This article also appears on:
A State of Unease
A number of incidental moves by Russian and US authorities have sent media sources in both countries scurrying to report on doomsday scenarios. A recommendation by the Kremlin for state employees and their families living abroad to return home is being received by some as a sign of impending nuclear war.
Meanwhile, alternative news sites and bloggers across the Internet are reporting that US officials have raised the nuclear threat level as a result of perceived Russian hostility.
The Russian report detailing the recall of public officials and students studying abroad was reported by multiple outlets across the world, including Fox News, Daily Mail, the New York Post, and many other major and fringe news organizations. However, press reporting has grossly exaggerated and sensationalized the potential for a nuclear conflict.
A Russian website based in the Urals, znak.com, originally broke the story detailing how Russians were asked to leave foreign capitals around the world. According to the report, five anonymous Russian officials recounted how they were “unofficially recommended” to ask relatives living abroad to return to Russia.
Dmitry Peskov, public affairs for the Kremlin, denies knowledge of the claim.
This informal recommendation quickly and erroneously became a direct order from Putin for news organizations around the world.
“The Daily Star” reported that, “Workers were reportedly told to pull their children out of school immediately.”
A “Sun” report, picked up by Fox News, said that, “Those that do not obey the edict will find the [sic] future employment prospects in tatters.”
The “Daily Mail” tied the news of Russia’s recall with an earlier report that Russia was participating in massive civil defense exercises and training their civilians on how to react to a nuclear attack.
However, the exercise was a part of an annual event that has occurred since 2012, and in past years the participation and scale were larger than the October 2016 edition.
American media have responded to the Russian exodus with increasingly apocalyptic reports, and alternative news sites are reporting that the US DEFCON level has been raised as a result of increased tensions with Russia. “DEFCON” stands for defense condition, and it is a warning system used to alert armed forces in preparation for a nuclear strike.
“The Geller Report” wrote that, “We have gone from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 3. Bombers ready to take off in 15 minutes, missiles on launch warning.”
Other agencies were apocalyptic in their headlines before completely contradicting them. “The Daily Star’s” headline reads: “US nuclear attack warning ‘upgraded to level 3’ as Russian threat goes ‘beyond Cold War’.”
However, they explain their source within the body of the article. “But conspiracy theory website DEFCON warning system claims the threat has been upgraded to level 3…it claims that while there are no imminent nuclear threats against the US the situation is considered ‘fluid and can change rapidly’.” The news site explained that the warning did not come from any government source, and that military forces are not on standby.
It appears that news outlets are attempting to draw in readers with doomsday scenarios, despite the report of impending nuclear war coming from an unofficial, civilian-based source.
Although the Cold War ended 27 years ago, various media sources in the US and Russia do not seem to be aware. The last several days have seen journalists in both countries misreport, exaggerate, or outright lie about the effects of escalating tensions between the US and Russia, and the upcoming presidential election may be the motive behind the scare tactics.
‘Tis the Season
As campaign rhetoric heats up with accusations from both republicans and democrats involving Russia, there seems to be a proportionate rise in catchpenny reporting on doomsday scenarios in attempts to discredit opposing candidates.
Both presidential campaigns have attempted to capitalize on the state of US-Russian relations. Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of being too inexperienced and temperamental to deal with world leaders. She also disagrees with Trump’s admiration for Putin.
“He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends, including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope,” she said. Trump has praised the strong leadership of the Russian president.
The Trump campaign takes issue with Clinton’s policies vis-a-vis the Russians, as well. He claims that Hillary gave one-fifth of America’s supply of uranium to Russia. Two days after the first debate, Trump said, “You know what people do with uranium, don’t you? It’s called nuclear. Twenty percent. They could have never done it without her.”
Wikileaks promises to release some 40,000 emails lifted from the account of Clinton aide John Podesta before election day arrives. These emails show damaging details of unethical behavior from the Clinton political machine. Clinton supporters have rebuked the media for focusing on the leaks and claim the Russian government is behind the hacks of Democratic Party personnel.
Jamie Rubin, national security advisor to Clinton, said, “What’s frustrating to me as someone involved with the media over the years — each little detail gets out in the press but the whole story, all these little pieces of the puzzle, are not put together in a way that educates the American people about the significance of this act of cyber-sabotage.” He sees the Russian attempt to influence the election as a threat to national security.
President Barack Obama, a democrat like Clinton, has recently stepped up criticism of Moscow and blamed the Kremlin for attempting to influence the election. After months of pressure from top Democratic Party lawmakers, the administration was direct in accusing Russia.
Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released a statement condemning Moscow: “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
“Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?’’ Putin said in an interview on September 1st. “The important thing is the content that was given to the public.’’
Obama’s actions in recent days indicate that he is less concerned with evidence of political corruption within his party, and more focused on retaliating against Russia for their perceived involvement. In an exclusive report from NBC News, “current and former officials” of the Obama administration announced plans to retaliate against Russia with a “covert” cyber attack.
The very open and overt nature of Obama’s plans for cyber warfare with Russia may be an attempt to bolster his nominee for US president, who has come under fire for allegations of pay-for-play within the the Podesta emails. If the email leaks are seen as an attack against US interests, and not a corrupt political machine, then voters may be more trusting of Clinton. Supporters of Trump and Clinton are highlighting the narrative that best suit their candidate’s political agenda, and journalists are following suit.
State Run Media or Media Run State?
This partisanship is best illustrated by Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of “The Intercept,” a news site dedicated to transparency in journalism. Greenwald reports that Trump once called for the execution of whistleblower Edward Snowden, but now states that he loves Wikileaks. Meanwhile, according to Greenwald, democrats who previously celebrated Wikileaks for exposing Bush-era misdeeds now calls the group, “an evil espionage tool of the Kremlin.”
Whether Rubin is correct, and the focus of reporters should be on the national security threat posed to the US from Russian cyber espionage, or Putin is right by stating the content of the leaks is more relevant than the source, is addressed by Greenwald.
He believes that there are five principles that should inform a journalist’s decision to report on the email hacks. He believes that, “A source’s motives are irrelevant,” journalists are always reporting information that has been “illegally obtained,” and public power means increased scrutiny from the press and an expectation for less privacy.
In the coming days, answering unconfirmed Russian cyber attacks that expose democratic wrongdoings with cyber warfare against Russian targets may be a dangerous move. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell agrees that, “Physical attacks on networks is not something the U.S. wants to do because we don’t want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us.”
Reset the Russian Reset
All of the overblown talk of nuclear warfare should not detract from the very real tensions between the former Cold War adversaries. Secretary of Defense John Kerry was prompted to end talks with Russia, including joint plans to combine forces against ISIS, after days of controversial bombing over the city of Aleppo from the Russian Air Force.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told interviewers that US-Russia relations were at their lowest point since 1973. He said that Russia is upset over the entrance of former Soviet Bloc states into NATO and “at the expense of Russia.” The US also withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2001.
Churkin described the deterioration of relations as a matter of poor communication. “It’s kind of a fundamental lack of respect and lack of in-depth discussions.”
At the height of the US political season, it appears that the media suffers from the same lack of respect and open communication. By miscalculating Putin’s recommendation to government employees to return home, failing to discuss the implications of political misdeeds and instead pursuing cyber warfare, and attributing official status to a fringe conspiracy website with irrational fears of nuclear Armageddon, the world media are in a Cold War of information.