Carol King, UK Correspondent
UncoverDC’s own editor-in-chief made the case for new media last week citing the lack of push-back on previously reliable channels, such as Fox, when false statements are made. She illustrated that Representative Al Green (D-Texas 09) made a statement about Rudy Giuliani being in Ukraine, when it is absolutely a fact that he called off that trip, yet the Representative was not called out for his misrepresentation by the Fox host. This is problematic because, if a news channel is normally deemed quite reliable, then it might still be relied upon even when falsehoods are aired. The Fox news channel was found to have the most balanced tone in their coverage of President Trump in the early days of his administration.
At the same time there is a parallel trend. Republican members of Congress appear on legacy/cable media outlets and make claims, and then are accused of flouting conspiracy theories. Consider the well published excerpt of ‘Meet the Press’ recently: anchor Chuck Todd admonished Senator Ron Johnson, who is a mainly constitutionally focused member, for bringing up so-called “conspiracy theories.” The actual truth was that the Senator was not going to pander to their slanted interpretation of the story, and that led to Todd suppressing Johnsons point of view, and branding it conspiracy.
The need for new media sources is especially salient because of the important role of public opinion in a Democracy or Republic, not only in electing their representative's, but also in but also in defining what they deem acceptable policies.
Here, three cases are discussed which detail attempts to control information flows and bend public opinion in their preferred direction. The last two look at cases from the UK. The tactics used are implemented while the power brokers seek to affect opinion; opinion that may extend to the US. However, as a primer, we start with the American based outlet NBC/MSNBC.
On December 31st 2018, long-time national security journalist, William Arkin, resigned from his position at NBC/MSNBC because of concern that the network was unabashedly promoting militarism and imperialism in a reflexive attempt to oppose President Trump. Arkin was previously celebrated for his work on the growing, unaccountable, and omnipotent post-9/11 national security state. In particular, his investigation called “Top Secret America”, illustrated a “real US government” that operates in darkness, beyond public control, so vast and powerful that no one person can control or even detail its extent. This is commonly referred to as the “deep state,” “security state” or “establishment.” In his resignation email Arkin admonished MSNBC and NBC for their shallow and reactionary coverage of national security. He called them out for becoming wholly reliant on trivial Trump tweets in order to chase clicks, profit and ratings. He further denounced their promotion of the CIA, the Pentagon, and FBI propaganda in the name of resisting Trump. Arkin was concerned with the uncritical attention and approval given to these agencies in their obsessive “resist Trump” efforts.
Evidence of this pro-establishment bias can be found in the roster of analysts and commentators on these networks. On NBC, former CIA chief John Brennan was recruited to serve as a “senior national security and intelligence analyst.” Employed at NBC too are Chuck Rosenberg, a former acting Drug Enforcement Administration administrator, chief of staff for FBI Director James B. Comey, and counselor to former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III; Frank Figliuzzi, former chief of FBI counterintelligence; and Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser under Bush. Other NBC contributors espousing pro-war or Neo-conservative views include David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, Ralph Peters, and Bill Kristol. A similar state of affairs is prevalent at CNN, where former Obama officials, James Clapper, Andy McCabe and Josh Campbell, all held prior positions in the “establishment.”
As reporter Jack Shafer has pointed out, filling your news and analyst slots with former security state officials is “tantamount to becoming state TV, since their first loyalty is to the agency from which they hail.” He further emphasized this, and asked us to consider a TV network that was covering the auto industry and analyzed it through the eyes of dozens of paid former auto executives. It would not be a stretch to figure out where their loyalties lay.
As Arkin further demonstrated in his email, no-one in Washington can say that they have won or stopped any conflict, and for more than a generation, national security leaders have sadly and fraudulently done little of consequence. Yet we are to embrace them?”. In many ways such outlets resemble the establishment themselves; they keep busy and profitable without achieving anything. He argued that under Trump, the national security establishment hasn’t missed a beat, but indeed has gained dangerous strength. At a time when they are practically impervious to criticism, outlets like NBC have become uncritical defenders of the government against Trump. This may consequently affect the opinions of people paying attention to politics for the first time.
A further insight into understanding unreliability in media emerged from two cases in the UK. One was the result of a hack, the second an official government House of Lords publication. Starting with the Lords report, it is helpful for readers unfamiliar with this institution to understand that the British House of Lords is somewhat the equivalent to the US Senate, except Lords are un-elected and serve for life. The Lords complement the House of Commons in making and shaping laws, and while it cannot reject a bill passed by the Commons, it checks and challenges the work of the government. Members can use their extensive individual experience to investigate public policy or important issues through select committees, and their reports are used to guide British policy.
The December 18th report referenced here is entitled, “UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order” and discusses the thrust UK policy should take. The Lords had begun reviewing British Foreign policy in January of 2018 and delegations were sent to the United States to speak with members of Congress, think tanks, and government officials. An open discussion was convened at the Atlantic Council, the flagship British think tank in the United States, funded by the British government and NATO. The Atlantic Council may also sound familiar to some readers because of the affiliation of known “Spygate” and Ukraine player, Viktor Pinchuk. Participants included former Obama administration official Victoria Nuland, and an analyst from the Financial Systemic Analysis and Resilience Centre (an information and surveillance collaboration between the eight largest banks and the U.S. Cyber Command). Franklin Kramer of the Centre for Naval Analysis and the Atlantic Council, and Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State Madeline Albright were also in attendance.
The resulting report focused on many dynamics: technology, the rise of China, role of India, threat of Russia, but also the US. When discussing the United States, one concern the Lords have is that Donald Trump has imperiled the globalist “post-War rules based International order” as well as the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. Examples like the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and Iran deal represented divergence from this order, and was unlike previously aligned foreign policy strategies. They say that the entwined covert defense and intelligence relationships which characterize the special UK-US relationship are enough to survive one term of Trump, but, not two. Lord Hague noted that in some areas President Trump had remained consistent with previous US policy. Other participants though, worried that “should President Trump win a second term, or a similar Administration succeed him, the damage to UK–US relations will be longer lasting.” They further state, that even below the political level, connections between officials should withstand political decisions by the Administration, and the UK Government and should reach out to those parts of American society which share their views and values.
A second concern the Lords view as threatening the rule based international order, is the activation of the “people” seen in the UK Brexit vote and in the 2016 US election. The main problem for the Lords is that individuals are free to access information on a scale unlike ever before. This challenges their ability to rule. In response, they intend to counter such activation by reaching out to Americans and perhaps influential elites which share their view.
This line of thinking first appeared in Samuel P Huntington’s, 1975 Crisis of Democracy Report for the Trilateral Commission and was furthered through the concept of “cognitive infiltration,” associated with Barack Obama’s friend Cass Sunstein. To influence opinion, elites or “establishment” figures, may direct influence campaigns simultaneously to both the government policymakers and the general population. For example, governments are lobbied on behalf of policies ideas, such as curbing the rise of Russia and China, while media contacts echo their concerns creating the desirable “echo chamber.”
Another concern though, raised by Madeleine Albright in the Lords report, is that the internet has been “a double-edged sword,” and while “it was supposed to be … democratizing”, it had “dis-aggregated people’s views in such a way that everybody has their own echo chamber.” Another participant, Dr Bolt, noted that “whether it is traditional or legacy media, such as television, radio, cinema and the press, or digital media, such as video games or all forms of cyber and social media, they are all interconnected in one universal media space and they all feed off each other”. This leads to the phenomenon of circular reporting where the emphasis is on re-tweeting for clicks, rather than checking for accuracy.
For the Lords, the disturbingly overbroad access to information has enabled many in the “base,” or population, to believe in “conspiracy theories” rather than the official accounts of government actions. A fair concern, but this meme, now widespread in the trans-Atlantic elites, was frequently used by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and is increasingly bandied about and applied to political points of views that one disagrees with. We illustrated this in the Ron Johnson example.
The final case here is instructive and concerns a secret British operation to insert anti-Russian propaganda into the Western media stream. The program, known as the “integrity initiative” was unveiled after a hack exposed some of its documents. Reports say it had been launched primarily to counter Russian efforts which affected British interests and goals in Eastern Europe. There is much controversy surrounding this organization, and this article is by no means meant to be an exhaustive examination. However, some topics of focus for the organization were Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, for which three Russians and one Ukrainian have been charged.
The program works by building 'clusters' or contact groups of trusted journalists, military personal, academics and lobbyists within foreign countries. These people then get alerts to act when the British center perceives a need. For example, on June 7th, 2018, Integrity Initiative is reported to have waged a covert campaign to destroy the appointment of Pedro Baños to Director of Spain’s National Security Department. Banos was deemed too “pro-Kremlin,” so a hand-picked “cluster” of Spanish politicians and operatives flooded social media and sympathetic outlets with messages demonizing Baños. His appointment to this influential position was halted.
The Integrity Initiative was also accused of employing the same tactics to smear other political figures across the West, including the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and indeed this was improper. For some idea of the controversy see here, here, here, and here.
According to David Miller, professor of political sociology in the school of policy studies at the University of Bristol and also a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the Integrity Initiative “appears to be a military directed push.” Where, “the most senior government people involved are professional propagandists and spooks and work in the deepest levels of the military-intelligence apparatus.” He likened it to the Cold War era, Operation Mockingbird revealed by Carl Bernstein in 1977.
Thus, when it was later reported that the Russian State were responsible for the hack, it left many people wondering who to believe. The anonymous hacker illustrating a British organization carrying out covert operations to distort and sway information streams and opinions, or the rebuttal by affiliated British authorities who say no, it is the Russians who are manipulating and distorting what we do?
This highlights the danger; governments must act to combat real security threats, and people need to be able to have sources of information they trust. All of this of course is taking place in an environment where information flows are fluid, often only part of the story is shared, and original sources and bias are not always clear.
There is also a wide variation within these results: Republicans' trust is at the very low level of 15%, independents at 36% and 69% of Democrats say they have trust and confidence in the media. The need for new media sources which are reliable and independent is clear, and the growth in independent outlets is helpful for the future.