Monday, February 17, 2014

"Distorting Russia!" | The Nation

Distorting Russia-
How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.

Putin
(Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool)

The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a
country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many
years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and
politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and
magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and,
unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media
malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post,
news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously
to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide
essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between
reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or
“expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on
their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less
objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological
than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

The history of this degradation is also clear. It began in the early
1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, when the US media adopted
Washington’s narrative that almost everything President Boris Yeltsin
did was a “transition from communism to democracy” and thus in America’s
best interests. This included his economic “shock therapy” and
oligarchic looting of essential state assets, which destroyed tens of
millions of Russian lives; armed destruction of a popularly elected
Parliament and imposition of a “presidential” Constitution, which dealt a
crippling blow to democratization and now empowers Putin; brutal war in
tiny Chechnya, which gave rise to terrorists in Russia’s North
Caucasus; rigging of his own re-election in 1996; and leaving behind, in
1999, his approval ratings in single digits, a disintegrating country
laden with weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, most American
journalists still give the impression that Yeltsin was an ideal Russian
leader.

Since the early 2000s, the media have followed a different
leader-centric narrative, also consistent with US policy, that devalues
multifaceted analysis for a relentless demonization of Putin, with
little regard for facts. (Was any Soviet Communist leader after Stalin
ever so personally villainized?) If Russia under Yeltsin was presented
as having legitimate politics and national interests, we are now made to
believe that Putin’s Russia has none at all, at home or abroad—even on
its own borders, as in Ukraine.

Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin
policies. But anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find
there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in
provocative US policies since the 1990s—only in the “autocrat” Putin
who, however authoritarian, in reality lacks such power. Nor is he
credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country,
assisting US security pursuits from Afghanistan
and Syria to Iran or even with granting amnesty, in December, to more
than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.

Not surprisingly, in January The Wall Street Journal
featured the widely discredited former president of Georgia, Mikheil
Saakashvili, branding Putin’s government as one of “deceit, violence and
cynicism,” with the Kremlin a “nerve center of the troubles that
bedevil the West.” But wanton Putin-bashing is also the dominant
narrative in centrist, liberal and progressive media, from the Post, Times and The New Republic to CNN, MSNBC and HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher,
where Howard Dean, not previously known for his Russia expertise,
recently declared, to the panel’s approval, “Vladimir Putin is a thug.”

The media therefore eagerly await Putin’s downfall—due to his
“failing economy” (some of its indicators are better than US ones), the
valor of street protesters and other right-minded oppositionists (whose
policies are rarely examined), the defection of his electorate (his
approval ratings remain around 65 percent) or some welcomed “cataclysm.”
Evidently believing, as does the Times, for example, that
democrats and a “much better future” will succeed Putin (not zealous
ultranationalists growing in the streets and corridors of power), US
commentators remain indifferent to what the hoped-for “destabilization
of his regime” might mean in the world’s largest nuclear country.

Certainly, The New Republic’s lead writer on Russia, Julia
Ioffe, does not explore the question, or much else of real consequence,
in her nearly 10,000-word February 17 cover story. Ioffe’s bannered
theme is devoutly Putin-phobic: “He Crushed His Opposition and Has
Nothing to Show for It But a Country That Is Falling Apart.” Neither
sweeping assertion is spelled out or documented. A compilation of chats
with Russian-born Ioffe’s disaffected (but seemingly not “crushed”)
Moscow acquaintances and titillating personal gossip long circulating on
the Internet, the article seems better suited (apart from some factual
errors) for the Russian tabloids, as does Ioffe’s disdain for
objectivity. Protest shouts of “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a
thief!” were “one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever
experienced.” So was tweeting “Putin’s fucked, y’all.” Nor does she
forget the hopeful mantra “cataclysm seems closer than ever now.”
* * *
For weeks, this toxic coverage has focused on the Sochi Olympics and
the deepening crisis in Ukraine. Even before the Games began, the Times declared the newly built complex a “Soviet-style dystopia” and warned in a headline, Terrorism and Tension, Not Sports and Joy. On opening day, the paper found space for three anti-Putin articles and a lead editorial, a feat rivaled by the Post.
Facts hardly mattered. Virtually every US report insisted that a record
$51 billion “squandered” by Putin on the Sochi Games proved they were
“corrupt.” But as Ben Aris of Business New Europe pointed out,
as much as $44 billion may have been spent “to develop the
infrastructure of the entire region,” investment “the entire country
needs.”

Overall pre-Sochi coverage was even worse, exploiting the threat of terrorism so licentiously it seemed pornographic. The Post, long known among critical-minded Russia-watchers as Pravda
on the Potomac, exemplified the media ethos. A sports columnist and an
editorial page editor turned the Olympics into “a contest of wills”
between the despised Putin’s “thugocracy” and terrorist “insurgents.”
The “two warring parties” were so equated that readers might have
wondered which to cheer for. If nothing else, American journalists gave
terrorists an early victory, tainting “Putin’s Games” and frightening
away many foreign spectators, including some relatives of the athletes.

The Sochi Games will soon pass, triumphantly or tragically, but the
potentially fateful Ukrainian crisis will not. A new Cold War divide
between West and East may now be unfolding, not in Berlin but in the
heart of Russia’s historical civilization. The result could be a
permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of a hot
war far worse than the one in Georgia in 2008. These dangers have been
all but ignored in highly selective, partisan and inflammatory US media
accounts, which portray the European Union’s “Partnership” proposal
benignly as Ukraine’s chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from
Russia, thwarted only by a “bullying” Putin and his “cronies” in Kiev.

Not long ago, committed readers could count on The New York Review of Books
for factually trustworthy alternative perspectives on important
historical and contemporary subjects. But when it comes to Russia and
Ukraine, the NYRB has succumbed to the general media mania. In a
January 21 blog post, Amy Knight, a regular contributor and inveterate
Putin-basher, warned the US government against cooperating with the
Kremlin on Sochi security, even suggesting that Putin’s secret services
“might have had an interest in allowing or even facilitating such
attacks” as killed or wounded dozens of Russians in Volgograd in
December.

Knight’s innuendo prefigured a purported report on Ukraine by Yale
professor Timothy Snyder in the February 20 issue. Omissions of facts,
by journalists or scholars, are no less an untruth than misstatements of
fact. Snyder’s article was full of both, which are widespread in the
popular media, but these are in the esteemed NYRB and by an acclaimed academic. Consider a few of Snyder’s assertions:

§ ”On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship.” In fact, the “paper”
legislation he’s referring to hardly constituted dictatorship, and in
any event was soon repealed. Ukraine is in a state nearly the opposite
of dictatorship—political chaos uncontrolled by President Viktor
Yanukovych, the Parliament, the police or any other government
institution.

§ ”The [parliamentary] deputies…have all but voted themselves out of
existence.” Again, Snyder is alluding to the nullified “paper.”
Moreover, serious discussions have been under way in Kiev about
reverting to provisions in the 2004 Constitution that would return
substantial presidential powers to the legislature, hardly “the end of
parliamentary checks on presidential power,” as Snyder claims. (Does he
dislike the prospect of a compromise outcome?)

§ ”Through remarkably large and peaceful public protests…Ukrainians
have set a positive example for Europeans.” This astonishing statement
may have been true in November, but it now raises questions about the
“example” Snyder is advocating. The occupation of government buildings
in Kiev and in Western Ukraine, the hurling of firebombs at police and
other violent assaults on law enforcement officers and the proliferation
of anti-Semitic slogans by a significant number of anti-Yanukovych
protesters, all documented and even televised, are not an “example” most
readers would recommend to Europeans or Americans. Nor are they
tolerated, even if accompanied by episodes of police brutality, in any Western democracy.

§ ”Representatives of a minor group of the Ukrainian extreme right
have taken credit for the violence.” This obfuscation implies that apart
perhaps from a “minor group,” the “Ukrainian extreme right” is part of
the positive “example” being set. (Many of its representatives have
expressed hatred for Europe’s “anti-traditional” values, such as gay
rights.) Still more, Snyder continues, “something is fishy,” strongly
implying that the mob violence is actually being “done by russo-phone
provocateurs” on behalf of “Yanukovych (or Putin).” As evidence, Snyder
alludes to “reports” that the instigators “spoke Russian.” But millions
of Ukrainians on both sides of their incipient civil war speak Russian.

§ Snyder reproduces yet another widespread media malpractice
regarding Russia, the decline of editorial fact-checking. In a recent
article in the International New York Times, he both inflates
his assertions and tries to delete neofascist elements from his
innocuous “Ukrainian extreme right.” Again without any verified
evidence, he warns of a Putin-backed “armed intervention” in Ukraine
after the Olympics and characterizes reliable reports of “Nazis and
anti-Semites” among street protesters as “Russian propaganda.”

§ Perhaps the largest untruth promoted by Snyder and most US media is
the claim that “Ukraine’s future integration into Europe” is “yearned
for throughout the country.” But every informed observer knows—from
Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent
politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to
whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and
economically to Russia. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian
people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern
regions.

Such factual distortions point to two flagrant omissions by Snyder
and other US media accounts. The now exceedingly dangerous confrontation
between the two Ukraines was not “ignited,” as the Times
claims, by Yanukovych’s duplicitous negotiating—or by Putin—but by the
EU’s reckless ultimatum, in November, that the democratically elected
president of a profoundly divided country choose between Europe and
Russia. Putin’s proposal for a tripartite arrangement, rarely if ever
reported, was flatly rejected by US and EU officials.

But the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction
that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s
ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the
1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO
political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in
Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia. Whether this
longstanding Washington-Brussels policy is wise or reckless, it—not
Putin’s December financial offer to save Ukraine’s collapsing economy—is
deceitful. The EU’s “civilizational” proposal, for example, includes
“security policy” provisions, almost never reported, that would
apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.

Any doubts about the Obama administration’s real intentions in
Ukraine should have been dispelled by the recently revealed taped
conversation between a top State Department official, Victoria Nuland,
and the US ambassador in Kiev. The media predictably focused on the
source of the “leak” and on Nuland’s verbal “gaffe”—“Fuck the EU.” But
the essential revelation was that high-level US officials were plotting
to “midwife” a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or
neutralizing its democratically elected president—that is, a coup.

Americans are left with a new edition of an old question. Has
Washington’s twenty-year winner-take-all approach to post-Soviet Russia
shaped this degraded news coverage, or is official policy shaped by the
coverage? Did Senator John McCain stand in Kiev alongside the well-known
leader of an extreme nationalist party because he was ill informed by
the media, or have the media deleted this part of the story because of
McCain’s folly?

And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level
delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin
virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to
facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran. Should not Obama himself
have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with
Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of
our countries? Did he not go because he was ensnared by his unwise
Russia policies, or because the US media misrepresented the varying
reasons cited: the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, differences on
the Middle East, infringements on gay rights in Russia, and now Ukraine?

Whatever the explanation, as Russian intellectuals say when faced with
two bad alternatives, “Both are worst.”

Stephen F. Cohen | This article appeared in the March 3, 2014 edition of The Nation.

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