This past weekend, celebrated journalist and author Chris Hedges woke up to find six years of episodes of his Russia Today show On Contact vanished from the show’s account on YouTube. Though almost none of the shows referenced Russia or Vladimir Putin directly, and the few that did tended to be unflattering, his association with Russian state media was enough to erase hundreds of interviews about topics ranging from Julian Assange’s imprisonment to censorship to police brutality to American war crimes in the Middle East.
Now on Substack, Hedges has a long and uncomfortably colorful history of being muffled. The former New York Times correspondent covered wars from the Balkans to the Middle East to the Falkland Islands, and authored books like War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, American Fascists, and The Death of the Liberal Class, and through 2002, when he won the Pulitzer Prize as part of a team for Exploratory Reporting, he defined mainstream respectability and excellence in journalism. He might have had it easy, spending the latter part of his career on the Thomas Friedman/David Brooks Memorial Gravy Train of overpaid lectures, University trusteeships, and fellowships at obscure think-tanks, if he’d just kept his mouth shut.
He didn’t. One of the few frontline American reporters who spoke Arabic, Hedges knew instantly the Iraq war would be a disaster and said so at every opportunity. He was booed offstage at a commencement address at Rockford College in 2003 by a crowd chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!,” and hustled off campus so fast that the school wouldn’t let him grab his jacket on the way out. For those who haven’t seen it, the video of that scene is a remarkable museum piece of Bush-era war mania:
Episodes like this accelerated his departure from the New York Times and into the wilds of independent media, where paying options for dissident voices had been shrinking. As he points out below, someone like him in the past would have parachuted out of a big commercial enterprise like the Times into a life at NPR — broadcasting shows “at like one in the morning, or something,” he chuckles — but NPR, too, had by then been begun its purging of unorthodox and especially antiwar voices.
By the 2010s, one of the last places where media figures pushed off the traditional career track could pick up a paycheck was Russia Today. In an arrangement Hedges plainly describes as a cynical marriage of convenience, the Russian state was happy to give voice to figures covering structural problems in American society, and those quasi-banned voices were glad for the opportunity to broadcast what they felt is the truth, even understanding the editorial motivation. Hedges ended up working at RT for six years hosting On Contact, where he interviewed authors and thinkers resting outside the cultural mainstream, from Nathaniel Philbrick to Cornel West to Nils Melzer to Noam Chomsky to many others (disclosure: I’ve also been a guest).
As Hedges points out in the wide-ranging, unnerving interview below, the speech-control one-two he’s just experienced — first herded out of the mainstream for ideological offenses into a shrinking space of “allowable” dissent, then forced to watch as that space is demonized out of existence — is part of an effective pattern. “It’s how this works,” he sighs. He points to the Intelligence Community Assessment of January 6th, 2017, ostensibly intended to make a case for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which actually spent much of its time complaining about RT, especially its coverage of real but unflattering domestic issues.
“They showed their hand,” he says, referring to the intelligence community’s complaints over reporting on everything from the pursuit of Assange to Occupy Wall Street to corporate overreach. From the Assessment:
RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a “surveillance state” and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use…
Hedges denounced Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a “criminal act of aggression” after it began, and believes that if RT had been allowed to stay on YouTube, he — along with similarly critical former RT contributors like Jesse Ventura — wouldn’t have been permitted by the Kremlin to stay on air. On the other hand, seeing an American company vaporize six years of interviews having nothing to do with Russia shows space for voices like his continues to shrink in the West. In this sense he represents a kind of person we’ll be seeing more of in the future, caught between a censorship rock and a hard place, an outcast in domestic and foreign media systems.
You can find Chris’s work on Substack now at the Chris Hedges Report, and some of the On Contact shows that were re-posted by independent accounts remain up. The launch of the new site has gone very well, but he warns that no place in media is safe now. “They’ll shut down Substack, I absolutely know. Either that, or they’ll create a way that sites like yours and mine won’t be on it,” he says.
More from Chris on censorship, RT, Ukraine, and other issues:
MT: What happened with YouTube?
Chris Hedges: My entire archive of shows from On Contact was taken down. I was in London last week for Julian Assange — I was supposed to be a guest at the wedding, but then, the prison didn’t let me in of course. When I came back, I got a text from a friend of mine, with whom I’d done a half hour show, about a girlfriend who’d overdosed on fentanyl. And because I knew him, my interview with him is quite a powerful segment. And he said, the show doesn’t exist anymore. Then I checked, and nothing exists.
The RT On Contact website is still up, but everything on YouTube is gone, and people watched it on YouTube. Some of that stuff had hundreds of thousands of views.
MT: This two-step process feels like a backdoor way of getting rid of unorthodox voices. In other words, weren’t you on RT in the first place because you’d been bounced out for opposing the war in Iraq? Now, because of your association with RT, you’re off YouTube. Is this a way to get at, not just people connected with Russians, but people with unpopular views generally?
Chris Hedges: Yeah. That’s how it works. They push you to the margins and then, they demonize those spaces on the margins. This has long been the habit of the dominant ruling elites. So for instance, Robert Scheer, whose website I write for, Scheerpost — and of course, we were all fired from Truthdig, this is just a never ending saga — but he ran Ramparts. I think it was Spiro Agnew said, “It’s a magazine with a bomb in every issue.” We could never get advertisers.
So they push you into a space that they then demonize, and then use it as an excuse to shut you down. But they’ve already in essence created the space in which you exist.
I have a couple strikes against me. One, I was pushed out of the New York Times, because I spent so many years in the Middle East, and many years in Gaza. And of course, I was the Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times. I’m very outspoken about Israel, and I’m a very strong supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Which alone is enough — I just saw my friend, Cornel West, denied tenure at Harvard over this. And I’m also a fierce critic, as you are, of the Democratic party. Those are all flags that will get you locked out of even the quote- unquote “liberal media” like MSNBC.
MT: This freeze-out led to your tenure at RT?
Chris Hedges: I’d been marginalized for a long time because of those issues. RT gave me space, and I took it. But it wasn’t a show about Russia. We never did a show on Russia. The irony is that, in fact, the very few times Putin was mentioned, he was not described in flattering terms — it was as an autocrat. There was one show where Syria came up, and Russian war crimes. So there was nothing on the show, ever, that was in any way flattering to the Putin regime.
But the point of the show was, of course, critiquing and looking at our own society, and that was the problem.
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