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Foreign Policy

Bubbles and Balloons

Feb 28, 2023

The hard-to-pronounce name 西摩·赫什 (Seymour Hersh) has been prominently invoked in China’s evening news for the better part of a month. 

A one-man substack post by Hersh, an American muckraker now in his 80’s, squarely blames the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline on the Biden White House and CIA. He’s a respected journalist with a pretty good track record, so his allegations can’t be easily dismissed. 

Not surprisingly, the Hersh exposé exploded in the Russian media and he’s been interviewed by Russian TV. His Nord Stream story has also been prime time news everyday for half a month on China’s CCTV. 

Both Russia Today and the Global Times have expressed disappointment in the “U.S. mainstream media” for not covering this America-sourced story about American foreign policy researched by an American journalist. 

Indeed, Hersh’s story has gotten little mainstream play in his home country. The New York Times, where he established his reputation as a crack journalist, has ignored it to date. 

The deafening silence in “the West” about this bombshell story has elicited a great deal of head scratching and conspiratorial whispers about covert ops, cover-ups and the deep state. 

The simplistic conspiracy theory view that the U.S. media is in the pocket of its government is of course way overblown, but it’s not like stories haven’t been quashed at U.S. government request before. 

The case of the Glomar Explorer, a deepwater drillship used by the CIA to retrieve a sunken Russian submarine in 1975, is a case in point, even though it took place nearly half a century ago. Then, as is alleged now, the U.S. engaged in a tricky underwater operation against Russia under the strictures of complete secrecy. 

When journalists got a whiff of it, the U.S. government pressured them not to report what they knew. The New York Times, despite a well-established reputation for independence, yielded to the pressure to sit on it. 

When the Los Angeles Times went ahead and ran with the Glomar story, the information dam broke and the NYT and other mainstream media ran with what they knew. 

Suppressing stories is much less common in U.S. commercial media than in state-controlled media in China, but the point is, it can happen on either side of the Pacific. 

In the U.S., the “Glomar effect” refers to formulaic stonewalling under the now-familiar expression: “The U.S. government can neither confirm nor deny.” 

The government does what it does because that’s how government’s operate. The question remains valid: how can the U.S. media not cover such an important story? 

Global media trends point to increased polarization, as mainstream news reports align either with the U.S. or with China, but not both, essentially breaking into two camps. 

Even when conflicting reports are readily available, such as in the U.S. and to some extent in Russia, though less so in China where the state media is dominant, the audience reception of stories adds another twist to the mix. 

On one side of the divide, a story critical of the U.S. gets full support of the state media, while on the other side, a story critical of China will be magnified and distorted by sensationalism and playing to audience prejudices. 

If the U.S. is indeed responsible for the “terrorist act” as it’s being reported in both Moscow and Beijing, fallout can be expected to follow. 

A unilateral one-off attack on infrastructure that did not involve the loss of human life is certainly not trivial, but the cutting of Nord Stream pipe pales in comparison to the naked aggression that Russia displays daily in its ongoing invasion and occupation of Eastern Ukraine. 

Still, the Nord Stream story couldn’t have come at a worse time. Both Putin and former Russian leader Medvedev have made veiled threats about nuclear response, and the huge volume of U.S. and NATO weapons shipments into Ukraine raise the specter of a long war. 

One can almost understand, if not condone, a government’s desire to keep its clandestine activities discreet. 

When a high-tech Chinese balloon careened across the North American continent in early February, it unleashed a torrent of jingoistic media coverage in the U.S. 

Embarrassment could help explain China’s reticence to publicize the balloon incident to its own people, as could fear of unleashing too much pent-up public opinion. 

The saga of the somewhat out-of-control “weather” balloon had the potential to morph into something much more disruptive after U.S. intelligence determined it was a spy balloon. 

The dramatic shoot-down by an F-22 jet of the bulbous, alien-looking craft hovering off the coast of the Carolinas stoked popular delight, even as it played dangerously close to hyped-up Hollywood visions of war. 

Popping the balloon may have been technically legal, given its extended intrusion inside U.S. territory, and it was undeniably a crowd pleaser at home, but popular sentiment isn’t always the best counsel. 

Both sides are asking for apologies. 

At times such as this, where even a single blog post, such as that of Seymour Hersh, can go viral and alter the flow of world politics, governments may want to retreat and seek solace in silence and lies. 

Politics is no stranger to the arts of deception, and sometimes ignoring things, or playing down the truth, helps hold the line, and keeps the conversation going and diplomacy alive. 

This may indeed be part of the motivation behind the strikingly one-sided and partisan coverage that has recently been observed both in China and the U.S. 

One side can't get enough of the balloon story, the other side can't get enough of the bubbling gas pipe. 

The way both news stories have been whipped up into a frenzy, or tamped down into silence, by one side or the other, is also indicative of a growing “perceptual divide.” 

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