Russiagate, which began as a scandal over Russian efforts to sway the 2016 US election, has since proliferated into a drama of dossiers, investigative councils, Russian adoption cover-ups, and an ever-changing list of alleged scandals. As journalists from the Intercept, Truthdig, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Rolling Stone, and other independent outlets documented, corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories. Furthermore, corporate news coverage that has been reflexively hostile toward Russia also serves to link political protest in the United States with Russian operatives and interests in ways that discredit legitimate domestic activism.
In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported on a quantitative study conducted by the Intercept of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, the second most popular weekday show on cable news. The Intercept’s analysis of every episode broadcast between February 20 and March 31, 2017 found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” As Maté noted, Maddow’s Russia coverage “dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues,” including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban, and other administration scandals and stumbles.
The Intercept was not the only independent voice critical of MSNBC’s coverage. In an article published by Truthdig, Norman Solomon observed, “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ‘attack on our democracy’ that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”
Beyond MSNBC, other influential US media players have fueled Russiagate fears. In November 2017, Twitter announced policy changes that banned all advertising from two international news outlets owned by Russia, Sputnik and RT. As Robin Andersen of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and others revealed, the social media giant based its decision on a single US intelligence report.
The Russiagate narrative that monopolized corporate news cycles throughout 2017 has had real consequences. For example, in February 2018 the Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review (last updated in 2010) called for the improvement and readiness of US nuclear capabilities because “Russia’s activities and policies have reduced stability and security, increased unpredictability, and introduced new dangers into the security environment.”
Russiagate has also been consequential for “‘anti-system’ movements,” from Bernie Sanders’s electoral campaign to Black Lives Matter, Brexit, and the Catalan independence movement, as Matt Taibbi reported in Rolling Stone. Under the influence of Russiagate rhetoric, according to Taibbi, “We’ve jumped straight past debating the efficacy of democracy to just reflexively identifying most anti-establishment sentiment as illegitimate, treasonous, and foreign in nature.” Russiagate, he wrote, has been used as “a hammer” against all “political outsiders.”
Corporate news coverage has continued to fan popular fears that Russia threatens US democracy. For example, in February 2018, for a segment titled “The Unwitting,” CNN brought cameras to the door of an elderly Florida woman, who had organized a local event for Trump supporters, to accuse her of working with Russian organizers. That same month, a New York Times article reported that Russians had used fake Facebook personas to organize political rallies in the United States, which included, for example, posing as the “United Muslims of America” to promote a July 2016 event called “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims.” Many people suffer when lies are reported as facts, but it seems that corporate media are the only ones that profit when they reinforce blind hostility—against not only Russia but also legitimate domestic dissent.
Aaron Maté, “MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Sees a ‘Russia Connection’ Lurking Around Every Corner,” The Intercept, April 12, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/04/12/msnbcs-rachel-maddow-sees-a-russia-connection-lurking-around-every-corner/.
Norman Solomon, “Is MSNBC Now the Most Dangerous Warmonger Network?” Truthdig, March 1, 2018, https://www.truthdig.com/articles/msnbc-now-dangerous-warmonger-network/.
Robin Andersen, “Backlash Against Russian ‘Fake News’ is Shutting Down Debate for Real,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), November 29, 2017, https://fair.org/home/backlash-against-russian-fake-news-is-shutting-down-debate-for-real/.
Matt Taibbi, “The New Blacklist,” Rolling Stone, March 5, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/taibbi-russiagate-trump-putin-mueller-and-targeting-dissent-w517486.
Student Researcher: Moira Feldman (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)