By Norman Solomon
We still donâ€™t have any sort of apology or retraction from theÂ Washington PostÂ for promoting â€œThe Listâ€ — the highly dangerous blacklist that got a huge boost from the newspaperâ€™s fawning coverage on November 24. The project of smearing 200 websites with one broad brush wouldnâ€™t have gotten far without the avid complicity of high-profile media outlets, starting with theÂ Post.
On Thursday — a week after theÂ PostÂ published its front-page newsÂ articleÂ hyping the blacklist that was put out by a group of unidentified people called PropOrNot — I sent a petition statement to the newspaperâ€™s executive editor Martin Baron.
â€œSmearing is not reporting,â€ the RootsActionÂ petitionÂ says. â€œTheÂ Washington Postâ€™s recent descent into McCarthyism — promoting anonymous and shoddy claims that a vast range of some 200 websites are all accomplices or tools of the Russian government — violates basic journalistic standards and does real harm to democratic discourse in our country. We urge theÂ Washington PostÂ to prominently retract the article and apologize for publishing it.â€
After mentioning that 6,000 people had signed the petition (the number has doubled since then), my email to Baron added: â€œIf you skim through the comments that many of the signers added to the petition online, I think you might find them to be of interest. I wonder if you see a basis for dialogue on the issues raised by critics of theÂ PostÂ piece in question.â€
The reply came from the newspaperâ€™s vice president for public relations, KristineÂ Coratti Kelly, who thanked me â€œfor reaching out to usâ€ before presenting theÂ Postâ€™s response, quoted here in full:
â€œTheÂ PostÂ reported on the work of four separate sets of researchers, as well as independent experts, who have examined Russian attempts to influence American democracy. PropOrNot was one. TheÂ PostÂ did not name any of the sites on PropOrNotâ€™s list of organizations that it said had — wittingly or unwittingly — published or echoed Russian propaganda. TheÂ PostÂ reviewed PropOrNot’s findings and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews.â€
But that damage-control response was as full of holes as the news story it tried to defend.
For one thing, PropOrNot wasnâ€™t just another source for theÂ Postâ€™s story. AsÂ The New YorkerÂ noted in aÂ devastating articleÂ on Dec. 1, the story â€œprominently cited the PropOrNot research.â€ TheÂ Postâ€™s account â€œhad the force of revelation, thanks in large part to the apparent scientific authority of PropOrNotâ€™s work: the group released a 32-page report detailing its methodology, and named names with its list of 200 suspect news outletsâ€¦. But a close look at the report showed that it was a mess.â€
Little Room for Doubt or Skepticism
Contrary to the PR message from theÂ PostÂ vice president, PropOrNot did not merely say that the sites on its list had â€œpublished or echoed Russian propaganda.â€ Without a word of the slightest doubt or skepticism in the entire story, theÂ PostÂ summarized PropOrNotâ€™s characterization of all the websites on its list as falling into two categories: â€œSome players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were â€˜useful idiotsâ€™ — a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.â€
AsÂ The New YorkerÂ pointed out, PropOrNotâ€™s criteria for incriminating content were broad enough to include â€œnearly every news outlet in the world, including theÂ PostÂ itself.â€
Painting the Websites with a Broad Brush
Yet â€œThe Listâ€ is not a random list by any means — itâ€™s a targeted mish-mash, naming websites that are not within shouting distance of the U.S. corporate and foreign policy establishment.
And so the list includes a few overtly Russian-funded outlets; some other sites generally aligned with Kremlin outlooks; many pro-Trump sites, often unacquainted with what it means to be factual and sometimes overtly racist; and other websites that are quite different — solid, factual, reasonable — but too progressive or too anti-capitalist or too libertarian or too right-wing or just plain too independent-minded for the evident tastes of whoever is behind PropOrNot.
AsÂ The New Yorkerâ€™s writer Adrian Chen put it: â€œTo PropOrNot, simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream is enough to risk being labeled a Russian propagandist.â€ And he concluded: â€œDespite the impressive-looking diagrams and figures in its report, PropOrNotâ€™s findings rest largely on innuendo and conspiracy thinking.â€
As for theÂ PostÂ vice presidentâ€™s defensive phrasing that â€œtheÂ PostÂ did not name any of the sites on PropOrNotâ€™s list,â€ the fact is that theÂ PostÂ unequivocally promoted PropOrNot, driving web traffic to its site and adding a hotlink to the anonymous groupâ€™s 32-page report soon after the newspaperâ€™s story first appeared. As I mentioned in my reply to her: â€œUnfortunately, it’s kind of like a newspaper saying that it didn’t name any of the people on theÂ Red ChannelsÂ blacklist in 1950 while promoting it in news coverage, so no problem.â€
As much as theÂ PostÂ news management might want to weasel out of the comparison, the parallels to the advent of the McCarthy Era are chilling. For instance, theÂ Red ChannelsÂ list, with 151 names on it, was successful as a weapon against dissent and free speech in large part because, early on, so many media outlets of the day actively aided and abetted blacklisting, as theÂ PostÂ has done for â€œThe List.â€
Consider how theÂ PostÂ story described the personnel of PropOrNot in favorable terms even while hiding all of their identities and thus shielding them from any scrutiny — calling them â€œa nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.â€
Pushback, Yes, but Cheers as Well
So farÂ The New YorkerÂ has been the largest media outlet to directly confront theÂ Postâ€™s egregious story. Cogent assessments can also be found atÂ The Intercept,Â Consortium News,Â Common Dreams,Â AlterNet,Â Rolling Stone,Â Fortune,Â CounterPunch,Â The NationÂ and numerous other sites.
But many mainline journalists and outlets jumped at the chance to amplify theÂ Postâ€™s piece of work. A sampling of the cheers from prominent journalists and liberal partisans was published by FAIR.org under the apt headline â€œWhy Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited â€˜Fake Newsâ€™ Blacklist?â€
FAIRâ€™s media analystÂ Adam Johnson cited enthusiastic responses to the bogus story from journalists likeÂ Bloombergâ€™sÂ Sahil KuparÂ andÂ MSNBCâ€™sÂ Joy ReidÂ — and such outlets asÂ USA Today,Â Gizmodo,Â theÂ PBS NewsHour,Â The Daily Beast,Â Slate,Â AP,Â The VergeÂ andÂ NPR, which â€œall uncritically wrote up theÂ Postâ€™s most incendiary claims with little or minimal pushback.â€Â On the MSNBC site, the Rachel Maddow Show’sÂ blogÂ “added another breathless write-up hours later, repeating the catchy talking point that â€˜it was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trumpâ€™s campaign.’â€
Kremlin-Blaming Overreach to First Amendment Threats
With so many people understandably upset about Trumpâ€™s victory, thereâ€™s an evident attraction to blaming the Kremlin, a convenient scapegoat for Hillary Clintonâ€™s loss. But theÂ Postâ€™s blacklisting story and the mediaâ€™s amplification of it — and the overall political environment that it helps to create — are all building blocks for a reactionary order, threatening the First Amendment and a range of civil liberties.
When liberals have green lighted a witch-hunt, right wingers have been pleased to run with it. President Harry Truman issued an executive order in March 1947 to establish â€œloyaltyâ€ investigations in every agency of the federal government. Joe McCarthy and the era named after him were soon to follow.
In media and government, the journalists and officials who enable blacklisting areÂ cravenlyÂ siding with conformity instead of democracy.Î¦
Norman Solomon is co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org. His books includeÂ War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.