Propaganda Isn't Partisan: How Rachel Maddow Got It Right by Getting It Wrong

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Propaganda Isn't Partisan: How Rachel Maddow Got It Right by Getting It Wrong

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” —Tim O’Brien

The White House and the Kremlin have each released their own transcripts of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki. No surprise here: Russia’s transcript doesn’t match the video. But more disconcerting, the White House transcript doesn’t match the video, either—and at the most critical exchange between Vladimir Putin and a member of the press (“Did Putin order the election attack to help Trump win?”), the White House transcript leaves a key line out of the reporter’s question. Is the White House scrubbing reality?

Here’s how Rachel Maddow broke the news on her show Tuesday night:

“We can report tonight that the White House video of that exchange has also skillfully cut out that question from the Reuters reporter as if it didn’t happen.”

How many months into 1984 are we?

Turns out this simply isn’t true. Though Maddow stands on firm ground in pointing out the White House’s long-running feud with reality, she didn’t get the full story here, as she’s done in the past. To hear her report this story, though, the Trump administration just sporked your eyes out with a molten poker and replaced them with ping-pong balls with boobs drawn on them in green Sharpie.

In these moments we liberals, too, can veer from the news into propaganda — granted, Fox News veers off the news so frequently that by now it’s crumpled into a tree in a forest miles off the highway, radiator hissing, horn blaring, a dazed Shep Smith hauling himself through the shattered rear window before the gas tank catches fire and the explosion sends Sean Hannity’s tooth caps ripping through a moose — and we veer because it’s hard to overcome our biases. The explanation for the White House’s transcript is very technical and strange, but it’s true. It’s much easier, however, to assume they’re doing what they always do — which is lie and gaslight and try to rewrite history.

But regardless of who is telling the truth, who is telling a lie, who is making an honest mistake, and who is making a dishonest mistake, the many contradictory readings of this exchange with Putin show how easy it is for anyone to erase the line between fact and fiction — be that the White House scrapping a phrase, or be that a journalist on cable claiming wrongly that the White House scrapped a phrase. Once the fact-fiction line vanishes, you can call anything fact, and you can call anything fiction. In such a moment, propagandists — including many people who aren’t even aware they’re propagandists — tumesce.

So: Who’s lying?

The Question in Question

The staggering amount of detail, semantics, and seemingly incidental facts that we’re going to have to sift through is probably the best evidence of why propaganda is so effective: It provides simple and appealing emotional explanations for complex and often ambiguous events or problems. Propaganda is sexy. Anti-propaganda isn’t. (Experiment: Check out Infowars.com, then check out PolitiFact.com.) The following might seem picayune, but that’s the point.

The press conference video shows Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asking Putin a hell of a question: “President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”

Putin’s response: “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”

Wow. Reading those words, it seems pretty clear that Putin publicly conceded two astounding points, one of them being that he committed an act of war: First, he wanted Trump to win; second, he personally directed the attack on the 2016 election, as our intelligence agencies have concurred. But if that’s what Putin really said, why isn’t this among the leading headlines to come out of the press conference?

PUTIN ADMITS ORDERING ELECTION ATTACK TO HELP TRUMP WIN; TRUMP NEARLY FITS ENTIRE HAND IN MOUTH ON CAMERA

It’s because we all know that, despite what the words on the page say, there’s no way Putin out of nowhere confessed to orchestrating the largest state-sponsored cyberattack in history. Once we can admit that to ourselves, we can start to see how the truth gets bendy. Putin actually spent most of this press conference defending his government and the 12 Russians recently indicted for that crime. But Putin had to be saying “yes” to something in that question, right? Well, maybe it was in response to the first part: He wanted Trump to win.

Different transcripts have their own variations of the exchange, and not all of them line up with each other. Making it even more difficult, we have to factor Putin’s own subjective experience: How much of the two-part question did he hear? How much registered? Was he answering both parts? If he was only answering one part, which part? Putin wasn’t reading the question, after all: He was hearing it, and it seems he might not have heard the whole thing. (That can be a problem with transcripts: They can make muddied discussions seem clear.)

So let’s look at the question.

First, we’ll toss the Kremlin’s transcript out. They didn’t even bother to include this exchange. The White House transcript, however, included the exchange, but only the second part of the question: “Did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”

That might strike you as pretty damn clear: Did you direct your officials to carry out the election attacks? But without the context of the first part of the question (about wanting Trump to win), the second part might seem to be a follow-up to what Putin just got done talking about, which was his suggestion of a sort of interrogation exchange program with the U.S.:

PUTIN: … So we have a solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions. So we have an interest of questioning them. That could be a first step, and we can also extend it. Options abound, and they all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.

REUTERS: And did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?

PUTIN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.

(Grammar side note: The White House gets especially poor marks for putting two spaces after periods, which is just another instantiation of their permeating atavistic conservative worldview.)

Anyway, the White House would obviously enjoy history a little bit more if history didn’t include Vladimir Putin admitting he wanted Trump to win the election. It’s easy, then, to see they’d have the motivation to publish a version of the transcript that didn’t include the full question.

Problem: The White House isn’t alone here. Other transcripts have the same omission. Here’s Time Magazine’s transcript, for instance. And the initial transcript from the Washington Post, which Bloomberg provided, also seemed to elide Mason’s full question. That means we can’t in good faith conclude with any degree of certainty that someone in the Trump administration COMMAND-Xed half the question — no, this crucial moment in the press conference, for whatever reason, seems to have produced common errors across the board. Why?

Well, how about the video? But things get even spookier here: The videos — of the same event — also seem to have captured different questions.

For some reason the Kremlin’s video includes Mason’s full question, even though their official English translation transcript does not. But the White House stream, unlike Russia’s, somehow does not include the first half of the question, which, again unlike Russia, actually matches their official transcript.

And that’s why Maddow said, wrongly, that “the White House video of that exchange has also skilfully cut out that question.”

But you will indeed see the full question if you watch the conference video from other news outlets such as PBS and AP.

What’s going on? I’ll let Phillip Bump explain with excruciating technical detail in the Washington Post:

At some point in the middle of that question, there’s a switch between the feed from the reporters and the feed from the translator. In the White House version of the video, you can hear the question being asked very faintly under the woman who is translating saying “president.”

If you’re wearing headphones, you can notice how the latter part of the question is suddenly audible in the right earpiece. At first, the right channel is only the translator. Mid-question, the reporter is suddenly heard in both left and right as the translator feed drops out. Notice, too, that Putin then picks up his earpiece — through which he can hear the translations — and puts it in his right ear.

In other words, it seems part of Mason’s question got swallowed in the noise. This would explain discrepancies between transcripts from Bloomberg, NPR, and C-SPAN.

What did the reporter himself think? Mason said, “You could interpret [Putin’s response] to mean he’s answering ‘yes’ to both. [But] looking at it critically, he spent a good chunk of that press conference, just like President Trump did, denying any collusion. So I think it’s likely that when he said ‘Yes, I did,’ that he was just responding to the first part of my question and perhaps didn’t hear the second part.”

This makes sense, given the context of Putin’s reply: “Yes I did. Yes I did. Because [Trump] talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” The statement doesn’t make much sense if it’s just about the investigation exchange — Putin wouldn’t have already directed his officials to have begun this exchange process, considering he just proposed it.

So it’s most likely that Putin only heard the first part of the question and either didn’t bother to listen to or couldn’t hear the second part — but some of the news services, given the audio they had access to, got it the other way around.

Great! Now that we’ve cleared all that up, the White House can make the appropriate edits and include Mason’s full question. Right?

Dishonest Mistakes

As of this writing, the White House has unsurprisingly not corrected its transcript. And why would you expect them to make themselves look worse when mainstream news outlets have published the same transcript and video? Instead, the administration has said it will now stop providing any readouts of Trump’s calls with world leaders.

Really.

This week the White House also banned a reporter from an open press event because the reporter had shouted a question during a “press spray,” which, if the name didn’t give it away, is what happens at a press spray. In a rare display of chordata that baffled evolutionary biologists the world over, Fox News stood by its CNN colleague. But then Lou Dobbs immediately canceled that out, and the biologists returned to their normal routine.

Also this week, Trump lashed out YET AGAIN at the “fake news” press. During a speech Tuesday to a VFW group in Kansas City, MO, Trump told supporters not to believe the “crap” the press tells them, because “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

That’s right: Don’t believe your own eyes. Trump, the bankrupt realtor, owns reality.

Trump was carping specifically about recent news stories of farmers suffering financially after other countries targeted them in predictable retaliation to Trump’s insane and wholly unnecessary tariff hikes. Trump said one such story — from NBC — was “done by the lobbyists and by the people that they hire.” It doesn’t matter that Trump can’t support that claim, or that it exists only in a completely bonkers Infowars reality distortion field. It only matters that Trump said it, so it must be true. Last month Trump called an interview he did with the Sun — of which there is an audio recording — “fake news.”

This is the larger context for what I charitably call the White House’s “dishonest mistake” in refusing to revise the Helsinki transcript. We really have veered into 1984. It’s so obvious at this point that it’s cliche to even bring this stuff up — “alternate facts,” “fake news,” incorrigible gaslighting, etc — but the truth is that a whole lot of the authoritarian propaganda techniques that Orwell crystallized are out there in our faces, every day. In the most tragic sense, it doesn’t matter whether the White House tells the truth anymore. We’re drifting into a rhetorical realm where credibility — what Aristotle called ethos — is everything.

There’s a deeper and more disturbing reality here, though. When famed war writer Tim O’Brien wrote, “a thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth,” he was thinking about myth-making and memory as human storytelling devices. But he might as well have been talking about propaganda. That’s because in one sense Maddow was absolutely correct: Even though the White House didn’t doctor the transcript, the alternate world Maddow presented in which they did is a more accurate world, a fictional world that better reflects our reality, which none of us — left, right, center — want to believe in anyway.

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