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‘Boom!’: an autopsy of the media after the Mueller bombshell

Dunking on Rachel Maddow may be fun, but she’s far from the sole perpetrator

April 4, 2019

11:05 AM

4 April 2019

11:05 AM

Can you think of a more vulgar and disgraceful manifestation of Trump-Russia media malfeasance than Rachel Maddow? Her deluded nightly conspiratorial rants may have been lucrative for MSNBC, but she fed viewers a complete fraud for three years. Now her show is undergoing a genuine existential crisis after Robert Mueller’s exoneration of Trump.

The harm Maddow inflicted is unforgivable and she should obviously resign, go into exile, and take up some other line of work: perhaps gardening. That said, she has also become something of a scapegoat. It’s convenient to disavow Maddow’s excesses if you’re a journalist who wants to pretend that the media failures which gave rise to Trump-Russia weren’t a full-scale indictment of their entire profession. To act as though the misconduct was somehow confined to one unhinged cable news personality would be a gross distortion.

As contemptible as Rachel undoubtedly is, dwelling on her absolves the rest of the industry from acknowledging what really happened: a structural calamity of epic proportions, implicating almost all of them, which has utterly destroyed the reputation of the media writ large. And for good reason.

Easy as it might be to pooh-pooh Maddow as some zany outlier, the undeniable reality is that the sick conspiratorial mindset she embodied was thoroughly mainstream: it infected virtually every sector of elite American culture, from journalism, to entertainment, to the professional political class. Rachel is just the tip of the rotten iceberg.

Take, for instance, Keith Olbermann. Keith was the most influential host on MSNBC during the George W. Bush years, when audiences ate up his furious denunciations of the Iraq War, which scratched a genuine itch because of the prevailing pro-war media conformity of the time. Olbermann gave voice to frustrated liberals who felt that their well-founded grievances were not being represented in the popular media, and his style came to be emulated across the industry (including by the host he recruited for a top spot on the network, Rachel Maddow.)

Then came the Trump era, when Olbermann’s brain appeared to explode. He began recording short video rants for GQ magazine, which rank among the most mind-bendingly deranged content produced throughout the entire Russiagate ordeal. Please, just watch this unbelievable screed from December 2016:

‘We are at war with Russia,’ Olbermann gravely proclaims. The inauguration of Donald Trump, he prophesies, will mark ‘the end of the United States as an independent country.’ Anyone who rejects this analysis is a ‘traitor’ says Olbermann, and in league with ‘Russian scum.’ His recommendation is to thwart Trump via some harebrained Electoral College scheme where electors are intimidated into violating their duty to vote according to the election outcome in their respective states and districts. I covered this attempted coup at the time, which failed, but was supported by leading Democrats ranging from Hillary Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri to Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe; as well as Michael Moore, Lawrence Lessig, Peter Beinart, DeRay McKesson, Paul Krugman, and Neera Tanden. Prominent liberals had been melodramatically whinging for months about how appalled they were by Trump’s alleged propensity to violate ‘norms,’ but the next minute they turned around and demanded that all norms governing the centuries-old Electoral College process be thrown out the window. The wild propaganda promoted by Olbermann had become the standard, mainstream view among American liberals: fundamentally corrupting their capacity to view subsequent political events with any semblance of rationality.

Despite their truly insane offerings, focusing solely on demented opinionators like Olbermann and Maddow still lets ostensibly ‘neutral’ journalists off the hook. The amount of journalistic resources squandered on the Trump-Russia boondoggle, for instance by the New York Times and the Washington Post, will never be fully quantified. Both newspapers were lavished with Pulitzer Prizes and every other pointless accolade for their supposedly intrepid journalism. Their constant ‘bombshell scoops’ routinely ricocheted across Twitter before they were injected into the rest of the turbocharged media ecosystem, each one breathlessly touted on cable news for hours at a time. The harsh truth is that most all of these ‘scoops’ were predicated on a fiction. There was supposed to be a core conspiracy, which was meant to explain why Trump associates kept getting caught in lies – why their communications were extrajudicially intercepted, why they were surveilled on dubious pretenses. But no underlying conspiracy was ever revealed. The whole thing was based on a fairytale. Shouldn’t the Times and WaPo therefore apologize and give back their Pulitzers? Or at very least toss them in the dumpster.

Benjamin Wittes, the LawFare website guru and arguably the most lauded Twitter authority on the Trump-Russia scam, became well-known for his fun slogan, ‘BOOM!,’ which he would gleefully tweet every time a supposed bombshell article burst on the scene. Here’s a Washington Post story from October 21 last year headlined ‘Special counsel examines conflicting accounts as scrutiny of Roger Stone and WikiLeaks deepens,’ which got the Wittes ‘boom’ treatment. Wow, very dramatic! Sounds a lot like Mueller and his squad were closing in on Stone as the evil mastermind behind some grand Trump-Russia conspiracy plot, given his suspicious ties to WikiLeaks, right? The only problem is, when Stone was indicted three months later, Mueller not only brought zero charges alleging Stone as party to any conspiracy, he dispelled such notions. All the correspondence cited in Mueller’s indictment showed that Stone had no advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks releases or any privileged access to its operations. Roger Stone was just doing what Roger Stone does best: bullshitting.

Stone was eventually charged by Mueller for making false statements, but again: none of those statements pertained to a conspiracy cover-up. They pertained to the dirty trickster being who he’s been for decades: a fabulist who frequently misrepresents himself and gets in stupid feuds with fellow political hucksters. The October 2018 story about which Wittes tweeted ‘boom’ ultimately had no real significance. Like so many other stories touted at the time as an incredible BOMBSHELL, everyone got amped up over a total fantasy. The story had no serious value, other than to temporarily scintillate now-discredited obsessives like Wittes.

Special scorn should be reserved for those in prominent media positions who ought to have known better, but indulged day after day in conspiratorial nonsense anyway. Take Chris Hayes, the popular 8pm MSNBC host, who unlike Maddow has a journalistic background (he was formerly the Washington Editor of The Nation magazine). Theoretically, Hayes should have been imbued with a greater sense of ingrained skepticism regarding CIA and FBI claims, which are what drove the entire Trump-Russia investigation to begin with. He is also a genuinely intelligent person, having (ironically) written the excellent Twilight of the Elites (2012), a book which examined the propensity for upper-crust society to engage in self-defeating groupthink. But Hayes too ended up witlessly amplifying the most obscene Russiagate antics – no doubt influenced by the pressure of having to turn in big ratings every night. His shows were always brimming with security state spooks like John Brennan, the former CIA Director and proven fantasist. Brennan was eventually hired by NBC, becoming one of Hayes’s colleagues despite having played a central role in instigating the original Trump-Russia investigation in 2016 and inflaming its most incendiary elements (Brennan infamously declared Trump guilty of treason on Twitter following the Helsinki summit).

For further insight on the subject, Hayes generally turned to pseudo-journalistic figures like Natasha Bertrand of The Atlantic, whose frenetically conspiratorial Russia coverage has also proven to have been total bunk – as well as former prosecutors and FBI officials like Chuck Rosenberg, disreputable security state apparatchiks like former NSA lawyer Susan Hennessey, and outright charlatans like purported ‘intelligence expert’ Malcolm Nance. (Here’s an example from 2016 of the esteemed Nance getting tricked by a Twitter troll.) Hayes even went so far as to promote the theory that Trump had been colluding with Russia since 1987, a story somehow featured on the cover of New York magazine despite drawing on source material that literally originated with the recently deceased, notorious madman Lyndon LaRouche. Hayes’s descent into fact-free mania culminated with his declaration to Stephen Colbert on March 8 last year that Trump and his associates were ‘super guilty’ of collusion. Whoops!

While many once-respectable media figures like Hayes have seen their reputations inserted directly into the toilet, maybe the most bizarre case of all is Marcy Wheeler, the independent journalist known as @emptywheel. Wheeler appeared on Hayes’s first show after Mueller decisively cleared Trump of collusion – you know, the central tenet of the Special Counsel’s mandate. The fact that Hayes would have Wheeler on at that moment – after the entire Trump-Russia drama was definitively exposed as a ludicrous fantasy – showed that Hayes was committed to perpetuating the deceit even in the face of all countervailing evidence, whether unconsciously or consciously. That’s because Marcy Wheeler is almost certainly a deluded basket case.

The most obvious evidence for this is Wheeler’s sensational admission in July 2018 that she burned a source to the FBI, voluntarily and proactively, thereby committing one of journalism’s mortal sins. Wheeler justified her demented action on numerous fronts. First, she claimed that she possessed bombshell, smoking gun info that proved a Trump-Russia conspiracy, and felt a patriotic duty to hand this over to the FBI – in retribution for what she called Russia’s ‘attack’ on the United States. Let’s remember, shall we, that said attack at most amounted to some Twitter bots, goofy Facebook memes, and spear-phished Gmail accounts: John Podesta famously clicked on a phony link, which led to his emails being swiped. Hardly 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, wouldn’t you say? However, those comparisons have been seriously made by various prominent elected officials, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who would have presided over impeachment proceedings had things panned out differently.

When pressed – even after the Mueller clearly asserted that no such Trump-Russia conspiracy ever existed – Wheeler still refuses to divulge any details about the extraordinary dispositive evidence she mysteriously claims to possess. Second, Wheeler further justified her insane conduct by insisting she could literally be killed by some unknown sinister alliance of Russians and Trump-backed mafia figures, or something (I’m not making this up.). Shamefully, Wheeler’s outlandish assertions were treated as gospel by members of the media who failed to apply even a modicum of critical scrutiny; Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post heralded Wheeler as following her conscience and wrote this about the supposed Russian hit squad out to get her: ‘Overly dramatic? Not really. The Russians do have a penchant for disposing of people they find threatening.’ Utter lunacy. Since the Mueller finding, Wheeler has strangely not revealed any additional information about the nature of these would-be assassins.

Think about it. For months, Wheeler dangled cryptic hints about the explosive info that she alone supposedly knew about, enthralling blog readers and Twitter followers – and earning her major platforms not just on MSNBC but even the New York Times, where she contributed columns that contained blatant falsehoods. In the pages of the world’s most influential newspaper, she claimed that Mueller had been ‘hiding’ evidence showing Trump’s participation in a Russia conspiracy, and it would all come out once Mueller issued his final verdict. No dice.

Last week, Wheeler finally admitted her suspicion that the FBI may have just decided she is ‘crazy.’ Yes, sounds plausible.

So much journalistic energy was wasted chronicling the ins-and-outs of the Russiagate non-story. Imagine if instead that time was devoted to reporting in the public interest: like, say, I don’t know – investigating the militaristic think tanks which attempted to undermine Trump’s key diplomatic initiatives (such as North Korea), or how Trump was co-opted by the Republican donor class, or his various actual corruptions that didn’t happen to involve any international espionage conspiracy. Sadly, all the media figures who might have been assigned to legitimate evidence-based inquiries were wrapped up in the never-ending Russia melodrama, based on the hunch that it would result in the revelation of treasonous collusion, followed by the arrest of Trump’s family and his swift impeachment. None of this happened. So what was the point?

Most disturbing of all is how otherwise-smart journalists and commentators lost their minds and integrity throughout the debacle. It was all a joke, a scam, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface here. It will take years to fully sift through the wreckage.


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