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Chris Reed: How overblown Russiagate coverage conditioned people to distrust elections

1February 2021

More than two months after Joe Biden was declared president-elect, there is still a tone of bafflement or scorn or both in much of the commentary about the estimated third of Americans who incorrectly believe — and the 147 congressional Republicans who incorrectly contend (or pretend to contend) — that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

There might even be more angst about the millions of Americans rationalizing or downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The angst is understandable. Republican-appointed judges, after all, were just as dismissive as Democratic-appointed judges of Trump’s challenges to election results.

But as a libertarian with a low opinion of both parties — and of some members of the national media — I find the Republican dive off the deep end not surprising at all. Remember, these voters have heard for years from Democratic politicians and many in the media that the 2016 election was stolen by Trump and Vladimir Putin — and the evidence offered was wafer-thin. If they are ready to believe conspiracy theories, no wonder. They’ve been conditioned to take them seriously.

A chunk of the same East Coast political media establishment that laughed off election fraud claims in 2020 — with good reason — amplified them in 2016 — without good reason.

Yes, of course, Russia wanted Trump to win and used its bots and hackers to promote embarrassing and inflammatory information and memes about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Yes, the Mueller report showed the Trump campaign’s openness to accepting Putin’s help.

But the 2016 election saw a record-breaking $2.4 billion spent on the presidential campaign — a sum that makes Russian Facebook trolling seem utterly trivial. It saw an unprecedented micro-targeting of specific voters with specialized social media campaigns pushing their personal hot buttons. And it saw vast polling documenting Clinton’s unpopularity. Remember, despite overwhelming support from the Democratic establishment, she nearly lost the nomination to socialist Bernie Sanders — a Vermont independent who disavowed the party.

Yet the claim that Moscow’s dirty tricks were why Trump won Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2016 and thus the Electoral College has been routinely made for years. After the election, a New York magazine analysis suggested — without any evidence — that voting machines in the three states had been hacked. Sound familiar?

Soon after came an essay in The Washington Post headlined “The 2016 election was stolen. Got a nicer way to say that?” It insinuated that the FBI — read, the Deep State — had rigged the election for Trump. Sound familiar?

The New York Times subsequently did more than 3,000 stories about allegedly sinister Putin-Trump ties that never offered a specific, confirmed example of actual collusion.

Now of course the Fox News-Breitbart conspiracy-mongering about the 2020 election is far, far, far more over the top — and far, far, far more seditious — than what was seen after the 2016 election. This coverage is contemptible in its aversion to — and its disinterest in — hard facts.

But it is telling and refreshing that the most coherent critics of Russiagate are distinguished liberal journalists who first gained national attention with their scathing attacks on Republican President George W. Bush: Pulitzer Prize-winner Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, a longtime Rolling Stone contributor who has appeared regularly on MSNBC.

Greenwald has blasted the media for years for its promotion of “salacious and fact-free conspiracy theories about Trump” and wrote a heavily detailed essay showing 10 times where major media outlets had to back away from such theories after reporting them as fact.

After the Mueller report was released in 2019, Taibbi wrote, “The obstruction parts of the report make (Trump) look like a brainless goon and thug, but the absence of what Mueller repeatedly calls ‘underlying crime’ make his ravings about an elitist mob out to get him look justified. This is not an easy thing to achieve, but we’re there.”

You don’t have to be a Trump fan to think Russiagate was overhyped. Or to worry that “fake news” concerns about media bias have some substance.

I give the final word to journalist Ben Smith, who in May 2020 made this observation:

“We are living in an era of conspiracies and dangerous untruths — many pushed by President Trump, but others hyped by his enemies — that have lured ordinary Americans into passionately believing wild and unfounded theories and fiercely rejecting evidence to the contrary.”

Who is the author? The chief media critic of The New York Times — the same paper that has promoted the Putin 2016 narrative thousands of times. Feel free to laugh. Or groan. Or both.

Chris Reed is the deputy editorial and opinion editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune. His email address is [email protected]

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