I wish I could fly back to Russia. I have been in the United States for a year, and I am studying and working here to get experience in American journalism, known worldwide for its independence and professionalism. But, in recent days it has felt as though I am too late, that the journalism of Watergate is well behind us and that reporting is no longer fair and balanced. For years I have respected American newspapers for being independent. But no longer. Coverage of the conflict between Russia and Georgia has been unprofessional, to say the least. I was surprised and disappointed that the world’s media immediately took the side of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili last week.
American newspapers have run story after story about how “evil” Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state. Many accounts made it seem as though the conflict was started by an aggressive Russia invading the Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Some said that South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, was destroyed by the Russian army. Little attention was paid to the chronology of events, the facts underlying the conflict. Last week, Georgia’s president invaded South Ossetia during the night, much as Adolf Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Within hours, Georgian troops destroyed Tskhinvali, a city of 100,000 (actually 30,000: editor’s note), and they killed more than 2,000 civilians. Almost all of the people who died that night were Russian citizens. They chose to become citizens of Russia years ago, when Georgia refused to recognise South Ossetia as a non-Georgian territory. The truth is that, in this case, Russian aggression actually made some sense. Russia defended its citizens.
Yet, American newspapers published stories that omitted mention of the Georgian invasion. American media as a whole has been disturbingly pro-Georgian. The lead photograph on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post showed two men, one dead, the other crying, amid ruins in Gori, Georgia. Many other images could have been used. Monday’s Wall Street Journal, for example, contained several stories about the conflict and even an op-ed by Saakashvili. Where was the Russian response? I understand why the Georgian government would block access to Russian media Web sites. I understand why Russian media would present events in a light that favours Moscow’s actions. But, American media are not supposed to do the equivalent.
The much-revered American principle of a free press guarantees access to an independent source of information. It is supposed to mean that nobody takes a side, that journalists give readers the facts and let them draw their own conclusions. The Georgian president quickly became a chief newsmaker for Western media outlets, yet, little could be found to explain the Russian side. It’s hard to understand how and why the terrible situation between Georgia and Russia has played out this way. Everything seemed too clear for the journalists writing about the conflict. Big, evil Russia tried to destroy small, democratic Georgia. The American media’s willingness to choose sides provoked Russian media outlets. Russian newspapers did not waste time reminding readers that the true evil was the United States and that Washington was ultimately responsible for the conflict in Ossetia and Georgia. Beyond the slanted coverage, I am also concerned about the lack of information on the number of civilians killed and wounded. How should we know which accounts to trust?
Over the past week, American media have achieved one thing for sure. They have lost prestige among a generation of young Russians who believed that America is a country of true, uncorrupted, independent information. Many Russian youths come to the United States for college and then go back to Russia to help build our own democracy. Russians believe in democracy. But, I don’t know whether many Russians will ever trust American media reports again. US newspapers have lost esteem among Russian journalists as well. These reporters have long looked to American newspapers as icons of quality journalism. They are supposed to stand for truth and serve the people’s interests. But, whose interests did newspapers serve by publishing stories in the best traditions of the Cold War?
I think that both the Russian and Georgian governments attacked civilians. I blame the governments for this war. But, I am also saddened by the unfair coverage of the conflict from Russian and American media. If this is what freedom of the press looks like, then I no longer want to believe in this freedom. I prefer to stay neutral and independent, just like a professional journalist has to do.
15 August 2008
Master’s degree candidate at Duquesne University, an intern at the Washington Post
Here is an unintended consequence of the American encouragement of the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia. There are many Russian students in the USA, and there are many Russian emigrants here, not all of whom plan to stay permanently. What this crisis has done is to smash their faith in America. What is worse, Bush, Cheney, and Rice did so gleefully, without any regard for who was watching them.
Of course, I cannot predict the future for tomorrow, let alone 20 years from now, but, I would say that this is one of the gravest policy errors committed by the Bush-Cheney-Rice troika. At least some of these young people are going to go home with their dreams violated. That is, one has no enemy quite like the person who was once a friend, and then found their trust betrayed and tossed to the side. Some of these young people are going to be America’s bitterest foes, and they shall have an intimate knowledge of what makes the USA tick, so, their bitterness shall have a sharp edge.
Two people who have been foes from the first can come to a compromise. That occurred between Presidents Gorbachyov and Reagan in 1987. These two great men decided to end the Cold War, as both sides were mutually exhausted. President Reagan made solemn promises to President Gorbachyov, and I believe that Mr Reagan was sincere in his pledges of not stationing NATO troops in the former DDR and of not expanding NATO into the former Warsaw Pact states. After all, he had purged the loudmouth neocons from his administration. These two former enemies could bury the hatchet. The subsequent betrayal of Mr Reagan’s promises by the grasping neocons does not invalidate my point. Enemies can come to agreement.
However, someone who has had their dream violated, someone who has had their trust trampled upon, does not forgive. There is a bitterness that no human balm can assuage. That is why one must choose one’s friends with care. If you hurt them in any way, you have gained an enemy more bitter than any born foe.
I bow before Ms Ivanova, and all the others like her, and ask her forgiveness. We, the ordinary folks in America, did not betray your trust. However, our government acted abominably. There is no doubt on that score. All I can ask is that you do not lump us in with the chattering classes you saw in academe and in Washington. I can understand your detestation of the American government and the moneyed élite that sustains it. Please, do not think that the majority of the American people are like that. The Russian people were better than the Soviet commissars… likewise, the American people are better than the neocon junta now regnant in Washington.
Forgive us. We have failed you. S Bogom, raba bozhiya Olga.