Russ Baker Talks Media Manipulation, Russiagate, and More

firehose
Russ Baker helps you manage today’s firehose of news. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Joshua Kruger / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

WhoWhatWhy founder and editor-in-chief Russ Baker recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Tom Haugh and Kathy Dervin from “Stocks and Jocks” on 670AM radio in Chicago.

Baker talks about why the mainstream media is so unwilling to dig deeper, and how the American public has been subtly conditioned not to question orthodoxies or to seek deeper truths about society’s ills. He breaks down how the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful influence the news cycle and can direct our attention to certain matters and away from others.

The conversation also covers the Russiagate scandal, and WhoWhatWhy’s in-depth reporting on how money and various players from the former Soviet Union came to exert influence over Trump and his company. Baker also talks about where the scandal may go next.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Kathy:

We’ve got back by popular demand Russ Baker, the Editor in Chief of the website WhoWhatWhy.org.

The hurricanes knocked it off the front pages but Russ is here to put Russia Gate back on the front page. Welcome back to the show, Russ.

Russ Baker:

Thank you, always glad to do it.

Kathy:

You reprised the story on your website on the anniversary of the University of Texas Massacre in 1966, in the wake of that Las Vegas story?

Tom:

I read that. What’s it? The two days, the 50th year anniversary is the year that people can carry concealed weapons on campus? Isn’t that special? That’s unbelievable.

Kathy:

It was August 1st 2016. Welcome to Texas.

Tom:

Welcome to Texas.

Kathy:

We haven’t talked about Russia Gate in a while Russ and we were hoping you could tell us things like: Who is Michael Cohen? Who is Felix Sater? Why do we care about them?

Russ Baker:

If I may, I’d just like to tie together a bunch of themes here. As you’ve mentioned, I am the Founder and Editor in Chief of the news website called WhoWhatWhy.org. We’re a non-profit organization and we don’t accept any advertising and the reason we’re structured that way is because we want to do a kind of journalism that I personally felt I couldn’t always do when I was working at some of the larger establishment entities.

I hope you don’t mind if I just frame this, I think it would be interesting for listeners as we get into the particular issues we’ll talk about. Everybody talks about fake news and of course, there really is a problem with fake news and growing evidence that the Russians have sort of mastered the ability to manipulate large sectors of our population into believing things that simply are not true. That is a very real issue that at WhoWhatWhy, we’re greatly concerned about. But we’re also concerned about another kind of fake news and that’s the fake news that comes out of the establishment. It’s a different kind of fake news, it’s much more subtle.

For example, you’ll see about a week ago we did a piece by James Galbraith – the son of John F. Kennedy’s advisor, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith – and he writes about how the Vietnam war, that Kennedy actually was trying to get out of Vietnam when he was killed, and this story has been suppressed by the traditional media. Now PBS has a very interesting documentary series about the history of Vietnam. It’s all well and good but it leaves out this absolutely critical point.

There are a lot of things going on where we’re not really understanding the full context of what is happening and I think that applies to some of the things that you just mentioned. I think it applies to Russia Gate and I’m happy to talk about that, I think It applies to things that are going on under the Trump administration, I think it applies to U.S. foreign policy, I think it applies to almost everything and I know that your show focuses a lot on helping people manage their money and make good, sound investment. And of course, to really be a smart investor you have to be well informed and you have to understand what’s really going on.

I think we’re in a crisis right now because we’re not sure what’s real and we’re not sure what actually is going on. I think that’s the subtext behind all of these stories so if we talk about the shootings in Las Vegas, and that’s such an astonishing story. Are we ever going to find out what really made this man go off the rails like that? I’m going to say no because at WhoWhatWhy we talk about the fact that in case, after case, after case, we don’t seem to ever get the real story. We get some kind of a superficial treatment and you mentioned the shooting long ago in Texas. A man climbed a tower at the University of Texas In Austin, with a rifle and he began just picking off random people.

That story is just almost completely forgotten and now Texas allows a concealed carry. Practically any nut can carry a gun and not just carry a gun, they can carry them on some of the college campuses there. You’ve just got to think about the insanity of where we’re headed. All of these stories, moving over to Russia gate-

Tom:

Russ, may I interrupt you for a second? By the way, I love the theme here. My question is, was it six months ago … You’ll know this, I don’t. Britain came out with a huge review. No, it was late. It was supposed to have been done a couple of years ago or whatever, of their involvement in Iraq and It was a scathing indictment of their people and ours. Brits have maybe been around longer, I’m not saying they’re perfect. They’re not.

Some of these countries seem a little more, shall we say, introspective, retrospective at things like this. Forgetting all the bad stuff, forgetting all the stupid stuff we did in Vietnam, maybe figuring out who the hell killed Kennedy, who knows about that one. Why do we just keep moving forward with these wounds open? It seems like it’s our culture to just keep walking forward, cover it up and keep going. Why is that? Are we going to grow out of it some day or, what’s the deal?

Russ Baker:

Tom, that is such a good question. The best way that I’ve been able to answer it for myself and I’m still thinking about this of course and thinking about it all the time, is that there’s something in the way that our culture has been constructed, and I don’t think it’s any of us as individuals, but it has been constructed either willfully or accidentally to the point where we’re not supposed to ask too many questions.

We also have kind of a thing where none of us are supposed to really make waves. We’re not really supposed to question orthodoxies or deeper truths and what it really comes down to is we get told “Shush”. That’s too upsetting. People can’t handle that and that I think is the really dangerous thing. The United States has imposed on much of the world the demand that they remember. Look at Germany, Germany has done such a good job of teaching its people what happened in World War II, how the Nazis came to power and instituted all kinds of measures to make sure that could never happen again. It is a completely different country as a result of that and you see that again and again in what you’re talking about, this kind of reflection.

In Latin America they had all of those Truth Commissions, Argentina, Chile and everything, to see what had happened that their countries had gone so bad down the drain of authoritarianism and totalitarianism but in the United States, as you say, we never seem to take stock. I did a book, you’ve had me on to talk about it, called Family of Secrets where I did, you might call it a post mortem on the Bush dynasty and I look back at this family that had been, either President or Vice President for 12 out of 20 years to try and figure out what that family was about. Of course, the Iraq war came out of that and so many other things. What I found is that, oh my gosh, there’s a whole other history that we had never been told so it’s partly that we don’t want to talk about these things but it’s also partly that we don’t even know about what really happened.

Tom:

As they used to say, not to be trite, is there so much information it’s like taking a drink out of a fire hydrant? Is it part of it?

Russ Baker:

It’s part of that but it’s also because we don’t have enough figures out there who are willing and able to narrate and provide the bigger picture. Let’s say you talk about, you mention Kennedy, you talk about all these thing, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, on and on and on. There have been so many of these shootings of leaders in the United States and of course the way it’s handled is that every single time it’s a one off, it’s some nut, there’s no more to it, nothing to see here folks. I mean, just logically, if you study world history, in almost every case where leaders of countries were removed there was the hand of other powerful interests. That just makes sense.

If we look at the statistics, in the United States we’re told that every single attempt and successful effort to remove a leader was always a nut, which doesn’t make any sense because there’s so many powerful forces arrayed. Our country has a long history of going into other countries to remove, often violently, elected leaders. Logically, there should be an analysis being provided to say “Hey, we may not be getting the whole story here.” That I think would answer your concern about the fire hose of information, to step back and provide that kind of analysis on the big picture.

Tom:

Well, the question I…. I absolutely have to ask you. I don’t know if this is one, the listeners will allow me to, but I think somehow rightly or wrongly, and part of this came from you telling us about the Bush thing and everything … Somehow or other, people have come … I won’t say they’re comfortable, but they’ve come to grips with the fact that “We’re not getting the whole story in a lot of places, and there’s an awful lot of powerful people in this country and by the way we’re not one of them.”

Somehow or another I think people, they don’t like it but they deal with it. Probably people in the rest of the world do as well.

My antenna went up about this pipeline … I don’t know how many people put two and two together like I sometimes do to my regret … We were going to use our American pipe, well, it turns out we’re not going to use American pipes. It’s actually been bought from Canada and oh, by the way the guy from Canada who bought part of that company is this oligarch/KGB rich dude, gang man guy from Russia who gave Putin his first nickel to run for in 1991. Do you think we’re really ready? I’m not saying this is where this is going, but you know more about this than me. Are we really ready to know that part of the people that we know that have been propping up our politicians for decades now are from another country, both Hillary and Trump probably. You think we’re ready for that? I don’t know. I’m not.

Russ Baker:

I think the back story for that is that money talks and that it’s not … There’s always this focus on bogeymen, it’s this person, it’s this group, it’s this interest or whatever. It doesn’t really work that way. The problem is that we don’t take stock of the system and whether the system is truly democratic, if it really is transparent, it really represents our interests. I think that what we saw with the Russia thing and what we see with the Trumps is rich people do business with rich people and the rest of us get screwed. The people who are getting screwed are the American people and the Russian people.

There’s a lot of attempt to try and fix blame to, as they say, demographically and so on. I don’t think it’s about that. I think the problem is systemic and it’s harder for us to get our hands around that systemic … We have a piece up on WhoWhatWhy about the history of these cartels, the German Nazi cartels and about the cooperation between American business and basically these Nazi concerns. Standard Oil, IBM, with IG Farben that supplied these Zyklon B gas for the concentration camps. There was a double dealing, there was all kinds of connections between these firms before the lead up to it.

Even during World War II, essentially they were traitorists to our own country and they were doing it because there was money to be made, there was pressure to deliver profits to the shareholders, I think that’s the kind of uncomfortable truth and in a way I’ve got say I think we’re all a little bit complicit because, yeah, we want our portfolios to do well and how willing are we to take responsibility for the fact that our investments may be perpetuating war or poverty or terror in the world.

These are the kind of big discussions we have to have, what are our values?

Tom:

Well, Russ, where does the line come? I have this argument, by the way if you’re ever in Chicago I’d be happy to discuss it with you. I’ve got an interesting group of people we argue with usually over an adult beverage. Somehow, people have this mentality that if you and I, if PTI does something, my firm, if we do something or if any kind of benefit we get out of somebody, which we’d never have gotten, somehow we don’t deserve it or something, something … I should always be so beneficial to my client, which I’m going to do anyway but at some level all the board members at Bank of America need to worry about is the bottom line.

Somehow, people have gotten this idea that the further up the chain you go, they don’t need morality. Their entire morality is the bottom line but at my level and your level, you can’t have this guy telling lies at Stocks and Jocks. Where’s the line here where the morality changes? Somehow we’ve managed to condition people that that’s okay. Somebody can be a screw up on a Wells Fargo Board and she can be Secretary of Transportation next day, there’s no … If that happened to you or me, that would never happen.

Russ Baker:

First of all, there is the truth that we expect companies to perform well financially and there is a tremendous amount of pressure, to be fair about it. If somebody is at a high level in Goldman Sachs, it’s their job to do well for Goldman Sachs and those who benefit from it. If they can get a favor because they know somebody in the administration or cycle their people through this revolving door, why wouldn’t they do it? You can hardly blame them because that is business.

I would say two things, 1. I think that leaders of all organizations have to be pressured to consider the greater good to some extent. I don’t think… there is the fiduciary duty and as you probably know, a lot of these people actually would get in trouble if they were too civic minded because it could be argued that they weren’t doing their primary job, which was to make money for shareholders.

It’s a problem the way that its baked in but this is where … We get into this whole discussion, ” Is there too much government?” And so on. This is where government comes in. Government comes in and says, “I understand why you have a monopoly, I understand why you have a cartel because it’s good for you, I understand that but it’s not good for the rest of us and we simply cannot allow it.” That kind of tension, I believe, is very, very healthy.

It’s interesting to look at the Trump administration because Trump came in railing against these established orders and talking about the swamp and the corruption in Washington, but if you look at what he’s actually doing, he has more than any president turned the government over to very, very wealthy people who are deregulating everything and allowing all of themselves and their buddies to just go tromping right through the field.

Tom:

The person before him, maybe had somewhat of the right idea but absolutely no idea of the details to the point where … Their attitude was that businesses … Again, I’m in the middle on this because I think you need … I’m from the trading floor so I think you need to design things to where things are competitive. If it’s competitive, you don’t need very many rules because people watch themselves. Once it starts not being competitive you’ve got a problem, in my opinion.

You can’t give loans to people if every time somebody gets a loan somebody from the government is looking over your shoulder. You never build a bridge if every time somebody is welding a joint, somebody is standing next to them watching them. There’s a level where the Obama administration felt like that the only reason why a plane doesn’t fall out of the sky is because they’re watching United mechanics. No, planes aren’t going to fall from the sky because A. It’s bad for business and B. Most people have some conscience, I think. They went way too far but in a very poor way. They did regulation but it was all after the barn was done. All they did was harass people.

Russ Baker:

That’s an interesting point because I think we’ve all had experiences with bureaucrats and regulations and frustration. It’s a very difficult act and what you’re describing of course is this kind of swing and I’ll tell you what will happen, Trump will do whatever Trump does and then there will be reaction publicly, particularly with these elections being so close, you can always have half the population more or less on one side, half on the other but there’s just enough people that need to switch their votes and then the other side comes in and then you get a reaction.

All of these things are going to happen and either going to say “Oh my God, he can’t handle disasters properly, they don’t have good decision making going on, you’re going to have more Madoff situations, you’re going to have more bubbles and collapses and things.” And nobody wants that either. I agree with you. Being a president, and more, being the people behind the president, people who try to shape these things is really a tremendous responsibility to try and get it right because really the role of a successful government is, as you say, to foster competition, real competition, it’s kind of like being a ref in wrestling. When somebody is doing something that really is not okay, they jump in and they separate them and they try to get things going the right way again.

Tom:

I’ve seen some stuff on my end and again, I’d love to talk to you for a longer … My significant other is in the real estate business. Somebody somewhere in the last five years has decided when you go get a mortgage, if you don’t have a job-job, that you can’t get a mortgage. You could be a plumber making $100,000 for the last 40 years, “That’s not good enough, because you don’t have a W2.” Yet people with W2s get … If somebody somewhere, some bureaucrat, nameless, faceless, has made that call, why?

I have some clients here that have had liquidated accounts, guys who get more money than God, because they’re consultants.” That’s not good enough, you can’t use your income, you’ve got to pay cash for this place.” Who makes these calls, Russ? Some of these decisions come out of these bureaucrats like there’s no tomorrow.

Russ Baker:

You know Tom, as a journalist, what I do is I look into exactly the kind of thing you said. You’ll say to us, “Hey, who makes these calls?” And we’ll say “Let us find out.” So we go and we start asking around and I can tell you, in case after case, I’m surprised at the answers.

For example, the banks they may say “We’re doing this because the government makes us do it.” We go and we look at the government and try to find out what happened and people inside the government they say “Listen, you know why we do this? Because we were pressured by the industry to require this.”

Tom:

I wouldn’t even be surprised. I didn’t say I knew the answer, I said somebody …

Russ Baker:

This is why journalism is so critical. This is why you need that kind of vigilance. I started WhoWhatWhy with nothing, you talk about a startup, doing things the honest way. I basically used credit cards and stuff, went into debt to get the thing going. It’s been a struggle, we are growing. We’re trying to do what we can, we don’t have the resources of these big news organizations but our whole attitude is to be agnostic to say, “We don’t know. Hey, that’s a great question he asked, can we put somebody on that project and try to find out?”

The public needs people who really represent them and I think in an ideal world that’s what journalism is supposed to do. Were supposed to represent the public interest, we’re supposed to be the people’s detectives, we’re supposed to go out for the people, for Cathleen, for Tom, who have questions about things, who want to know and we’re supposed to find out.

Tom:

What do you think this big question, even though I’ve taken you off the road as I usually do, where’s this Russian thing going to land?

Russ Baker:

When we started looking at the Russia thing in 2016 I think we were wary of it, we were skeptical, and I believe that’s a good position for journalism. There were these narratives that start catching on, there were memes, there were fads, whatever they are and you start getting a pack mentality and we see this all the time with the media. Some narrative forms, you read the Washington Post, you read the New York Times, you watch CNN and they all more or less are presenting it the same way. “Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, we have to go in.” Well, no we didn’t. Pretty big screw-up there with a lot of consequences and a lot of people died. So whatever it is, you have to be careful.

Having said that, we were very, very cautious at WhoWhatWhy.org. But by sometime in the Spring we were like, “Wow, what are we looking at here.” And Cathleen earlier asked about these figures, Felix Sater, Michael Cohen, these are guys who we started looking at very early and I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We started looking at these people who were surrounding Donald Trump. This isn’t just about the campaign, this is about these guys who were involved with him years ago and this is about how the Trump organization came to rely on people and moneys associated in some way with the countries of the former Soviet Union.

I would say with the larger ecosystem of a small number of people who managed with the end of communism to grab a lot, had connections, they became what they call the oligarchs, and this I think is what we’re looking at. I believe it’s real, I believe it’s a grave concern. I think what Mueller is doing is very important. I’m concerned that he’s not going to be able to go all the way with his investigation because, what we talked about earlier, these shocks are too big for the system.

Imagine that they discover that the president of the United States was in the pockets of oligarchs or of another country, I’m not saying he is, but let’s say they discover that, what are they going to do? That is a trauma. Imagine how the markets would respond. These are things that they really have to think very, very carefully about.

Tom:

Russ, I’m going to go south side mentality here and you might think I’m nuts. If you go put up a hotel in Moscow and all these guys want their piece and you regrettably have to pay them off, like being in Chicago, not much different really. I wish it wasn’t like that but I don’t have a problem with it necessarily, but if it turns around that all of a sudden I don’t have money for my place and I borrow money from the oligarchs, now I’ve got a problem. Is that me being too south sided? I don’t care if they come up and say Donald Trump has paid $20 million in bribes over the years overseas-

Kathy:

I don’t think that’s what they’re finding.

Tom:

That’s what I’m saying, I don’t think that’s what they’re finding, but if they find out that he owes all these guys in all these places, then I got an issue with it. Or am I wrong on that?

Russ Baker:

Well, it sure looks like he’s got a problem in that regard. Then that pattern of behavior where he was consistently so complimentary of Putin and so unable to even acknowledge the most basic problems. Remember some of those public statements? He was trying to present Russia as a very happy situation. No, there really is a very strong authoritarian problem there. Journalists are shot down. Putin’s personal enemies, bad things happen to them. This is a really problematic situation there and for the president of the United States not to be able to acknowledge any of that. You have to ask, it either means he’s incredibly ignorant, which is I think probably part of it, but it’s also just that he’s got some situation there where he can’t talk about this stuff.

To your point, the evidence is out there, the statements from Donald Junior and Ivanka themselves talking about how important the former Soviet Union was to the Trump Organization. There it is.

Tom:

Russ, how about giving yourself a shameless plug and then we’re going to talk about the labor numbers in a bit.

Russ Baker:

Sure. WhoWhatWhy.org. We’d love to have people come and sign up for a newsletter. If you support our work, you can donate, it’s tax deductible. You can follow us on Twitter WhoWhatWhy and also on Facebook.

Tom:

Whenever you’re coming to Chicago you’re going to come see us?

Russ Baker:

I’d love to do that.

Kathy:

That sounds great.

Tom:

That sounds great buddy. Thank you very much. As usual.

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