In 2018, Duncan Campbell was commissioned by the “voice of journalism” and “watchdog of the press”, Columbia Journalism Review, to write an investigation into the venerable New York magazine The Nation, and its apparent support for Russia’s territorial ambitions. In 2020, after a full fact check, legal review and edit, the article was cancelled two days before the scheduled publication. In 2022, months after Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine, the CJR again refused to publish the article.
One afternoon, five weeks before Election Day in 2016, on the 21st floor of a tower overlooking Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue, members of The Nation’s editorial advisory board gathered for a twice-annual meeting. Katrina vanden Heuvel—the magazine’s editor, publisher, and owner—invited attendees to hear from a special guest, who had come to warn them that criticizing Donald Trump’s involvements with Russia, or his relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, could trigger global nuclear annihilation. Vanden Heuvel, who was 56, gestured to her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, then 77, a retired professor of Russian studies. Russia and the United States “were closer to war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis,” he told the board. He also derided Democrats and American media organizations for “demonization of Russian President Putin.”
Philip Green, a political theorist who had been on the board for forty years, listened with skepticism. Cohen’s theory, “presented with deadly and urgent seriousness,” he thought, appeared to be channeling the paranoia of the far-right. Others felt the same way. But afterward, Green says, “It became the party line.”
Cohen would go on to make the same argument in at least 160 Nation articles; more than a hundred talk radio show appearances; and on Russia’s state-owned international channel, Russia Today (RT). In many cases, his articles were “essentially transcribed radio programs that were unedited and did not go through other editorial filters,” according to Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor and investigative journalist. Accusing the Russian government of committing an act of war by hacking the Democratic National Committee, Cohen warned, might mean “the necessity of actual war, conceivably nuclear war, against Russia.” He wrote that “villainizing the Kremlin—without much evidence—is increasing the possibility of a US-Russian war.” Once Trump took office, Cohen branded media investigations of Russia’s involvement with the Trump campaign as “neo-McCarthyism” and “Kremlin-baiting.”
For these critiques, Cohen won praise from outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart, anathema to The Nation readership; soon, he began making periodic appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “Today, in my scholarly, long-term judgment, relations between the United States and Russia are more dangerous than they have ever—let me repeat, ever—been, including the Cuban missile crisis,” Cohen told Carlson in 2018.
Nation employees became uneasy about Cohen’s assertions and who was airing his ideas. “The people who work there, especially the younger staff, are disgruntled about the Russia coverage,” Adam Shatz, a former Nation writer and literary editor, says. A joke began circulating around the office: “We tried to fact check Steve’s pieces but we couldn’t find any facts to check.” [Continue reading…]