Hark, the Kremlin’s Bells are Ringing
Kurt Eichenwald is sure the Kremlin is out to get him.
The veteran journalist has taken to obsessively updating an extended rant at Newsweek allegedly documenting a concerted Russian attempt to forge documents from Wikileak’s Podesta email leak. Citing a now-removed article from the English-language website Sputnik, Eichenwald puts himself at the center of a Russian disinformation campaign meant to disrupt the U.S. elections. According to his narrative, Sputnik, which misattributed a quote from one of Eichenwald’s articles that Blumenthal sent around by email, manipulated the email for their own purposes to push some sort of Benghazi-related conspiracy theory.
Here’s what Sputnik actually did. Some staffer hammered out a breaking news story about a supposedly damning email from Blumenthal. The email, the article claims, provides hard evidence that Blumenthal believed the attacks in Benghazi could have been prevented. “Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya,” he reportedly wrote. “If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.”
The quotes, of course, come from a 10,000 word article by Eichenwald for Newsweek; Blumenthal isn’t writing emails in the form of long essays in his spare time. This is obvious from the original Wikileaks document. Between the text are calls-to-action that ought to be familiar to any digital news consumer. Whatever Sputnik author drafted this now-removed article failed to notice.
Instead of doing the reasonable thing—brushing off this whole debacle as a instance of journalistic misconduct and/or total incompetence—Eichenwald delved into a multi-tweet, multi-day, multi-word rant about top Kremlin officials fudging information. The Kremlin is putting his words in Blumenthal’s mouth. And not just a top Kremlin official—the top Kremlin official: Vladimir Putin.
And then, AND THEN, Donald Trump cited this exact article in a speech. CAN YOU SAY: “EVIDENCE THAT PUTIN AND TRUMP ARE TOTALLY IN CONTACT,” ANYONE?!
Not that any of this makes sense, of course. Yes, Sputnik is funded—and was founded—by the Russian government; yes, it was meant to counter what its chief—Dmitry Kiselyov, who has repeatedly threatened to turn the United States into radioactive dust—referred to as “Western propaganda”; and yes, it, as Foreign Policy once noted, resembles a sort of “Buzzfeed of propaganda.” For all intents and purposes, Sputnik is a mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s party line—it demonstrated that throughout the crisis in Ukraine and continues to do so today. That’s not to say that every article (or op-ed) it puts out comes directly from the Kremlin or from Kremlin talking points; it has an editorial and ideological position that runs close to the Kremlin’s party line, and it pushes material accordingly. When Kiselyov stated that he wanted the media organization to counter creeping Western influence on international media, that’s exactly the model he was considering.
But more importantly, Sputnik is actually a kind of crappy outlet. Here it is, citing my tweet for no good reason. (Sorry, Kurt, your sentence, “Sputnik would never base a story it portrayed as the ‘October surprise’ in the American election on a tweet with which it had no connection” was pretty much instantly invalidated with that finding.)
Eichenwald, though, is bizarrely convinced that this is an instance of direct intervention from a foreign power, and he cites an anonymous U.S. official as a source. According to said official:
Because of its important role in the Russian effort, Sputnik does not simply publish whatever it chooses, the government official tells Newsweek. Articles pertaining to politics in the United States and Europe require high-level review. It is not clear if Russian authorities conduct that review, the official says, but no article directly related to American politics would just be sloppily thrown into public view without careful consideration. (The article in question disappeared from the website shortly after Newsweek attempted to contact Sputnik about it).
But there are two hulking problems with this assertion. For one, there’s no evidence of the direct editorial control that this official reportedly implies. As reporting on RT has indicated—and given that both Sputnik and RT share similar goals, I think it’s safe to extrapolate that this model is shared by both—stories are, in fact, guided by editors—not some high-level official sitting in the Kremlin. Additionally, as Buzzfeed reported on RT, “The American version [of RT] is allowed a degree of autonomy from the Moscow headquarters and former employees at RT America say they themselves had little contact with Moscow.” Sputnik has bureaus in different countries other than Russia as well; it’s not unreasonable to assume it operates in a similar fashion.
But most of the more direct intervention tends to be on the television end of things—and for good reason: a vast majority of the population receives its news from TV.
And furthermore, there’s no way in hell that the government is putting that much effort into waging direct editorial control over Sputnik’s operations. Kiselyov, its head, is a die-hard Kremlin loyalist after all, so chances are it doesn’t have to. Plus, the Kremlin’s modern-day disinformation campaign—and, yes, it does exist—focuses largely on amassing a loose array of anti-Western thought. It’s why you can find reporting friendly to the far-left and the conspiratorial far-right at these English-language government-owned sites. The whole purpose of a disinformation campaign is to create confusion, after all; and what better way to do it than ideological uncertainty?
But, hey, fuck it. Why does any of that matter when this whole thing has left Eichenwald in abject terror? But don’t laugh! “This is not funny. It is terrifying,” he says.
That’s (partly) true. Russia’s involvement in attempting to manipulate U.S. elections (and likely failing) is unnerving. And unfortunately, its focus is on figures more powerful than Kurt Eichenwald.