President Obama, was one analyst who did not hold back on Clinton, and good for him.
“If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened. Just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody,” Jones said of Clinton’s remarks in a conversation on CNN with Erin Burnett Friday night.
“She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books. She’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party, with just a complete smear and no facts,” he added. “If you’ve got real evidence, come forward with it. But if you’re just going to smear people casually on podcasts, you are playing right into the Russians’ hands.”
While the Times and others have written about what appeared to be social media support for Gabbard from possible Russian sites, no one in the mainstream press went anywhere near the dark place Clinton went. What Clinton did last week is as bad or worse than what Joe McCarthy, the drunken, slanderous, career-wrecking, red-baiting senator from Wisconsin did in the 1950s, calling people working in the U.S. government agents, assets and spies for Russia often without a shred of proof and embedding such charges in a larger, menacing narrative of conspiracy.
Clinton is old enough to know that history and wise enough, I thought until last week, to despise the damage McCarthy did to innumerable personal lives, as well as the public life of the nation during the Cold War years.
There are far more conspiracies today and far more media platforms with no sense of editorial standards willing to promote them.
More’s the pity for democracy.
David Zurawik has been a TV/media critic at the Baltimore Sun since 1989.