The importance of Russia in the U.S. presidential campaign has been bizarre. Not the least bizarre part of it is The New York Times’ role in amplifying it. Last week the Times published a front-page story about Russia extending its influence in Europe through the Russian Orthodox Church. The reporter Andrew Higgins described the church as fervently opposed to “homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation.” Through the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia seeks to make itself “the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.”
There are surely large segments of the population in any country, including the United States, who are resistant to rapid social change. The opinion that individual rights has come to eclipse concern for the common good in many parts of the developed world is not, moreover, held solely by people who are opposed to multiculturalism, feminism or gay rights. That in the past 25 years Russia has gone from being at the forefront of social and economic egalitarianism to an upholder of traditional social values is interesting. But is it really alarming?
This is at least the third prominent article the Times has published in recent weeks on the menace Russia poses. Another, “A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Information,” begins in Sweden, where the country is debating whether to join a military partnership with NATO. The Times reports Swedish that officials are finding the public confused by false information about what this might mean. This is attributed to a Russian disinformation campaign, though it’s acknowledged there is no clear proof of Russian responsibility.
That the United States and other countries may also use disinformation to advance their objectives is not acknowledged, nor are there interviews with outside experts who might evaluate the frequency with which Russia spreads disinformation relative to other countries. Is Russia the worst offender on the world scene today? What are the kinds of lies and deception it spreads? And are the issues that Russia is raising about what Sweden’s alliance with NATO might entail —the secret storage of nuclear weapons, for instance—entirely frivolous?
Another story, published Aug. 31, was “How Russia Often Benefits when Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets.” The article contends that WikiLeaks has published more material critical of the United States than it has of Russia, which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently dismissed as “a bit player on the world stage” compared with the United States and China. The Times reporters raise the question, “Has WikiLeaks become a laundering machine for compromising material gathered by Russian spies?” Their answer is probably not, that U.S. officials—likely many of the same unnamed officials who assert that the Russian government is behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails—believe that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks “probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services.” But the Timesarticle goes on to remark, “at least in the case of the Democrats’ emails, Moscow knew it had a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks, where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox.”
Well, sure. Anyone in the world who has embarrassing information to reveal about a government has a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks. Are we to infer from The Times that WikiLeaks wouldn’t publish similarly discomfiting information about Russia if it were dropped in its digital inbox? That seems unlikely. It’s unclear to me on what basis The Times is criticizing WikiLeaks for publishing the D.N.C. emails. Would it have declined the emails if offered to them? Certainly The Times, like other publications, chose to report the substance of the emails, which indicated Democratic National Committee staffers sought to undermine Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the presidential nomination and promote Hillary Clinton’s.
I can readily believe that WikiLeaks does focus more on the United States than on Russia, but the United States is a superpower today. Russia is not. Power draws scrutiny. So does the fact that the United States frequently lectures other countries on human rights and democracy. It’s clear from The Times’ interview with Mr. Assange that he regards the United States as a super bully and judges it more harshly than he does Russia. But however anti-American Mr. Assange may be, the uncensored documents WikiLeaks publishes speak for themselves. There’s no arguing with what they reveal about U.S. actions, policies, priorities and values.
Notwithstanding the headline of the Times story about WikiLeaks, there are few specifics about the benefits that have accrued to Russia from what has been disclosed about U.S. policies and practices. It’s mentioned that both Mr. Assange and Russia favored Britain’s exit from the European Union and are opposed to NATO expansion, but there’s nothing to suggest that the publication of confidential U.S. data played a part in the Brexit vote. The Timesquotes Assange saying that Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats are “whipping up a neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia.”
From what I’ve read of its stories on Russia, the Timesis intent on doing the same. The use of military metaphors to describe the threat Russia poses, a threat that does not on the basis of these three stories appear either imminent or grave, is calculated to alarm. Some of the concerns about Russia raised are legitimate, but often the information presented as ominous could be turned on its head. The fact that Russia is increasingly using soft power rather than hard power to advance its agenda could be regarded as positive. Wouldn’t we prefer that countries refrain from using force to obtain their goals?
Is The Times inflating the threat posed by Russia to shore up Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president? Given Donald Trump’s well-known admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps editors think exaggerating Russia’s importance will underscore the risks of a Trump presidency. That would make The Times’ criticisms of Russian deviousness seem hypocritical, but the alternative is to think the paper believes its own fear-mongering and is uncritically channeling the views of its official sources. That would be propaganda, of course. Much scorn is heaped on the television network Russia Today, described as Russia’s propaganda arm in the United States, but these front-page stories on Russia lead me to wonder if The Times is as different as it thinks it is.