Exclusive: The spectacle of clueless U.S. media personalities, like George Stephanopoulos, chastising Donald Trump for getting facts wrong would be funny if it weren’t indicative of a political-media system failing the American people and what’s left of the democratic Republic, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Mainstream media and politicians are fond of denouncing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for trafficking in conspiracy theories and playing fast and loose with the facts, but some of them slide into the same patterns in attacking Trump or other demonized leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For instance, on ABC-TV’s “This Week,” host George Stephanopoulos deployed a favorite “conspiracy theory” technique to accuse Putin of murdering journalists and then demanded that Trump explain why he would welcome praise from such a nefarious character. The technique was to cite a sizable number of “mysterious deaths” as proof that the conspiracy-theory target was guilty, even if there was no specific evidence in any individual case.
Stephanopoulos challenged Trump by asking: “When you were pressed about [Putin’s] killing of journalists, you said, ‘I think our country does plenty of killing too.’ What were you thinking about there? What killing sanctioned by the U.S. government is like killing journalists?”
Trump responded that “in all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t seen that. I don’t know that he has. Have you been able to prove that? Do you know the names of the reporters that he’s killed? Because I’ve been — you know, you’ve been hearing this, but I haven’t seen the name. Now, I think it would be despicable if that took place, but I haven’t’ seen any evidence that he killed anybody in terms of reporters.”
Stephanopoulos then backed up his murder charge against Putin by saying: “here’s what Mitt Romney tweeted about that. He said, there’s an important distinction here. Thug Putin kills journalists and opponents. Our presidents kill terrorists and enemy combatants.”
Trump answered back, “Does he [Romney] know for a fact that he [Putin] kills the reporters? I don’t know — I don’t think anybody knows that. It’s possible that he does. But I don’t think it’s been proven. Has anybody proven that he’s killed reporters? And I’m not trying to stick up for anybody.”
Stephanopoulos: “There have been many allegations that he was behind the killing of (INAUDIBLE) and …”
Trump: “No, no, allegations. There are allegations. Yes, sure, there are allegations. I’ve read those allegations over the years, but nobody’s proven that he’s killed anybody as far as I’m concerned. He hasn’t killed reporters that it’s been proven. Now, if he has”
Stephanopoulos’s next rejoinder was perhaps even more startling: “But what killing has the United States government done?”
Sadly, such cluelessness is now typical of the mainstream U.S. news media as if these “journalists” have been hiding under a rock for the past 15 years if not much longer. But back to the aspect of Stephanopoulos’s charge against Putin that just because there are lots of allegations even without supporting evidence we must accept a person’s guilt.
Clinton’s ‘Mysterious Deaths’
That “conspiracy theory” technique should be familiar to Stephanopoulos since he was an aide to President Bill Clinton when right-wing enemies compiled a list of “Clinton’s mysterious deaths,” which included anyone who had even tangential contact with Arkansas Gov. Clinton and then died in some “suspicious” manner.
The best known of these cases was deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster who became distraught over becoming the subject of other scandal-mongering and committed suicide on July 20, 1993, but the “strength” of the “murder” allegations against Clinton was in the lengthy list of “mysterious deaths.”
At the time, a longtime conservative source faxed me the list, marveling at the number and saying that if even a few were true that would be “a big story.” I responded that if even one were true that a sitting U.S. president had murdered a single political opponent “that would be a big story, but there’s got to be proof.”
Many of the cases on the list were murky old tales from Arkansas, but I noticed one fairly recent one with a local angle. A federal bureaucrat who had some minor connection to the investigation of Clinton’s Whitewater real-estate investment had died from a fall out of a new apartment high-rise in Arlington, Virginia.
But it really wasn’t much of a mystery. My investigation quickly determined that the man was suffering from AIDS and was faced with a grim prognosis. So, he traveled from his home in Washington D.C. to Arlington, asked a real-estate agent to show him a top-floor apartment, went to the balcony, asked the startled young woman if what he was about to do would hurt, and jumped to his death. (I even interviewed the poor woman.)
President Clinton had nothing to do with this tragedy, a fact that I imparted to my conservative source who was in touch with the makers of the list. Yet, several months later when an updated list was sent my way, the same “mystery” was still there.
In other words, the list creators were not interested in fairness toward Clinton or the merits of any one case. They understood that it was the cumulative number of cases that sent the desired propaganda message, building up a suspicion that Clinton was a murderer. Then, anyone who challenged the methodology and pointed to the absence of any real proof could be dismissed as a “Clinton apologist.”
Stephanopoulos saw these tactics up close in the 1990s. I even met with him once at his White House office to discuss this pattern of right-wing conspiracy-mongering. But now he is practicing the same tactics against Putin and Trump.
The WMD Scam
In the early 2000s, a similar technique was used to trick the U.S. intelligence community into buying into the falsehoods about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein hiding stockpiles of WMD and reviving a nuclear-weapons program. Then, it was a case of the Iraqi National Congress funneling a series of Iraqi “defectors” into the CIA with well-rehearsed tales about supposed first-hand knowledge of Hussein’s trickery.
As at least 19 “defectors” walked in, the CIA analysts succeeded in debunking some of them, but the sheer number combined with heavy White House pressure to find “proof” of its WMD claims led the analysts to begin accepting the allegations as true. Only after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 did the CIA analysts realize that they had been had by an organized effort at fabrication. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Chalabi’s Legacy of Lies.”]
Given the U.S.-inflicted havoc on Iraq, Afghanistan and a wide variety of other countries including a large number of civilian deaths the rest of Stephanopoulos’s tirade toward Trump on Sunday was instructive about other deep-seated biases of Official Washington and its compliant mainstream media.
Though a key principle of journalism is objectivity, Stephanopoulos made it clear that he was part of Official Washington’s team, decrying Putin “when he backs our adversaries like [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, when he backs Iran, when he invades Ukraine.” He then asked Trump, “Is it wise to be praising our adversaries and alienating our allies?”
Stephanopoulos added, “you said, ‘I think our country does plenty of killing too.’ What killing are you talking about there, ordered by the United States government?”
Trump answered: “Well, take a look at what we’re doing in the Middle East. We went into Iraq. We shouldn’t have. You know that I was opposed to going into Iraq many years ago. In 2003/2004 there were headlines in Reuters that Trump is opposed to the war, because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East.
“I said, if you do this, you’ll destabilize the Middle East and Iran will take over. Very simple, Iran will take over Iraq. That’s exactly what’s happening. And on top of that we have ISIS, which is another problem and another complicating factor. Now, we should have never gone into Iraq. When we left, we made a mistake.
“We made a big mistake with Libya. We’ve destabilized all these places. We now have a migration with thousands and hundreds of thousands and even millions of people that don’t know where they’re going. I mean it’s a terrible thing. We have been run by incompetent people, incompetent politicians. They don’t know — and that’s probably why I’m leading so high in the polls because people are tired of seeing very, very stupid and very, very incompetent people running our country into the ground.
“In the meantime, we owe $19 trillion, soon going to be $21 trillion and we better get our act together fast, George, because our country is going down if we don’t.”
In stunned disbelief, Stephanopoulos shot back with the old “moral equivalence” argument that was developed by CIA propagandists and neoconservatives during the Reagan administration to justify U.S.-backed slaughters in Central America and elsewhere: “Your comments seem to suggest some moral equivalence for the United States and Russia. Is that what you believe?”
Trump: “I’m not saying anything. I’m saying, when you say a man [Putin] has killed reporters, I’d like you to prove it. And I’m — I’m saying it would be a terrible thing if it were true, but I have never seen any information or any proof that he killed reporters, George. You’re just saying, he killed reporters. You and other people tell me he killed reporters. I don’t know that he killed reporters. I haven’t seen it. If he did, I think it’s despicable. I think it would be horrible. But you’re making these accusations and I don’t — I don’t see any proof. And, by the way, he totally denies that he kills reporters. He totally denied it.”
Stephanopoulos: “I’m still waiting for the evidence that we’ve been directly involved in killing people as well. You made your points about Iraq. But I do want to move on.”
As hard as it may be to believe, Stephanopoulos presenting himself as a leading American journalist pretends to be unaware of the killings associated with the brutal interrogations of “war on terror” and Iraq War detainees, the targeted drone killings that both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have signed off on, the mass slaughter of citizens in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities bombarded by the U.S. military, the more recent killings of doctors and patients at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and relevant to the issue of journalists the killings of Al Jazeera, Reuters and other reporters in Iraq.
One could go back through history and remind Stephanopoulos of many other examples of the U.S. government slaughtering large numbers of civilians either directly in places such as Vietnam or indirectly through proxies in regions such as Central and South America. But the stance of a “respectable” American “journalist” apparently must be that none of that ever happened or, if it did happen, it was all an unintended mistake.
Though Trump is regularly accused of getting his facts wrong, he responded to Stephanopoulos with incredulity: “Excuse me, take a look at the rampage all over the place. And you know what we’ve gotten for Iraq? We’ve spent $2 trillion, OK? We’ve — thousands, hundreds of thousands of people killed. We’ve lost thousands and thousands of our great young people, soldiers.
“So, $2 trillion, deaths, wounded warriors, we have nothing, and Iran is now taking over Iraq with the second largest oil reserves in the world. We’re run by people that don’t have a clue.”
But Stephanopoulos apparently did not realize that Donald Trump of all people had just taken him to school on the question of who had a better grasp of reality. So, the ABC-TV “newsman” lamely shot back with a non-sequitur: “And Iran has been backed by Vladimir Putin.”
While much of what Trump says can be fairly criticized for inaccuracies and exaggerations as well as for offensive and divisive rhetoric the sad reality is that the mainstream media personalities who pose as “truth-tellers” are often more detached from facts and more beholden to delusions than he is.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).