Twitter and Facebook blocked access to a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son Hunter, with Twitter locking the New York Post out of its own account for over a week. This overt censorship is emblematic of the widening and dangerous partisan divide within the US media. News and facts are no longer true or false; they are divided into information that either hurts or promotes one political faction over another.
While outlets such as Fox News have always existed as an arm of the Republican Party, this partisanship has now infected nearly all news organisations, including publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post along with the major tech platforms that disseminate news. The division of the press into warring factions shreds journalistic credibility, creating a world where facts do not matter, and where a public is encouraged to believe whatever it wants to believe.
This is Chris Hedge’s introduction to a recent interview with fellow journalist Matt Taibbi on his RT show On Contact broadcast Saturday [Oct 31st] on the eve of the US Presidential election. The show is embedded below with my own transcript provided:
Chris Hedges: Let’s begin with 2016, which was awful, but now it’s worse. Can you talk about the progression?
Matt Taibbi: Sure. I mean I think what happened in 2016 – and it’s kind of been a story that’s assumed biblical importance for people in the news media – we had this episode where a cache of emails that had come from the Democratic National Committee [DNC] and had been from figures like Tony Podesta, came to be in the public sphere through groups like Wikileaks.
And this material was true – it wasn’t fake, it wasn’t what we would traditionally call disinformation or misinformation – and it was reported on in a small way but later blamed for helping to election Donald Trump. And, as a result, a kind of coalition of news media, tech platforms and politicians has since demanded that the next time a situation like this takes place, we have to make sure that nobody reports material like that.
And so we’re now in a semi-analogous situation, where there’s been an explosive report about some emails allegedly belonging to the nominee’s son, Hunter Biden; and there’s been suppression and the news agencies have essentially decided we’re not going to do what we did in 2016. We’re going to shut this off completely. [from 2:25 mins]
On October 22nd, Matt Taibbi was invited to speak on The Hill’s weekday morning show ‘Rising’ about the difference between how the mainstream media covered the Steele Dossier versus Hunter Biden:
CH: But this wasn’t just Biden. They will run with stuff like the Steele dossier that obviously can’t be fact checked. They will trumpet that because it hurts Trump. And I’m not talking about partisan news agencies like MSNBC, which is just an arm of the Democratic Party, I’m talking about these old traditional media outlets like The New York Times: the kind of language that they’ll use; [how] they’ll marginalise any kind of news – even in this case of Hunter Biden’s laptop [when] no-one has denied its authenticity and yet the way they write about it will be to discredit it as black propaganda.
I think there’s kind of a sea change within that traditional media which I come out of; just a whole new ethic. I find days when I read The New York Times it’s unrecognisable in terms of how it writes, the language it uses, what it’s willing to say… it’s really a completely new organisation in many ways. Can you talk about that shift, because I find that very frightening.
MT: Sure, and of course you would know this better than I would, I think that traditionally what The New York Times would do with a story like this is; it would work very hard to ascertain first whether the material was real, and it would wait to come out with some kind of pronouncement about it news value until it had done that. And that is exactly what they don’t do anymore. You know, really in the first days after this story broke they already had a story by Kevin Roose in the paper that the headline was something along the lines of “There was a mistake in 2016, Facebook promised to fix it, well this is what the fixing looks like.”
And then the lead of that… [from 5:05 mins]
CH: Matt let me interrupt you because this is the headline… “Facebook and Twitter Dodge a 2016 Repeat, and Ignite a 2020 Firestorm”
[Chris Hedges then reads from Matt Taibbi’s report published on taibbi.substack.com]
The Companies have said they would do more to stop misinformation and hacked materials from spreading, this is what the effort looks like. And then, I’m reading from your article: [Kevin] Roose, who you’ve just mentioned, notes that “politicians and pundits have hoped for a stronger response from tech firms, ever since Russian hackers and Wikileaks injected stolen emails from the Clinton campaign into public discourse.”
This again, a quote from him:
“Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services.” The Podesta emails are not false – they’re real.
MT: No exactly, it’s a bait and switch. And this has been going on all across the media landscape. When they’re doing that… they’ve used the word disinformation, or misinformation, so many times that people associate those emails with words like that. And so they can get away with saying, “Well we have to do something to stop this misinformation or disinformation”. Even though, again, we are talking about things that are real and true, but just that it happened to come to the public through a means that is in their minds infamous.
So again, the traditional mission of an organisation like The New York Times – and they exist specifically because they have the resources and the training to hunt out whether or not stuff like this is real – they are just skipping straight past that and going to the editorial pronouncement about how this is the kind of material that should be suppressed, and this is what suppression looks like, and good for them, and that’s the angle that they’re taking right now, which is really extraordinary, it’s an amazing change. [from 6:45 mins]
CH: Yeah, no it is seismic.
So Matt I want to ask you about this podcast because I don’t think it’s unrelated: ‘Caliphate’. It’s a five-part series [where] they interview [Abu Huzayfah] – it turns out that he’s an imposter – you call it, correctly, stuff of snuff films. He’s talking about stabbings. He claims to have been an al Qaeda murderer, putting people up on crosses and putting daggers in their hearts. It’s quite amazing – again, coming out of the culture of The [New York] Times.
It’s completely false. It’s rabidly salacious. You know the worse parts of tabloid trash television. But I think that that’s a piece of what’s happening here. Can you talk about that – especially back up a little bit for people who aren’t familiar with what happened.
MT: Sure, yes. They had what I think was a six-part podcast series, and the lead reporter was a pretty celebrated figure in the organisation: it’s Rukmini Callimachi… and she’s been a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer [Prize]. And they interviewed this character who’s a Canadian citizen, who’s a Muslim, who claimed to have gone over to Syria to become a soldier for ISIS, and in the process he accumulated all these tales of committing horrific acts of violence.
The podcast was essentially based around these graphic descriptions of what he had done while he was in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East, and then he was arrested by Canadian authorities for perpetrating a hoax under a law – I guess we don’t have an analogous law here in The States – but when The [New York] Times was presented with this news that their main source in this very acclaimed, significantly trafficked podcast had turned out to be an imposter; their immediate reaction was to deflect and say, actually one of the purposes of the podcast was to determine whether or not he was telling the truth, which is completely untrue.
As Eric Wemple of the Washington Post put it (who incidentally has been one of the few media critics who’s actually done real work on this kind of stuff), they spent the entire podcast really bolstering the credibility of this source and not calling it into question at all. Incidentally, what would be the worth of a podcast like that, if there was any question at all of whether or not it was true? It would be a complete waste of time to do the story.
So they undermined themselves rather than do what I think a traditional news organisation would do, which is to say “okay, we might have a problem here, we’re going to look into it – if necessary we’ll bring in an outside auditor to see what went wrong and we’ll come out with all the results of our investigation later, and in the meantime we apologise”; that’s exactly what they didn’t do.
They’ve learned that audiences now forgive this kind of thing, and if you just pretend that it didn’t happen you can just move along and just go to the next thing. And that’s now more the kind of modus operandi, which of course wasn’t what it was when you worked there and I think when a lot of other people entered The [New York] Times back in the day. [from 8:50 mins]
Many of the media outlets that promoted Russiagate claims which helped to deflect attention from the contents of the DNC email leaks during the 2016 election, recently repeated the same ploy by reporting unsubstantiated claims made by former intelligence officials, including John Brennan and James Clapper, as well as of top Democrats, including Joe Biden and Adam Schiff, that the Hunter Biden laptop revelations are also “Russian disinformation”, even though no one from the Biden camp has disputed the authenticity of a single leaked email or document, or denied that the laptop belongs to Hunter Biden.
On October 23rd, The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté spoke to Ray McGovern, a former career CIA officer who served as chief of the CIA’s Soviet analysts division and chaired National Intelligence Estimates, about latest claims of “Russian disinformation”, and how these new allegations actually raise questions about the conduct of the intelligence officials behind the original Russiagate claims:
CH: Well they will forgive it only if it bolsters the dominant narrative. If it doesn’t bolster the dominant narrative, they won’t forgive it. That’s why they’ve pushed you to the margins of the media landscape.
MT: Right, and you too obviously.
CH: Yes. So, on the one hand, you have the Podesta emails, the Biden [story], which is real, being denounced as “fake”. And you have a complete hoax defended – let’s call it what it is: fake news, sensationalist garbage – being perpetrated by The [New York] Times.
I just want to read a really great paragraph you wrote: Now the business (you’re talking about journalism) has reversed course, acting like a gang of college freshmen who’ve just read Beyond Good and Evil for the first time. Objectivity is dead! There’s no truth! Everything is permitted! The cardinalate has gone from pompous overconfidence in its factual rectitude to a bizarre postmodernist pose where nothing matters, man, and truth is whatever we can get away with saying.
I mean it’s funny, but it’s not. That is really what we’re documenting here.
What do you think the pressures were? Is it commercial? I think to an extent it must be commercial: The [New York] Times has bled advertising. It’s stumbling into a new media environment that it’s not familiar with. What do you think is causing this? Or maybe it’s just moral posturing, I don’t know.
MT: I think it’s a combination of all of those things. Clearly, the commercial aspect of it plays a strong role because – just to take an example of that ‘Caliphate’ podcast: here you’ve got somebody giving a first-hand account of crucifying a human being, and that’s what you’ve got to do to you know trend on Twitter for eight seconds now! You need to come up with stuff like that just to keep getting a requisite number of clicks. Just to not lose audience, you need to come up with sensational material because everybody’s hyping things left and right.
So there’s enormous pressure now to stretch the envelope of sensationalism in ways that probably didn’t exist when I first went into the business or you did. But that’s only part of the picture. The other part of the picture is there’s been this segmentation of audience.
You know the Pew Center did a study this summer where they asked people what their political affiliations were. If your primary news source was Fox, you know 93% of those people were Republican. If your primary news source was MSNBC, 95% of those people were Democrats. With The New York Times it was 91% of those people are Democrats. NPR are 87%.
So all of these news outlets are talking to one audience exclusively, and so they’ve learned that if they screw up and they make a mistake about the other audience, it’s not going to matter. So I think whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s sped up their fact checking process, or made it looser, because they know it doesn’t really matter. You know, if we make a mistake about this it’s not going to come and bounce back at us. If we predict that something’s going to happen – if we say the walls are closing in and they don’t – that’s not going to bounce back. So I think that’s a major, major part of this picture. [from 13:05 mins]
CH: Is this the death of journalism? I mean I don’t hold the commercial networks to the same standards (maybe it’s nostalgia) that I do for The [New York] Times. But, if you can’t communicate across these divides – which is essentially what’s happening – then the country just bifurcates into warring, antagonistic tribes, which is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia because you had competing ethnic groups seize rival media outlets, and speak only to their own and demonise the other.
But to see this happening in The New York Times and in the Washington Post: is this the end of traditional media?
MT: I think temporarily. I do believe – I mean I have maybe a naive hope – that some canny entrepreneur will realise that there’s a screaming need out there for a new kind of media product. I hear it every day from people sending emails: I just wish there was a place I can go to find out what happened, stripped of all the editorialising.
Like people want the old school boring when, why, where, how; third person; dead voice; that we used to get in all these newspapers. And they’re not getting that anymore because everything is highly charged and highly politicised and tailored for a political audience.
So I do believe that if somebody was smart they would create that outlet and there is some interesting stuff going on in independent media. But for the time being, the major commercial media outlets have become completely bifurcated as you put it. And it’s literally balkanising American society. I think you make a good point there.
I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re seeing groups of people who are marching around carrying AR-15s, really on both sides of the aisle, and that’s because we’ve developed different realities for different groups of people. And that’s very dangerous. [from 16:35 mins]
CH: It is: it’s very dangerous. And I will just throw in there that nobody in Yugoslavia thought they were going to have a war. You have people dressed up in camos posturing, but once that violence starts – we saw glimpses of it in Portland – once people start getting killed you open a Pandora’s Box that you can’t control.
I want to talk about the tech platforms because they’ve played a major role, I think a very pernicious role in all of this. You’ve also written about that. Can you talk about that?
MT: Sure. A couple of years ago when Alex Jones was thrown off basically all of the tech platforms in what was actually, in hindsight, kind of a remarkable moment, because it was clearly coordinated. All of the major platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Spotify, Youtube – they all kicked of Jones at the same time. And sort of liberal America cheered: said, well this is a noxious figure; this is a great thing [that] finally someone’s taking action. What they didn’t realise is that we were trading an old system of speech regulation for a new one [and] without any real public discussion.
You and I were raised in a system where you got punished for speech if you committed libel or slander or if there was imminent incitement to lawless action: that was the standard that the Supreme Court set. But that was done through litigation; it was an open process where you had a chance to rebut charges. That is all gone now.
Now basically there’s a handful of these tech distribution platforms that control how people get their media and they’ve been pressured by The Senate, which has called all of their CEOs in and basically ordered them: we need you to come up with a plan to prevent the sowing of discord and spreading of “misinformation”.
And now I think this past week is when this has finally come to fruition, when you see an major reputable news organisation like the New York Post, you know with a two hundred year history, is now locked out of its own Twitter account and that story [of Hunter Biden] which has not been disproven – it’s not disinformation or misinformation – it’s been suppressed in the manner as you know it would be suppressed in a Third World country. Which I think – I don’t know what you think – I think it’s remarkable kind of historic moment for us. [from 18:35 mins]
CH: No, it is: it’s a very frightening historic moment.
These tech platforms are not neutral. They’re on one side of the political divide. And the danger in my eyes – I’ll get your opinion on this – is that if Trump loses the election, this platform and this old media, and whatever their veracity is about their critiques of Trump, will essentially be completely written off. You won’t be able to reach that segment of the population at all.
MT: Right, yes. Exactly.
And I know some of the people who are high-ranking executives at some of the companies, and I’ve had discussions with some of them in the last year or so, and one of the things that I’ve tried to communicate is that there’s no possible way to institute a standard of something like factual reliability that can be done in an even-handed way without an awesome amount of people going through each and every submission. And they’re clearly not doing that. They are clearly creating rules and selecting out some content that they don’t like and allowing other content that they do like go through.
There’s no possible way to do it either with AI or with manpower in any kind of even-handed way. It’s automatically either going to be a mess or a double-standard. Like whack-a-mole, or a double-standard. And I think in a post-Trump reality, the danger is that we end up with essentially like a one-party informational system, where there’s going to be approved dialogue and unapproved dialogue that you can only get through certain kind of fringe avenues. And that’s the problem, because we let these companies get this monopolistic share of the distribution system and now they’re exercising that power. [from 21:15 mins]
CH: And I know you lived in Russia – I worked in Eastern Europe – what are the political consequences of that, because you’ve seen it?
MT: Yes, I kind of lived in both versions of Russia. I lived in the Soviet times – I was a student during that time – and I was there when the media freed up. And a lot of my former colleagues (Russian colleagues) worked under the Soviet system. And the similarities are pretty striking because what ends up happening is that it’s really more of a psychological form of censorship than it is an overt top-down kind of pressure.
The reporters end up knowing ahead of time what kinds of things they can write and what kinds of things they can’t write. And if you’re worried about where the edge is with Facebook or Twitter, and your career depends on not being deplatformed by those companies, you just won’t go anywhere near where you think the line might be.
And already, you know somebody like myself, or you, or Glenn Greenwald, reputable journalists, we’re already within range of possible suppression, which I would have said was outlandish even six months ago. And that’s no longer the case. So that’s what you worry about – is where the fear is going to take hold of the business [of journalism] very quickly. [from 22:45 mins]
On October 30th, Glenn Greenwald was invited by The Hill’s morning show ‘Rising’ to explain why he took the decision to resign from The Intercept (the alternative news outlet that he had co-founded) following censorship of his own reporting on the Hunter Biden story:
CH: Well doesn’t the fear come from the fact that critics such as you have credibility, and therefore are dangerous because as the kind of moral centre erodes within journalistic organisations, critics such as yourself, who point it out, are no longer a nuisance, they essentially can be fatal, and so the suppression becomes much heavier?
MT: Yeah, and that’s the reason why I think this censorship is so self-defeating; it’s such a mistake. Normally, if you just allow this kind of speech to be distributed freely, it’s not going to have the impact. But what ends up happening in societies like the Soviet Union – you know, nobody would use a Russian newspaper, or a Soviet newspaper, for anything but lining a bird cage, or anything like that. But people would treasure the Samizdat [self-published undercover publications] documents that would be handed from family to family because that was the actual truth.
And that’s going to end up happening in this country, if you have an approved dialogue that you can get on Facebook and Twitter, and then there’s this other thing that’s forbidden. People are going to flock to that, which is why I don’t understand the commercial decision that companies like The New York Times and the Washington Post are making to throw off the thing that made them most valuable to people, which was the institutional credibility they had for being a kind of political third-party that was neutral. That was what gave them all of their value and they’re throwing it away and I don’t understand it. [from 24:25 mins]
CH: I think they’re throwing it away because they’re bleeding money. And they’re frightened. I mean you’re right it’s ultimately self-immolation.
You write: The people who run this country have run out of workable myths with which to distract the public, and in a moment of extreme crisis have chosen to stoke civil war and defame the rest of us, black and white, rather than admit to a generation of corruption, betrayal and mismanagement.
And I think part of it is that organisations such as The New York Times do not shine a light on the corruption, the betrayal, and the mismanagement.
MT: That’s right, and so they’ve had to come up with some other thing to sell to the public as the reason for all of our troubles. After the election of 2016, where internally within The New York Times we now know there was a tremendous kind of come-to-Jesus moment where they realised we didn’t see this coming how could we possibly have let that happen? We have to hire more people like Bret Stephens because we’re so out of touch with conservative America.
That’s what they were saying internally, but externally they spent all of their energy building their newsroom around this fictitious Russiagate story, rather than doing things like let’s look at what’s happening with poor and middle class America, and the massive amounts of insecurity that led to Trump’s election. They didn’t do that at all. They went with this other story.
And then later when that story fell apart, they kind of threw their weight behind The 1619 Project and other issues, because that was preferable to telling dangerous truths about the neoliberal economics and other issues that were really concerning the country. So that’s the danger that you get: that when they’re afraid to tell you what’s actually happening, they end up coming up with alternatives that are not convincing. [from 26:20 mins]
CH: Right, The 1619 Project, which they then denied what they wrote.
MT: Yeah, exactly.
CH: That was also kind of bizarre.
CH: That was Matt Taibbi, one of the few real journalists left on the disintegrating media landscape in the United States. Thanks Matt.
MT: Thanks Chris.