Skilled politicians are great at picking their battles. Sometimes on matters of importance they’re nowhere to be found. But on more obscure or relatively trivial issues, they’re all over it.
It’s one of the reasons Sen. Richard Blumenthal was so successful in remaining as state attorney general for 20 years. He focused mostly on consumer issues — stuff that his constituents were likely to chatter about around the kitchen table. Presiding over what was essentially the state’s biggest law firm, Blumenthal sued everyone in sight, including a lot of bad guys. Consequently, he was elected and re-elected five times before succeeding Chris Dodd in the Senate.
Now the junior senator from Connecticut is taking after his colleague. As I’ve noted before on these pages, Chris Murphy is carving out an area of expertise in foreign affairs that will come in handy if he decides to run for national office. But he’s also taken on issues that appeal to his fellow blue-staters: gun control following the Sandy Hook massacre; strengthening so-called “Buy American” laws; “inappropriate” video games; and even staging a near-record-breaking filibuster on gun control in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Now Murphy has seized on an issue that’s on lots of people’s minds in his home state: fake news. No, not the kind of bogus news stories put out for domestic consumption that plagued the hideous presidential campaign of 2016. Murphy has acknowledged that for obvious reasons there’s not much the federal government can do about that.
But the First Amendment doesn’t place constraints on the federal government trying to fund and influence news media consumption on foreign soil — which is where Murphy and fellow Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, come in.
Tucked into a Defense Department Appropriations bill signed by President Obama on Dec. 23 was a provision establishing an interagency office called the Center for Information Analysis and Response, housed at the State Department as part of the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, whose budget would be $160 million over the next two years. Sounds either harmless or Orwellian, depending on your point of view.
Among the center’s functions would be to coordinate and fund efforts to counter propaganda “directed against U.S. national security interests and advance narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.” Murphy said the use of propaganda by the Russians in particular “has reached new heights.”
In a news conference with reporters just before Christmas, Murphy cited “a fake story” published Nov. 20 on Russian-language news sites about President-elect Donald Trump’s first phone call with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Citing CNN as its source, the story claimed that when the leaders voiced concern over Russian aggression, Trump became highly agitated, slammed down the phone and hung up on the leaders.
“This was clearly intended by the Russians to try to create a narrative about a wedge being drawn between the U.S. and NATO,” Murphy told reporters at a news conference announcing the legislation last month. “And a lot of people read those stories and believed them. We did not have the ability — and nor did our allies — to very quickly turn around the story.”
Murphy spoke of the need for the U.S. to fund “a robust network of independent, objective journalism,” especially among nations that have no history of it. There would be no strings attached to the money, Murphy said, except engaging in “independent journalism.”
Murphy’s intentions are no doubt honorable, but it’s hard for me to see how news consumers overseas will view this as anything but a U.S.-led counter-propaganda effort. Indeed, media outlets funded by the U.S. could be subject to threats and intimidation.
I applaud the transparency of the operation — as opposed to, say, the CIA publishing a newspaper out of a basement in Montenegro — but if the U.S. is funding journalism abroad, the recipient of a grant will be viewed as an American puppet — an extension of Voice of America that won’t bite the hand that feeds it. There is simply too much cynicism about our intentions abroad to think otherwise, so I’m skeptical as to whether the money will be put to good use.
Ironically, Murphy’s bill itself prompted a fake news story asserting, laughably, that “President Obama has just quietly signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to run an alternative media website in the U.S.” Fortunately, Snopes debunked the bogus claim within a matter of 48 hours or so.
“The U.S. wouldn’t be picking the stories or censoring any newspaper or website,” Murphy insisted. “We would simply help other countries in their efforts to produce more independent journalism.”
I’m afraid that’s a distinction without a difference. And the minute the Center for Information Analysis and Response pulls funding from media outlets that don’t measure up the center’s standards for “independent, objective journalism,” it will be seen as an attempt on our part to censor them.
I really think we’d be better off focusing our energy on making sure Donald Trump doesn’t use the Voice of America as his own propaganda tool — which is a real possibility since the VOA board is being supplanted by a powerful CEO appointed by the president. Now there’s an issue that would resonate. More on that later …
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.