Banter M Issue 75: Matt Taibbi Drops the Ball on Russiagate Investigation

In this issue of Banter M: 

Why is Matt Taibbi Attempting to Undermine the Russiagate Investigation? – Rolling Stone’s legendary journalist Matt Taibbi has straddled a bizarre fence on the Russiagate investigation, taking a deeply cautious, wishy-washy position. It’s unclear as to why, says Bob Cesca, but it is deeply troubling. 

How Pepsi Misread America – Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad was so unfathomably offensive and tone deaf that it should be considered a work of art, argues Ben Cohen. Why exactly did they miss the mark so badly? 

America’s Dangerously Divergent Ideologies – Somewhere along the road, the conservative movement stopped caring about anything but inflicting pain on others, argues Justin Rosario. 


by Bob Cesca

I’m old enough to remember 2013 when the song of the Summer was Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and the news story of the Summer was the endless buffet of NSA PowerPoint documents leaked to reporters by Edward Snowden. 

At the time, the crowd of journalists orbiting Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the primary duo of reporters linked to Snowden, spent most of that year shaking their fists at the U.S. intelligence community, along with Eric Holder and Barack Obama for their part in pursuing Snowden for extradition back to the states. The story unfolded in much the same way as today’s Russiagate reporting, with details being uncovered day by day, article by article. One of the big differences between then and now, however, was that the Snowden reporting was confined to whomever was deemed worthy by Greenwald and Poitras — only a select few journalists were privy to the documents, but it’s also safe to assume that Russian intelligence had a copy of everything, too, at least in encrypted form. 

Despite the limited number of reporters with Snowden documents in hand, the story launched a million think-pieces, speculative blog posts and more than a few others with new information to lend context to the leaks. 

Russiagate, on the other hand, is completely open-source, and the reporting surrounding the Russia/Trump story isn’t nearly as limited. The Washington PostThe New York TimesNBC NewsBuzzfeedMcClatchyBloomberg, the BBCProPublica and many others are doing extensive and unique reporting on the criminal links between the Trump team and Russian intelligence, not to mention Russian oligarchs and Putin himself. The point being: most publications, while keeping their eyes on the competition, are operating independently of a central source like Snowden. The de-centralized nature of the reporting means it’s less likely to be a product of a single ideology, not like the Snowden reporting, which was limited to reporters who were mostly advocating for Snowden himself — Greenwald especially, who served as Snowden’s de-facto media flack and chief spokesperson in the western press.

The point about the independent nature of the journalism occurring around the Russia story appears to have been lost on Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi. A former resident of Russia himself, Taibbi is known for his sharp and fearless commentary on politics and American culture. He’s the closest reporter we have to the late Hunter S. Thompson, though Taibbi is no HST. Comparisons aside, Taibbi is famous chiefly because he doesn’t pull any punches.

Except on the Russia story, that is.

For some reason.

From the beginning, Taibbi has straddled a bizarre fence on this one, taking a deeply cautious, wishy-washy position. It’s unclear as to why, exactly, though there’s plenty of room for speculation. It could be because he operates, at least partly, in the Greenwald orbit, with plenty of reader overlap. I have no idea what his motivation might be. It’s quite unlike Taibbi to be so noncommittal on any story, much less a story in which Donald Trump, the subject of Taibbi’s latest book, is implicated in a scandal that makes Watergate look like jaywalking. It’s a scandal that, even if it’s only halfway accurate, completely undermines whatever integrity remains in our electoral process, with Vladimir Putin very likely manipulating voters to do his bidding.

And yet Taibbi’s latest, “Putin Derangement Syndrome Arrives,” continues to foment doubt on the story. Worse, he attempts to cast as loony conspiracy theorists anyone with concerns about Putin’s well-documented human rights atrocities, not to mention Putin’s unprecedented hacking of our campaign politics (or am I just being deranged?). In fact, we’re not just tagged as conspiracy theorists; Taibbi went so far as to compare us to self-proclaimed mad prophets like Glenn Beck during the former Fox News host’s bug-eyed chalkboard phase back in 2009-10.

At some point months ago there was a possibility that Russiagate could’ve been debunked, or it could’ve faded away without any new or startling details. If this had been the case, I might be inclined to agree with nearsighted deniers like Taibbi. But the exact opposite has happened. Not only have new publications joined the investigation, further nailing down the veracity of the claims through journalistic peer review, but new and increasingly explosive details have emerged — each story one-upping the previous story. 

Hell, this week alone we learned that Russian spies recruited a high profile Trump adviser as a point of contact here. Known in government intercepts as “Male-1,” this Trump adviser is on record as having unwittingly teamed up with Victor Podobnyy and Igor Sporyshev, according to Buzzfeed‘s Ali Watkins, in order to provide assistance on sanctions and energy development. “Male-1,” it turns out, is former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who’s already admitted to meeting with Sergey Kislyak during the Republican National Convention where the Trump team successfully lobbied the party to soften the platform plank on — you guessed it — Russian sanctions.

More deranged speculation similar to Glenn Beck’s kooky chalkboard? Perhaps — if Page hadn’t literally confirmed to Watkins that he is, in fact, the “Male-1” character noted in the government transcripts. Which he did. For the article. In other words, yes, Page confessed to being “Male-1” and was therefore in cahoots with Russian spies.

Meanwhile, we know for a fact — again, literally — that Paul Manafort and Rex Tillerson have extensive financial ties to Russian oligarchs and Putin himself. We know that Betsy DeVos is the sister of Blackwater chief Erik Prince, who tried to set up a backchannel on Syria with the Russians on behalf of the Trump team. We absolutely know that Mike Flynn has extensive links to Putin and Putin’s puppet in Turkey, President Erdogan. We know that Trump’s Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was formerly the vice chairman of, and a major shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus, a reputed money-laundering front for vast amounts of Russian cash, including money that hopped from the Russian “Fertilizer King” to the Bank of Cyprus and then to Donald Trump’s bank account in exchange for an overpriced, nouveau-riche property in Palm Beach that was never lived-in and has since been demolished — before winning Trump a colossal $60 million profit in the biggest single home real estate deal in American history.

Indeed, even if we strip away the layers and layers of election season collusion; even if we strip away the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta by Guccifer 2.0; even if we ignore the relationship between Putin and Wikileaks; even if we ignore the fact that Trump adviser Roger Stone was aware of the Podesta emails a month before they dropped; even if we disregard the fact that Trump has yet to say a single critical thing about the Putin regime; even if we ignore Trump’s syllabus of lies about the very existence of the story in the first place; even if we suggest that Carter Page was lying when he confirmed that he’s “Male-1” — it still leaves dozens of stories about financial linkage between Trump, Trump’s closest advisers and billions in cash exchanging hands with Russian oligarchs. These financial stories alone, including the one about the so-called “Fertilizer King,” are potentially impeachable given the fact that Trump has refused to divest and refused to release his tax returns. His continued association with the Trump Organization and the volumes of information we know about Trump’s ties to Russian money could lead to prosecutable violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bans any public official from taking foreign money.

Matt Taibbi seems to think this is crazy talk, though. He’s not alone, of course. 

Glenn Greenwald occupies a very similar space — in his own insufferably persnickety way. But I get Greenwald’s objection. If Greenwald joined the chorus on Russiagate, it’d put Greenwald’s chief benefactor, Snowden, in jeopardy. Perhaps if the pro-Snowden crowd began to routinely grill Putin for his human rights violations and his bloody crusade against journalists, dissenters and political opponents, Putin might agree to finally extradite Snowden back to the U.S. to face the criminal justice system here. It’d be quite a trophy for Trump, that’s for sure. (One of Putin’s challengers in the upcoming presidential election, Alexei Navalny, was attacked with indelible green dye, turning his face, hands and teeth green for the foreseeable future. Seven days later, he was incarcerated for participating in anti-Putin protests. But I guess this is merely Putin derangement syndrome — right, Matt?)

So, yes, I understand why Greenwald is taking a skeptical posture to protect his guy Snowden in Moscow. But Taibbi? Who the fuck knows. It’s a completely disillusioning and upsetting turn to know that one of our best opinion journalists appears to be siding with a legion of Putin apologists who helped get Trump elected, and the same Putin apologists who can’t stop downplaying the Russian despot’s horrendous record. 

Eric Boehlert from Media Matters, who, by the way, was named as one of several derangement sufferers in Taibbi’s hit piece, noted on Twitter: “I’m sure glad Rolling Stone didn’t publish articles in 1973 complaining that reporters were filing too many Watergate stories.”

Me, too, Eric.

Next: How Pepsi Misread America – by Ben Cohen

How Pepsi Misread America

by Ben Cohen

The recently released (and consequently pulled) two and a half minute Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was so unfathomably offensive and tone deaf that it should be considered a work of art. In a breathlessly unaware montage of ethnic and religious stereotypes set to Skip Marley’s “Lions”, the corporate beverage giant attempted to equate drinking additive laden sugar water with the protest movements sweeping America and the rest of the world. It was without a doubt the worst example of corporate America attempting to co-opt a political movement for marketing purposes, and a reminder of just how depraved corporate capitalism can be. In one fell swoop, Pepsi has lost millions on the ad itself, wrecked both Skip Marley and Kendall Jenner’s reputations, and alienated an entire generation from the drink it was trying to sell them — an amazing feat only modern advertising creatives who have long forgotten the meaning of art could possibly have concocted.  

In the ad we see Kendall Jenner ditching a modeling shoot to join up with youth protestors to, you know, do some glamorous protesting, and save the world with cans of Pepsi. Yes, seriously. 

Kendall waltzes amongst cool black people dancing, hipsters playing cellos in the street and even a Muslim woman with an edgy nose ring wielding a can of Pepsi in order to let the authorities that be know that the youth are running the show, and, well, everyone should drink Pepsi Cola for world peace and racial harmony. The ad even co-opted the famous image of Leshia Evans, the nurse whose photo was taken while quietly and bravely confronting riot police during a protest in Baton Rouge last year. Sorry Kendall, but you are no Leshia Evans. 

It’s hard to know what on earth the creative geniuses behind the ad thought they were doing here, and the astonishing gall the corporate giant showed in releasing it is an indication of how desperate they are to boost flagging sales amongst a population rapidly giving up on sugary drinks. Pepsi used every emotional trick in the book to equate their product with the “youth”, and it fell so spectacularly flat that you wonder whether anyone in the marketing department has a job there any more. 

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement after pulling the ad. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Pepsi didn’t just miss the mark, they turned the gun on themselves and committed an act of public suicide.

Insensitivity asides, the spectacularly nauseating debacle is mostly an indictment of corporate America and the growing disconnect between the wealthy and the rest of society. Kendall Jenner — an ultra privileged white woman used by corporations to sell beauty products to teenage girls — is perhaps the perfect embodiment of America’s wealthy elite and its cluelessness as to what is actually happening in the cities and on the streets in today’s United States. Pepsi’s decision to use a symbol of wealth and power to, dare it be mentioned, appropriate the struggle minorities and the poor face in a deeply divided country speaks volumes about just how far the country has to come to heal the wounds of racial and economic violence. 

What would be more useful for a company like PepsiCo — if it really was interested in being a part of conscientious “youth culture” — would would be to focus on issues like the environment. No one is going to take Kendall Jenner fist bumping black guys and solving racial violence with a can of soda seriously, but in an age of extreme environmental awareness, the company could radically shift its business model to reflect the eco-friendly values of modern youths. It could, for example, stop spending millions of dollars producing diabetes inducing garbage and transition towards healthier drinks that aren’t packed with sugar. It could also stop using environmentally destructive palm oil for the other products it sells. Then Pepsi could spend all the money it wanted on Kendall Jenner fist bumping environmental activists and getting down with the cool kids protesting the mass destruction of the world’s eco systems. 

If Pepsi wanted to understand what was really going on with today’s youth, they’d actually talk to them rather than relying on MTV’s interpretation of it. And if they did, they’d come to realize the those taking to the streets protesting against racial violence, misogyny and environmental destruction are not interested in being coopted or sold garbage. Today’s youth are well aware that the status quo is intolerable. Most cannot afford houses to live in, have no job security and are petrified about the future of the earth. They don’t participate in the political system because they don’t believe it works for them and they are rejecting capitalism as the foundation of society. This points to a shift far more radical than the corporate executives at PepsiCo seem to grasp, and if they and the rest of corporate America don’t begin to understand this, the backlash against them is going to be uncontainable. 

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner’s ludicrous ad may have received an unfair amount of backlash, but it symbolizes a growing discontent that can no long be coopted and used to further the aims of capitalism. Finally Americans are waking up and are catching on to the tricks almost every other political movement in recent history have fallen prey to. While the hippies of the 70’s were turned into suburban elites, the youth of today no longer have that option and they are getting madder by the day. 

Next: America’s Dangerously Divergent Ideologies – by Justin Rosario

America’s Dangerously Divergent Ideologies

by Justin Rosario

Liberals celebrate diversity; it’s kind of our thing. For the most part, we strive to build as large a tent as possible even if it makes for a difficult coalition to maintain. If cats could speak, they’d make jokes about how hard it is to herd southpaws.

Conservatives, on the other hand, despise diversity with a passion bordering on lunacy. Are you the wrong color? Gender? Sexual orientation? Religion? Sect? Do you live in a big city and not in the “real” part of America? Do you like the wrong kind of car racing? Type of music? Do you read too much? Are you too educated? Too open-minded? Like mustard on your burgerEat argula? Well then, you’re not welcome at CPAC. 

Before it became this bad, we used to have a lot of common ground as a country. Most of us agreed that old people should not starve in the streets. Most of us agreed that every child should have three meals a day. Most of us agreed that roads and bridges and dams and public transportation were good. We all loved Disney films. Everyone liked Mister Rogers. Sesame Street was a place we would like to live and Big Bird was welcome in almost every home.

Now, we’re more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and possible even before. And it’s getting worse every day.

The late, great Chez Pazienza used to lament that America is too diverse; that people living in Los Angeles were like aliens from another planet to people living in West Virginia and vice versa. But I don’t think that’s quite right. We’ve always been pretty diverse; even 75 years ago, New York Italians lived completely different lives from rural blacks in Louisiana. Still, we all had similar goals even if we had differing amounts of success achieving them: A good job, a safe home, enough food and a better future for our children. Instead of diversity being the issue, I believe the problem is that we’ve become divergent. While most of the country still wants those same things, another part (about 63 million, or 19%) of the country has a very different set of goals and they are no longer compatible in any way with the rest of us.

Half a century ago, the Republican Party employed The Southern Strategy to take control of the South. By directly appealing to the deep racial resentment of white Southerners, Republicans figured, correctly, that they could pass anything as long as they could convince angry white people that it would hurt blacks and, later, other minorities.

Since then, the entire Republican platform has been one of increasingly extreme social conservatism to mask even more extreme class warfare. Abortion, religion, welfare, 9/11 and equal rights for women, minorities and the LGBT community were all used by Republicans to keep their base terrified and enraged. Angry and fearful people will beg you for safety while you steal their future and they’ll tearfully thank you for it. Half a century of this psychological abuse has inflicted massive harm on the collective psyche of the conservative movement.

These days, Republican voters exist in a moral vacuum dissociated from the rest of the country (indeed, the rest of the world). Anything and everything is permissible as long as it opposes the left. What started as a cynical manipulation of white resentment against the gains of black people has been morphed by Fox News, AM Hate Radio and the extremism of the right wing blogosphere into a visceral hatred of anything deemed liberal. It literally does not matter what it is, if a liberal supports or opposes it, this 19% will take the opposite position no matter how insane it makes them sound. 

If this strikes you hyperbolic, consider the following:

Education – The right loved public education. True, they didn’t want to share it with Those People but they were willing to fight to preserve the system. Teachers were revered and respected. Now, public education is “liberal” and teachers are “lazy” so they’re quite pleased with the idea of school vouchers being used to bleed public education dry.

It’s not at all clear that most of them understand the consequences of Betsty DeVos’ “school choice” scheme, but anything that let’s them stick it to those liberal teacher’s unions and their godless liberal curriculum is good.

Science – America used to love science. Love it! We were the undisputed masters of technology. We built the internet. We landed men on the Moon. The world envied us and we loved it.

But now science is a liberal hoax being used to steal our freedom. The planet isn’t warming, the oceans aren’t rising and we know this because it snowed in December. Seriously. That’s a valid argument to the right.

Pollution – Smog sucked. Everyone hated it. Filthy rivers and lakes were disgusting. We wanted fresh air and water. We wanted our children to play in parks that didn’t have puddles of toxic waste in them. We bitched about pollution so loudly that Richard Nixon, a Republican crook (redundant, I know), created the Environmental Protection Agency to clean it up. and they did.

Now, the EPA is “government overreach.” It’s a “job-killer” and, dammit, we need coal and smog and pollution so people can make money again. Of course, the only people that will make that money will be the ones who don’t have to live with the pollution, but liberals will be outraged so fuck it, take a deep breathe and taste the freedom of black lung.

The social safety net – White people used to love welfare until Those People starting getting it, too. Now, the same white people that rely on Medicaid and food stamps seem constantly surprised to find out that those cuts apply to them as well.

Overall, that 19% is highly resistant to cuts in Medicare and Social Security. But at the same time, they continue to elect people that vow to destroy both programs. Why? Partly because they think the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party won’t eat their face and partly because they’ve been convinced that liberals want to expand the welfare state so Those People won’t have to work.

It goes on and on and on. This 19% that claims to adore the Constitution openly advocates a Muslim ban in direct violation of it. They think the president should be able to simply ignore the courts and rule like a king (but only when the president is white. And male. And Republican).

They brag about how their devotion to the family makes them morally superior but then get an almost sexual thrill from tearing Latino and black families apart. They get an even greater thrill at draining billions from school breakfast and lunch programs because feeding Those Children is like feeding wild animals. That is not an exaggeration. Conservatives have said this. And they’ve said it more than once.

This 19%, after screeching about how family values and Jesus are the pillars of their entire existence voted for a thrice-married adulterer that openly brags about his infidelity and his sexual assaults. And, I can’t stress this enough, this was only 20 years after demanding Bill Clinton be impeached because he got an extramarital blow job. Apparently, infidelity no longer disqualifies one from being president.

Why do they take such bizarre, extreme and contradictory positions? Because it drives liberals nuts. That’s it. Nothing else. If liberals are for it, they must oppose it. If liberals hate it, it must be the best thing in the world. Even if they know it’s hurting them, they’ll support it anyway just to spite liberals.

This sounds insane. And it is. It’s also true:

Judy Banks, a 70-year-old struggling to get by, said she voted for Trump because “he was talking about getting rid of those illegals.” But Banks now finds herself shocked that he also has his sights on funds for the Labor Department’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which is her lifeline. It pays senior citizens a minimum wage to hold public service jobs.

“If I lose this job,” she said, “I’ll sit home and die.”

Yet she said she might still vote for Trump in 2020. And that’s a refrain I heard over and over. Some of the loyalty seemed to be grounded in resentment at Democrats for mocking Trump voters as dumb bigots…

This does not represent every Trump voter, of course. but read that again: ““If I lose this job,” she said, “I’ll sit home and die.” Yet she said she might still vote for Trump in 2020.” That is certifiable. There is no reaching this kind of voter anymore. They’re literally saying that even though Trump is trying destroy their lives, they’ll vote for him again just because liberals called them stupid for voting someone who would try to destroy their lives. I’ve discussed this before but these are not people who should be allowed to exercise the franchise anymore than toddlers should be allowed to handle loaded guns.

Once upon a time, no matter who we were or where we lived, Americans, by and large, wanted what was best for the country. We were diverse but on some basic level, we understood who we were as a people. Today, a painfully large group of our fellow citizens hold an ideology so divergent from mainstream America, it can only be considered a cancer; dedicated to killing its host out of sheer mindless spite.

Right now, there are liberals reading this and frowning at the dehumanization of the conservative movement. And normally I’d agree, but these are not normal times. It’s important that we understand that there is no common ground to be found here. Sure, we all want a better future for our kids but that 19% looked at that future and decided it would be better to burn the country to the ground if the future didn’t belong only to their children. Yes, we all want security and safety but that 19% chose to destabilize the entire world, risking a nuclear holocaust because they would have to share that security and stability with Those People. 

They looked at the world around them and decided that not enough was being done to hurt blacks and Latinos and the LGBT community and women and Muslims and the entire liberal movement. So they voted for a man that represented the diametric opposite of everything they claimed for decades to believe in because he promised to hurt everyone the right hated. And if the right was hurt just as badly in the process, that was OK because it would be worth it to make the liberal snowflakes cry.

That’s not a diverse ideology, it’s a dangerously divergent and sick worldview. It cannot be reasoned with because their is no reason to it. It’s a malicious malignancy that has to be isolated and rendered powerless if we are to survive as a country.