Article 43


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Propaganda American Style Redux

image: brainwashing

A Court Ruled Rachel Maddow’s Viewers Know She Offers Exaggeration and Opinion, Not Facts
“Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the daily news,” an Obama-appointed judge ruled.

By Glenn Greenwald
June 22, 2021

MSNBC’s top-rated host Rachel Maddow devoted a segment in 2019 to accusing the right-wing cable outlet One America News (OAN) of being a paid propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. Discussing a DAILY BEAST ARTICLE which noted that one OAN reporter was a “Russian national who was simultaneously writing copy for the Russian-owned outlet Sputnik on a freelance contract, Maddow escalated the allegation greatly into a broad claim about OAN’s real identity and purpose: “in this case,” she announced, “the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda.”

In response, OAN sued Maddow, MSNBC, and its parent corporation Comcast, Inc. for defamation, alleging that it was demonstrably false that the network, in Maddow’s words, “literally is paid Russian propaganda.” In an oddly overlooked ruling, an Obama-appointed federal judge, Cynthia Bashant, dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that even Maddow’s own audience understands that her show consists of exaggeration, hyperbole, and pure opinion, and therefore would not assume that such outlandish accusations are factually true even when she uses the language of certainty and truth when presenting them (literally is paid Russian propaganda").

In concluding that Maddow’s statement would be understood even by her own viewers as non-factual, the judge emphasized that what Maddow does in general is not present news but rather hyperbole and exploitation of actual news to serve her liberal activism:

On one hand, a viewer who watches news channels tunes in for facts and the goings-on of the world. MSNBC indeed produces news, but this point must be juxtaposed with the fact that Maddow made the allegedly defamatory statement on her own talk show news segment where she is invited and encouraged to share her opinions with her viewers. Maddow does not keep her political views a secret, and therefore, audiences could expect her to use subjective language that comports with her political opinions.

Thus, Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the daily news. The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news. Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.

The judge’s observations about the specific segment at issue - in which Maddow accused a competitor of being literally paid Russian propaganda” - was even more damning. Maddow’s own viewers, ruled the court, not only expect but desire that she will not provide the news in factual form but will exaggerate and even distort reality in order to shape her opinion-driven analysis (emphasis added):

Viewers expect her to do so, as it is indeed her show, and viewers watch the segment with the understanding that it will contain Maddows “personal and subjective views” about the news. See id. Thus, the Court finds that as a part of the totality of the circumstances, the broad context weighs in favor of a finding that the alleged defamatory statement is Maddow’s opinion and exaggeration of the Daily Beast article, and that reasonable viewers would not take the statement as factual. . . .

Here, Maddow had inserted her own colorful commentary into and throughout the segment, laughing, expressing her dismay (i.e., saying I mean, what?) and calling the segment a “sparkly story” and one we must “take in stride.” For her to exaggerate the facts and call OAN Russian propaganda was consistent with her tone up to that point, and the Court finds a reasonable viewer would not take the statement as factual given this context. The context of Maddow’s statement shows reasonable viewers would consider the contested statement to be her opinion. A reasonable viewer would not actually think OAN is paid Russian propaganda, instead, he or she would follow the facts of the Daily Beast article; that OAN and Sputnik share a reporter and both pay this reporter to write articles. Anything beyond this is Maddow’s opinion or her exaggeration of the facts.

In sum, ruled the court, Rachel Maddow is among those “speakers whose statements cannot reasonably be interpreted as allegations of fact.” Despite Maddow’s use of the word “literally” to accuse OAN of being a “paid Russian propaganda” outlet, the court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that, given Maddow’s conduct and her audience’s awareness of who she is and what she does, “the Court finds that the contested statement is an opinion that cannot serve as the basis for a defamation claim.”

What makes this particularly notable and ironic is that a similar argument was made a year later by lawyers for Fox News when DEFENDING a segment that appeared on the program of its highest-rated program, Tucker Carlson Tonight. That was part of a lawsuit brought by the former model Karen McDougal, who claimed Carlson slandered her by saying she “extorted former President Trump by demanding payments in exchange for her silence about an extramarital affair she claimed to have with him.”

McDougal’s lawsuit was dismissed in September, 2020, by Trump-appointed judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, based on arguments made by Fox’s lawyers that were virtually identical to those made by MSNBC’s lawyers when defending Maddow. In particular, the court accepted Fox’s arguments that when Carlson used the word “extortion,” he meant it in a colloquial and dramatic sense, and that his viewers would have understood that he was not literally accusing her of a crime but rather offering his own subjective characterizations and opinions, particularly since viewers understand that Carlson offers political commentary:

Fox News first argues that, viewed in context, Mr. Carlson cannot be understood to have been stating facts, but instead that he was delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect. See Def. Br. at 12-15. Fox News cites to a litany of cases which hold that accusing a person of ԓextortion or ԓblackmail simply is ԓrhetorical hyperbole, incapable of being defamatory. . . .

In particular, accusations of “extortion,” “blackmail,” and related crimes, such as the statements Mr. Carlson made here, are often construed as merely rhetorical hyperbole when they are not accompanied by additional specifics of the actions purportedly constituting the crime. . . . Such accusations of crimes also are unlikely to be defamatory when, as here, they are made in connection with debates on a matter of public or political importance. . . . The context in which the offending statements were made here make it abundantly clear that Mr. Carlson was not accusing Ms. McDougal of actually committing a crime. As a result, his statements are not actionable.

When discussing Carlson’s show generally and how viewers understand it, the court used language extremely similar to that invoked to protect Maddow from defamation lawsuits: namely, that Fox viewers understand that Carlson is, in addition to presenting news, offering his own subjective analysis of it:

In light of this precedent and the context of ԓTucker Carlson Tonight, the Court finds that Mr. Carlson’s invocation of extortionӔ against Ms. McDougal is nonactionable hyperbole, intended to frame the debate in the guest commentator segment that followed Mr. Carlsons soliloquy. As Defendant notes, Mr. Carlson himself aims to ғchallenge[] political correctness and media bias. Def. Br. at 14. This ԓgeneral tenor of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not “stating actual facts” about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.”

Fox News has convincingly argued that Mr. Carlson was motivated to speak about a timely political cause and that, in this context, it is clear that his charge of |extortion” should not be interpreted as an accusation of an actual crime. Plaintiff’s interpretation of Mr. Carlson’s accusations is strained and, the Court finds, not reasonable when the entire segment is viewed in context. It is true that Mr. Carlson added color to his unsubstantiated rhetorical claim of extortion when he narrated that Ms. McDougal “approached” Mr. Trump and threatened his career and family. See Am. Compl. 10. But this overheated rhetoric is precisely the kind of pitched commentary that one expects when tuning in to talk shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight, with pundits debating the latest political controversies.

This is worth noting because of how often, and how dishonestly, this court case regarding Carlson is cited to claim that even Fox itself admits that its host is a liar who cannot be trusted. This court ruling has become a very common argument used by liberals to claim that even Fox acknowledges that Carlson lies. Indeed, Maddow’s own colleague Chris Hayes - whose MSNBC program is broadcast at the same time as Carlson’s and routinely attracts less than 1/3 of the Fox host’s audience - has repeatedly cited this court case to argue that even Fox admits Carlson is a liar, without bothering to note that his companies’ lawyers made exactly the same claims about his mentor, Rachel Maddow, to defend her from a defamation lawsuit:

Chris Hayes @chrislhayes

Similar to Fox News defense in court of Tucker Carlson: these people are obviously bullshit artists who no one should trust.
image: chris hayes tweet

This claim - even Fox admits that Carlson is a liar who cannot be believed! - has become such a common trope among liberals that it is impossible to count how many times I have heard it. And that is because the liberal sector of the corporate media blared this claim in headlines over and over after the lawsuit against Fox was dismissed.

It is virtually impossible to find similar headlines about Maddow even though the judicial rationale justifying dismissal of the lawsuit against her was virtually identical to the one used in Carlson’s case. Indeed, lawyers for MSNBC and Fox cited most of the same legal precedent to defend their stars and to insist that their statements could not be actionable as defamation because viewers understood it as opinion rather than fact.

I personally agree with the rationale cited in both cases: it becomes dangerous when defamation claims are used to punish or otherwise forbid the expression of political opinion. And of course it is the job of lawyers to mount every possible argument when defending a client, which is why both MSNBC and Fox’s lawyers essentially insisted that viewers of these programs understand that they are not being presented with objective truth and neutral news but political and subjective commentary. That is what made these widespread attempts to weaponize the ruling in Carlson’s case so preposterous.

Indeed, it was Maddow’s statement - that OAN is “literally paid Russian propaganda"- that seems far more actionable than Carlson’s obviously figurative assertion that McDougal was “extorting” Trump. Falsely accusing people of being paid Kremlin agents has a long and ugly history in the U.S., having destroyed reputations and careers, yet this smear has once again become utterly commonplace in Democratic Party politics (a protracted and ugly feud among liberal commentators was initiated earlier this month when The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur BASELESSLY AND FALSELESSY CLAIMED that journalist Aaron Mat was “paid by the Russians").

But whatever else is true, those who want to claim that this court ruling proves Carlson is a lying propagandist who cannot be trusted have no way out of applying the same claim to Maddow. In both cases, it would be unfair and irrational to use these court rulings to suggest that, given that the arguments made were standard ones lawyers advance to defend a defamation defendant. Ironically, those most guilty of being unreliable liars and propagandists are those in the media and even Maddow’s own MSNBC colleagues who repeatedly cite this court ruling to delegitimize Carlson without ever mentioning that Maddow’s lawyers successfully used the same arguments in her defense.



Rachel Maddow on “Prequel” and fascism in America

Prior to World War II, a significant number of Nazi sympathizers in the U.S. were secretly meeting to promote antisemitic and far-right PROPAGANDA, with the intent to set up a Hitler-style dictatorship in America. Attempts to bring them to justice, for the most part, failed. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, author of the new book “Prequel,” talks with correspondent Rita Braver about our nation’s long-running fight against fascism, and how it relates to today’s conspiracy theories and ultra-right propaganda. Air Date: Oct 8, 2023



Rachel Maddow’s Prequel Is a Deceptively Framed History of the Radical Right
The book blames foreign subversives for ideas long rooted in American life.

By Brandan P. Buck
October 31, 2023

“American democracy itself was under attack from enemies within and without,” Rachel Maddow writes in Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism. If you’re not sure whether she is speaking of the past or the present, that’s because she wants to conflate the two.

Prequel is a deeply flawed and deceptively framed history of right-wing radicalism in the United States on the eve of American entry into World War II. Maddow’s treatment of this well-worn topic draws principally from primary sources generated from the protagonists of her story, a collection of private spies and anti-fascist activists, as well as contemporary press reporting, sundry government documents, and a narrow base of secondary sources, one that noticeably omits prominent works in the field. Deficiencies in her sources, methods, and analyses make for a book that recapitulates past passions at the expense of sober reflection and reality.

Maddow opens with her strongest case study, covering the German-born Nazi agent George Sylvester Viereck, who tried to push Americans toward neutrality by using personal connections with Congress to spread noninterventionist literature. She then switches focus to her weakest case study, that of populist Democratic governor and senator Huey “Kingfish” Long and his influence on the Nazi sympathizers Philip Johnson and Gerald L.K. Smith. Maddow does not clarify why Long, who died in 1935, is discussed here. But her tone and source selection imply that she agrees with the Kingfish’s contemporary critics that his populism and demagoguery made him a proto-fascist and a political gateway drug for more radical figures, like Johnson and Smith.

Maddow then abruptly changes focus to the dark history of American segregation and its influence on Nazi racial science, following the German lawyer Heinrich Krieger’s travels through the American South. Then she circles back to more-prominent characters, such as the American fascist Lawrence Dennis, the antisemitic preacher Charles Coughlin, and the abstruse spiritualist (and leader of the fascist Silver Shirts) William Dudley Pelley, among others.
The book’s first half is occasionally productive. The chapter on Pelley does a good job of exploring the roots of his ideology: his conflation of anti-communism with antisemitism, his eclectic spiritualism, his millenarian Christianity. And the chapter on American race law is a haunting look at how American legislatures maintained racial hierarchy and what the Nazis learned from their practices.

But what narrative value she creates is relinquished by her analytical leaps, which conflate fascism with phenomena that were already well-grounded in American life well before the 1920s. And Maddow never directly states the size and scope of the groups she covers, such as the German American Bund and the Silver Shirts; instead we get such vague phrases as “many,” “a lot,” and “an insane number.” This makes it easier to confuse the breadth of Maddow’s cast of characters for the depth of their influence. (According to historian Francis MacDonnell’s Insidious Foes, the German American Bund never attracted more than 25,000 members and the Silver Shirts maxed out at 15,000.)

The book’s meandering journey narrows in later chapters, as Maddow argues that German propaganda had a pervasive influence on “isolationist” congressmen. She presents the propagandists’ efforts as far more effective than they were, giving the impression that they were the root of Americans’ general desire to stay out of World War II. She pays only lip service to the deeper roots of “isolationism,” with a mere passing reference to the fallout from World War I. She does not mention the post-WWI revelations of Allied and American propaganda, the widespread alarm at the armaments industry’s intimate relationship with the government, or the Great War’s domestic abuses of civil liberties. (When Sen. Ernest Lundeen (RMinn.) denounces a draft bill as “nothing short of slavery,” she dismisses him as “shrill.") Instead, she writes as though the desire to remain neutral simply stemmed from abroad, stripping noninterventionism of its historical context and arguing that the “threads of isolationism, antisemitism, and fascism were becoming an ominously tight weave.”

To make her case, Maddow retells a well-worn story about Viereck’s use of the congressional frank, a taxpayer-funded mailing service, to distribute what Maddow calls “pro-German mailings.” In fact, it was predominately literature that advocated neutrality. As historian Douglas M. Charles argued in J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists, “All Viereck managed to accomplish was a wider distribution of anti-interventionist literature that, in any event, did not lead Americans to reassess their views on the Allies.”

Her book culminates in the 1944 sedition trial, in which the United States federal government charged a heterogeneous and largely unaffiliated assortment of 30 defendants, which included far-right figures like George Sylvester Viereck, Lawrence Dennis, and William Dudley Pelley, for sedition under the 1940 Smith Act. She presents the episode as a missed opportunity to uproot homegrown fascism. In fact, the Justice Department filed its flimsy charges on politically motivated grounds - a clear threat to constitutionally protected speech and association, no matter how unsympathetic the defendants could be.

Throughout Prequel, Maddow displays a systemically uncritical use of her source material, frequently presenting the self-gratifying hyperbole of fascist propagandists and the motivated reasoning of anti-fascist reporters as gospel.

Whether she knows it or not, Maddow is dredging up a thesis from the past, written in the wake of World War II when passions were high and perspectives blinkered. This view does have some academic adherents, and she cites their work: Bradley W. Hart’s Hitler’s American Friends, James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America, Steven J. Ross’s Hitler in Los Angeles, and others. But she drives her thesis beyond the confines of her evidence in a manner that these scholars do not. Hart, for example, hedges where Maddow does not, acknowledging that the “United States was not at risk of an imminent fascist takeover in the late 1930s” when he argues that there was “fertile terrain in which dictatorship might be able to take root.” Yet Maddow leaves the impression that there was a risk of an imminent fascist takeover in the 1930s, with German propaganda fertilizing that fertile terrain.

Meanwhile, there is a sizeable body of work that challenges Maddow’s thesis and that of her source material. Such works include established scholarship such as Leo Ribuffo’s THE OLD CHHRISTMAS RIGHT, Deborah Lipstadt’s Beyond Belief, and Bruce Kuklick’s recent FASCISM COMES TO AMERICA, to name a few. While these works do not downplay the pernicious ideologies of the far right nor their presence in American life, they do not sensationalize or dehistoricize them nor assign them more influence than they deserve. Lipstadt, who has devoted much of her career to combating the radical right’s penchant for Holocaust denial, dedicated an entire chapter of Beyond Belief to challenging American anxieties about a Nazi “fifth column” - the very fears that Maddow is trying to resurrect. While Nazi Germany did have spies and propagandists in the U.S., Lipstadt cautioned that “they never constituted a network with the scope and power the press attributed them.”

In INSIDEOUS FOES, MacDonnell argues that while odious and illiberal, right-wing extremists “never posed any real danger to the republic”; instead, a media echo chamber constructed the perception of a vast and powerful far right. He also makes a good case that Germany’s propaganda effort was “spectacularly unsuccessful” and ultimately did more damage to the noninterventionist cause than it aided it. RIBOFFO’S classic THE OLD CHRISTIAN RIGHT (a work that Maddow mentions in her author’s note but does not cite) similarly argued that the fear of these groups was a “BROWN SCARE”” that often “exaggerated both [the far right’s] power and its Axis connections.”

How does Maddow square her findings with those of these earlier works? We do not know, because she does not tell us.

In closing the book, Maddow invites the reader to take inspiration from the work of Americans who sought to stop homegrown fascists by “any means at hand,” assessing their legacies as worth remembering and emulating. Yet Maddow omits the pernicious legacy that followed from using “any means at hand” and violating the very norms her heroes sought to protect. They created the DESTRUCTIVE AND RESTRICTIVE MYTH OF ISOLATIONISM, which held that it was an absence of American power from the world’s stage that directly led to the rise of fascism abroad. They actively colluded with a foreign power - Great Britain - to interfere in AMERICAN ELECTIONS and MANIPULATE AMERICAN MEDIA. And they helped stoke the panic that led to Japanese internment and spurred the growth of the domestic security state. The latter, ironically, soon BOOMERANGED AGAINST THE LEFT.

Those legacies are also worth remembering if we are to preserve liberty from an ever-present threat - not from enemies within our ranks or outside our walls, but within ourselves.


Posted by Elvis on 12/17/23 •
Section Dying America • Section Fascism
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