If you follow the news, you probably heard a story a few months ago claiming that Russia was offering bounties to Taliban soldiers for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The story was broken by the New York Times, who used such definitive language as to say “The United States concluded” these bounties existed. It went on to be covered in almost every major outlet. Liberal pundits like Rachel Maddow drew at the heartstrings of her viewers with the story, emphasizing the “grieving families” of dead soldiers who Putin paid to kill and called the story “confirmed.” Even presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump out for “betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation” over his inaction in response to the report.
One of the obvious problems with presenting the story in the way Maddow does is that it completely ignores context. Of course the Taliban is killing U.S. troops; we are waging war against them there. The idea of simply pulling out all troops in Afghanistan to prevent death is, of course, never even given consideration by pundits like Maddow. Additionally, the U.S. has provided support to murderous groups plenty of times in the past — The Contras in Nicaragua, Suharto in Indonesia, etc. The hypocrisy of critiquing Russia for what is, at worst, on the same level as American foreign policy, will also never be highlighted on the news.
The main problem with this story, however, is that its claims were, and still are, completely unfounded. The source for the story was an intelligence report from the C.I.A., which should always be dubiously trusted. The claims have still yet to be corroborated by military officials. This doesn’t mean that the bounties have been proved to be false, but the gulf between the certainty of the reporting and the uncertainty of military officials is hard to overstate. Moreover, it is important to remember the vast amounts of people who saw the original story, believed it and will never see this follow-up with the truth. They will simply go on with their lives believing there is a consensus among the intelligence community over these bounties.
It would be a mistake to view this phenomenon in a vacuum. It is no secret that much of the mainstream media has been relentlessly framing Russia as an enemy to America. They emphasize Russian tampering in the 2016 election, and even allege the Trump campaign’s collusion in this interference. The Russia-bashing also harkens to the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union was the supposed ultimate enemy of freedom and justice. Despite the Soviet Union not existing anymore, the U.S. still needs to craft an enemy who can be used to shape the discourse of political events and policy.
The main purpose of putting Russia in this light is to make genuine dissent in America appear disingenuous. Susan Rice, a former advisor to Obama, claimed the wave of protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd were “right out of the Russian playbook.” Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein, both outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy, were baselesly called “Russian assets” by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is partially responsible for many of the actions they criticize. Many media outlets still seem to believe the 2016 election was decided by “Russian bots” and refuse to consider the idea that establishment moderates like Clinton are simply unelectable.
The hysteria of the media class and intelligence community surrounding Russian actions continues to permeate into the political views of liberally minded viewers. It’s not hard for people tuned into the media to lose themselves in these webs of loose connections and dead end investigations. However, it’s always important to keep in mind where information comes from and what ulterior motives it may serve.