The University Of Chicago’s Oxymoronic “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy” Conference

Ethics Alarms already featured two telling episodes from the just completed “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy” at the University of Chicago. The first [Item 3, here], widely reported by conservative mews media and ignored by the mainstream media, was the head-blowing answer by Ann Applebaum, leftist historian and pundit for the predictable publications,when asked about  (Speaking of disinformation!) the mainstream media’s deliberate burying and falsely discrediting of the Hunter Biden laptop revelation in the final weeks of the 2020 Presidential campaign. When a student asked a panel about that rather timely topic (since the New York Times and Washington Post both suddenly decided to admit the laptop was genuine), Applebaum said,

My problem with Hunter Biden’s laptop is I think it’s totally irrelevant. I mean, it’s not whether it’s disinformation… I didn’t think Hunter Biden’s business relationships have anything to do with who should be President of the United States.

The fact that the emails on the laptop seemed to suggest that Joe Biden’s coke-head, ne’re-do-well son, in the course of his influence peddling, offered direct assistance from his father and even implied that Joe profited from his under-the-table deals was irrelevant to the election and not newsworthy? Fascinating! That should have opened up a great discussion, but panel moderator David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s advisor and campaign manager, cut the topic off the second “United States” had left Applebaum’s lips.

Writing on his blog, Prof. Jonathan Turley was aghast (I also should have devoted a whole post to this):

So, if the Biden family was engaged in selling access to foreign interests, it really has nothing to do with the President of the United States. It is not interesting that there are references to Joe Biden’s knowledge or involvement and possible benefitting from the millions passing through his son. It does not matter that Hunter is shown telling his daughter Naomi: “I hope you all can do what I did and pay for everything for this entire family for 30 years. It’s really hard. But don’t worry, unlike Pop [Joe], I won’t make you give me half your salary.”

It is all just so uninteresting.

Nevertheless, Applebaum did find it interesting that others are pushing “disinformation.” Russian disinformation has been a focus of her work and she has called for Facebook to stop those who “spread lies” and work to “undo the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media” by allowing people to speak freely on their sites.  Applebaum repeatedly objected to how “extreme-right television channels, then repeated and amplified in cyberspace, creating an alternative reality.” However, when the left killed a legitimate story before an election, that alternative reality is just not interesting.

It turns out, however, that there was relevance to the Hunter Biden scandal when the media was dismissing it as Russian disinformation. For example, in a column titled “The Science of Making Americans Hurt Their Own Country,” Applebaum was fixated on how everyone had to work to kill such stories like the Hunter Biden “saga.” Indeed, Applebaum chastised Americans for not being interested enough:

“Russian disinformation works because Americans allow it to work-and because those same Americans don’t care anymore about the harm they do to their country. You can argue, of course, that these 2020 efforts don’t need to be taken so seriously, because they failed. Biden won. At least half the population did not believe the false accusations, or weren’t swayed by them. The Hunter Biden saga faded. But that misses the more insidious, longer-term effect of these kinds of games-or rather, the insidious, long-term effect of the behavior of the Americans who play them.”

Applebaum now insists that she never really “cared” about the story or whether a true story was suppressed by the media before the election. It seems that that is not disinformation. It is just uninteresting information.

I previously wrote a column on the one year anniversary of the Hunter Biden laptop story that marveled at the success of the Biden family in making the scandal vanish before that 2020 election. It was analogized to Houdini making his 10,000-pound elephant Jennie disappear in his act. The Biden trick, however, occurred live before an audience of millions.

…The key to the trick was involving the media in the original act so that reporters became invested in the illusion. It is like calling audience members to the stage to assist in the performance. Reporters have to insist that there was nothing to see or they have to admit to being part of the original deception. Indeed, previously writers like Applebaum accused those who saw an elephant of being dupes and liars.

The mainstream media this week showed that it doesn’t think Applebaum’s damning statement is interesting either.

The second episode Ethics Alarms covered here, when Brian Stelter, a lower species of biased hack than Applebaum to be sure, ducked and stuttered after another student asked about the undeniable “disinformation” promoted by his employer, CNN. In an honest and genuine conference, Stelter should have candidly admitted, in the interests of truth and scholarly inquiry, that indeed CNN had broadcast false stories and badly served its audience. Stelter is, after all, supposed to be a media “watchdog,” though the only media he criticizes tends to be Fox News. But no: his “answer” was to babble, drag out straw men, and to say that the student’s fact “is a popular right-wing narrative about CNN.” This brazen disinformation in a panel on disinformation at a conference called “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy” belongs in the Oxymoron Hall Of Nausea, and again, should have launched a lively debate. Again, the moderator cut off the debate: Lunchtime!

But perhaps the signature moment in this gaslighting spectacular was the fact that that Barack Obama was the keynote speaker. Not surprisingly, he did not talk about the wave of media disinformation that helped get him elected President twice, but still, engaging in this historical revisionism took chutzpah:

As somebody who grappled with the incursion into Crimea and the eastern portions of Ukraine, I have been encouraged by the European reaction [this time]. Because in 2014, I often had to drag them kicking and screaming to respond in ways that we would have wanted to see from those of us who describe ourselves as Western democracies…I don’t know that the person I knew is the same as the person who is now leading this charge. He was always ruthless. You witnessed what he did in Chechnya, he had no qualms about crushing those whom he considered a threat. That’s not new. For him to bet the farm in this way—I would not have necessarily predicted from him five years ago.”

If nothing else, the most over-praised President in U.S. history has faith in his ability to talk his way out of anything, even reality. Obama, I assume you recall if you were an adult 8 years ago, mostly vanished during Putin’s invasion of the Crimea. Terrorism expert and Northeastern University international security professor Max Abrahms politely described Obama’s answer as “self-serving.” More to the point was Mark Hemingway, senior writer at RealClearInvestigations, who tweeted, “‘grappled’ = did nothing after spending years mocking anyone that thought Russia was threatening and still refused to arm Ukraine.” The tweet recalled Obama mocking Republican nominee Mitt Romney for calling Russia our number one geopolitical foe in their 2012 debate, telling Mitt “the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back.” The disinformation mainstream media at the time shouted “BAZINGA!” That Barack! So quick! So wise! Oddly, nobody at the conference asked Obama about that episode. Later, only conservative critics and journalists were so rude as to note that Obama’s sanctions against Russia were deliberately pro forma because Putin was assisting Obama in negotiating the secret and irresponsible Iran deal. Indeed,Obama publicly thanked Putin less than a year later.

Obama saying that he wouldn’t have predicted Putin’s invading Ukraine is spectatcularly brazen. Why not? Russia invaded Ukraine eight years ago when Obama was President and Joe was his loyal, fawning, second in command. Why wouldn’t he assume that the international costs of another invasion of Ukraine would be relatively low now? Donald Trump was President “five years ago” when Obama says he wouldn’t have predicted the invasion. Gee, what changed? It’s a mystery!

A former President of the world’s greatest democracy spouted unchallenged disinformation as the keynote speaker at a conference called “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy”!

Further rueful observations…

1. The University of Chicago’s students saved the honor of the university itself by asking the tough questions the journalists in the rigged conference wouldn’t ask. The University has been lauded for developing the “Chicago Principles” stating “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate,” unlike, for example, Yale, Harvard, and Georgetown. Apparently it’s working.

2. I stupidly failed to take proper notice that The Atlantic, one of the most consistent anti-Trump newspinners of the past five years, was the U of C’s co-sponsor of the conference. Why would the university allow that? It undermined the event’s credibility from the start. This is the same magazine that announced that the news media would be gentler on the Biden administration than it had been when covering the previous President. Look at the Ethics Alarms dossier on the magazine: what does it tell you (or anyone)? In this article,  published on Nov. 21, 2016, The Atlantic called for the Electoral College to elect Hillary Clinton despite the popular vote giving Trump the necessary electoral votes to take office. 

If the university was going to have a so glaringly left-biased co-host of a conference on this topic, it was ethically mandatory to find at least one sponsor from the other side of the political spectrum. Nah! That would mean the conference would have to cover the myriad examples of fake news and disinformation from the mainstream media.

3. The participants in the conference were similarly unbalanced. Where were the media critics? Why wasn’t Turley invited? Glenn Greenwald? Andrew Sullivan? Well, we know why. It was safer to leave the tough questions to the students. The moderators could cut those off.

4. At the end of the conference, and the matters above had been flamed by conservatives, a few honest journalists, and social media, smug Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg sneered,

I think one darkly humorous but inevitable measurement of our success is that our disinformation conference has been the subject of disinformation campaigns on social media already. Congratulate yourselves for that. We’ll study that at next year’s [conference].

A co-host of a conference called “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy” that was awash in its own disinformation calling the legitimate criticism of the disinformation “disinformation”!



Pointers and Sources: Victory Girls, New York Post

6 thoughts on “The University Of Chicago’s Oxymoronic “Disinformation And The Erosion Of Democracy” Conference

  1. What really got me about the Applebaum response was the non sequitur nature of it.

    She was asked, “A poll […] found that if they’d known about the laptop 16% of Joe Boden voters would have acted differently. Now, of course we know that a few weeks ago the New York Times confirmed that the content is real. Do you think the media acted inappropriately when they instantly dismissed Hunter Biden’s laptop as Russian Disinformation? What can we learn from that in insuring that what we label as disinformation is actually disinformation and not realty?”

    Her response was as you typed out above. It’s irrelevant” or “I don’t find it interesting”.

    There’s a million obvious rebuttals to that, but I suppose first and foremost has to be: Who cares how you would classify the information? The question was “Media outlets fell over themselves to call something that was factual “disinformation”. At a conference on “Disinformation” and the harm it can do, you should probably have a better answer than “It doesn’t matter because I don’t care.”

    Going to the next step up from there… Regardless of whether Duchess Applebaum thought the story was interesting, the question referred to the MRC poll that showed that 16% of Biden voters said that they would have acted differently had they known. Her personal interest is irrelevant to something that could have shifted something in the neighborhood of 8 million votes (Yes, I know… Polls, but what’s the number that matters? 10,500 votes in Arizona?).

    Let’s keep going. If the argument was that “The contents of Hunter’s laptop should not effect the election because it is irrelevant to Joe Biden’s candidacy.”, then why wasn’t that the argument then? Why lie about it? It was never Russian disinformation, according to Applebaum it was just irrelevant and uninteresting.

    If I believed for a second that there was actually a principled position here, as opposed to “what excuse can I trot out in the moment to circle the wagons against criticism I myself would be making in a situation where my opponents did what they’re criticizing me for.” I might have an iota of sympathy, but the latter is obviously what’s happened. The narrative at the time was a litany of “We can’t verify the contents” and “it has all the hallmarks of disinformation”. Exactly how much effort did you spend trying to verify the information? And since when was that your fucking standard? The entire media gleefully parroted the damned “Russian Blackmail” story, including the watersports bedroom story, having verified none of it, some of which has been entirely debunked by now, but this was a bridge too far? Please.

    And like the other student asked Varys Stelter: “Why does it seem like these errors only ever go one way?”

  2. Jack, please correct Atlantic Editor in Chief to Jeffery Goldberg, not Jonah. Jonah has been stewing in the bowels of Trump hatred, but he hasn’t gotten to The Atlantic levels of hatred yet.

  3. They never find it interesting to talk about unflattering stories regarding their political heroes, friends, allies, etc. Like that French saying goes, no enemies to the left. It’s sad too, because Applebaum, Stelter, etc, were probably paid handsomely to be liberal fluffers.

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