“The box that produces zombies”

Truth is hard, TV is easy

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On a recent episode of The Daily, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon visited Mason County, Texas—Trump country about two hours west of Austin. The day after the networks called the election for Biden, Herndon met a couple at a church who have been together 47 years. They invited Herndon to their front porch to talk politics, surrounded by Trump signs, and it emerged that this couple—a man and woman who are never named—is like much of America. Perfectly nice. For what it’s worth, Herndon is Black and the couple sounds white to me—and with what’s published, at least—this seems not to get weird. 

Early in the conversation, the man says of the election, “if Biden gets it, I have no problem. That’s my president then. That’s what I’m claiming. I’m not gonna be like these Democrats that just throwed a fit about Trump being in there for the last four years.”

If you’re hungry for a time when American politics had middle ground and decency, it seems you could probably work with this guy. Then his wife starts talking and before long there’s talk of killing.

Woman: What [Trump]’s done in the face of a hoax, in the face of impeachment. My eyes is on Christ. My eyes is on the Lord. And he’s the one who says whether or not we would submit to the presidency of Biden. We may not agree with a lot of it, and I think he is a—what do they call that, the Trojan horse that comes in? And the liberalism and the far left? That’s not good for our country. This country is founded on freedom. I see that, but socialism I don’t agree with.

Herndon: Biden says that, you know, I beat Bernie Sanders. I’m not a socialist. He said yesterday during his speech how even people who didn’t vote for him, people like you all, that he’ll be a president for you, that he’ll listen to you, that he wants to bring people together. When you hear that, what do you think?

Woman: I don’t believe it. I’m sorry. When they fought tooth and nail, resisted, obstructed, all the things that the Democratic Party and Biden have done, it’s not right. And now they want healing? “Oh, yeah, let’s all come together.” You have not earned it. If the American people voted for him, yes, it will hand over, and that’ll be fine. Do not tell me that I need to follow someone who cheats to get that. ...

Man: I’m gonna say the most hopeful is that if either side had cheated to win this election—it could be either side, I don’t care which side you want to put it on—if either side did, I hope they get caught. And I hope that they get—they’ve served the time that they need to serve from doing it. I hope that they catch ‘em, and I hope they hang ‘em.

The election is clearly over; it wasn’t close. There have been lawsuits, but the Trump crew has failed to produce any interesting evidence of voter fraud. If you believe Biden stole the election, it’s because you were always going to believe whatever Trump told you to believe. 

What does it take to get a brain to weigh the evidence?

I would make the case that Fox News has taught many Americans to be lazy—instead of doing the hard work of digging up truth before forming their own opinions, they receive them. 

One such lazy American: Trump himself. He used to be pro-choice, donated across the spectrum. CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote a book on Fox, and quotes a former Fox producer saying "People think he's calling up 'Fox & Friends' and telling us what to say. Hell no. It's the opposite. We tell him what to say." It’s well documented that Trump’s tweets often follow the show.

Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg write in The New York Times:

A 2007 study found that the introduction of the network on a particular cable system pushed local voters to the right: the Fox News Effect, as it became known. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, a majority of self-described conservatives said it was the only news network they trusted.

A March study by Navigation Research, a Democratic firm, found that 12 percent of Fox News viewers believe that climate change is mostly caused by humans, compared with 62 percent of all other Americans.

“The TV signal goes straight into the brains of the people,” says Arkady Babchenko, through a translator, speaking at a conference in New York in 2017. Parents have been freaking out about screen time since the 1950s. This is a whole ‘nother level of the game. Babchenko calls the TV “The zombie box. The box that produces zombies.”

Nowadays Babchenko is a prominent Russian dissident journalist who made waves for faking his own death then reappearing in a press conference the next day (Russian media is complicated). But on this day he was talking only about his previous job as a soldier who volunteered for Russia’s second Chechen War. 

In 1995, Russian broadcasts were totally certain Chechens were to blame for all manner of terrorism—beheadings, kidnappings, bombings. “I would call it dehumanizing,” says Babchenko. “They were saying that Chechens were not human beings. They need to be killed.”

“The pumping up of hatred, it worked, and the Russian army went there for revenge.”

They wasted the whole city and then some. Babchenko was there, and remembers instructions that every male from age ten to sixty must be killed. He remembers a town where the only things left standing were a few chimneys. “I saw a lot of things,” he says. “I know what I’m talking about. That war was a huge crime.”

[This might all seem kind of heavy, for an NBA publication. But the job of deciphering the NBA demands it. I saw Babchenko make these comments in person, at PutinCon to understand the business of Mikhail Prokhorov. What I have learned since is the Nets’ former owner is far from the only NBA billionaire with ties to Putin and the U.S. right wing.]

Grozny is part of Russia, Babchenko points out. “Russia, there, was fighting itself. That city was brought to rubble. It’s as if the U.S. Air Force would bomb a city in the state of Missouri. And then the National Guard would move in to kill all those who survived the bombing.”

And somehow this was popular. “I always say that the most important weapon at the hands of Mr. Putin is not the submarine, it’s not missiles. It’s the propaganda. The zombie box. The box which produces zombies.”

What Babchenko was surprised to learn, and only really understood after the war, was that he had been had. The alleged crimes of the Chechens, “in most cases, they were really invented.” He notes that the entire time Putin has been in charge of Russia, the televised media has been organized and focused on feeding mass mistrust and hatred. Russia under Putin, mostly, has had dismal results. “The use of TV and the use of hatred is the foundation of the government today,” says Babchenko. “First it was the Chechens. Then all the immigrants. Then it was LGBT community. Then the Georgians. Then the Ukrainians. Then it was moved against the liberals.”

A lot of this story is not like the U.S. at all. We haven’t leveled a city in Missouri—thank the heavens. Not yet, anyway. (Did you know there’s a Fox News show called “The Next Revolution,” and the host sits in front of a backdrop of Americans storming Washington DC?) 

Babchenko points out that Putin’s media empires constantly target some group. Now, it’s the United States: “For Russia, America is the biggest enemy. This mechanism is working. It’s dangerous.”

Much of the most popular media in the U.S. has a lot of crossover with Putin’s techniques in Russia—not to mention overlaps with the same murky financing, the same show formats, the same stew of NRA, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Donald Trump. When I see it, I see clumsy efforts to repeatedly generate the tone of AHA! We uncovered the real secrets, when it’s really just some weak sauce Rudy Giuliani and some mobsters dreamed up over cigars. But the line that runs through all of it is the same, from Moscow to Fox News headquarters: Tell them everything is Nancy Pelosi’s fault. Or Hillary’s. Or Obama’s. Or Joe Biden’s. Or … it barely matters who. But keep ‘em so angry they can spit. 

After a while, Babchenko says, you end up talking to someone who “turns a blind eye, he doesn’t hear your reasons, it looks like the person was drugged, doesn’t hear your reality.”

This is why this unnamed couple in Texas breaks my heart. Perhaps they could be wonderful participants in a happier, safer America. I bet they routinely accepted basic facts like vote tallies—or did, for much of their lives. But does anyone doubt Fox News, and its offspring, have long been regulars at their house? It’s the only popular way to believe half of America is evil. And it’s so effective that now they’d like people to die for crimes without evidence. The ballots were counted in front of monitors from both parties, in many cases in states with Republican elected officials laughing off suggestions of fraud, and in many cases with a live video feed. I guess it’s a little hard to research all that, but it’s easy to keep the conclusion you had before the election: that you already know who’s evil.

“He came to power,” Babchenko says, “because he was successful in dehumanizing the entire country. Moral norms are abandoned.” He was talking about Putin, I think. “The purpose is not to go up, to develop a human being—but to suppress.” The effect, Babchenko says, is to stop people from valuing human life. 

This isn’t some ideological thing for Putin. We’ll never know if he really hates Georgians, or gays. The point is that as long as lots of Russian people sense enemies in their midst, and so long as Putin is leading the fight against them—he’s free to operate the real project.

Enrage them in public, have complex financial dealings in private. Steve Bannon grew to prominence at the extreme right wing Breitbart, and might be America’s foremost purveyor of divisive invective. But behind the scenes he’s accused not of believing too much in the cause, rather he’s been charged with stealing more than a million dollars from it. The right-wing news site the Daily Caller was founded by two men, one of whom is business partners with—of all people—Bernie Madoff’s accountant, who narrowly avoided prison for his role in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

In “Putin’s People,” Catherine Belton ably illuminates Putin’s real project, the “black cash networks” that have funnelled so very many billions out of Russia through banks in Cyprus, Guernsey, and the Cayman Islands, and very often to cities like London, New York, and Miami.

Journalists who have been covering Putin for a long time, like Anne Applebaum, have advantages in understanding the players in U.S. politics now. From the Atlantic:

Anne Applebaum: Donald Trump and his company have been living for a long time in what you call “anti-rule-of-law land.” I have worried, ever since he first appeared as a political figure in 2014–15, that he was going to be a vehicle to bring even more people from this world into U.S. politics.

Sheldon Whitehouse: I think he’s very comfortable with the world of shell corporations and tax avoidance. So not just him, but the other American business interests that operate comfortably in or along the fringes of anti-rule-of-law land have been very unhelpful in our efforts to solve this problem.

Putin made exciting, well-documented maneuvers to take control of Russian media enough to start wars in Chechnya and beyond. (Prokhorov is a player in all that.) We have no such evidence of Putin calling the shots for Rupert Murdoch. But they do have ties:

  • Vanity Fair is one of several reputable outlets to weigh the possibility that Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng has been dating Vladimir Putin. 

  • Murdoch once owned a big stake in a billboard business in Russia. A rival executive was shot in the face, Scotland Yard and the FBI investigated allegations of bribery, a key Russian executive at Murdoch’s firm ended up representing Putin’s political party in the Russian Duma. 

  • Roger Stone Jr. emerged as a critical figure in Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. The Times reports Stone and Murdoch go way back: “In 1980, [Rupert Murdoch] met Roy Cohn—the former adviser to Senator Joseph McCarthy and a Trump mentor—who introduced him to Gov. Ronald Reagan’s inner circle. It was a group that included Roger Stone Jr., another Trump confidant and the head of Reagan’s New York operations, who said in a later interview that he helped Murdoch weaponize his latest tabloid purchase, The New York Post, on Reagan’s behalf in the 1980 election.”

  • Murdoch celebrated Brexit “with Nigel Farage, a leading architect of Brexit (and a future Fox News contributor), at a garden party at the London mansion of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev.” Lebedev’s father was reportedly a longtime KGB officer. 

  • Like a lot of television networks, Murdoch’s SKY carries Russia’s propaganda channel RT. 

  • The Times: “Sean Hannity built shows around the same sorts of false claims that were circulating on far-right internet sites and suspected Russian social media accounts, suggesting that Clinton was suffering from a possibly life-threatening illness and that one of her Secret Service agents was carrying a diazepam pen, which is commonly used to treat seizures. (It was actually a flashlight.)”

A great number of the NBA’s bigwigs operate amid these same tough-to-track offshore cash flows. As we have discussed on TrueHoop many times, a smaller number have ties to Russian money, Trump businesses, or the other creepy things—arms dealing, Jeffrey Epstein, right-wing craziness—that always seem to ride sidecar. A lot of those storylines begin at the defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert, where key Epstein friend and supporter Leon Black once named Fox’s Rupert Murdoch one of his favorite examples of a successful “robber baron.” 

Rupert Murdoch is among the most powerful men in the world. Presidents and prime ministers of multiple nations seek his counsel and approval. Why would regular working people let that guy—the most elite of the billionaires, the man in helicopters and at Davos, the iconic model of the rich-family infighting show “Succession”—decide what they believe?

I’ll be honest, I shot a dirty look into the kitchen window the other day as I ran by the house that still has a “Farmers for Trump” sign up, a week after the election.

The Trump part still alarms me, but the farming part got me too. Farmers do the work. Farmers are the people who are a little aghast that a lot of Americans think food comes, easily and for a few dollars, wrapped in plastic. (Have you seen those “No Farmers, No Food” bumper stickers?) Farmers know that’s too easy. Food comes from staving off hurricane force winds, navigating crop insurance, pests, and a truck with an oil leak. 

By that definition, I thought as I ran on through the rain, let’s honor the good work of farming truth. We are out here doing the hard work of gathering fact seeds, planting them in rows, and praying to harvest trust and dignity. The crops fail all the time. There are storms. This shit is hard, too. And … if you still have a Trump sign up now, I will point out that I haven’t seen you around out here, working these truth fields. I think we both know it’s because you’ve been inside, taking it easy, sucking on Fox News juice boxes. 

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