Is Russian skullduggery lurking everywhere? Not really, says Vice report

September 22, 2017
Category: Newsletters

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Germans, too, see Vladimir Putin's hand everywhere

The droll critic Joe Queenan has expounded on the rise of "Russomafiaphobic cinema," with nothing scarier to moviegoers than Russian bad guys. It used to be Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Mexicans, South Africans, Middle Easterners, or somebody else, but now it's Russians.

Whether domestic or international politics, Russians are thought to be everywhere (hello, Hillary Clinton). Vladimir Putin ultimately got Donald Trump elected, or so is the drift. He's the grand puppet master of 21st century life. Right?

Well, HBO's "Vice News Tonight," a distinct alternative in format and substance to the more-similar-than-not evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS, provided a cautionary note last evening. Bottom line: Putin may not be lurking behind every misdeed, global crisis and internet conspiracy.

Phoebe Greenwood, a reporter for Vice and the Guardian, looked at Sunday's important German elections, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenges include a a growing anti-immigration, populist movement. Media throughout Europe and the U.S. have suggested that Russia is systematically and diabolically backing such far right parties across Europe.

And Thursday brought word that Mark Zuckerberg agreed "to hardening his company’s defenses against countries like Russia that may have sought to spread misinformation and influence the outcome of elections in the United States and around the world."

Around the world presumably includes Germany, where Merkel, who is disliked by Putin, is seen as the potential victim Sunday of Kremlin skullduggery in support of the anti-Muslim AFD party, which clearly has much in common ideologically with Putin.

But, ah, wait. "There is no hard evidence supporting allegations that it is supported by the Kremlin," Greenwood concludes. That comes despite the German government's own report that asserts that "important propaganda and disinformation tools include social networks, the microblogging service Twitter, government-funded and private institutes, and Russian state media."

The head of a collective of German journalists, which is helping Zuckerberg's Facebook to discern and debunk disinformation circulated on Facebook in advance of Sunday's vote, says, "We don't have the big fake news stories. If they come from Russia, we don't know yet so far." (Poynter's Daniel Funke has also documented efforts to pinpoint election interference.)

And German cyber experts have not discerned obvious evidence of Russian hacking, and don't assume it will happen Sunday with the aim of mucking up the results to shaft Merkel.

What is playing out in Germany, says one cyber savant, Linus Neumann, verges on the hysterical.

A few years ago, he says, the world was over the top about the Chinese. Now it's the Russians. But, "There is no actual reason to be worried more or less about any country in the world carrying out attacks," says Neumann of the Chaos Computer Club. His comments are relevant because his group helped carry out the biggest hack on the German election system to underscore to the nation the fragility of the German cyber defense system.

"While everybody is talking about this, little is apparently done to address the apparent threat everybody is hysterical about. There were no serious security measures, and those that were there were poorly executed." 

Still, Neumann finds the flat assumptions about Russian chicanery a counterpart to the claims media bought about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. They're bogus, he says.

Thorn in the side of Fox

Bloomberg Businessweek's Felix Gillette profiles attorney Douglas Wigdor who in the past year "has represented more than 20 21st Century Fox employees in eight lawsuits involving claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, and racial discrimination."

Alas, "he’s something of an anomaly among New York plaintiff attorneys — a white, male, Republican Trump supporter, a species about as common in his habitat as feral elephants in Central Park. Even so, Wigdor’s practice is thriving. In part, this is because of his Allredian knack for generating frenzied press coverage on behalf of his clients and striking aggressively at the jowl-sheltered jugular of white corporate America."

A meeting of heavyweights (ah, probably not)

Let's see how much attention this gets: Vice President Mike Pence meets today with Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who would be on any fair-minded list of 10 Worst Governors. Andrew Rudalevige, a top political scientist at Maine's Bowdoin College, tells me, "Pence’s head may explode, unable to take in all the high-powered intellectual policy nuance suggested by the genius that is Gov. LePage." This is a man who seemingly prides himself on misleading the press

BuzzFeed's TV show (the more things change, the more …)

"Megyn Kelly isn't the only one moving to mornings next week. BuzzFeed debuts its Twitter morning show on Monday — and it will all look a whole lot like TV, including the ads." (Ad Age)

"BuzzFeed didn't necessarily set out to replicate TV, says Ari Shahdadi, head of business development at BuzzFeed News. But as they began taking the 10 a.m. weekday show, 'AM to DM,' out to advertisers, they realized it wasn't all that different from the traditional morning shows that have been a staple of network TV since the 1950s."

South Korean media on Trump's UN speech

"Of the 12 major newspapers in South Korea, only four made the Trump’s UN speech a top priority: the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, Segye Ilbo and Maeil Business Daily." (NK News)

"Conservative or fairly conservative newspapers … prioritized their news on Trump’s UN speech. (They) focused on President Trump’s tough new stance in dealing with North Korea and went into great details on his speech, comparing his threat to 'destroy North Korea' with his previous statement about 'fire and fury.'"

Oprah's new gig

Oprah Winfrey debuts as a "60 Minutes" contributor Sunday to "explore the political divide that's currently stirring America." Yes, "stirring" America. Maybe this is like baseball star Reggie Jackson's 1977 line (then quite the kerfuffle) of being "the straw that stirs the drink" on the New York Yankees (as opposed to catcher Thurman Munson).

Headline of the day
"The SEC Got Hacked, Took A Year To Learn People Might’ve Traded On It, Disclosed These Facts Parenthetically In A Bizarre Statement, And Wants Companies To Do None Of These Things" (Dealbreaker)

The Morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" told us all about colleague Abby Huntsman's baby shower yesterday (her dad Jon is their favorite viewers pick to be our ambassador to Russia), then segued into what it believes is signs of Trump's success in pushing China to be tougher with North Korea. (Meanwhile, The Washington Post underscores how China and  Russia have been distinctly averse to pushing the tougher banking sanctions desired by Trump.)

The governor of Puerto Rico updated CNN's "New Day" on the disaster brought by Hurricane Maria, while it also traveled to the sovereign island of Dominica (population 70,000). Correspondent Michael Holmes said he'd seen "nothing  like this" with places damages by Irma or Maria. No power, no running water, very little food, thus huge devastation and not the assistance seen so far from the U.S. in Puerto Rico. "The tourism industry done, the agricultural industry done," Holmes said.

"Morning Joe" trashed Bernie Sanders for giving "Lindsey Graham the biggest target in the world," as co-host Joe Scarborough put it, with a single-payer health plan that might make the Republican, much-reviled Graham-Cassidy plan look half-decent in the GOP quest to dump Obamacare. The crew saw it as a case of States Rights vs. Socialism, which could conceivably make the "horrible Graham-Cassidy bill," as John Heilemann put it, look better, rather than simply making a choice of Graham-Cassidy versus existing Obamacare.

Oh, on health care: "Among health priorities facing urgent deadlines in Washington in September, the public ranks repeal of the Affordable Care Act lower than reauthorizing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and stabilizing individual health insurance marketplaces established by the ACA, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s new tracking poll finds." 

And there's this Wall Street Journal op-ed headline on the last day of summer, referring to a Hollywood summer blockbuster of old: "The Graham-Cassidy Show Is Like ‘Jaws’ — and You’re the Swimmer. Although the GOP’s new health-care bill is mean-spirited and totally partisan, it isn’t frivolous."

With a little help from my friends

"The Philadelphia Media Network, which includes The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, has received a grant for $1 million from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism." (Poynter) Lenfest is the nonprofit owner of the papers, and this is meant to increase the investigative reporting group to 11 from seven and hike consumer health reporting, among other areas of coverage.

The news from Moose Jaw

Check out the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan Times Herald and the stories inevitably involve local issues, such as an outbreak of whooping cough in schools, the installation of the first bitcoin dispenser, the minor league ice hockey team and the hot political issue of proposed curbside (rather than back alley) garbage pick-up.

What you won't find is much, if anything, related to the Syrian refugees who have been magnanimously accepted into the community (as well as ones from Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan, among others). It's a non-issue and thus not news there, as I explore here with the mayor, a resettlement official and a very happy refugee. 

Terrorists and social media

It didn't get much attention, given Trump's speech, but there were some big meetings at the UN about tech and terrorists. It's a big issue for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said "tech firms have made progress in removing terrorist content and say that the average time to remove such material went from six days to 36 hours in the first half of 2017." (Foreign Policy)

"Such a proposal poses significant concerns for Silicon Valley firms, who are loath to roll out technologies that may inadvertently block legitimate posts and restrict users’ freedom of speech online. Other content, such as sermons promoting notions of jihad, may not immediately run afoul of firms’ restrictions on promoting violence and present thorny questions about what kind of speech companies can legitimately restrict."

The great Minnie Minoso

The Undefeated (which remains silent on the Jemele Hill / Trump-is-a-racist flap) has a short piece on the anniversary of Major League Baseball being meanies and axing a 1990 Chicago White Sox request to let Minnie Minoso, the first Afro-Cuban in the majors, play briefly at age 65 and become both the oldest player ever and first to play in six decades.

At five decades, he shared the record with Nick Altrock, a former Washington Senators first-base coach, who pinch hit in 1933 at age 57. The White Sox desire was tied into the imminent closing of its longtime stadium.

The media is not alone

Ah, the search for young consumers: "Millennials and Generation Z are highly connected and prefer experiences to stuff. Can the fashion industry win them over?" (The Business of Fashion)

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.