Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 29 / 20 July 2017
 

Seeing is not believing

Lavender Tube


MSNBC's Rachel Maddow explained how forged NSA documents were being shopped around to media outlets. Photo: MSNBC
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It felt a bit surreal on July 6, watching MSNBC's Rachel Maddow explain in excruciatingly precise detail, as only a semiotics major might, how forged NSA documents were being shopped to mainstream media outlets. "See these dots here?" she asked her audience as we saw a letter with some yellow dots around it come up onscreen. Then there was discussion of a crease in a page, some folding, and that name out of a punk spy novel, Reality Winner, and we felt, not for the first time, that we were down the rabbit hole with the Trump presidency and deception upon deception. This is "The Americans," circa 2017.

Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes called Maddow's report "a real public service." He noted that the methodical way Maddow investigated the hoax of the faked documents being sent to news outlets to undermine their authority was "public forensics." If you missed her report, it's available at MSNBC.com. There is also her written report, which is definitely worth reading.

The day after Maddow's report, on July 7, Trump met with Putin, allegedly for the first time. (Trump has said in various interviews that he's met Putin before.) The two leaders were in Hamburg, Germany, for the G-20 summit. Trump said it was "an honor" to meet the Russian leader who interfered in the November election on a multi-faceted scale to, as U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed, prevent Hillary Clinton from being president.

More than two hours later, after a private meeting between Trump and Putin in which Trump agreed to partner on cybersecurity with the man who sundered ours, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson told the media that there would be "no re-litigation of the past."

According to Trump, Putin's orchestration of the 2016 election is no longer relevant, an extraordinary statement from the head of our democratic government. Forget that pesky Congressional investigation or the data amassed from several branches of the U.S. intelligence community and Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence agency. Forget that ignoring what happened means it will continue. As was noted on Maddow's show July 6, the 2018 and 2020 elections are imperiled. Forget those video clips of former DNI chief James Clapper telling Congress this 2018 and 2020 breach wasn't just likely, it was probable.

MSNBC anchor Joy Reid, never an alarmist, said, "It becomes harder and harder to believe Trump isn't counting on massive voter disenfranchisement and Russian aid to win re-election in 2020." Reid also noted, "Donald Trump is either oblivious to the principles that have bound America together for centuries, or hostile to them."

Juliette Kayyem, national security analyst for CNN who was assistant secretary for Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, was succinct. "I think it's safe to say now that President Trump is an enabler of Russia's interference." But for Trump, Putin said nyet, so da, it must be true.

Unsurprisingly, Russian state TV emphasized the length of the private meeting, which was four times what was scheduled. Russian TV also leapt at the U.S. statements of forgive-and-forget, and presented this alleged resolution in glowing terms, referencing Trump's statement that it was an "honor" to meet Putin, who is known globally for his brutal suppression, targeting of opposition press, and repression of LGBT people.

Given this background, MSNBC couldn't have planned their July 7 debut of "On Assignment with Richard Engel" better. The network is running what it calls a "special series" with the renowned reporter who is NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent. Engel will take over Maddow's slot on Friday nights throughout the summer, delving into political issues from his own multi-award-winning vantage point.

Maddow's show has seen a ratings boom since Trump's Inauguration, and finished the second quarter as the most-watched cable news show. Promoting Engel's work every week will give MSNBC yet more news gravitas while also affording Maddow three-day weekends through Labor Day, so she can rest up leading into September's ratings war.

In his superb July 7 foray, Engel, known for his reporting from war zones, took on Putin. He charted the rise to power of the former veteran KGB intelligence officer, and how Boris Yeltsin ceded power to him in 1999 in exchange for a full pardon. Putin has been in power ever since. He was acting president when Yeltsin resigned, then elected president for two terms through 2008. He was appointed prime minister for Dmitry Medvedev from 2008-12, when he again ran for president (Russia had four-year term limits like the U.S., but Medvedev, widely viewed as Putin's puppet, extended these to six years.) Putin has been president since, and is expected to run again in 2018 and win.

Engel took viewers inside Putin's repressive regime. He got shoved by armed riot police at several demonstrations, most recently last month, but avoided arrest. Engel interviewed dissidents, including several marked for death by the Putin administration yet able to survive poisonings and four-story falls, as well as others who have been jailed, like members of the notorious Pussy Riot group. Engel also detailed the murder of an American businessman working in Russia.

Near the end of his report, Engel put up a screen with all the people who had met with untimely poisonings or falls, most of whom succumbed to their injuries. It was a massive number of men and women, including journalists: 34 have been murdered under Putin. By contrast, only three journalists have been killed in the same time period in China, and two in the U.S., Virginia reporters shot on-air in August 2015.

Part of the Engel report was a segment by NBC News London correspondent Kelly Cobiella. In it she delved into the broad acceptance of Putin by the Republicans and the evangelical right in the U.S. Cobiella's report, replete with interviews, was most unsettling. As she detailed, the tectonic shift from Reagan's assessment of Russia as an "evil empire" in the 1980s to the Tea Party's evangelical embrace of all things Putin underscored why Trump supporters couldn't care less about the Russia investigation. As she noted, polls show more than half of GOP voters find Russia to be a friend and ally.

As Cobiella reported, America's right agrees with Putin, who shares their love of guns and hatred of gays. The interviews with Republican businessmen lauding Putin were outright shocking. If you missed this eye-opening report, it's available at MSNBC.com

 

South Parked

Remember when there was no shibboleth sacred to Comedy Central's beloved "South Park?" Say the n word? Sure. Satirize Obama, George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. Take on Trump? Never. In an interview on July 6, Trey Parker, co-creator with Matt Stone of the show that premieres its 21st season in August, said "South Park" is scaling back its political humor. Parker said the show could "get crazy ratings" for lampooning Trump as they have other presidents and contenders (Al Gore, John McCain and Mitt Romney have also had the "South Park" treatment). But, Parker said, the show doesn't want to be "SNL" or CNN, where you tune in to see what we're going to say about Trump." Parker said he thinks Trump uses "comedic art" to get attention. "The things we do, being outrageous and taking things to the extreme to get a reaction out of people, he's using those tools. At his rallies he gets people laughing and whooping." To quote "South Park": Mmkay, but that makes me a sad panda.

The kind of history being forged in Washington, D.C. may have caused you to ignore the History channel in recent months, but two new offerings are worth a look. "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence" continues our fascination with the mystery of the missing aviatrix and how she might have been captured by the Japanese during WWII and lived out her life in the Pacific where her plane disappeared in 1937. She could not be alive still (she'd be 120), but her legacy lives and breathes.

The eight-part "American Ripper" series delves into a different but endlessly fascinating unsolved mystery: Who was Jack the Ripper? The History series posits he might have been an American, H.H. Holmes aka Herman Mudgett. Jeff Mudgett, attorney and great-great-grandson of America's first serial killer, argues Holmes/Mudgett could have escaped his execution and fled to London. There, the series suggests, he was engaged in dozens of murders, including the notorious Whitechapel eviscerations attributed to Jack the Ripper. Is this probable or even possible? Even if "American Ripper" doesn't make a strong case for Jack being a Yank, it's an engaging look at America's first serial killer and how that crime was born.

"Dying to be Famous: The Versace Murder" aired on ABC's "20/20" July 7, definitely worth a look if you missed it. The episode delves into gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan, a Castro denizen and hustler of wealthy men. Cunanan murdered five men, including his then-partner, over a three-month period in the summer of 1997. Cunanan's final and most infamous killing was of fashion designer Gianni Versace, whom Cunanan murdered in front of Versace's Miami Beach mansion on July 15, 1997. Days later Cunanan killed himself.

The shocking murder of Versace and the manhunt for Cunanan was headline news 20 years ago. While we know many of the facts of the case, Cunanan's killing of Versace and his other victims is getting renewed interest and dramatic TV treatment. Ryan Murphy ("American Horror Story") has chosen to highlight the Versace murder and Cunanan in an upcoming series as part of his "American Crime" anthology project. Murphy's Emmy-winning series "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," debuted in 2016.

Darren Criss ("Glee") is slated to play Cunanan, and Edgar Ramirez will portray Versace. The complex story is based on investigative reporter Maureen Orth's book "Vulgar Favors: Gianni Versace, Andrew Cunanan and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History." The "20/20" segment will definitely tempt you for more of this fascinating story of predation in and on the gay community.

Another real-life murder mystery is being highlighted on Spike. "Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio" debuts July 22. It details what happens when young, female societal throwaways go missing and turn up dead. Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning documentarian Joe Berlinger has teamed up with Spike to shed new light on a growing number of unsolved murders that have cast a dark shadow over a small Ohio town, Chillicothe. Berlinger breathes life into the true-crime genre with this compelling series that's about far more than the killings themselves. He asks and gets some answers about why these women's disappearances and deaths received so little attention from law enforcement. This is a story about class, economics and small-town discrimination. An absolute must-see.

If you are looking for something less dark, TNT's new period drama "Will" centers a hot and hunky young playwright, William Shakespeare (played by the sexy Laurie Davidson), in his complicated 16th-century London milieu. There can never be enough Shakespeare, and this prequel to the bearded and balding bard we are most familiar with is an intriguing change. The series was created by noted Australian screenwriter Craig Pearce.

A plethora of fave series are returning in the next weeks: "The Fosters" on Freeform, because we need some reliably gay storytelling; "Suits" on USA, for its seventh season, because pretty men are always needed, and this drama has never failed to entice; Ryan Philippe's tour de force performance as the "Shooter" in the USA series returns for a second season July 18; "The Strain" on FX, because that combo of HIV/AIDS allegory and horror has always resonated for us.

This is the fourth and final season for "The Strain." If you are looking for something compelling to binge over a week of staycation, this is the series for you. It has everything: the CDC, Holocaust survivors, Russian mobsters, and it's the creation of Guillermo del Toro. We've lauded this series every season, and the final season will undoubtedly be spectacular.

So for real-life mysteries and scripted dramas, a touch of froth and a soupcon of WTF, you know there's no avoiding it: you really must stay tuned.

 






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