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October surprises and electoral manipulation: Russia versus NBC

Written By | Oct 13, 2016

WASHINGTON, October 12, 2016 — The failure last week of the Syrian cease fire agreed to by the U.S. and Russia was followed by American suggestions that Russia be investigated for war crimes.

In calling for that investigation last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry observed,

“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, and medical facilities, and children and women. These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions.”

Russian spies vs. “Crooked” Hillary’s press corps

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have resumed talks about Syria, but the relations between the U.S. and Russia are now in a state of open conflict.

That conflict was highlighted again on Tuesday, when White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest mentioned a range of “proportional” responses to hacking attacks on the DNC and other political groups, attacks the Obama Administration believes  were launched by Russian intelligence agencies. The administration directly accused the Kremlin of attacks on the U.S. political system and democracy last Friday.

In Palo Alto on Monday, Kerry delivered a “very clear” message about “the unacceptability of interference with democracy in the United States of America, warning that “we will and can respond in ways that we choose to, at the time of our choice.”

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has accused Russia of hacking computers and stealing files from Democratic organizations in order to benefit her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. Her campaign called WikiLeaks “Russian propaganda,” with campaign spokesman Brian Fallon tweeting, “You are no media organization. You are a propaganda arm of the Russian govt, running interference for their pet candidate, Trump.”

Moscow denies interfering in America’s elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin commented,

There was a whole hysteria about that being of interest to Russia, but there is nothing within the interest of Russia … The whole hysteria is aimed at making the American forget about the manipulation of public opinion.

Who’s worse: The Russians, or the DNC?

Putin might have a point. When it comes to manipulating elections, the Russians are probably rank amateurs compared to the American media.

One of the hacked documents released by WikiLeaks observes:

Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to a majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …

There are three ways to approach the strategies mentioned above. The first is to use the field as a whole ot inflict damage on itself similar to what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012. The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right. In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party. Pied Piper candidates include, but aren’t limited to: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ben Carson.

We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.

Donald Trump became his party’s nominee thanks largely to media outlets like CNN and the New York Times. While the other Republican candidates struggled to be heard and had to pay for ads, Trump received over $2 billion in free publicity from print and broadcast media in the ten months after he announced his candidacy. That was more than all his Republican opponents combined received, and twice as much as was received by Hillary Clinton.

The Trump coverage wasn’t all positive, and it probably didn’t constitute a media conspiracy. Trump drew page views and sold ad space. Trump was a gold mine, and Carly Fiorina was not. But media behavior meshed neatly with the advice contained in that memo, and media voices who are shocked at the nomination and appeal of Trump should look in the mirror when they look for explanations of how he got so far.

More probably an example of deliberate manipulation is the release last week of the video containing Trump’s crude and inflammatory comments about women, and in particular the freedom his star power gives him to grab at them with impunity. The video was recorded more than ten years ago, and it was in the possession of NBC that entire time.

According to the network, the tape was forgotten on an “Access Hollywood” shelf until Trump’s comments about Alicia Machado jogged a producer’s memory. The producer recalled Trump’s 2005 chat with former “Access” co-host Billy Bush, and dug it up for executive producer Rob Silverstein. Someone leaked the tape to Washington Post writer David Fahrenthold, and the story broke.

That version of events strikes Trump supporters as plausible, about as plausible as Putin’s denial that Russia is the source behind the WikiLeaks documents is to Clinton supporters. In any event, the Trump video was well-timed to drown out stories about the contents of the documents.

Has the campaign and election process been manipulated this year? Most certainly. The Clinton campaign and the DNC deftly moved Bernie Sanders to the sidelines by manipulating the Democratic primary process, and it now seems that Clinton supporter and top Joe Biden aid Ron Klain helped sideline his boss for Clinton’s sake. The media successfully promoted “Pied Piper” Donald Trump over more dangerous potential Clinton rivals, and someone has been trying to harm the Clinton campaign by passing hacked computer documents to WikiLeaks.

It’s clear that the manipulation on behalf the the HRC campaign has been much more sophisticated and effective than the manipulation against it. If the sources of the WikiLeaks documents really are Russia’s GRU and FSB, those intelligence services have much to learn from America’s NBC and HRC. It may be that America’s security is in good hands with Clinton after all.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.