When Mother Jones Was Investigated For Spreading “Kremlin Disinformation”
Mother Jones recently announced it’s “redoubling our Russia reporting”—in the words of editor Clara Jeffery. Ain’t that rich. What passes for “Russia reporting” at Mother Jones is mostly just glorified InfoWars paranoia for progressive marks — a cataract of xenophobic conspiracy theories about inscrutable Russian barbarians hellbent on subverting our way of life, spreading chaos, destroying freedom & democracy & tolerance wherever they once flourished. . . . because they hate us, because we’re free.
Western reporting on Russia has always been garbage, But the so-called “Russia reporting” of the last year has taken the usual malpractice to unimagined depths — whether it’s from Mother Jones or MSNBC, or the Washington Post or Resistance hero Louise Mensch.
But of all the liberal media, Mother Jones should be most ashamed for fueling the moral panic about Russian “disinformation”. It wasn’t too long ago that the Reagan Right attacked Mother Jones for spreading “Kremlin disinformation” and subverting America. There were threats and leaks to the media about a possible Senate investigation into Mother Jones serving as a Kremlin disinformation dupe, a threat that hung over the magazine throughout the early Reagan years. A new Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST for short) was set up in 1981 to investigate Kremlin “disinformation” and “active measures” in America, and the American “dupes” who helped Moscow subvert our way of life. That subcommittee was created to harass and repress leftist anti-imperial dissent in America, using “terrorism” as the main threat, and “disinformation” as terrorism’s fellow traveller. The way the the SST committee put it, “terrorism” and “Kremlin disinformation” were one and the same, a meta-conspiracy run out of Moscow to weaken America.
And Mother Jones was one of the first American media outlets in the SST committee’s sights.
Adam Hochschild, the founding editor of Mother Jones (and author of some great books including King Leopold’s Ghost), responded publicly to the threats coming out of the Senate in the early Reagan years. In a New York Times op-ed published in late 1981, “Dis-(Mis-?)Information”, Hochschild wrote about a Republican Senate mailer sent out to 290 radio stations that accused Mother Jones of being Kremlin disinformation dupes. The mailer, on Senate letterhead, featured a tape recording of an interview between the chairman of the SST subcommittee, Sen. Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, and a committee witness— a “disinformation expert” named Arnaud de Borchgrave, author of a bestselling spy novel called “The Spike” — about a fictional Kremlin plot to subvert the West with disinformation, and thereby rule the world.
Here’s how Hochschild described the Republican Senate mailer in his NYTimes piece:
“In it, the writer Arnaud de Borchgrave accuses Mother Jones, the Village Voice, the Soho News, the Progressive magazine of serving as disseminators of K.G.B. ‘disinformation’ – the planting of false or misleading items in news media.
“Mr. de Borchgrave provided no specific examples of facts or articles. But, then, the trouble with the K.G.B. is that you don’t know what disinformation it is feeding you because you don’t know who its myriad agents are. So the only safe thing is to distrust any author or magazine too critical of the United States. Because anyone who is against, say, the MX or the B-1 bomber could be working for the Russians.”
Here, the Mother Jones founder describes the menacing logic of pursuing the “Kremlin disinformation” conspiracy: any American critical of US military power, police power, corporate power, overseas power . . . anyone critical of anything that powerful Americans do, is a Kremlin disinformation dupe whether they know it or not. That leaves only the appointed accusers to decide who is and who isn’t a Kremlin agent.
Hochschild called this panic over Kremlin disinformation another “Red Scare”, warning,
“[T]o accuse critical American journalists of serving as its unwitting dupes makes as little sense as Russians accusing rebellious Poles of being unwitting agents of American imperialism. When Mr. de Borchgrave accuses skeptical journalists of being unwitting purveyors of disinformation, the accusation is more slippery, less easy to definitively disprove, and less subject to libel law than if he were to accuse them of being conscious Communist agents.
“…Although if you believe the K.G.B. is successfully infiltrating America’s news media, then anything must seem possible.”
It’s a damn shame today’s editorial staff at Mother Jones aren’t aware of their own magazine’s history.
Classic Putin move to use far right and far left to destabilize the visible spectrum https://t.co/uec40Xz8Qk
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) February 15, 2017
Rubio in intel commitee: “What we’re talking about here is active measures” taken by Putin to manipulate US pub. opinion during election.
— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 10, 2017
Then again, who am I fooling? Mother Jones wouldn’t care if you shoved their faces in their own recent history — they’re way too donor-deep invested in pushing this “active measures” conspiracy. Trump has been a goldmine of donor cash for anyone willing to carry the #Resistance water.
This is quite literally the case with Mother Jones, which has been a little coy about the deal it cut to “redouble” its “Russia reporting.” That deal involves partnering with a straight-up Red-baiting, Cold War-mongering website project called “PutinTrump” featuring a scary Soviet hammer and sickle in case the Cold War mongering wasn’t clear enough — with no mind to history and the fact that Russia is a neoliberal dystopia with a flat 13% income tax rate hailed as a “miracle” by the Heritage Foundation.
PutinTrump was a project set up last fall by tech plutocrat Rob Glaser, CEO and founder of RealNetworks, to scare voters into believing that voting for Trump is treason. God knows I can’t stand Trump or his politics, but of all the inane campaign ideas to run on — this?
One would’ve thought that the smart people would learn their lesson from the election, that running against a Kremlin conspiracy theory is a loser. But instead, they seem to think the problem is they didn’t fear-monger enough, so they’re “redoubling” on the Russophobia. Donor money is driving this — donor cash is quite literally driving Mother Jones’ editorial focus. And it really is this crude.
Take for example a PutinTrump section titled “Russian Expansion” — the scary Red imagery and language are lifted straight out of the Reagan Cold War playbook from the early-mid 80s, when, it so happens, Mother Jones was targeted as a Kremlin dupe. Featuring a lot of shadowy red-colored alien soldiers over an outline of Crimea, Mother Jones’ donor-partner promotes a classic Cold War propaganda line about Russian/Soviet expansionism—a lie that has been the basis for so many wars launched to “stop” this alleged “expansionism” in the past, wars that Mother Jones is supposed to oppose. Here’s what MJ’s partner writes now:
Through unknowing manipulation, or by direct support, Trump will become an accessory to the continual expansionism committed by Putin.
Might does not equal right—and it never has for Americans—but Putin’s Russia plays by different rules. Or maybe no rules at all.
The communist/leftist imagery is there for a reason. In case you haven’t noticed, Clinton supporters have waged a crude pr campaign to blame their candidate’s loss on leftists, whom they equate with neo-Nazis and Trump. I’ve been smeared as “alt-left” by a Vanity Fair columnist, who equated me with Breitbart and other far-right journalists, for the crime of not sufficiently supporting Hillary Clinton. The larger goal of this crude PR effort is to equate opposition to Hillary Clinton with treason and Nazism. Which was exactly the goal of Reagan’s “Kremlin disinformation” hysteria — the whole point was to smear critics of Reagan and his right-wing politics as pro-Kremlin traitors, whether they knew it or not.
* * *
What’s kind of shocking to me as someone who was alive in the Reagan scare is how unoriginal this current one is. Even the words and the terminology are plagiarized from the Reagan Right witch-hunting campaign — “Kremlin active measures”; “Kremlin disinformation”; “Kremlin dupes” — terms introduced by right-wing novelists and intelligence hucksters, and repeated ad nauseam until they transformed into something plausible, giving quasi-academic cover to some very old-fashioned state repression, harassment, surveillance . . . and a lot of ruined lives. That’s what happened last time, and if history is any guide, it’s how this one will end up too.
Today we’re supposed to remember how cheerful and optimistic the Reagan Era was. But that’s now how I remember it, it’s not how it looked to Mother Jones at the time — and it’s not how it looks when you go back through the original source material again and relive it. The Reagan Era kicked off with a lot of dark fear-mongering about the Kremlin using disinformation and active measures to destroy our way of life. Everything that the conservative Establishment loathed about 1970s — defeat in Vietnam, Church Committee hearings gutting the CIA and FBI, the cult of Woodward & Bernstein & Hersh, peace marchers, minority rights radicals — was an “active measures” treason conspiracy.
As soon as the new Republican majority in the Senate took power in 1981, they set up a new subcommittee to investigate Kremlin disinformation dupes, called the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. Staffers leaked to the media they intended to investigate Mother Jones. Panic spread across the progressive media world, and suddenly all those cool Ivy League kids who invested everything in becoming the next Woodward-Bernsteins — the cultural heroes at the time — got scared. The image at the top of this article comes from a lead article in Columbia University’s student newspaper, the Spectator, published a few weeks after Reagan took office, on SST committee’s assault on Mother Jones. The headline read:
The New McCarthyism / Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…
and the the full-page article begins,
If you subscribe to Mother Jones, give money to the American Civil Liberties Union, or support the Institute for Policy Studies, Senator Jeremiah Denton’s new Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism may be interested in you.
It describes how in the 1970s Americans finally got rid of HUAC and the Senate Internal Security Committee, the Red Scare witch-hunting Congressional committees — only to have them revived one election cycle later in the Reagan Revolution.
By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, there was still no formal investigation into Mother Jones, but the harassment was there and it wasn’t subtle at all — such as the Republican Senate mailer accusing the magazine of being KGB disinformation dupes. At the end of 1981, MJ editor/founder Adam Hochschild announced he was stepping aside, and in his final note to readers and the public, he wrote:
“To Senator Jeremiah Denton, chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism: If your committee investigates Mother Jones, a plan hinted at some months ago, I demand to be subpoenaed. I would not want to miss telling off today’s new McCarthyites.”
So here we are a few decades later, and Mother Jones’ editor Clara Jeffery is denouncing WikiLeaks — yesterday’s journalism stars, today’s traitors — as “Russia[’s]…willing dupes and propagandists” while Mother Jones magazine turned itself into a mouthpiece for America’s spies peddling the same warmed-over conspiracy theories that once targeted Mother Jones.
So Russia also hacked RNC, but didn’t give that stuff to its willing dupes and propagandists at Wikileaks: https://t.co/dq1aeXWFOk
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) December 10, 2016
ICYMI. A scoop from last night: veteran spy gives FBI info alleging Russia op to co-opt Trump. https://t.co/zhXgOvA1v2
— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) November 1, 2016
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Jeremiah Denton — the New Right senator from Alabama who led the SST committee investigation into Kremlin “disinformation” and its dupes like Mother Jones — believed that America was being weakened from within and had only a few years left at most to turn it around. As Denton saw it, the two most dangerous threats to America’s survival were a) hippie sex, and b) Kremlin disinformation. The two were inseparable in his mind, linked to the larger “global terrorism” plot masterminded by Moscow.
To fight hippie sex and teen promiscuity, the freshman senator introduced a “Chastity Bill” funding federal programs that promoted the joys of chastity to Americans armies of bored, teen suburban long-hairs. A lot of clever people laughed at that, because at the time the belief in linear historical progress was strong, and this represented something so atavistic that it was like a curiosity more than anything — Pauly Shore’s “Alabama Man” unfrozen after 10,000 years and unleashed on the halls of Congress.
Less funny were Denton’s calls for death penalty for adulterers, and laws he pushed restricting women’s right to abortion.
Jeremiah Denton was once a big name in this country. Americans have since forgotten Denton, because John McCain pretty much stole his act. But back in the 70s and early 80s, Denton was America’s most famous Vietnam War hero/POW. Like McCain, Denton was a Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam and taken prisoner. Denton spent 1965-1973 in North Vietnamese POW camps—two years longer than McCain—and he was America’s most famous POW. His most famous moment was when his North Vietnamese captors hauled him before the cameras to acknowledge his crimes, and instead Denton famously blinked out a Morse code message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”.
In the 1973 POW exchange deal between Hanoi and Nixon, “Operation Homecoming,” it was Denton who was the first American POW to come off the plane and speak to the American tv crews (McCain was on the same flight, but not nearly as prominent as Denton). I keep referring back to McCain here because not only were they both famous Navy pilot POWs, but they both wind up becoming the most pathologically obsessive Russophobes in the Senate. Just a few days ago, McCain said that Russia is a bigger threat to America than Islamic State. Something real bad must’ve happened in those Hanoi Hiltons, worse than anything they told us about, because those guys really, really hate Russians — and they really want the rest of us to hate Russians too.
Everything they loathed about America, everything that was wrong with America, had to be the fault of a hostile alien culture. There was no other explanation for what happened in the 1970s. The America that Denton came home to in 1973 was under some kind of hostile power, an alien-controlled replica of the America he last saw in 1965. Popular morality had been turned on its head: Hollywood blockbusters with bare naked bodies and gutter language! Children against their parents! Homosexuals on waterskis! Sex and treason! Patriots were the enemy, while America-haters were heroes! Denton re-appeared like some reactionary Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep in the safe feather-bed world of J Edgar Hoover’s America — only to wake up eight years later on Bernadine Dohrn’s futon, soaked in Bill Ayers’ bodily fluids. For Denton, the post-60s cultural shock came on all at once — as sudden and as jarring as, well, the shock so many Blue State Americans experienced when Donald Trump won the election last November.
Sex, immorality & military defeat—these were inseparable in Denton’s mind, and in a lot of reactionaries’ minds. Attributing all of America’s social convulsions of the previous 15 years to immorality and a Kremlin disinformation plot was a neat way of avoiding the complex and painful realities — then, as now.
“No nation can survive long unless it can encourage its young to withhold indulgence in their sexual appetites until marriage.” — Jeremiah Denton
What hit Denton hardest was all the hippie sex and the pop culture glorification of hippie sex. It’s hard to convey just how deeply all that smug hippie sex wounded tens of millions of Americans. It’s a hate wound that’s still raw, still burns to the touch. A wound that fueled so much reactionary political fire over the past 50 years, and it doesn’t look like it’ll burn out any time soon.
Back in 1980, Denton blamed all that pop culture sex on Russian active measures, and he did his best to not just outlaw it, but to demonize sex as something along the lines of treason.
Just as so many people today cannot accept the idea that Trumpism is Made In America—so Denton and his Reagan Right constituents believed there had to be some alien force to explain why Americans had changed so drastically, seeming to adopt values that were the antithesis of Middle America’s values in 1965. It had to be the fault of an alien voodoo beam! It had to be a Russian plot!
And so, therefore, it was a Russian plot.
A 1981 Time magazine profile of the freshman Senator begins,
“Denton believes that America is being destroyed by sexual immorality and Soviet-sponsored political ‘disinformation’—and that both are being promoted by dupes, or worse, in the media. By the mid-1980s, he warns, ‘we will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington’s troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge.’”
Sexual immorality—it’s a common theme in all the Russia panics of the past 100 years—whether the sexually liberated Emma Goldmans of the Red Scare, the homosexual-panic of the McCarthy witch-hunts, the hippie orgies of Denton’s nightmares, or Trump’s supposed golden shower fetish with immoral Russian prostitutes in our current panic. . . .
To fight the Kremlin disinformation demons, Denton set up the Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST), with two other young Republican senators—Orrin Hatch, who’s still haunting Capitol Hill today; and John East of North Carolina, a Jesse Helms protege who later did his country a great service by committing suicide in his North Carolina garage, before the end of his first term in office in 1986.
Sen. East’s staffers leaned Nazi-ward, like their boss. One Sen. East staffer was Samuel Francis — now famous as the godfather of the alt-Right, but who in 1981 was known as the guru behind the Senate’s “Russia disinformation” witch hunt. Funny how that works — today’s #Resistance takes its core idea, that America is under the control of hostile Kremlin disinformation sorcerers — from the alt-Right’s guru, Samuel Francis.
Another staffer for Sen. East was John Rees, one of the most loathsome professional snitches of the post-McCarthy era, who collected files on suspected leftists, labor activists and liberal donors. I’ll have to save John Rees for another post — he really belongs in a category by himself, proof of Schopenhauer’s maxim that this world is run by demons.
These were the people who first cooked up the “disinformation” panic. You can’t separate the Sam Francises, Orrin Hatches, John Easts et al from today’s panic-mongering over disinformation — you can only try to make sense of why, what is it about our culture’s ruling factions that brings them together on this sort of xenophobic witch-hunt, even when they see themselves as so diametrically opposed on so many other issues. I don’t think this is something as simple as hypocrisy — it’s actually quite consistent: Establishment faction wakes up to a world it doesn’t recognize and loathes and feels threatened by, and blames it not on themselves or anything domestic, but rather on the most plausible alien conspiracy they can reach for: Russian barbarians. Anti-Russian xenophobia is burned into the Establishment culture’s DNA; it’s a xenophobia that both dominant factions, liberal or conservative, view as an acceptable xenophobia. When poorer “white working class” Americans feel threatened and panic, their xenophobia tends to be aimed at other ethnics — Latinos and Muslims these days — a xenophobia that the Establishment views as completely immoral and unacceptable, completely beyond the pale. The thought never occurs to them that perhaps all forms of xenophobia are bad, all bring with them a lot of violence and danger, it just depends on who’s threatened and who’s doing the threatening…
The subversion scare and moral panic were crucial in resetting the culture for the Reagan counter-revolution. Those who opposed Reagan’s plans, domestically and overseas, would be labeled “dupes” of Kremlin “active measures” and “disinformation” conspiracies, acting on behalf of Moscow whether they knew it or not. The panic incubated in Denton’s subcommittee investigations provided political cover for vast new powers given to the CIA, FBI, NSA and other spy and police agencies to spy on Americans. Fighting Russian “active measures” grew over the years into a massive surveillance program against Americans, particularly anyone involved in opposing Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, anyone opposing nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, and anyone involved in providing sanctuary to refugees from south of the border. The “active measures” panic even led to FBI secret investigations into liberal members of Congress, some of whom wound up in a secret “FBI terrorist photo album”.
I’ll get to that “FBI Terrorist Photo Album” story later. There’s a lot of recent “Kremlin disinformation” history to recover, since it seems every last memory cell has been zapped out of existence.
After Reagan’s inauguration (the most expensive, lavish inauguration ball in White House history), Senator Denton sent a chill through the liberal and independent media world with all the talk coming out of his committee about targeting activists, civil rights lawyers and journalists. Denton tried to come off as reasonable some of the times; other times, he came right out and said it: “disinformation” is terrorism:
“When I speak of a threat, I do not just mean that an organization is, or is about to be, engaged in violent criminal activity. I believe many share the view that support groups that produce propaganda, disinformation or legal assistance may be even more dangerous than those who actually throw the bombs.”
Congratulations Mother Jones, you’ve come a long way, baby!
Next post, I’ll recover some of the early committee hearings, and the rightwing hucksters, creeps and spooks who fed Denton’s committee.