Interview with the award-winning investigative reporter, now at Substack, who had six years of shows removed by YouTube over the weekend.
By Matt Taibbi / Substack ScheerPost
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 RTfor 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.
It was a very wonky show. It was mostly about books. I was very conscientious about reading the books, because as a writer, I don’t like it when people interview me, and never read my books. The last few shows, it was Nathaniel Philbrick, on his book on Washington, Kai Bird, on his biography of Jimmy Carter, and then also, his brilliant biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
I did a show on the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, with a Joyce scholar from Trinity College, Dublin. A biography of Susan Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. And then, very high powered, thoughtful, social critics Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Wendy Brown from UCLA, Naomi Wolf, Slavoj Žižek. It was the kind of show that should have been on public broadcasting, if we had a functioning public broadcasting system. Probably run at like one in the morning, or something.
I used to work for NPR — covered the Falklands War for NPR, Buenos Aires. But of course, public broadcasting has been destroyed.
MT: So instead of being on NPR, which is where you would have been under the old system, you were on RT, which was one of the only places that gave space to people with a dissident point of view on neoliberalism, militarism, and so on.
Chris Hedges: One of the very few that paid. I mean, you can get on unpaid space. Which makes it impossible to live.
I covered the revolutions of Eastern Europe, and during the communist era of Czechoslovakia, if you wanted to listen to Vaclav Havel, who I knew, you had to listen to Voice of America.
Havel had no love for American imperialism, or even corporate capitalism. But it was that, or not have his voice heard at all, within Czechoslovakia. But of course, the Communist regime loved it. They would excoriate him as a stooge of the West.
MT: For people who aren’t familiar, could you summarize what happened at the New York Times?
Chris Hedges: I’d spent seven years in the Middle East. I speak Arabic, so I understood that the invasion of Iraq was, number one, based on a lie. I’d gone into Kuwait with first battalion, Marine Corps, in the first Gulf war. And then stayed on in the Middle East, and covered the UN inspection teams. So there were stocks in Iraq, of chemical weapons in artillery shells, but those were all destroyed. And the sanctions had been quite crippling. Then Saddam Hussein couldn’t get spare parts for his tanks, and anything else. He wasn’t a military threat, in any way — to his neighbors, and certainly not to us.
I was very outspoken about the call to invade Iraq, understanding, coming out of the region, that it would be the debacle that it became. And as a reporter, not a columnist, I understood that was not something I was supposed to do. On the other hand, I felt a responsibility to speak out, coming out of the region, and bearing that kind of experience and knowledge, including months of my life in Iraq. I was on shows, being very critical of the war, on Charlie Rose, that kind of thing. Then I gave a commencement speech at Rockford College, in Rockford, Illinois, where I was booed off of the stage, for denouncing the war. That was seized upon by right wing media. The way they do it is, they loop you. It’s every single hour, and they pull a clip, and they demonize you.
Everybody went after me. The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial calling me a left-wing pacifist. I’m not a pacifist. And the Times was forced to respond, and issued me a formal written reprimand. I was called into the office of the assistant managing editor, Bill Schmidt, and given a paper. Under guild rules, when you give the employee the reprimand, if they then violate that prohibition again, you have grounds to fire them. So I was finished.
I don’t how it functions now, but The New York Times functioned then like the old Soviet party. One day you’re in the Politburo, and the next day, you’re in Tajikistan somewhere.
That’s what happened. With our reporters, I was toxic. I would walk through the newsroom, reporters I knew for years, would look down at their desk, or pretend I didn’t exist. And I left the paper. I saw Dean Baquet a few years later, and he ran across the room and said, “We never fired you.” But I was done. I was done at the paper.
MT: When you look out at the media landscape now, and you see all these people who got the Iraq war the most wrong there, they have all the best jobs. They’re either editing The Atlantic, or they’re anchors on cable — how does that make you feel?
Chris Hedges: They’re careerists. They didn’t know anything about Iraq, particularly, but they understood which way the wind blew, what was good for their career. That’s what they’ve always done. A place like The New York Times is filled with them. I fault more the reporters who came out of the Middle East, because their assessment was no different than mine, but they wouldn’t say anything, because they understood the consequence.
But these people, like Thomas Friedman or… who is it at The Atlantic?
MT: Jeffrey Goldberg.
Chris Hedges: Right. That’s what they do. They’re courtiers, careerists. George Packerbeing one of the worst, or the guy at The New Yorker…
MT: David Remnick.
Chris Hedges: Remnick. It would appear to be a contradiction, but of course, it’s not, because they ultimately serve the centers of power.
That’s why, even though they got it all wrong, they’re still where they are. And they’re now doing it with Ukraine. I don’t know if you were in Russia then, but I was in Eastern Europe in ‘89, and we all naively thought NATO was obsolete.
It shows you how stupid we were. I was there when all the deals were made, and they all promised not to expand NATO beyond the borders of unified Germany. Because everybody — even Henry Kissinger, I mean, everyone, George Kennan was still around, they all understood. They all understood, especially given Russia’s history, that pushing NATO across Eastern Europe was not only unnecessary, but a dangerous provocation. And I’m not excusing, by the way, what Putin did, I denounced it at the beginning. Which would’ve probably finished me, by the way, at RT, because I wrote a piece for Scheerpost calling it a criminal war of aggression. Preemptive war is a criminal war of aggression. Six days later, RT went dark.
My suspicion is that Moscow would not have allowed me to stick around, because it wasn’t just once, I was very vocal about it, as I was about the Iraq war. So was Jesse Ventura. Jesse Ventura’s a vet from Vietnam. I covered wars, both of us come out of the experiences of war.
I went to [Harvard] divinity school, so I studied ethics, and especially, the nature of institutions. If you hold fast to your integrity, you are inevitably going to have ruptures with every institution you’re in. That’s the pattern. I think, what’s frightening for me is, because I have a long trajectory, having begun as a reporter in the ‘80s, I just watched the walls close in, and that may have made editors, at times, uncomfortable. I know I did. And I may have been considered, in some ways, a management problem. But there used to be a space for people like me. Like my friend, Sydney Schanberg, and others. That space doesn’t exist anymore.
MT: I want to get to that, because it seems like a lot of those people are at Substack now. But just quickly, on Ukraine: I was watching a 2015 speech by John Mearsheimer the other night. It seemed prescient. He says, “The idea that the United States could take a military alliance that was a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union and march it up to Russia’s doorstep… The Russians have no intention of letting Georgia and Ukraine become part of the West. They’ll wreck both those countries first.”
Even allowing for the idea that Putin is completely to blame for the invasion, there seems like there’s little space for discussing the idea that pursuing “liberal hegemony,” or “benevolent hegemony” as the neocons called it, might not have been wise. What’s your take on all this?
Chris Hedges: I don’t believe that Putin would’ve invaded the Ukraine, if we had honored our commitments with the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to expand NATO. The whole expansion of NATO, which never made any geopolitical sense, was about enriching the arms industry. It became a multi-billion-dollar bonanza. That’s what drove it.
We all talk about Ukraine not being part of NATO, but Ukraine was a de facto part of NATO, because it had already received significant amounts of NATO compatible military equipment. It had, I think, about 150 NATO advisors. I was in Warsaw a couple years ago. There were billboards all over the city from Raytheon, because Raytheon is bilking the people of Poland.
A lot of this is being paid for by loans. Poland just signed a deal, another deal, for $6 billion dollars worth of M1 Abrams tanks. The primary reason we continued in the war in Afghanistan for so long, was because it was making money… We know from The Afghan Papers, that the policy makers in the military understood that it was a fiasco, but they just kept going, I think, because of profits. And of course, they’re ginning up conflicts with China. These people need the specter of a conflict, in order to justify those massive expenditures.
In ‘89, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the revolution, everybody was talking about a peace dividend. That we wouldn’t have to throw so many resources, and such massive amounts of money, at the arms industry anymore. And again, that’s just another example of how we didn’t get how pernicious and powerful this industry was.
In the end, of course, Russia pulled the trigger, and they’re guilty, but they were baited to a degree. But you can’t even say that within this media landscape, even though that’s a historical fact. That’s not an opinion. But it doesn’t fit with the kind of euphoria.
After 20 years of committing egregious war crimes all over the Middle East, we’ve suddenly anointed ourselves once again as the saviors of the world, and we love it. And a lot of it has nothing to do with Ukraine, but about our own self-adulation. This is the difference, as Chomsky and Herman write about, between worthy and unworthy victims. So Yemenis are not worthy victims, Palestinians are not worthy victims, Iraqis are not worthy victims. But Ukrainians — and it helps that they’re white — are worthy victims. They’re worthy of our compassion and our support. It’s just another way to mask our own war crimes. What we did in the Middle East — I believe Shock and Awe alone far outstrips anything Putin’s done, though that may change.
What does the U.S. want? Well, the U.S. is quite clear. It wants another Chechnya. It wants another old Afghanistan, where Brzeziński baited the Russians into Afghanistan, by significantly arming those forces that would become the Taliban. And then he was quite proud of it, and argued that the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan led to the collapse of Eastern Europe. And that’s what they want. They want, in their cynical parlance, to make Russia bleed. But of course, the irony of this is the people who will really bleed are the Ukrainians. That’s what’s happening.
The amounts of weaponry being pumped down into the Ukraine are just staggering. I mean, Germany has lifted its export on arms. It’s doubled its defense budget. Now Germany will spend, I think, 2% of GDP on defense, which will make it the third largest military power, after the United States and China.
MT: You mentioned just now, “But you can’t say that” about aspects of the war. One of the few places that you would be able to say anything is here on this site. You mentioned that you think eventually this place is going to be in danger too. Can you elaborate? What do you think the shelf life is for a media experiment like this?
Chris Hedges: With RT, the Director of National Intelligence, Clapper, another piece of scum, who lied, committed perjury in the US Congress, and [former CIA director] John Brennan — I mean, I covered these people. They’re just sleaze incarnate. But they’re all posturing in the press. And on MSNBC, it doesn’t really matter where, there’s complete uniformity in media. Did you see the piece that I wrote today? I quoted Dorothy Parker about Katharine Hepburn’s emotional range as an actress going from A to B. Well, that’s where we are, in terms of talking about policy. It’s like the debate on Syria. It was, “Should we bomb them, or should we bomb them and put boots on the ground?” Those are the two options.
In Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s report, in 2017, there was an assessment of the attack on us by Russia, which of course, had given us Donald Trump, supposedly. There were about seven pages devoted to RT. But what was interesting is that they tipped their hand. While they complained about Russian propaganda, all of the examples they used were about giving a platform to third party candidates, to anti-fracking activists, to Occupy activists, to Black Lives Matter activists. They were quite open about what they hated.
So, RT was targeted for that reason. And let’s be clear. This was also a very cynical move on the part of the Russian government. They wanted to give prominence to voices like mine, because I’m a critic of the American empire, the American system. That’s why I was there. And if I was in Russia, I would probably be out of a job, like the rest of the Russian journalists.
So with the invasion of Ukraine, they were ready, they knew, and they acted very swiftly with regard to RT.
We’ve already seen complaints about Substack. I don’t follow it that closely, but we’ve seen them. Especially as the ruling elites calcify, their inability to reach people makes the situation precarious. Biden is a classic example of the traditional elites, who now are completely out of touch. Remember, he’s built an alliance with the traditional establishment of the Republican party, the old Liz Cheneys, and Bill Kristol, and all these people, who are appalled by the kind of cult-like Republican party that’s built up around Trump.
What they want, what they’re desperately trying to do is, recreate the Ancien Régime, in the same way. It’s very similar to 1932, with [Franz] von Papen, who along with everyone else is scared of the Nazis, as they should be. But their response is to recreate the Ancien Régime, which collapses, as this effort will collapse, as well. They can’t take any responsibility. They’re incapable of any kind of self-criticism, or understanding that their policies of neoliberalism, of austerity, of rampant militarism, are a deep betrayal.
Because remember, the lies that the Democratic party told to the working class in this country were far more egregious, and inflicted far more damage, than any lie Trump told. And so what happened is that — and we saw it after the election of Trump — they were just as loony as the Republicans. People forget that they were all running around, telling people in the electoral college, who were Trump delegates, not to vote for Trump, and that it was Putin that gave us Trump. So, the response is to control the information, to seek broader and deeper forms of censorship, as most despotic regimes do, because they don’t understand it’s them that’s the problem. They think it’s the message.
Of course, this comes from Silicon Valley… You have this amazing specter of Democratic congressmen hauling in CEOs from these platforms to the Hill, and begging them to commit more censorship. But it’s because they can’t deal with the fundamental problems that have befallen the country. Their attempt instead is to banish or silence the critics who speak the truth about what’s happening. That really is, I think, what’s going on.
As things deteriorate, and I believe they will deteriorate, that pressure, which was already pretty heavy, is going to become heavier. You know better than I, the complaints about Substack, well, which I’m sure are serious — they will find them.
They will begin to put pressure on. In the end, Substack is a commercial operation. I mean, they don’t exist for no reason, they exist to make money. And when that is your primary goal, you are very susceptible to that kind of pressure.
MT: Well, let’s hope they’re able to persevere. In any case, thanks, and welcome. Where can people find you?
Chris Hedges: I’m at Chrishedges@substack.com.
MT: To readers, I highly recommend a visit. Chris, thank you.
Chris Hedges: Thank you.