Russiagate, which began as a scandal over Russian efforts to sway the 2016 US election, has since proliferated into a drama of dossiers, investigative councils, Russian adoption cover-ups, and beyond. As journalists from the Intercept, Truthdig, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Rolling Stone, and other independent outlets document, corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate supersedes important newsworthy stories. Furthermore, corporate news coverage that is reflexively hostile towards Russia serves to connect legitimate political protest in the US with Russian operatives and interests.
In April, 2017, Aaron Maté reported on a quantitative study conducted by the Intercept of MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” the second-most popular weekday show on cable news. Its analysis of every Rachel Maddow Show episode broadcast between February 20 and March 31, 2017, found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” As Maté noted, Maddow’s Russia coverage “dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues,” including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles, among other story topics.
The Intercept was not the only independent voice critical of MSNBC’s coverage. In an article published by Truthdig, Norman Solomon observed, “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ‘attack on our democracy’ that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”
Beyond MSNBC, other influential US media players have fueled Russiagate fears. In November, 2017, Twitter announced policy changes that banned all advertising from two international news outlets owned by Russia, Sputnik and RT, as Robin Andersen reported for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). As Andersen and others reported, the social media giant based its decision on a single US intelligence report.
The Russiagate narrative that monopolized corporate news cycles throughout 2017 has had real consequences. In February 2018, the Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review (last updated in 2010) called for the improvement and readiness of US nuclear capabilities because “Russia’s activities and policies have reduced stability and security, increased unpredictability, and introduced new dangers into the security environment.”
Corporate news coverage has continued to fan popular fears that Russia threatens US democracy. For example, in February, 2018, segment, titled “The Unwitting,” CNN brought cameras to the door of an elderly Florida woman, who had organized a local Trump-support event, to accuse her of working with Russian organizers. The Rachel Maddows of corporate media and their networks profit while reinforcing a blind hostility, not only towards the United States’ nuclear adversary but also against legitimate domestic dissent.
Aaron Maté, “MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Sees A ‘Russia Connection’ Lurking Around Every Corner,” The Intercept, April 12, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/04/12/msnbcs-rachel-maddow-sees-a-russia-connection-lurking-around-every-corner/.
Norman Solomon, “Is MSNBC Now the Most Dangerous Warmonger Network?” Truthdig, March 1, 2018, https://www.truthdig.com/articles/msnbc-now-dangerous-warmonger-network/.
Robin Andersen, “Backlash Against Russian ‘Fake News’ Is Shutting Down Debate for Real,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, November 29, 2017, https://fair.org/home/backlash-against-russian-fake-news-is-shutting-down-debate-for-real/.
Matt Taibbi, “The New Blacklist,” Rolling Stone, March 5, 2018,https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/taibbi-russiagate-trump-putin-mueller-and-targeting-dissent-w517486.
Student Researcher: Moira Feldman (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Robert Williams, Jr. (University of Vermont)