Janine Jackson: “Sessions Met With Russian Envoy Twice Last Year, Encounters He Later Did Not Disclose,” was the Washington Post and other media’s spin on what others didn’t hesitate to call a lie: Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ denial, under oath, of the kind of meetings he now acknowledges he had. That bit of damage control came off elite media’s startlingly generous, you might say, reception to Donald Trump’s speech to Congress, in which the New York Times actually credited him for “following the written text on the teleprompters more closely than any major speech of his presidency.” “Trump Advocated White Nationalism With an ‘Indoor Voice,’ and Pundits Loved It,” was how Media Matters put it.
Well, this was just as some were thinking that the US press corps had accepted that their relationship with the Trump White House was going to be adversarial, and were maybe even looking like taking a less complacent stand, at least saying that they would call lies “lies.” While corporate media tried to sort out what they stand for, the question for us is what do we need from journalism right now? What would truly independent media look like, and how could we use it to move forward?
Norman Solomon is national coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He’s also a long-time FAIR associate who joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Norman Solomon.
Norman Solomon: Hey, thanks, Janine.
JJ: I think elite media’s treatment of Trump’s speech to Congress—the centering of the performance of it rather than its content, the consecration with the term “presidential,” an utterly reflexive exercise in which media say that media see something a certain way…. It was all a clear sign, if that were needed, that, while they may do critical work, we can’t rely on these media to “hold” our outrage and concern, to represent it, to represent us. And I think some folks may have started to get a different idea about that for a minute. There’s too much to say, of course, but I did want to start with that open question: What are some of the kinds of reporting that a vital democratic media would be doing in the face of a Trump administration?
NS: Apparently independence is really hard to maintain. And while the principle, the axiom, of a free and independent press is something that journalists really embrace in theory, when it comes down to it, that sort of magnetic pull of power, whether out of the White House or Capitol Hill, it just seems often irresistible. And so there are so many euphemisms that kick in and, as you mentioned, Janine, the coverage of the Trump speech to the joint session of Congress just oozed praise for the high jump over very low standards of reading a teleprompter effectively and couching really pretty flagrant xenophobia and racism in more genteel terms.
JJ: We’ve seen, just recently, outlets taking umbrage at being excluded from press briefings, and that sort of looks like the Fourth Estate remembering what it’s there for. But at the same time, we’ve seen journalists arrested for reporting around DAPL, for example, and the elite media didn’t come to their defense. And we see citizen journalists trying to document police abuse, it’s a very cutting-edge issue, and we don’t see the bastions of traditional media standing up for them. So it’s almost like there’s this press corps that we’re meant to be defending, this First Amendment we’re meant to be defending, but it’s somewhat more theoretical than actual.
NS: Well, there’s so much of the press, the independent media that are given short shrift or totally ignored by the dominant corporate media, which, contrary to myth, largely by the numbers dominate the internet and websites as well.
I think that also is parallel to just the political scene. We have this classic dynamic. It’s been true for decades, FAIR has pointed it out repeatedly since its founding in the mid-1980s: When the Democratic and Republican party leadership in Washington have a certain frame of reference, the dominant corporate media stay within it. And I think there’s no clearer or more important example than the coverage of Russia, and the whole uproar over Trump and Russian contacts and all the rest of it, where the mindset, the worldview of the people in Congress and the White House, pretty much are the alpha and omega of where the mass media will go.
JJ: No one’s saying perjury shouldn’t be addressed, but it’s so easy to lose sight of what this whole scandal about Russian involvement is grounded in. And it’s as though Russia still is, for the media and for many people, a—pun intended—red flag that kind of shuts down thinking and starts up this machinery of response, which looks very old.
NS: Well, it’s new wine in old bottles. And really what is not talked about is so often profoundly in plain sight, or should be in plain sight. For instance, it’s very rare in all of this just tsunami of coverage, this massive coverage, to see any mention of the fact that each country, Russia and the US, has several thousand nuclear weapons basically pointed at each other, 4,000 in each country, under the military of each nation, at the ready to basically be able to incinerate, not just the two countries, but billions of people on the planet, with nuclear winter coming after. Neither party—major party—talks about that, rarely talked about in the news media.
And then you get to, in all this coverage, with very rare exceptions, the nationalistic double standards, the failure to look at the agendas of outfits like the NSA and CIA to perpetuate and escalate hostility with Russia.
We have the assumption that James Clapper, until very recently the director of national intelligence, is some sort of paragon of truthfulness, when he was caught flagrantly lying to a Senate committee in early 2003 about surveillance, and we only know that, with documented facts, because the Snowden NSA revelations came three months later. You know, on and on, where basic independent journalism would ferret out and highlight these fundamental contradictions in the claims from people in power versus the realities.
JJ: And just in terms of, at a time where we’re hearing all these competing interpretations and where’s there such a hunger to hear information that feeds a certain perspective, I would think minimally we would look to the media for certain standards of evidence. So that when I see a news media article talking about, well, Trump “praised” Putin and, wink wink, we know what that means, it just feels like such a throwback in terms of really separating fact from feeling and evidence from rumor. That’s the baseline, isn’t it?
NS: Yes. I mean, that is a very McCarthyistic dynamic that the press and many Democrats on Capitol Hill have dragged us into, so that when a statement comes now from the Trump administration, or perhaps a commentator on the margins, to say that we need a modern equivalent of detente, that the US and Russia have a joint stake in, for instance, not blowing up the planet and better relations and stepping away from the tripwire of nuclear confrontation, where actually, in fact, as the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, we have hair-trigger alert nuclear missiles ten minutes from launch-on-warning to be in the air. And yet there are aspersions cast—and, you know, even a broken clock can be profoundly correct once in awhile—aspersions cast on President Trump.
For instance, at his news conference on February 16—I mean, yeah, a lot of it was barely coherent, if that. But Trump said some things about relations with Russia that make absolute sense for the survival of the planet, and here are a couple of quick quotes. He said about Russia: “They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.” And yet, to the extent those sorts of words from Trump are cited by US journalists, it’s almost invariably to supposedly corroborate that he’s some kind of stool pigeon or flunky for the Kremlin.
And by no means is this a right-wing meme, particularly. As a matter of fact, it’s most prevalent from outlets like MSNBC, from liberal commentators. For instance, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, four weeks after Trump became president, he wrote, and I’m quoting here from Krugman in his column in the New York Times, “Nothing he has done since the inauguration allays fears that he is in effect a Putin puppet.” And then the column ends with a matter-of-fact reference to the “Trump/Putin axis.” Well, if that’s the attitude of so many commentators, especially liberal, pro–Democratic Party commentators, that getting along with Russia and wanting to build bridges towards the Kremlin is some kind of danger to the republic and perhaps treason, we are in a very dangerous situation.
JJ: I think what it underscores for me, Norman, is the importance of separating ideas from people, which is a very difficult thing, I think, for all of us. But I just feel that if you find yourself nodding along to George W. Bush, you ought to know it’s time for a paradigm shift. We can say racism is bad, as George W. Bush said—“I don’t like the racism,”—and we can also say that we don’t really credit George W. Bush as the bringer of that message, you know?
JJ: And so what I’m trying to say is, “Whoever is against Trump is good” just doesn’t seem like a winning idea. And what I’m looking for from the press, or what I would hope for, is this separation from ideas and their source. You can support a good idea when a jerk says it, and you can be against a bad idea even when the source is someone that you may have supported. I mean, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
NS: Yeah, rather than being knee-jerk and failing to be independent, what we need is, really, a willingness to report independently in terms of the press, and to assess and analyze and think independently. And it’s very hard to do in the polarized environment where it’s an either/or sort of binary, “which side are you on.” I think a recent editorial in The Nation magazine made the point well when it said, just because Donald Trump is against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it doesn’t mean that therefore we should say, well, after all, we’re for it.
NS: And the same would go for better relations with Russia, but so many of us—and it’s really hard not to get in this mode—we are conditioned, certainly by the mass media, to choose up sides, and to say that anything advocated by someone who we deplore must therefore be suspect or worse. And that’s just a prescription for disaster, in terms of political thought and for journalism.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Norman Solomon from RootsAction.org. Thank you so much, Norman, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
NS: Thank you, Janine.