The New York Times' Biggest Screw-up Since They Sold the War in Iraq
You may not have noticed it, but a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times slipped in a story that completely contradicted a narrative that it had been building up for two straight months, one that was leading America into another war-a so-called "New Cold War." The article exposed the awful authoritarian reality of Georgia's so-called democracy, painting a dark picture of President Mikhail Saakashvili's rule that repudiated the fairy tale that the Times and everyone else in the major media had been pushing ever since war broke out in South Ossetia in early August. That fairy tale went like this: Russia (evil) invaded Georgia (good) for no reason whatsoever except that Georgia was free. Putin hates freedom, and Saakashvili is the "democratically elected leader" of a "small, democratic country."
Yes, it was only a month ago that we were stupid and crazy enough to think that the United States had no choice but to launch a costly new cold war against a nuclear power, even though we still haven't closed the deal on a couple of mini-wars against Division-III opponents, and we were on the verge of bankruptcy. Ah, to be blissfully nave-and bloodthirsty at the same time-wasn't it wonderful?
As the South Ossetia war raged in early- and mid-August, the Times published an editorial labeling Georgia's invasion as "Russia's War of Ambition"; it also published a series of hysterical op-eds, including William Kristol's comparing Russia to Nazi Germany (Hitler's charred skull must be spinning in its museum case from being turned into the cheapest clich in the hack's analogy box), and another from Svante E. Cornell of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins-the same corruption-plagued institute that ABC News discovered was taking money from Kazakhstan's tyrant for issuing positive reports about that authoritarian oil-rich country.
Cornell 's piece argued that Russia attacked Georgia not in response to Georgia's invasion of the breakaway South Ossetian province but rather because Russia was just plain evil-and, in the style of evil villains everywhere, Russia had no motive other than to show "the consequences post-Soviet countries will suffer for standing up to Moscow, conducting democratic reforms and seeking military and economic ties with the West."
The hysteria of two months ago already seems so dated and even bizarre, from our mid-meltdown vantage-as if reading the hysteria from a black-and-white era.
And yet even as the hysteria gave way to serious questioning, and that dangerously simple narrative crumbled, the Times never recanted or corrected itself, never even had a fake mea culpa moment as it did after Iraq-an admission that came years too late. Instead of recanting, the Times took the sly road, slipping an article in between the meltdown stories that essentially told its readers, "Yeah, we screwed the pooch on Georgia, hope ya didn't notice, and, uh, have a nice day." Here's a taste, from October 7, 2008 (" News Media Feel Limits to Georgia's Democracy," by Dan Bilefsky and Michael Schwirtz):
TBILISI, Georgia-The cameras at Georgia's main opposition broadcaster, Imedi, kept rolling Nov. 7, when masked riot police officers with machine guns burst into the studio. They smashed equipment, ordered employees and television guests to lie on the floor and confiscated their cellphones. A news anchor remained on-screen throughout, describing the mayhem. Then all went black
Now, 11 months later, Georgia's democratic credentials are again being questioned, and tested, as the country finds itself on the front line of a confrontation between Russia and the West. Georgia and its American backers, including the Republican and Democratic United States presidential contenders, have presented Georgia as a plucky little democracy in an unstable region, a country deserving of generous aid and NATO membership. But a growing number of critics inside and outside the country argue that it falls well short of Western democratic standards and cite a lack of press freedom as a glaring example.
It's interesting that the Times published this exactly two months after Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia-a military decision so off-the-scale idiotic that to call it a "gamble" is an insult to struggling addicts like Bill Bennett.
The real question, then, is why the Times waited until this late to question its own position-why wait until the war was long off the front pages, to publish an article about what everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiousity already knew-that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius?
The push in the West by outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a new cold war on hinged on two major fallacies: (1) that Russia invaded Georgia first, totally unprovoked, because Georgia is a "democracy"; and (2), that Georgia is a "democracy."
It's as if the Times deliberately forgot what it already reported about Saakashvili last year, after he sent in his goon squads to crush opposition protests:
"I think that Misha tends toward the authoritarian," said Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer in the United States who taught Saakashvili when he was a student at Columbia Law School in the mid-1990s, later hired him at a law firm in New York and has remained friendly with him. "I would put it this way: there is a remarkable similarity between Misha and Putin, in terms of their attitudes about presidential prerogatives and authority," Horton said. Like Putin, he added, Saakashvili has marginalized Parliament and taken to belittling the opposition.
Perhaps sensing that the Saakashvili-as-Thomas-Jefferson narrative was a wee bit vulnerable, the Times dug in to protect the other crumbling pillar of this fable: that Russia invaded Georgia first. Only this could explain its decision to go front-page with an "although there is no evidence, nevertheless, evidence suggests" article relying on evidence so absurdly flimsy that it would have made Sean Hannity nervous (from the edition of September 16, 2008, " Georgia Offers Fresh Evidence on War's Start," by C.J. Chivers):
TBILISI, Georgia-A new front has opened between Georgia and Russia, now over which side was the aggressor whose military activities early last month ignited the lopsided five-day war. At issue is new intelligence, inconclusive on its own [bold mine--author], that nonetheless paints a more complicated picture of the critical last hours before war broke out.
Georgia is trying to counter accusations that the long-simmering standoff over South Ossetia, which borders Russia, tilted to war only after it attacked Tskhinvali. Georgia regards the enclave as its sovereign territory.
Talk about projecting: that last paragraph should have read: "The New York Times is trying to counter reality's looming consequences on the paper's damaged credibility." Remember, this article came out long after most Western officials were coming around to the view expressed a few weeks earlier by the US ambassador in Moscow, who admitted that the Russians, rather than invading unprovoked, "responded to attacks on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, legitimately."
I called up a few journalists in Moscow whom I left behind in August to ask them what they thought about this story, and most of them laughed at the Times's "scoop."
"It was so clearly planted by Saakashvili out of desperation," one American journalist told me. "I just can't believe the Times is still pushing this line. Everyone knows he screwed up. Even if the taped phone calls are real, I'm sure the Georgians heard chatter like this every week, if not every day. It's embarrassing, really."
This wasn't the only "although there's no evidence, evidence suggests" Georgia articles that the Times pushed. Of all the Kremlin-villain tales that have become easy sells lately, nothing compares to the tale about the Kremlin allegedly waging "cyberwar" against its enemies.
For reasons I can't understand, American readers are utterly horrified by the idea that a country would do what any group of pimple-faced geeks already does-hacking into or overloading servers and sites to shut them down. To many Americans, shutting down some boring, poorly translated government site is far more horrifying than, say, bombing weddings. The "Kremlin cyberwar" story is the chupacabra of Kremlin Evil tales-there's no evidence that the Kremlin has waged cyberwar, but yet, it's so damn scary, and it sells papers, so why not print it?
The Estonians first tried suckering the West with the cyber-chupacabra a year ago, but subsequent investigation revealed that it was one of those "unprovables" at best.
But it's a hot story. So on August 13, with the Russia-Georgia conflict still hot, the Times, scrambling for a new angle on Russian evil, published this Kremlin chupacabra story, titled "Before the Gunfire, Cyberattacks:"
According to Internet technical experts, it was the first time a known cyberattack had coincided with a shooting war. Exactly who was behind the cyberattack is not known. The evidence on R.B.N. and whether it is controlled by, or coordinating with the Russian government remains unclear.
"Jumping to conclusions is premature," said Mr. Evron, who founded the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team.
Yeah, but jumping to conclusions is so much fun, Mr. Party Pooper! Jump forward again to mid-September. It's becoming clear by this time that Saakashvili is neither a democrat nor an innocent victim. But the Times and other American media were still heavily invested in that narrative, so while they were scrambling around for ways to shore it up, Germany's Der Spiegel published an investigative piece-" Did Saakashvili Lie? The West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader"-that showed their American counterparts basic Journalism 1A reporting:
Five weeks after the war in the Caucasus the mood is shifting against Georgian President Saakashvili. Some Western intelligence reports have undermined Tbilisi's version of events, and there are now calls on both sides of the Atlantic for an independent investigation.
This story was published the same day as the Times's "expos" about phone conversations that the Georgians allegedly taped allegedly showing that Russia invaded first-even though everyone had already abandoned that theory. Der Spiegel's piece is an in-depth investigation spanning countries, viewpoints and organizations. For the Times, "investigation" meant taking some tape cassettes from Saakashvili's desk and reporting them on the front pages.
If this wasn't bad enough, a few days later even Condi Rice gave a speech blaming Georgia for starting the war (couched in a larger condemnation of Russian overreaction).
The timing couldn't have been worse: the Times had just been caught with its Saakashvili-enamored pants down in a way that even its competitors had managed to avoid. Soon they would be facing a massive credibility reckoning.
This was something I was looking forward to.
Ever since I went down to South Ossetia to see the war for myself, I'd developed a kind of sick curiosity to see just how the Times and all the others were going to extricate themselves from the credibility-hole they'd dug. I had a feeling it was going to come, because Saakashvili was not only a blatant liar but an incredibly bad liar. I was in South Ossetia at the close of the war-I saw the destruction that the "freedom-loving" Georgians wreaked, and the bloated, rotting corpses on the streets of the province's capital city, Tskhinvali-so I was particularly interested in how long the sleazy tale of good vs. evil would last, and how the major media would squirm their way out of their biggest journalistic fiasco since the Iraqi-WMD blooper. Would the Times let their ombudsman out of the cage for another fake apology? "Oops! Who'da thunk our esteemed newspaper coulda screwed up this big twice in a row, dragging America into yet another war all on account of our inability to do our job as journalists?! Look, we just want to say we're sorry and move on, m'kay? So, have you moved on yet? Because we have."
And this is where the secular-humanist god of the liberal media intervened. The Times and everyone else who peddled the neocon/Saakashvili line was saved from facing up to their colossal failure by an even bigger disaster, the worst disaster to hit this country since 9/11: the global economic meltdown. Someone's prayers were answered.
One of the prayer kingdom's biggest secrets is how common these "I hope a disaster comes and saves me" whispers are. For example, when I was a college student, every time finals week approached, I wanted to get hit by a car. Final exams meant facing the unbearable shame of four wasted months. So I'd slip on my headphones, zig off of the sidewalk and zag into Berkeley's traffic-clogged streets like an unleashed Irish setter, waiting for some hippie to splatter me on his VW van windshield. If it meant spending the next twenty years on a feeding tube, that seemed a fair tradeoff.
But the hippie drivers, with their insane respect for pedestrians, wouldn't cooperate. Like the evangelical Christian's apocalypse, my prayed-for mega-disaster that would save me from my private mini-disaster never arrived.
In that sense, the Times and all the other Saakashvili pom-pom-ers were lucky: the VW van that never hit me during finals week leveled the entire planet's financial well-being, saving journalism's biggest names from owning up to their failure. And the unmistakable evidence for this failure just keeps pouring in: today, for example, Reporters Without Borders ranked Georgia near the bottom of its press freedom index-well below notoriously despotic nations like Tajikistan, Gabon and even Hugo Chvez's villainous Venezuela. So yes, thank [NAME OF OMNISCIENT BEING] for the financial meltdown, because even though it may mean pink slips for many of the reporters and editors who screwed up the Georgia story, I have a funny feeling that when they're standing in the soup kitchen line a few months from now, they'll be thinking with relief, "Homelessness may suck, but it's a small price to pay for avoiding the colossal shame I was about to face over the Georgia war story. Thank you, global depression! You've made this journalist happy!