It sometimes seemed over the year that just passed that the largest mainstream American cable news networks CNN and, to an almost ridiculous degree, MSNBC, eagerly sought to profit by following Fox News’ example in reverse, hysterical coverage the latter perfected during the Obama presidency. This meant fewer reporters needed in the field to actually break stories and more in-house panels featuring talking heads.
Major national dailies the New York Times and Washington Post also saw an upswing in readership as people looked for explanations of what, exactly, had happened in the 2016 election and what to expect after Trump’s inauguration on January 20th. There was anxiety in the air throughout much of the world as the fateful day when the orange hued showman would take power approached.
In their eagerness to explain an electoral college fluke by way of Russian interference or 3rd party intransigence, most of the corporate media made mistakes, and this would be fine if these stories were retracted as widely as they were disseminated in the first place.
Normally rational people began to see dark forces at work throughout the Western world. Russians were blamed not only for Hillary Clinton’s defeat but for the earlier 2016 Brexit vote, hacking the campaign emails of then candidate, now president Emmanuel Macron in France, and influencing the independence vote in Catalonia, to name just three. Very few mainstream journalists pushed back against this group-think, which only intensified as it became clear that real proof of any of these allegations would not be forthcoming in the near term.
Even the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who had lied (or, in his lawyer’s telling, had simply “forgotten”) under oath to the U.S. Senate about mass surveillance targeting American citizens was re-branded as a trusted authority and truth teller.
To be sure, Trump made a huge mistake by picking a fight with major U.S. intelligence agencies and later the FBI, especially considering that, his strange outbursts and tweeting aside, he’s turned out to be a pretty conventional contemporary Republican president. Nonetheless, the blind trust put by the media in these agencies and the anonymous official leakers feeding them stories, who hide their identities and often their real motivations from the public, should cause more concern.
On New Years eve of 2017, the Washington Post pushed the Russian paranoia to new heights when they reported that the country had hacked into Burlington, Vermont’s electric grid. Not only was the initial story without any basis in reality, the reporters involved had relied on a single anonymous official and hadn’t bothered to check with the actual utility itself to verify the story. As it flew through the media landscape it was changed at least one more time to a claim that a computer not connected to the grid had ‘Russian malware’ installed on it, but even this version was essentially meaningless as such malicious software is widely available and may not even be Russian in origin.
It’s true that these kinds of stories based on the testimony of anonymous insiders that later turn out to be false aren’t new and have led to much worse disasters in the past. Those who remember the run up to the Iraq War will recall stories of WMD, yellow cake (as a component in a possible quest for a nuclear bomb) and shadowy connections between that country’s former leadership and Al Qaeda.
All of these stories were false, but many people still believe them to this day.
The Trump clown show hides the same old Republican agenda
Starting a day after Trump was sworn in, tons of ink and hours of discussion were dedicated to the administration’s demonstrably false claims about the size of the crowd on the mall on that late January day. It says a lot about Trump’s self regard that he couldn’t accept that the election of the first black American president was more historic than that of yet another wealthy businessman.
However, trivial stories like this eclipsed the actual actions being undertaken by the administration both at home and abroad from the moment he took office. Even on that exact same day, over 200 protesters were arrested protesting Trump’s election and the airwaves were inundated with images of property damage caused by a few malcontents in the mostly peaceful crowd. These images stayed with many people, especially those who support Trump, and there was little mainstream follow up on the felony rioting charges that could have resulted in decades in prison for the majority, including journalists, simply exercising their right to protest.
Once again showing that the judicial system is the last bulwark against an ongoing but increasingly bold assault on the basic rights of American citizens, the first of these trials just concluded with not guilty verdicts for 6 defendants. How long this will remain true is an open question as the Trump administration has been busily using the Republican Congressional majorities to fill federal judicial posts, including one on the Supreme Court.
Better coverage was given to the Women’s March that brought millions to the streets across the U.S. and other countries on January 21st. Unfortunately, it would be months before the issues that should have been discussed in the wake of this historic day really came to the fore with the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the beginning of the ongoing #MeToo movement.Hopefully this movement will cross borders and lines of race and class in the coming year.
There were also moments of spontaneous protest that showed Americans at their best, including actions at airports across the country when the administration tried to enact its first draconian travel ban and the counter-protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere against far right groups emboldened by Trump’s winking acknowledgment of their support.
While many ordinary people showed great decency in 2017, with some engaging in such advocacy paying with their lives, prestigious outlets publicized the views of right-wing extremists who should never have been given the spotlight, let alone a mainstream megaphone.
Although there were worse examples, including sympathetic profiles of professed white nationalists, the most dangerous of those elevated in this way was probably Steve Bannon. This supposed wise man of the new right was someone who mixed up Pakistan and Hong Kong after visiting the latter, which, intentional or not, should have said everything we would ever need to know about him.
Instead of marginalizing Bannon as they have done to so many on the left who might make paying advertisers nervous, the media seemed to hang on every utterance from a man who looks (and often sounds) like he sleeps in a bathtub filled with gin.
Also, barely noted by the media or the so-called Democratic opposition in the American Congress, were the early Trump executive orders reversing two major victories for the environmental and indigenous rights movements during the Obama presidency.
With the stroke of a pen, the president lived up to a promise to unleash American extractive industries, allowing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines to go ahead (barring intervention from the courts). Before it was even operational, the DAPL pipeline spilled on April 6th, releasing 84 gallons into the fields around a South Dakota pump station. A quick Google search regarding the spill reveals that the only two mainstream outlets to cover it in the first 2 pages of results were CNBC and the U.K. Guardian.
In other environmental news, major, previously once in a lifetime storms, hit the Caribbean and Southern US, most savagely in Barbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The President’s lack of empathy for the latter territory gave us some of the most courageous mainstream American reporting of the year. Unfortunately, it was marred by an insistence that discussions of climate change would have to wait for some unspecified time in the future that has yet to come. We were told the same thing as wildfires burned in western Canada over the summer and in California into December.
Trump had just announced plans to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords before this North American summer of storm and fire; a mostly symbolic agreement on closer analysis but, considering the seriousness of the issue, an important one. Realistically, even if Hillary Clinton had won, with both houses of Congress in Republican hands and her own record on environmental issues, it’s unlikely that any progress would have been made on climate change.
Why is the left a target?
By year’s end, the only candidate with a real environmental agenda, former Green Party presidential nominee, Dr. Jill Stein, who I interviewed before the election and who is among the smartest people I’ve ever spoken to, was handing over internal documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of that body’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This seems to be related to 10th anniversary celebration she attended in Moscow for the Russian RT network, which had broadcast a 3rd party debate during the 2012 campaign.
And this is where, for lack of a better term, the new McCarthyism, led by corporatist Democrats, ‘never Trump’ Republicans and their media allies has led. Unsubstantiated smears against dissident voices, especially those opposed to militarism, despoiling the natural world and the continued flow of wealth upward to those who already have too much will continue to be a bipartisan sport in the coming year.
And Dr. Stein was not alone. What began as ‘resistance’ to the far right soon found other enemies. By the end of this year, Black Lives Matter, indigenous activists and the ‘far’ left had been painted as, at the very least, dupes of the great Russian puppeteer.
As I feel obligated to say each time I mention the country, there is much to criticize about the Russian government under United Russia and Vladimir Putin. Nationalist sentiment has only increased in the country and, unique among most of the world’s Christian churches, the Russian Orthodox church is actually growing in terms of political influence (with an effect on the treatment of LGBTQ people, showing that the United States is not alone in having cynical politicians willing to cater to religious extremists at the expense of traditionally marginalized communities.
This also isn’t to say that Russia and a great number of other countries don’t try to influence American politics (and that of other countries) but saying that a citizen of Russia (or any other country) who wants to share memes about social movements like BLM online is part of a Russian influence operation to create dissent where none would otherwise exist is absurd. 150 million Russians are no more controlled by their country’s president than 330 million Americans are controlled by Donald Trump.
It doesn’t really effect most on the left on a day to day basis whether the mainstream media chases Kremlin backed hackers instead of admitting both that Donald Trump has a weird appeal in a culture that worships celebrity and ‘success’ in business and that Hillary Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate who ran a deeply flawed campaign, but we should not accept the rumors and outright attacks on Jill Stein, on outlets like Wikileaks, on Black Lives Matter, or on anti-DAPL protesters that have come over the last year.
Let’s instead look to these individuals and the movements they represent for inspiration and leave the profitable media panic of 2017 behind us. The most dangerous political movement in the developed world remains extremists on the right, as true here in Canada, where the rise of such populism across the border and in Europe began to have an influence on our own right wing, with new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups appearing on our streets and an attack on a mosque in Quebec City that killed 6 innocent people shortly after the new President took office in Washington, DC.
But this shouldn’t mean placing our hopes in corporate media and establishment politicians of all stripes who have left issues of social justice to fester in the background since at least the Bill Clinton era. We need to remember that mainstream liberals have sought to muffle progressive voices by libeling leftwing activists as extremists not very different from the religious fanatics and white supremacists on the right.
To paraphrase that noted American jurist, Judge Judy, “How do you know a corporatist politician or news anchor is lying when they’re talking about the progressive left? Their lips are moving.”
The American left must try to remember this throughout the coming year.