When people stop buying the propaganda, the mainstream media turn up the volume. Locked into ideological narratives on most issues, corporate journalists preferred option is to support government policy and double down on their lies.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the so-called Russiagate saga in the United States. One of the journalists who didn’t fall for this fallacy is Ben Norton from The Grayzone. He and his colleagues were steadfast in the face of collective delusion. They refuse to blame another nation for their homegrown economic and political problems.
Renegade Inc. went to New York to speak with Ben Norton at a time when America is struggling to accept its place in an emerging multipolar world.
The public’s rejection of the corporate ‘mainstream’ media’s amplification of government propaganda is happening at a time when arguably the most significant journalist in the world today responsible for bringing power to account, Julian Assange, is facing extradition to the US. Corporate media stenographers who serve a declining empire appear to be doubling down on the propaganda. The reason for this – exemplified in relation to Russiagate – is because, as Norton attests, it is politically expedient for them to do so. “The damage has already been done but they can’t admit too it”, says Norton. By actually admitting it, they would have to deal with the core issues – for example, why there is a simultaneous rise in both the far right and socialist left, and why the Republicans and Democrat parties are at record unpopularity levels?
They also refuse to acknowledge why Hillary Clinton lost the race to the White House and why Donald Trump who – for better or for worse – portrayed himself as an outsider even though he was a billionaire. “It was part of his shtick. It was false but he did it successfully. And instead of dealing and grappling with those issues the Democratic Party has managed to externalize the problem”, says Norton.
The Russian boogeyman
The way they have done this, has been to create a Russian boogeyman designed to deflect public distrust away from a U.S government that encourages racial tension arising from issues such as police brutality, inequality and segregated schools. “Apparently, the only reason black Americans would have to feel angry at the system would be Russia….On all of these issues they can just blame Russia, and increasingly China. It’s an age old tactic – externalize all of your problems. It’s a way of insulating the Democratic Party – and the Republican Party to an extent – from any kind of left wing criticism”, posits Norton.
The ‘externalizing of the enemy’ tactic in this way explains how Hillary Clinton, the second least popular presidential candidate in U.S. history after Donald Trump, was able to present a progressive image to the public despite, in reality, being an unabashed war hawk who promoted centre right policies to Wall Street who funded her.
Running in tandem alongside this strategy has been the extent to which the media’s treatment of Julian Assange could be described as nothing short of repugnant. In the view of Wall Street senator, Chuck Schumer, Assange is a Russian asset who is waging a war on America.”Now that Julian Assange has been arrested, I hope he will soon be held to account for his meddling in our elections on behalf of Putin and the Russian government”, exclaimed Schumer.
Similarly, a leading Democrat member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, not only said that Julian Assange is a Russian asset but claimed that the Wikileaks founder and his organisations are helping Russia wage war against the West.
The purpose of these lies is to cast Russia as a nefarious boogeyman. According to Norton, the notion of a vague, nebulous ‘West’ encourages fear and prevents any political introspection and analysis.
“If you have a growing Socialist Movement domestically – which we do and in many other countries – you can say, ‘Oh that’s not legitimate. It’s not rooted in serious grievances about capitalism, about inequality, about endless war, about racism. No. It’s only because Russian bots are fueling these people. Russian media outlets are giving them a platform, etc, instead of dealing with those problems.”
“Of course this is an age old tactic of using scapegoats but it also shows that Julian Assange seriously challenged power in a way that other corporate media outlets have never challenged.”
The role of corporate media, therefore, is “not to inform people, but rather, to make money. That’s why they’re corporate media”, says Norton, adding that “certain corporate media have access to U.S intelligence agencies. The Washington Post who changed their slogan to ‘democracy dies in darkness’, is owned by the richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos who owns The Washington Post and has contracts with the CIA etc. So they have a direct line to U.S. intelligence agencies. Corporate media outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are part of the US power structure and part of how the government operates. There is symbiotic relationship between the two where The New York Times profits off of unofficial and official government leaks.
Consequently, a corporate capitalist media motivated by profit are best served by attacking whistle blowing journalists like Assange who present a potential threat to pre-existing power relations which the media and political establishments both benefit from. Assange has shone a light on this mutually beneficial relationship and how ineffectual the corporate media has been in bringing power to account.
Norton outlines further the rationale that underpins this special relationship:
“The corporate media make money echoing the government line. If they didn’t they would be punished through various means and they would lose money. So it’s a self reinforcing mechanism. It’s not that they’re being derelict in their duties, they’re fulfilling their duties which is to tow the U.S government line.”
“We’ve seen this again and again with the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, the Iraq war and now with Russiagate. Julian Assange has showed that it’s possible for journalists to challenge power at its core – in the belly of the beast in Washington – and that is why he has been so demonized, smeared and lied about.”
A step too far
But, as Norton acknowledges, challenging power presents its own set of ironies:
“The same corporate media outlets that ten years ago glorified Wikileaks and willingly and voluntarily published their early publications on the Iraq War and Afghanistan are the ones now vilifying Assange”, says Norton. Why? Because, as far as they are concerned, he took a step too far. He not only challenged the Iraq war in Afghanistan, but, says Norton, “he also challenged subsequent wars and the legitimacy of imperialism as an international construct.” This, claims Norton, “is the reason why the journalist was held essentially as a [political] prisoner in the Ecuadorian embassy for over seven years and why he was facing a witch hunt based on non-existent charges.”
Assange’s status as a political prisoner was never in doubt. The United Nations, numerous special operators and the council that monitors political prisoners confirms this. They have all said, very clearly, that Julian Assange was being arbitrarily detained by the British government against his will. “At the same time”, says Norton, “you have corporate media outlets like The New York Times [falsely] claiming that Assange spent seven years in “self imposed isolation”.
Norton says that following Assange’s arrest, the strategy of the media was to muddy the waters by falsely impugning that there were unresolved mysteries centred on a case they claimed was conspiratorial in nature. “The conspiracy theorists double down because that’s how conspiracy theorists function. When you have evidence that disproves your worldview you subvert evidence. “You put it on its head and you say, ‘Oh, it’s actually proof but there’s a larger conspiracy afoot”, says Norton.
One of the grandest of the conspiracy theories the media have fostered on the public has been their attempt to impugn an Assange/Russia/ Vladimir Putin connection by linking them to domestic U.S politics. As Norton points out, it’s the kind of hoax that has historical precedence but one which the public is, nevertheless, not willing to buy:
“The public has never bought it and it’s not new. If you look at many of these conflicts from the Iraq war, to Libya, to Syria, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, the public has overwhelmingly been opposed to these conflicts and has realized that corporate media outlets are not telling them the truth or at least the complete truth. We’ve seen that for decades.”
Norton intimates the lack of public trust in the corporate media to highlight his point:
“All you have to do is look at the polls of trust in media. They’ve dwindled so much in recent years but it’s been a trend for decades. The level of distrust of the media in the U.S is at record lows. There are different responses to that. Donald Trump and the far right’s response is to say, ‘Oh, they’re all liars and everything they say about me is false’, even though he himself is a pathological liar.”
“The Democratic Party’s response is to say that corporate media outlets are safeguarding our best interests. Donald Trump says they’re liars but actually the corporate media are our friends and they’re not populated by U.S intelligence officials like John Brennan and all of these former Pentagon officials so we’re going to all work together as part of the resistance.”
Attuned to reality
The response from the public, however, appears to be more attuned to reality:
“The public knows intimately in a kind of visceral way that corporate media outlets don’t represent their interests [but rather] that they represent the interests of – for better for worse – what you’d call coastal elites”, claims Norton.
The reaction of the public to the media’s reflexively negative reportage of Donald Trump is an example of the former’s ability to react in a far more nuanced way to domestic political events. A largely liberal media commentariat appear unable to understand how Trump has managed to tap into the public’s distrust of a deeply compromised corporate media system that they are an integral part of.
Ironically, the said commentariat apparently fail to grasp that the main source of ‘fake news’ does not emanate from the pathological liar, Trump, but on the contrary, is a prevalent feature of editorial decisions overseen by billionaire proprietors of corporate media outlets. Rarely have the latter acknowledged that Trump has been actually right on key issues relating to war and peace they have lied about. Russiagate is another example, where Trump has been right and where the corporate media were proven wrong.
As Norton argues:
“Of all of the lies that Donald Trump says – and there are countless lies – the corporate media actually ended up proving him right once in a while and handing him a major re-election gift because he’s been saying for two years they’re leading a witch hunt against him with the Russiagate nonsense. And a few of us – largely in the alternative margins of the media – have been saying, ‘No. There’s no evidence of this. This is all a waste of time.”
The media’s fixation on their ‘fake news’ Russiagate collusion conspiracy has thus acted as a political distraction from the real issues – for example, Trump’s waging war on the environment and immigrants and the war in Yemen. “There were actual estimates done that Trump’s campaign got billions of dollars worth of free advertising. Corporate media outlets would actually do live streams of his campaign rallies in which he blatantly incited against Muslims and immigrants, in which he spouted racist rhetoric. They actually didn’t censor any of it. In fact what was so wild is that I remembered numerous times…when Trump was late for one of his rallies and they would just broadcast his empty podium for half an hour”, says Norton.
Norton commented on the sadistic nature of this process:
“Les Moonves – who’s one of the most highly paid corporate executives in the entire corporate media – boasted about it. We now know thanks to a recording of a meeting he said, ‘Donald Trump may be bad for America but he’s great for us because we are raining cash right now. We are swimming in money and making so many profits, record level profits’. So while they were ignoring Bernie Sanders and anyone mildly to the left of Hillary Clinton – which means anyone mildly to the left of the center – they were ignored while this far right demagogue had his empty podium live stream.”
Thus, the purpose of a corporate political and media class, which have a joint vested interest in perpetuating the propaganda cycle, is to rein-in the potential emergence of a progressive left that terrifies the capitalist class that has everything to lose. But it is also illustrative of a structural problem where official enemies – Russia and China – need to be kept in check. Introspection would potentially negate the the need to address economic problems.
This, according to Norton, has been the ‘key contradiction’ and political distraction of the US government over many years.
“We’re now entering a new era where the US government is saying very explicitly that we’re essentially in a new Cold War. And ‘the’ document that proves this – for the entire world to see – is the Pentagon’s new national security strategy which was the first of its kind in a decade after the beginning of the so-called war on terror, which effectively ended with the election of Trump. Of course the U.S. is still bombing numerous Muslim majority countries and killing civilians, but now the Pentagon itself says that the leading supposed threats to U.S national security are ‘the’ great powers and the great power competition of China and Russia (and below that, states like Iran, DPRK and Venezuela).”
In other words:
“We’re re-entering this period of multipolar global competition where the U.S. recognizes that it’s no longer the hedge man that it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not just Russia but China have reasserted power internationally and reined in the U.S and prevented it, for instance, from completely destroying Venezuela. China and Russia. The fact that there are international powers checking U.S hegemony is viewed by the U.S political class as a threat to their ability to control the entire planet.”
Dealing with the systemic economic crisis
Nevertheless, attempts by the ‘international community’ to curtail U.S hegemonic ambitions will effectively mean that the hugely disproportionate wealth accumulated by the people who fund the entire U.S political system will be challenged so is likely to be resisted. “Another way of doing this”, says Norton, ” is to declare war internally on oppressed nationalities, unifying the country against foreign boogeymen and domestic boogeymen – in other words – fascism”.
Norton posits a possible third way – international war. “We saw during World War I – which of course gave birth to fascism – the solution to economic crisis was to wage war against the other capitalist powers. “This was an inter imperialist war to carve up colonies to fight for access to markets. It had nothing to do with freedom and democracy”, says Norton, who adds:
“We’re re-entering that period where the U.S. political class understands that it’s in a protracted crisis that it’s not going to come out of. One of the ways that it sees as a supposed solution would be an actual war, with not just [the boogey man, Russia], but war with the one they’re really afraid of, China.
This is because:
“Russia is increasing in influence and the U.S doesn’t like that. But China has become the world’s economic engine and that is what the U.S. really sees as a threat against a backdrop in which China is able to displace a country that has been the world’s supposed economic superpower since the end of World War II. If you look at polls in Africa and parts of Asia where China’s building infrastructure projects, China actually is quite popular while the US is extremely unpopular.”
Socialism, fascism or eternal war?
Norton believes that of the three options discussed above, the emergence of fascism could be the most likely possibility:
“You know I don’t think Donald Trump is the next Hitler but I think that he could be the kind of harboring of something even worse. Fascism takes root at times of economic crisis when elements of the plutocracy of the capitalists are afraid of a socialist up swell in our evolution so they resort to these fascist policies to keep their wealth and to keep the system in place. And we are in a moment of economic decline, but we’re not yet in the moment of economic crisis like we saw during the Great Depression. We have to remember that the Nazi Party never had a majority of support in what was actually at the time a very productive, cosmopolitan, liberal society. And it was during the moment of economic crisis in the 1920s and 30s.”
Norton believes that an economic crisis is coming soon to match the one we saw in 2008:
“Many economists say so, even right wing economists say we’re on the verge of a new crash and that crash is what will lay the ground even further. We’ve already seen the Trump campaign and the kind of Trumpism as a movement. We’ve seen far right attacks among people who are a part of that movement. We’ve seen it in New Zealand, we’ve seen it here domestically where you have self-declared fascists carrying out massacres. But these are still very isolated incidents. It’s when you have that moment of extreme economic crisis which could be coming soon but it could go in different directions.”
Arguably, the political and media establishment will want to control the narrative when the said crisis hits. This direction of travel will likely be a dark place not necessarily consistent with the establishment of a progressive socialist society. In the view of Norton, there are two possible public responses – a fascist response or a socialist response – consistent with Rosa Luxemburg’s famous maxim, ‘socialism or barbarism’. “We’ve seen the barbarous response, the actual response of socialists can be one that’s very progressive and we can see that with people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders”, says Norton. The latter, “has helped to build a movement of people on the left that has really taken over the narrative of progressive politics in this country and normalized a lot of ideas that several years ago were seen as off the spectrum politically.”
Norton points to another example – Venezuela:
“One of the reasons that the US and its allies is so dedicated to trying to crush the Bolivarian Revolution is because it shows that there is an alternative to this neoliberal capitalist nightmare that has dominated not just Venezuela but the world since the end of the Cold War. What happened was people rose up on the streets against the brutal neoliberal austerity imposed by the right wing regime and the IMF and tried to overthrow the right wing regime which responded with a massacre of thousands of people (known as the Caracazo). The U.S don’t want people to have faith and optimism that socialism is possible. We’ve seen that in Europe. We’ve seen it in France where the Socialist Party – which embraced neoliberalism – has utterly collapsed.”
“The U.S regards challenges to its international hegemony as threats. Paul Wolfowitz – who was a key Bush administration official – told Wesley Clark, the U.S. general, ‘With the end of the Cold War we can now use our military with impunity. The Soviets won’t come in to block us and we’ve got five maybe ten years to clean up these old Soviet surrogate regimes like Iraq and Syria before the next superpower emerges to challenge us.’ We’re in the era right now where the new superpowers have emerged to challenge U.S unipolar hegemony. And that’s China and Russia.”
The response of the U.S political class has been to attack supposed enemies:
“We’ve already seen the war in Syria was really the kind of first proxy conflict in this new Cold War scenario where the U.S and Russia were indirectly waging war against each other through Syria – a country the U.S devastated that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in economic damage. I mean the U.S destroyed this country as they are now doing with Yemen and in other countries. So the Cold War is very real and it’s already begun. We can’t ignore it”, says Norton.
“It’s effectively NATO on one side and China and Russia on the other side. It’s not a war for democracy, or for freedom, it’s a war to maintain NATO unipolar hegemony over the planet. And of course NATO’s controlled largely by the U.S. military. But also Britain plays a key role as a partner with American imperialism. They see the rise of China and Russia as threats to the existing order and they’re going to continue waging proxy wars. Maybe we’ll even see an actual hot war which would be completely devastating for the planet. But for those who would rather see the continuation of the U.S. empire and the destruction of half the planet as opposed to the return to a multipolar world, for them, a hot war might not be a bad idea.”