Several press articles I’ve seen in the past few days have annoyed me rather, but I think that they are useful as examples of how reporting on Russia is distorted. For they demonstrate the methods used by journalists to paint a picture of the world that is far from accurate.
The articles in question come from those bastions of balanced reporting, The New York Times and The Guardian. The first is from Sunday’s edition of the NYT, with the title ‘The Arms Dealer in the Crosshairs of Russia’s Elite Assassination Squad’. This discusses Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, whose weapons were destroyed in an explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014, allegedly by Russian secret agents.
The second article is also from the NYT. This one has the title ‘After Testing the World’s Limits, Putin Steps Back From the Brink,’ and analyzes what author Anton Troianovski calls Russia’s ‘escalatory approach to foreign policy’, as seen by the Russian military build up near the Ukrainian border.
The third and final piece is from The Guardian, and is about last week’s protests in support of jailed oppositionist Alexei Navalny. This is somewhat schizophrenic, on the one hand saying that the pro-Navalny movement is in trouble, but on the other hand portraying the protests as a relative success and ending on a confident note that however grim things look for the opposition now, this can change at any moment.
Anyway, as one reads these articles one notices certain techniques that are used to paint a distorted picture of reality. So if you want to be a journalist, here’s what the articles teach that you should do:
1. Make stuff up. In the Guardian article, authors Andrew Roth and Luke Harding (yes, he!) begin by telling readers that ‘The future looked unspeakably grim for Alexey Navalny’s supporters before this week’s protests’,. But it then lifts our spirits with the following:
What followed was surprisingly normal: a core of tens of thousands of Navalny supporters rallied near the Kremlin, waving mobile phone torches and chanting “Putin is a thief!” The police stood back in Moscow (there was a violent crackdown in St Petersburg). For an evening, the crowd roved the streets of the capital at will.
“This feeling of enthusiasm, of overcoming fear, the protest ended on a positive note … It left me with the feeling that nothing is lost, it’s still not the final battle, and that street protests in Russia are not over forever,” said Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, in an interview from Europe.
Ah yes, the protests were a huge success, euphoric. There were ‘tens of thousands of Navalny supporters rallied near the Kremlin.’
Except that most reporters said that there was nothing of the sort, and that the turnout was far below expectations.
Estimates of the size of the protest crowd vary, but the Russian Interior Ministry reckoned the numbers as 14,000 across the entire country and only 6,000 in Moscow. Interior Ministry counts tend to be on the low size, so you can treat them with a pinch of salt, but Russian media outlets were claiming a crowd in Moscow of 10,000 to 15,000, while Western journalists’ estimates were in the same ballpark. Max Seddon of the Financial Times, for instance, reckoned the number at about 10,000 and commented that it was much lower than in the last protests in January. So ‘tens of thousands’ as The Guardian claims? Apparently not.
The Guardian isn’t alone in providing misleading data. In its article about the Bulgarian arms dealer, The New York Times has the following to say:
After pro-democracy protestors toppled the Kremlin’s puppet government there [i.e. Ukraine], Russia special forces units wearing unmarked uniforms seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula and also instigated a separatist uprising that is still going on in the east.
Let’s unravel this a bit: Were the demonstrators in Kiev really ‘pro-democracy’? Debatable, though not provably 100% false. But definitely untrue is the idea that the Ukrainian government that was toppled in February 2014 was a ‘Russian puppet’. That’s simply false. As for Russian special forces ‘annexing’ Crimea, it’s true in a way, although not the whole story of what happened. But the claim that Russian special forces ‘instigated a separatist uprising’ in Donbass is without foundation. I know of no evidence of ‘Russian special forces’ having been present in Donbass in the early weeks of the uprising there. (Strelkov and his goons were not ‘Russian special forces’, and most analyses of the uprising show how it was overwhelmingly spontaneous and local in origin.)
So, again, making stuff up.
2. Mention that others have ‘reported’, ‘claimed’, or ‘alleged’ something without pointing out that the claim in question is dubious at best, or false at worst.
For example. The NYT piece about Mr Gebrev talks about the alleged Russian spy unit, Unit 29155, and tell us that:
Last year, the Times revealed a CIA assessment that officers from the unit may have carried out a secret operation to pay bounties to a network of criminal militants in Afghanistan in exchange for attacks on US and coalition troops.
This is superficially true in that the Times did reveal this assessment. But what it doesn’t tell you is that the US government only has low to medium confidence that the claim is true. That’s kind of important, don’t you think? Shouldn’t it be mentioned? By failing to do so, the Times makes out that something is true that probably isn’t.
It’s not the only example. Talking of Ukraine a little later, the same article tells us that after war broke out in Donbass,
Russian assassins fanned out across the country, killing senior Ukrainian military and intelligence officials who were central to the war effort, according to Ukrainian officials.
They did, did they? Well, maybe ‘according to Ukrainian officials’ they did. But I have to say that it’s the first I’ve ever heard of it, and if it were true wouldn’t there have been news of lots of dead Ukrainian military and intelligence officers? Given that there wasn’t any such news, why repeat the claim? Shouldn’t the Times at least check it first.
3. Cite only sources that back up the narrative you are trying to tell. Ignore alternative viewpoints.
This kind of follows on from the last. If you are writing about Ukraine, cite ‘Ukrainian officials’. But don’t cite rebel spokesmen. If you’re talking about Russia, cite oppositionists. Ignore pro-government analysts.
We can see this in the Guardian piece. This quotes a couple of members of Navalny’s team, a British professor, a pro-Navalny Russia high schooler, and then to finish off some completely random former advisor to one-time British foreign minister Robin Cook, whose connection to, and knowledge of, Russia is completely unexplained. The only reason for giving him the final word seems to be that he came up with some nice lines about how opposition movements can suddenly triumph even when they seem to be losing. Needless to say, dissenting viewpoints are nowhere to be heard in the article.
The NYT piece about Russia stepping ‘back from the brink’ is similarly loaded with carefully chosen sources. First up is the ever-present Gleb Pavlovsky, a one-time advisor to Vladimir Putin turned oppositionist, who seems to be the eternal go-to person for anti-Putin quotes. After him, the article gives us a quote from Navalny’s assistant Leonid Volkov, a statement from Ukrainian National Security Advisor Oleksiy Danilov, and a few words from the generally pretty anti-Putin Estonian analyst Kadri Liik. For a pretence of balance we also get a statement by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and the opinion of Konstantin Remchukov, editor of Nezavisimaia Gazeta, a newspaper whose political stance isn’t 100% clear to me but strikes me as sort-of oppositional, sort of not (given that Remchukov ran the re-election campaign of Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin). All in all, the anti-government voices get the bulk of the space.
So there you have it. Make some stuff up. Reference ‘claims’ and ‘allegations’ without pointing out that they are unsubstantiated or even false. And throw in lots of quotes from pundits who support the chosen narrative. Easy as pie. A career as a journalist awaits you. Just don’t bother trying to be accurate. Understood?