For some time, certain critics have been suggesting that the mainstream press gives a little too much credence to dubious conspiracy theories about Russia, theories which many Democrats have embraced out of their desire to undermine Donald Trump. Liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are beginning to sound a bit like Glenn Beck during the peak of the chalkboard-years. Any claim about nefarious doings by Vladimir Putin—for instance, that Russia hacked Vermont’s electric grid, or that the Naked Capitalism blog is Russian state propaganda—is spread widely by pundits without particular regard for the actual substantiating evidence.
Of course, one may disagree with this. One may believe that the media’s treatment of the Russia-Trump nexus has been sober and reasonable. But a new data point suggests otherwise: the New York Times recently published a piece on Russian hacking by Louise Mensch. And a world where the Paper of Record publishes Mensch is not a world with a sane public conversation about Russia.
Mensch is a British former Conservative MP and chick-lit author who these days spends most of her time on Twitter issuing frenzied denunciations of imagined armies of online “Putinbots.” She is—and this is no overstatement—one of the least credible people on the internet.
Let’s be clear: with Mensch, we are not talking about someone who merely “takes a hard line” on the Russia question. Mensch is legitimately paranoid and deluded. She sincerely believes that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by Vladimir Putin, that Russia is secretly operating the public wifi networks in her neighborhood, and that the 15-year-old-girl whom Anthony Weiner sexted was in reality a hacker on the Kremlin payroll. (The Daily Mail, of all places, offered a thorough debunking.) When a journalist from the London Times visited Mensch, he found her manically babbling about a “giant web” of Russia connections invisible to anyone else, her ADHD having given her a “temporary superpower.” Mensch told the reporter that a mobile florist in her neighborhood could in fact be a Russian operation dispatched to intercept her communications, an assertion that sounded like a joke but appeared to be serious. Even ex-intelligence officer Malcolm Nance, a strong believer in the Trump-Putin connection and author of The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election, has said Mensch is “batshit crazy” and a “fruit loop.” Mensch’s children, too, seem to think she is out of her gourd. As she confessed: “These days when anything goes wrong in our house, one of my kids will say: ‘Is it the Russians?’ It’s a standing joke. ‘Pizza went cold. Is it the Russians?’”
Mensch’s Russia commentary is not limited to speculations on the country’s secret misdeeds. Far more worryingly, she actively encourages the United States to start an armed conflict. In December, she tweeted: “What Russia has done to America is an act of war… I want precision bombing raids. Mass cyber war. Bank hacks… Vladimir Putin has committed an act of war… Obama must strike.” Mensch literally wants bombs to be dropped on the world’s second most heavily armed nuclear power, without any consideration for what this might mean. By publishing Mensch, then, the New York Times has established as a legitimate political commentator someone who thinks the florists on the Upper West Side are monitoring her internet, and is actively using Twitter to encourage the United States to start World War III.
Getting an op-ed into the New York Times is notoriously difficult, as the paper’s editors treasure its selectivity and prestige, for the obvious reason that a NYT byline confers an extraordinary amount of credibility on the writer. Thus the Times makes particular choices about the voices that are worth listening to, and the voices that are not. And by printing the Mensch op-ed, the Times has said that Mensch is a person whose thoughts ought to be in the paper. But one can only think this if one has abandoned all standards for what constitutes reasoned opinion on Russia.
The op-ed itself is simply a repeat of the various charges Mensch has been frantically making on Twitter for months, framed as a series of questions for Congressman Adam Schiff to ask a number of proposed witnesses. Some of the questions are worth knowing the answers to. Others are downright ludicrous. (“Was the president’s tweet about a wiretap at Trump Tower, to your knowledge, illegal? If so, to whom have you reported this offense?”) The questions are all conspiratorial in their undertones, but don’t seem to fit together under any underlying theory of what is supposed to have happened. Like many conspiracy theorists, Mensch tries to poke holes and offer a series of dark insinuations and mysteries without actually defending any affirmative propositions. It’s stunning that the Times editors allowed Mensch to write an op-ed this way; the format exempts her from the responsibility of actually having to make an argument using evidence. The editors also permitted Mensch to use, without clarification, the popular but meaningless phrase “hacked the election.” (You can’t hack an election, you can hack computers to leak files to influence an election or you can hack voting machines. The phrase “hacked the election” is used to avoid having to be precise about what exactly is being alleged.)
We are also left with the question of why the New York Times decided to issue Mensch a platform at all. It’s not as if Mensch had a previous record as a credible commentator. Even before she began ranting about sinister Russian florists, Mensch was known mostly for her constant tweeting. Beyond a brief and ineffectual stint as a Tory politician, she seems to have no qualifications or background whatsoever that would suggest her as a Russian affairs expert.
In fact, Mensch does not really have a background in anything at all. Having left Parliament after just two years—and thereby handed her seat to the Labour Party—she dabbled in failed venture after failed venture. She started a widely-mocked fashion blog called Unfashionista, which soon folded. She then started a widely-mocked social media app called—absurdly—“Menshn,” which soon folded. She was appointed to head a new Murdoch venture called Heat Street, a right-wing clickbait site essentially exactly like Breitbart but with more news about GamerGate. But her constant bizarre tweets allegedly factored into News Corp’s decision to part ways with her in January. Instead, Mensch now runs a WordPress blog called “Patribotics” dedicated almost entirely to elaborating her theories about Putin, and examining her various “suspects” like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The only thing Mensch seems to have done successfully is tweet, and only if we measure success by quantity rather than quality. In fact, Mensch has become notorious on social media for her ineptitude and ignorance, which has led to a series of embarrassing blunders that have done little to diminish her self-assurance. In 2014, Mensch declared that anybody who used the term “Zionist” was anti-Semitic. When someone asked whether this would make Theodore Herzl an anti-Semite, Mensch replied: “Who? If he uses Zionist then yes. Cheap code word for Jew. Antisemitism. Not having it.” She appeared to believe Charlie Hebdo was actually a single man called Charlie. She offered proof that Russia was “joyless” compared to America by pointing to the (Canadian) Leonard Cohen. She suggested people who called others “subhuman” should be banned from the platform, before it turned out that she herself flung the word at other tweeters. Perhaps her lowest point came when she was accused of bullying and harassing a 17-year-old girl over the girl’s support for Ed Miliband. (If you were once an MP but are now harassing teenage Labour voters on Twitter, it is time to log off and have a long think about your life.)
Throughout this, Mensch persisted in considering herself an investigative journalist who “broke stories.” But we might gain some sense of Mensch’s standard of journalistic excellence from her enthusiastic endorsement of disgraced ex-BuzzFeed writer Benny Johnson. Mensch called Johnson “brilliant” and “very talented,” despite the fact that he could not even produce articles like “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In ‘Jurassic Park’ GIFs” and “Ronald Reagan’s 31 Most YOLO Moments” without engaging in a pattern of serial plagiarism. (One could debate whether Johnson failed upward or downward into his subsequent position at the Independent Journalism Review, but the point is moot—just days ago, Johnson was suspended from his new employer after publishing an unfounded conspiracy theory suggesting collusion between Obama and the Hawaiian judge who challenged Trump’s second travel ban. It was at this point that Mensch decided to reaffirm her admiration for Johnson’s integrity and journalistic skill.)
It may not be fair to laugh too much at Mensch, however. Based on her recent statements, sincere concern is probably a more appropriate reaction. Mensch is an admitted sufferer of mental health problems, having said that her earlier use of hard drugs “messed with her brain” and has caused ongoing difficulties. She has admitted that much of her present theorizing is driven by her ADHD, and one should legitimately worry about someone so paranoid that she thinks the Russians are watching her from the street corner.
The question remains, though: what was the New York Times thinking by printing Mensch’s conspiratorial questioning? Granted, the Times has a somewhat ignominious history with guest op-ed columnists, having given Woody Allen space to defend himself against molestation allegations, and allowed Bill Clinton to issue a weaselly justification for offering pardons to his wealthy cronies—a column so full of evasions that a paragraph-long editor’s note had to be attached to the end. (And if you want to advocate bombing North Korea, the Times will happily act as your megaphone.) But even by the existing standard, publishing someone like Mensch is extraordinary.
There are a few implications we can draw here. First, once you’re in the elite, you’re in the elite, and nothing you can say or do will convince people you’re foolish. If you have an Oxbridge accent and have held a government position, you are a permanent expert and people will continually assume you must be intelligent, even when you have showed no actual signs of it.
Second, the press’s standards for Russia commentary are lower than at any point since the Cold War. Required qualifications for opining on Putin or Russia are essentially at the “skimming the Wikipedia entry” level. (It’s not just the Times. MSNBC, too, has regularly given airtime to Mensch, and she will appear on Bill Maher’s show this week.) Liberals are so eager to attack Trump over Russia stories that even a totally fringe conspiracist can have her claims treated as serious and worthwhile contributions to the discourse. In response to Mensch’s op-ed, cultural critic Virginia Heffernan said she “wish[ed] this were book-length” calling Mensch “the Sy Hersh of our time.” Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe praised Mensch as “impressive” and “incomparable.”
There’s a useful parallel to the 1979 film Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a dopey gardener whose aphoristic pronouncements about plants are taken for insightful political metaphors, leading him to become the toast of the D.C. elite. Washington’s notion of wisdom is so vacuous that even a gibbering fool can be taken for a genius if they suit the needs of the political class. Likewise, talk about Russia has gotten so facile, with allegations requiring so little evidence, that a schizophrenic raving about Putin sending radio waves through their dentures could get a permanent gig with MSNBC if they had a PPE degree from Oxford.
One could certainly argue that left-wing criticisms of excessive Russia coverage are ignoring crucial evidence, and have a debate about that evidence. But one cannot argue that media dialogue about Russia is in any way serious or rational, so long as mainstream legitimacy is offered to a person who literally thinks Vladimir Putin murdered Andrew Breitbart and who is checking florists’ vans for antennae.