We all remember Saddam Hussein’s feckless pitchman, “Baghdad Bob.” The country’s information minister (real name: Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf) made frequent television appearances, repeating the mantra that everything was going according to plan. His most memorable appearance came amidst the rubble of his capital city, where he continued to spew delusional nonsense.
We expect such dissembling from dictatorships, which control the media and extinguish discordant voices. That’s what Vladimir Putin is doing right now, hoping to prevent the Russian public from learning his army was demolished by Ukrainian’s counteroffensives in Kharkiv (in the northeast) and Kherson (in the south). Controlling information is essential to regime security.
In democracies, such deceit is much harder to pull off. There are protections for free speech (greater in some democracies than others) and private ownership of newspapers, websites, TV, radio, and podcasts. Free speech and private ownership of media make it much harder for the government to control information, but not impossible. Take the story of Hunter Biden’s corruption and its links to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. They were detailed on Hunter’s laptop computer, which he left at a Delaware computer repair shop and then forfeited when he didn’t pay the bill. The information on that computer hard drive is devastating, but it was suppressed before the 2020 election by an ardently partisan media, which feared voters would link the pervasive insider deals to Joe Biden himself.
Except for the New York Post, which exposed the laptop and vetted the information on it, the media marched in near lockstep to kill the news. At the same time, major social media companies suppressed the story or blocked it entirely. News organizations that should have investigated simply refused to check it out or to report that others had done so. They also suppressed credible evidence from Hunter’s business partner, Tony Bobulinski, who went on record that he had met with Joe and Hunter together and discussed Hunter Biden’s Chinese business deals. Joe Biden has denied it all, repeatedly stating that he had zero knowledge of his son’s foreign dealings, no involvement in them, and complete confidence in Hunter’s integrity.
When the laptop story emerged, some 51 former leaders of the U.S. intelligence community circulated a letter, widely covered by the press, asserting that the New York Post’s story had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian disinformation operation.” Their stature and presumed access to secret information gave weight to their claim, but it shouldn’t have. It was made without any evidence and turned out to be flatly untrue. Recently, we also learned that the FBI reached out directly to Facebook executives to suppress the story. The call came just before the New York Post story broke and told Facebook that Russia was about to dump some major disinformation. The FBI’s behavior was either corrupt or incompetent – or both.
How effective was this disinformation blitz by federal bureaucrats, the Democratic Party, and their friends in the media? Very effective, according to polls reported by Tom Bevan of RealClearPolitics. The lies and suppression not only helped Biden win, they have taken root in the public as truthful accounts. Fully half of Democrats and 47% of independents still believe the Hunter Biden laptop story was simply “Russian disinformation.” It wasn’t.
Since this deceit worked in the election, why not keep it up? That seems to be the White House’s P.R. strategy to deal with soaring inflation and record numbers of illegal immigrants.
The current disinformation strategy is unlikely to work for two reasons. First, the public didn’t have direct knowledge of Hunter’s computer, but it has plenty of first-hand knowledge about inflation and some about illegal immigration. Voters can see rising prices all around them. They know their incomes are falling behind those prices. They don’t need a newspaper or newscast to tell them. They don’t need to read tweets. Immigration problems are harder to see unless you live near the border, but the bad news has gradually seeped out, even on progressive outlets. Busing some of those immigrants to “sanctuary cities” such as New York, D.C., and Chicago, and now flying some to Martha’s Vineyard has underscored the problem. And it is a big problem to which the Biden administration has no solution. Huge numbers of people are streaming illegally across the Rio Grande Valley every day. Mexican drug cartels are exploiting the open border to ship vast quantities of fentanyl to communities across the U.S.
Second, many media outlets are less protective of Joe Biden as president than they were of Joe Biden as Donald Trump’s opponent. President Biden is harmed still more by his dreadful spin team. He is an inept speaker – he shouts but cannot rally the crowds – and he’s even worse when he strays from his speechwriters’ script on the teleprompter. But he is a veritable Demosthenes compared to his two main surrogates, Vice President Kamala Harris and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“The border is secure,” the vice president told Americans last Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. That’s not just false. It is painfully, obviously false. A competent news program would have immediately confronted her with the numbers, particularly the astonishing 2 million expected to cross illegally this year. They didn’t. Nor is Harris alone in repeating that fairy tale. Her colleagues, including Secretary of Homeland Security Alexandro Mayorkas, blow the same smoke. Surely Harris and Mayorkas know the numbers. Surely, they know they are lying. Deceit this blatant seldom works in democracies, although it helps to have a biased media downplay the story, as they did with Hunter’s laptop.
It may be hard to fool Americans about illegal immigration, but it’s even harder to fool them about inflation. They can see it for themselves. A month ago, President Biden said at a press conference, “Our economy had zero percent inflation in the month of July . Zero percent.” Those were prepared remarks, and they were flatly false. The real story is that inflation, which reached a 40-year record in June, remained at the same high level in July. It’s unclear whether Biden was trying to hoodwink voters or simply doesn’t understand the difference between high inflation and rising inflation. Neither is a happy prospect.
The administration continues to sweep bad news under the carpet and congratulate itself over cherry-picked news about inflation and the economy. Last Tuesday, in a spectacularly ill-timed event, the White House held a major celebration of the recently passed “Inflation Reduction Act.” That was also the day the government reported its latest inflation numbers: a painful 8.3%.
Larry Summers, a Democrat and former secretary of the treasury, summarized the grim news, “Today’s CPI [Consumer Price Index] report confirms that the U.S. has a serious inflation problem. Core inflation is higher this month than for the quarter, higher this quarter than last quarter, higher this half of the year than the previous one, and higher last year than the previous one. Median inflation used to be a favorite indicator for team transitory. This month it was at its highest ever reading.”
Investors reacted by dumping stocks, anticipating the Federal Reserve would continue to raise interest rates to choke off inflation before it became firmly embedded. Higher rates may lessen inflation, but they also mean higher unemployment, lower corporate profits, and a greater chance of continuing recession. They also mean a tighter squeeze for families. Polls show those families are very worried about their prospects and consider the economy their number one voting issue this November. (77% percent of registered voters consider it “very important” to their November vote.)
Yet the Biden administration keeps telling the public “All’s well. Nothing to see here.” The public isn’t buying it. They can see with their own eyes that it isn’t true. And they’re beginning to wonder if Biden is morphing into Baghdad Bob.