Useful Idiots

Tucker Carlson says that western journalists have not been doing their jobs.

He says that they have been acting as vehicles for propaganda, that they have consistently framed news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in ways that mysteriously align with preferred narratives.

Tucker Carlson is right.

It isn't the first time we have said those words, either. In our assessment of the ways that various core institutions failed the people during the COVID-19 pandemic, we observed that Carlson was almost alone among media personalities who acknowledged its seriousness in January and February 2020. Credit where it's due, folks.

Around Thanksgiving 2021, as tracked on our companion site, the density of opinion language about Russia that was presented as fact by major western news outlets was 25% below the mean level of all news in the dataset. That's what the 0 line means. About a month before the Russian tanks rolled west, Epsilon Theory explored the nature of the propaganda coming out of Moscow and concluded there was "no doubt" that an invasion was coming. Around that same time, the density of language we associate with the communication of various kinds of opinions in western news articles about Russia and Ukraine went from 25% below average to more than 220% above average.

After 30 days or so, that density began to fade. In case you were wondering, that's actually a long time to be able to keep up that kind of Narrative energy. The half-life of most discrete news stories (e.g. a plane crash, a mass shooting, etc.) tends to be about 10-15 days. For ongoing or continuous stories (e.g. a disputed election, a conflict, a set of congressional hearings) 30 days is not unheard of, but still high. Regardless of the nature of the event, most citizens effectively go noseblind to just about any news cycle within about 60 days. Even so, the density of Fiat News language about Russia and Ukraine has remained around twice the level of your average news story.


Now, were those opinions predominantly promoting news through a lens of pro-Ukrainian propaganda?

No. No, not really.

In 2022 coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, the New York Times was about 78% more likely than Fox News to discuss corruption in Ukraine, about 41% more likely than Breitbart and about 107% more likely than the Daily Wire. The New York Times was more than twice as likely as each of Fox News, Breitbart, the Daily Wire, Newsmax. and the Daily Caller to discuss Putin's arguments about the provocation of NATO's expansion. The Gray Lady gave triple the ink to Russian arguments about Russian-speaking populations in the Donbas region when compared to all of this crew with the exception of Breitbart. Only 90% more in that case. How about discussions of the Azov Brigade / Azov Regiment, the focal point of narratives about the need to "denazify" Ukraine? Mark the New York Times down for 4x the coverage of Fox News and 46% more than the next closest outlet.

How about the other side's propaganda, though? How about, say, the Ghost of Kyiv, the mythologized MiG-29 ace turned martyr? Only the Daily Caller really covered it at any length. The rest - including the New York Times - had a handful of articles. For example, you might read the New York Times article "Ukraine acknowledges that the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ is a myth" or their exploration of Ukraine war propaganda "Fact and Mythmaking Blend in Ukraine’s Information War."

That last references one of the other early propaganda efforts from Ukraine: Snake Island. You might remember this as the "Go F yourself" story, and a lot of it is true. Even for the parts that were true, it was a minor engagement mostly powerful for its narrative effect. Propaganda doesn't mean false. But this one didn't get a lot of play, either. Still, in transparency we can point out that at least Newsmax and Breitbart did publish slightly fewer references to Snake Island than the New York Times.

The other major vector for propaganda in any conflict lies in the assertions of the targeting of civilians and war crimes. Here, the New York Times published about half as often on the targeting of civilians as Fox and the Daily Wire, and roughly the same as the other outlets. Pretty much the same thing on news articles framing events as "war crimes", with only Breitbart outside a very similar range of coverage frequency.

And look, it's not as if there's not a wealth of narratives that fall into other categories that we're not capturing here. There were, for example, a great many real and true human interest stories connected to the war that in context run some risk of acting as propaganda. There are a lot of amazing stories of young people who made it to Carnegie Hall against all odds - so many that it's literally a trope - but not all of them make it into the New York Times. You will find dozens of these.

Likewise, it's not as if these things need to be in some objective sense of balance. Putin has a strong case for being the World's Biggest Asshole. Russian arguments that NATO expansion, the removal of buffer states and the plight of Russian speakers in Donbas warranted single-handedly launching the largest conventional military conflict since at least the Iran-Iraq War, maybe Vietnam, are preposterous. The idea that the invasion was in any way about "denazification" is one of the most valuable litmus tests for identifying a deeply unserious person.

If you're covering an unprovoked war started by a dude who wrote a high school term paper at age 68 on how Ukrainians aren't a thing right before testing hypersonic missiles on apartment buildings in Kharkiv, you're going to have a lot of facts worthy of reporting. It isn't "bias" to report those facts more than, say, corrupt Ukrainian officials pocketing international aid.

The crux of our observation, however, is this: most major news outlets seemed to discuss the popular narratives promoted by both Russia and Ukraine, and the most prominent liberal outlet was probably the most aggressive in overemphasizing Russian arguments and even at times applying a critical lens to Ukrainian propaganda. By and large, to the extent that there is a spike in opinion language and in aggressively promoted narratives, in sins of both commission and omission in news coverage about the invasion of Ukraine, it doesn't seem to be inordinately present in the actual coverage of the war, Putin or Zelenskyy. So if it isn't there, where is it? Where is the opinion language creeping in to cause a spike to more than double that of the average news story?

In the coverage of U.S. policy response to the Invasion of Ukraine.

This language seeps into news through the promotion of calls for an audit of Ukraine spending, through the question-begging around whether more aid is self-evidently in the national interest, through the journalist speculating about the long-term consequences for "Pax Americana" if the United States doesn't act. It seeps in through doom-casting about the consequences on inflation from continued spending, through forced framings of Ukraine aid (or purposeful AVOIDING of the topic) around the activities of Hunter Biden or Donald Trump, and through forced framings of Ukraine aid against neglected issues on the homefront, like Maui or the southern border.

In other words, yes, by and large, western media outlets aren't doing their jobs. They're engaging in propaganda.

Is it Ukraine-driven war propaganda in precisely the way Tucker describes?


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  1. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Alas, sometimes a distinction without a difference, I’m afraid! :rofl:

  2. Avatar for dnadig dnadig says:

    Really love the defense of clear eyes hear Rusty.

    Legit question I don’t know the answer to: is propaganda always bad? Was it wrong for the U.S. to mount propaganda in the US to drum up support for WW2? Is the “means” here always “unjustified?”

    I have no idea what the answer is…

    Is there some rubicon that Putin could cross where you would say “nobody should give this bad guy a platform of any kind?”

    Again, I don’t think I have the answer, so not being a twerp. But the edge cases make all the difference.

  3. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Probably the most thorough writing I’ve done on this topic was in Deadly. Holy. Rough. Immediate. In short, no, narrative (and its political variant we call propaganda) is not always an evil. In my view, the only immutable error is to believe one’s self to be immune to it.

    I think that can be true for some figures, for example those who have demonstrated consistent sociopathic manipulation of interviews and aren’t in a position of political power. Even then, I don’t think it should be a legislated thing but a social taboo we all enforce together.

    But for a Top 20 most powerful political figure in the world, I’m not sure it will ever NOT be in the public interest to allow it (legally and socially), although I think you’re right in identifying that there’s probably a line where the obviously manipulative use the figure intends makes the public interest of “information” less clear.

    So I think I have some of the answer, but not The Answer. Team Twerp!

  4. Avatar for dnadig dnadig says:

    I think I agree with this. Definitely nuanced.

  5. Having just watched the interview, imho this did not end up being a Tucker slobbers Vlad exercise. Putin’s opening 30 minute discourse on (severely distorted and often blatantly wrong) history made him look like a nut. And I would bet that Tucker did gently push back on Vlad more than most people expected him too, including pointing out that this long historical discourse was nonsensical (Tucker asked Vlad “should borders revert to the 1800’s?”), and repeatedly questioning - “if this is all true, why did you wait until 2 years ago to act? What precipitated that?” Which Vlad provided no clear answer to.

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I don’t think the idea of Tucker being a useful idiot is confined to him being openly obsequious. Under the guise of “Real Journalism”, he basically gave Putin an essentially uninterrupted half hour to promote 85 year old Nazi propaganda and weird pseudohistorical musings on Ukraine, basically all of the things he wrote about in his 2021 essay. Honestly, it’s more or less exactly what I expected.

  7. Avatar for robh robh says:

    The Russian bots/troll farms are on overdrive on X today.

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    And the useful idiots.

    What’s fascinating to me is that Senator Vance provides one of the most succinct definitions of state propaganda I’ve ever seen, but does so as part of an excuse or defense. I agree with him, of course, that many of the crying-treason criticisms of Tucker are both silly and dangerous. I also agree that knowing, spotting and identifying propaganda is important - it’s kinda why we started writing here. We feel strongly about this.

    But good Lord, Carlson is on the record repeating those “bogus” stories, most notably on his shows broadcast on the eve of the invasion (Feb 22/23, 2022). I don’t care that the interview happened. But giving credit to someone who has promoted the state propaganda before for publishing a practically uninterrupted and unchallenged primary version of it for shining a light is absolutely wild.

    There is no difference between this and the Current Thing journalism that Vance, Tucker, I and others rightfully complain about. Except that for some of us, we’ve decided to treat this one a bit differently because we think it will help our political preference against additional Ukraine aid.

  9. The point is that if you want to understand world affairs and make smart decisions, you have to understand how people see themselves.
    -J.D. Vance

    The real point, imo, is how do you ‘trump’ (‘biden’) people to give away their birthright autonomy of mind and spirit?

    The answer my friend is blowing in the wind (epsilon)
    -Bobby Dylan


    Any expensive ad represents the toil, attention, testing, wit, art, and skill of many people. Far more thought and care go into the composition of any prominent ad in a newspaper or magazine than go into the writing of their features and editorials.
    -Marshall McLuhan

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