For months, Bernie Sanders supporters and surrogates have complained about unfair treatment from the Democratic National Committee—only to have these concerns dismissed by media observers as petulance and conspiracy-mongering:
The Sanders campaign, by propagating these DNC conspiracy theories, doesn’t encourage voters to be vigilant. They’re encouraging paranoia.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) December 26, 2015
- Mediaite: Bernie Sanders Fans’ DNC ‘Collusion’ Conspiracy Theory Is Embarrassing Garbage
- LA Times: ‘Hillary Clinton Is Not Winning Because of a Conspiracy’
- Daily Kos: ‘There Was the General Conspiracy Theory That Everyone at the DNC Was Out to Get Him’
This weekend, Wikileaks revealed thousands of hacked emails from within the DNC that showed what the New York Times described as “hostility” and “derision” towards the Sanders campaign from top party officials.
While it’s impossible to know whether systemic pro-Hillary Clinton bias at the DNC was decisive in the 2016 Democratic primary race, we now know beyond any doubt that such a bias not only existed, but was endemic and widespread. DNC officials worked to plant pro-Clinton stories, floated the idea of using Sanders’ secular Judaism against him in the South, and routinely ran PR spin for Clinton, even as the DNC claimed over and over it was neutral in the primary. The evidence in the leaks was so clear that Debbie Wasserman Schultz has resigned her role as DNC chair—after her speaking role at the Democratic National Convention this week was scrapped—while DNC co-chair Donna Brazile, who is replacing Wasserman Schultz in the top role, has apologized to the Sanders camp.
Pro-Clinton pundits were quick to dismiss what was literally a conspiracy to railroad the Sanders campaign as nothing more than a yawn:
If you are shocked by the Wikileaks DNC emails, you probably have never worked in politics
Most surprising thing is how tame they are…
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) July 23, 2016
Whole thing seems a bit silly. Emails come from period where Sanders camp was attacking DNC daily. Surprising, no? https://t.co/Cz6c8GA6zq
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 23, 2016
So what was once dismissed out of hand—that the DNC was actively working against the Sanders campaign—is now obviously true, but not a big deal. This is a textbook PR spin pattern seen time and time again, what might be called the Snowden Cycle: X is a flaky conspiracy theory → X is revealed to be true → X is totally obvious and not newsworthy.
Instead, Clinton partisans decided to focus on the alleged Russian links behind the DNC hack. Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall (7/23/16) released a rather paranoid rundown the day of the leaks on how Putin was conspiring with Trump (a fairly good debunking of which can be found here), soon after dismissing the substance of the leaks as Russian propaganda white noise. Many soon followed suit: The DNC leaks as Russian spy operation was the preferred talking point of the day, omitting or glossing over what the leaks actually entailed.
The actual culpability of Russia for those leaks, it’s worth noting, is still unproven. The only three parties that have audited the hack are contractors for the US government, and the DNC’s initial story has since changed considerably. At first the DNC (and by extension their security firm CrowdStrike) said ”no financial, donor or personal information appears to have been accessed or taken,” but this later turned out not to be true at all.
Six weeks since the hack was first revealed by the Washington Post (6/14/16), no one in the US government, including the FBI and White House (who have reportedly reviewed the situation in detail), have implicated or even suggested Russian involvement in the leak–neither on the record nor anonymously. Thus far, all suggestions to this effect have taken place outside the organs of the United States government — a common and deliberate conflation that even led to this correction in the Vox recap of the situation (7/23/16):
Correction: I misread the Washington Post‘s story on last month’s DNC hack and misattributed the Russia link to the US government rather than independent security researchers.
Thus far, the Obama administration has avoided any such claims. Indeed, if one reads carefully, so have the security firms in question. Buried in the followup report by the Washington Post (6/20/16) alleging “confirmation” of Russian involvement is the admission by the three firms (the “experts” Clinton’s camp refers to) that they cannot be sure WikiLeaks’ alleged source Guccifer 2.0 is Russian, let alone an agent of “Putin”:
Analysts suspect but don’t have hard evidence that Guccifer 2.0 is, in fact, part of one of the Russian groups who hacked the DNC….
It is also possible, researchers said, that someone else besides the Russians were inside the DNC’s network and had access to the same documents.
The evidence typically cited to counter this discrepancy is from an alleged chat Guccifer 2.0 had with Vice (6/16/16) showing fingerprints of a Russian plot. But the two pieces of evidence in question–that Russian metadata was left on the files and the person in question couldn’t speak native Romanian–raise more questions than they answer. If this was such a high-level FSB plot, why couldn’t the once legendary “KGB” scrub routine metadata, or find someone who speaks native Romanian? Either Russia is an omnipotent threat wielding its influence over the US and Europe’s otherwise pristine body politic, or they’re a bunch of incompetent bumbling idiots. Meanwhile, actual evidence for Russia’s involvement, as Vox notes, remains elusive.
The DNC’s interest in painting this as a Russian plot also bears mentioning. Around the same time this was going down, Bloomberg (6/22/16) suggested the DNC itself was looking to play up the Russian espionage angle as a means of obfuscating what they knew would be “embarrassing revelations”:
A spokesman for Baker & McKenzie didn’t respond to requests for comment. DNC spokesman Luis Miranda said the party worked only with CrowdStrike and the law firm Perkins Coie.
If the Democrats can show the hidden hand of Russian intelligence agencies, they believe that voter outrage will probably outweigh any embarrassing revelations, a person familiar with the party’s thinking said.
This strategy, as explained by a DNC insider a month ago, is now playing out exactly as predicted: The “outrage” over Russia’s “hidden hand” is being used to outweigh the damning substance of the leak itself. Parlay this with the recent uptick in “Trump as Putin puppet” conspiracy takes, and what you have is a clear picture of a partisan media that would rather float pitches for a Manchurian Candidate reboot than confront the repeated attempts by an ostensibly neutral DNC to undermine one candidate in favor of another.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.