The New York Times and the Ukraine War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ushered the Western world into an innovative moment of history managed by the media, who aim at nothing less than erasing the public’s perception of history and historical processes. Welcome to the age of nonstop propaganda. Any curious person seeking news about the war in Ukraine, let alone its background and causes, faces the permanent challenge of determining whether whatever story they happen to be reading is news or propaganda, or more likely some kind of witch’s brew containing some of the former and a preponderance of the latter.
For the past month, the most respectable news outlets in the West have channeled their energy into perfecting a novel journalistic phenomenon that goes well beyond traditional propaganda. It has become so concentrated it now deserves an official name. I propose calling it “Obsessive Accusatory Reporting” (OAR). The message of any item in the news meriting the OAR label is to magnify an already present feeling of confirmed hatred in the reader. In principle, it can target nations, peoples, ideas or religions. But it works best when it focuses on a single personality.
Finding a Way to Diss Information
The current version of OAR began with an idea already built into the cultural woodwork of American media: the perception that Russia — whether in its historical Soviet version or in its modern post-tsarist form — is the natural and eternal enemy of the United States and, by extension, to Western civilization as a whole. Inherited from the Cold War as a set of feelings that Americans find natural, establishment Democrats in the US gave it new impetus thanks to the artificial association they managed to establish with the man they believed could play the role of a true American evildoer: Donald Trump. Now, thanks to a specific event, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the practice of OAR can focus on a universal target by whom, unlike Trump, no American should be allowed to be seduced. It’s the new Hitler, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a rowing event knows that to gain speed and ensure hydrodynamic efficiency, all rowers must have their oars strike the water at the same precise moment and achieve an equivalent depth below the surface of the water as their collective effort pushes the boat and all it contains forward. This repeated, disciplined, rhythmically coordinated energy creates the inertia strokes that produce increased momentum.
The media’s propaganda campaigns appear to work in much the same way thanks to the equally disciplined and repeated OAR phenomenon. Obsessive repetition, the alignment of an infinite series of examples of despicable behavior and the journalistic talent for turning each example into an emotion-stirring story are the three elements that sum up the art of OAR. The momentum the media has created around hatred for the person of Vladimir Putin has become a spectacle in itself. The danger the media has no time to worry about as its effort continues developing potentially uncontrollable speed is that it may reach the point where it triggers actions leading to a potentially thermonuclear conflagration. Call it the media’s brinkmanship that multiplies the effects of politicians who themselves, persuaded it is now the key to successful electoral marketing, have turned it into an art form. Voters want their leaders to be aggressive decision-makers.
There are undoubtedly plenty of reasons to distrust, despise and morally condemn Vladimir Putin that existed well before he decided to invade Ukraine on February 24. Putin has, as befits a country ruled for a century by autocratic tsars, developed a particularly thuggish form of governing his nation. Russians at least are used to it and fatalistically accept it, with no illusion about its pretention to any form of virtue other than the ability to keep things under control.
Putin is clearly guilty of every sin — from brutal repression to aggravated narcissism — that accrues to anyone who achieves his level of control that embraces military power, finance and technology. His ability to repress any serious opposition and manipulate electoral processes, his commitment to cronyism and self-enrichment, and his immunity from a basic moral sense concerning the value of human life and the dignity of the average citizen constitute attributes of his office. Unlike some autocratic leaders, he also has a high level of strategic intelligence.
Westerners have become habituated to leaders who seek to seduce broad segments of the population thanks to slogans rather than the demonstration of their clout or the display of their intelligence, which in fact is never required and, when it exists, may get in the way of their ambition. Western political leaders focus on developing the essential skill of deploying charm to win elections. To Westerners, Putin’s style of governing marked by the arrogance of power is worse than distasteful. It challenges their own belief in the illusion they need to feel of possessing political power in a democracy thanks to their ability to vote at regular intervals. They need to imagine their vote has an impact on policy, an illusion the media encourages them to believe in. All it really does is limit the degree of repression a democratic government may get away with. Putin has no qualms or regrets about manifestly unjust actions carried out against his own people. Western democratic leaders actually worry.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unambiguously illegal, morally shocking, paradoxical to the extent that he is attacking the population he claims to wish to protect and downright brutal. It may even be self-defeating, potentially tarnishing his image as a strong leader. It would, however, be premature to draw conclusions on that last point, as many in the Western media have already started doing. But for anyone susceptible to being seduced by today’s OAR culture, the temptation to believe in the inevitable failure of Putin’s enterprise is overwhelming. For the past two weeks, Western media have been joyously proclaiming that Putin’s armed assault is on the verge of defeat.
Journalism and Democracy
The traditional belief about journalism in a democracy included the idea that the press plays a role closely attuned to the interest and the voice of the people. Ideally, the media exists to provide essential information about the real world and a modicum of independent insight about the topics treated. By showing restraint and focusing on discernible facts, media in a democracy could be trusted to help citizens understand complex events and make informed decisions after drawing their own conclusions about the possible relationship between causes and effects.
That has long been the theory concerning the role of what people still call the fourth estate, a linguistic hand-me-down from 18th century European history that designates the free press. The fourth estate was deemed to be closest to the third estate (the people, or the commoners) and furthest from the first two estates (the clergy and the nobility). The advent of democracy made the theory of the estates obsolete, to the extent that the clergy lost its status of “estate.” In reality, the totalitarian drift of the 20th century revealed that the first and second estates merged as democratic governments assumed they could project the moral authority the clergy traditionally exercised.
The idea of a free and independent press embodied in the fourth estate continued to persist as a necessary but increasingly intangible ideal. Alas, history tells us that whenever an ideal makes contact with reality, it is likely to become distorted. With the rise of democracy in the West in the 19th century, the press permitted the expression of variable points of view. But over time, no ethical system could prevent those voices from being influenced by political parties, commercial interests, pressure groups and the government itself. The key to honoring the ideal was variety, not just tolerance but also the encouragement of a range of views. Financial concentration eventually limited and finally captured and confined that variety.
The media has been trapped by forces it no longer tries to control or resist. It is virtually impossible even to imagine, let alone create anything resembling the ideal news outlet for which objective presentation of the news would be the inviolable norm. Perhaps the proponents of government by artificial intelligence believe they can one day put that in place by eliminating human agency. They too are victims of an illusion because manipulative human agency can work — and in fact works best — through artificial systems that include and mechanically promote the interests that created them. This is as true of political systems as it is of computer programs. The failure of humanity to even begin addressing the impending catastrophe of global warming can simply be attributed to systemic inertia, not to the idea that no leader is willing to make an appropriate decision.
So long as diversity in the media was still possible, truth for the public at large could emerge not from a spontaneous or enforced consensus, but through the highly interactive process of recognizing and eliminating the distortions of the reality that became visible after comparing the various representations of it. By definition, the truth about human institutions and historical facts is dynamic, organic and interactive. It is not a statement and cannot be contained in statements. It exists as a perception. Perceptions can be shared, compared or contradicted. No single perception sums up the truth.
In the traditional democratic idea of journalism, a good article avoided explicit judgment. In many instances, the standard practice became to avoid even mentioning specific interpretations or judgments. Good reporting limited itself to acknowledging dominant perspectives on a topic without choosing to endorse one or another. In stories about crime, for example, it has become a general rule — before a verdict rendered by a court of justice — to use the epithet “alleged.” This rule holds even when there is no doubt about the existence of the crime and the identity of the author of the crime (though the real reason for this precaution may be the media’s fear of being accused of libel). In contrast, when it comes to political issues, the opposite trend dominates. Journalists or their editors now routinely jump on the occasion to name the culprit and inculcate the belief of guilt in their audience. Knowing their niche audience, it enables them to offer their public what they want to hear or understand.
Russian Agency and the Havana Syndrome
One prominent case in recent years illustrates how easy it is for journalists to play fast and loose concerning real or imaginary political crimes. Over a period of five years dedicated to reporting on the “Havana syndrome,” The New York Times, The Washington Post and other respectable media consistently described reported health incidents as “attacks.” That word alone presumed criminal agency, even though the reality of cause and effect was closer to a “heart attack” or “panic attack” than to an assault.
Articles on the syndrome typically insisted that, even when no evidence could be cited of any human agency, Russia was the prime suspect. Sentences such as this one from The Washington Post were clearly intended to distort the reader’s perception: “Current and former intelligence officials have increasingly pointed a finger at Russia, which has staged multiple brazen attacks on adversaries and diplomats overseas.” It is worth noting that the only act in this sentence that should qualify as news is what the intelligence officials have done: “pointed a finger.” All the rest, the “brazen attacks,” are either imprecisely anecdotal from a random past or simply imaginary.
Five years after initially pointing fingers, those same officials finally admitted officially that there was nothing to point their finger at. When the ultimate negative assessment by the CIA itself of Russian attacks was published in January of this year, did The Post or The Times (or any other media) apologize to their readers for their erroneous reporting over the years? Obviously, not. Perhaps they felt that might oblige them to do the unthinkable: apologize to the Russians.
When there was finally no choice left but to reveal the CIA’s negative assessment, The New York Times tried to save face by insisting that everything it had pinned its hopes on might still have an element of truth in it. “A directed energy weapon,” Julian E. Barnes wrote on January 20, “remains the hypothesis that a number of victims who have studied the incidents believe is most likely.” If that fact is true, a serious reporter would have delved into the interesting question of why the victims continue to believe something that their superiors have determined to be untrue. Does this reveal that CIA operatives and their families have lost their trust in the truthfulness of the agency? The rest of us are left wondering why journalists like Barnes himself think it necessary to print such meaningless observations as significant facts.
Now that the entire thesis of Russian-directed energy attacks has been discredited, a new article delving into the motivation of intelligence officials who made repeated unfounded claims might prove informative. But, miraculously, there are no new articles on the Havana syndrome, except maybe the article you are now reading. But none in The Times or The Post. With hindsight — something the legacy press studiously avoids — the articles of these papers appear to reveal the equivalent of “brazen attacks,” not by Russians but by US intelligence services. They were attacks on the public’s access to the truth. The journalists were simply willing conscious or unconscious accomplices in these brazen attacks. What this entire episode truly reveals is a lesson in how our culture of hyperreality works. It depends entirely on the media.
Finally, a Serious Case of a Brazen Attack: Ukraine
This inevitably brings us back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, Russia is indeed guilty of a brazen attack that isn’t an imaginary hypothesis dreamed up by intelligence operatives. Nevertheless, the media have turned it into something far more brazen by systematically excluding or ignoring other less brazen but equally troubling attacks that have been going on for years. They include a decidedly brazen coup d’état in Ukraine supported, if not engineered, by the United States in 2014.
The carefully managed act of regime change in which the US gratefully accepted the assistance of neo-Nazi extremists to produce the commensurate level of violence used the deposition of one democratically elected leader to enable the comforting fiction that the two Ukrainian presidents elected since those events — Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky — are somehow more legitimate than the president overthrown in the Maidan Revolution. That fiction depends on discarding the fact that Ukraine is not just another “sovereign nation” of Europe, but a historically, culturally and linguistically divided country that also has a conflicting but highly charged symbolic meaning for both Russia, its next-door neighbor, and the United States, a distant hegemon that has used NATO to spread its military dominance across Europe.
Most reasonable and reasoning people admit the principle that complex political entities such as Ukraine require delicate diplomatic treatment. But, as the Bush wars revealed, US foreign policy rarely acknowledges the need for rationality. Even basic diplomacy appears to be inconsistent with the culture of enforced hegemony. At best, it might serve the purpose of catastrophe avoidance. But catastrophes are increasingly welcomed rather than avoided. Instead, we can observe a growing trend of catastrophe provocation that is difficult to explain, since the cost is heavy even for the perpetrators. For the US, it appears to have something to do with the idea that world hegemony is the only possible source of global stability and that catastrophes such as war are somehow good for business (which of course they are, but not for everyone’s or even most people’s business).
In such a geopolitical environment, propaganda becomes a way of life and serves as the core activity in the construction of public culture. Selecting the facts the public will react to in a predictable way according to the interest of those who understand the secrets of geopolitical stability has become the basis of legacy journalism in the US. The ultimately comic example of the Havana syndrome perhaps served as a kind of temporary placeholder in times of relative peace. It upheld the mythological construct of a permanent Cold War, which seems to be essential in the definition of US foreign policy. Now that things have become seriously degraded in a nation that journalists have begun calling the “civilized” part of the world — meaning that it is worth being concerned about, in contrast with the Middle East, Asia and Africa — propaganda has to focus not on pure hallucinatory hyperreality but events that are taking place in the real world.
We are only beginning to see the dominant strategies involved. It is too early to assess them with any historical distance. What we are witnessing is the need to whip up the blind hatred that leads to the OAR phenomenon described earlier. But there is also a more basic approach that applies especially to situations that are historically and culturally complex. It includes the decision to forget to mention or even categorically deny the obvious for as long as possible. When the obvious does become visible, thanks to the indiscipline of some rare investigators interested in the truth, the strategy consists of devising ways of downplaying it and treating it as marginal.
The Neo-Nazi Syndrome
When Putin launched his assault on Ukraine, he defined a mission of denazification of Ukraine. He may have presumed that all Westerners can relate to that theme. Nazis are, after all, the personification of historical evil. So, if we can agree on a common enemy, we should at the very least offer one another friendly support. Putin apparently underestimated the Westerners’ ability to remain ignorant of very real and already documented facts, thanks to the deliberate forgetfulness of their media. Not only did commentators laugh at the notion that a neo-Nazi threat existed in Ukraine, they mocked the idea that it could exist in a nation whose president is Jewish.
Four weeks into the war, The New York Times has published an article acknowledging that the neo-Nazi question is worth mentioning. The article bears the title, “Why Vladimir Putin Invokes Nazis to Justify His Invasion of Ukraine.” The title alone is extremely clever. It focuses attention not on the Nazis, who are never seriously identified, but on Vladimir Putin, whom Times readers understand as being evil incarnate. The first sentence reads as pure mockery of phrases Putin has used. “Ukraine’s government,” Anton Troianovski writes, ”is ‘openly neo-Nazi’ and ‘pro-Nazi,’ controlled by ‘little Nazis,’ President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia says.”
The implication is that if Putin said it, it must be a lie. It is only in the 12th paragraph of the article that the question of the actual presence and actions of neo-Nazis in Ukraine is even grudgingly entertained. “Like many lies,” the paragraph begins, “Mr. Putin’s claim about a Nazi-controlled Ukraine has a hall-of-mirrors connection to reality.” Ah, Troianovski appears to admit, there is a connection to reality, but of course it is hopelessly distorted, like a fun park’s hall of mirrors.
The following paragraph attempts to convince the reader that the phenomenon is so marginal there is definitely nothing to worry about. “Some fringe nationalist groups, who have no representation in Parliament, use racist rhetoric and symbolism associated with Nazi Germany.” In other words, talk of neo-Nazis is all fiction.
Many paragraphs later, Troianovski reveals the real reason why this article of clarification became necessary for The Times rather than simply neglecting to mention neo-Nazis. It’s the fault of Facebook, which created something of a scandal when it “said it was making an exception to its anti-extremism policies to allow praise for Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion military unit, ‘strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.’” The Russians seized on this as proof of complicity between the Ukrainian resistance and the neo-Nazis. To counter dangerous Russian propaganda, The Times is stepping up to clarify the issue, even though it would have preferred not having to mention it.
Unfortunately, the article spends paragraph after paragraph clarifying nothing. It somewhat precipitously ends with a quote about how Jews are now among those fleeing the war. Some of them may never return, implying that Putin’s intent of denazifying Ukraine is in itself a deviously anti-Semitic act. This reversal of perception of blame illustrates one of the key techniques of New York Times-style propaganda. The journalist finds a devious way of turning the supposedly moral motivation of the enemy into its opposite.
Troianovski briefly hints at the uncomfortable paradox that Israel has refused to condemn Russia, a fact that might comfort the idea of Putin’s concern with neo-Nazis. But the journalist leaves that question aside, apparently convinced that the subtlety of that debate unnecessarily complicates his mission as an OAR specialist focused only on highlighting Putin’s evil nature. Surprisingly for those familiar with modern Ukrainian history, Troianovski has the honesty to mention the historical Nazi sympathizer and Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, still celebrated by many Ukrainians.
Troianovski even has the merit of providing a link to a fascinatingly instructive 2010 Times article, written at a time when the paper had no particular commitment to churning out propaganda in the interests of celebrating Ukraine’s democratic purity and constitutional integrity. The author of that article, Clifford J. Levy, highlights the problem that Viktor Yanukovych was facing as he bravely attempted “to address the ethnic, regional and historical passions that divide the country.” Yanukovych was, of course, the Ukrainian president that Victoria Nuland helped to depose in 2014.
Understanding the Culture of Propaganda by Comparing The Times in 2010 and 2022
All New York Times readers and indeed all American journalists owe it to themselves and the sanity of the world we live in to read Levy’s article from 2010, if only to compare it to the image of Ukraine that American media are putting forward today of a unified people, imbued with liberal European values and united in their hatred of tyranny in all its forms. Levy’s article that applies the now-forgotten practices of straightforward journalism presents facts, cites contrasting points of view — including admirers of Bandera — and takes no sides. In so doing, it gives a clear picture of a terrifyingly complex social and historical situation that Western media have decided to simplify to the extreme in their wish to follow the dictates of US President Joe Biden’s State Department.
Any objective observer today, however rare their voices are in the media, must realize, as Barack Obama did in 2016, according to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one.” Obama’s State Department that sent Nuland to Ukraine to manage the Maidan Revolution appeared at the time unaware of what Goldberg called the “Obama Doctrine.” That same objective observer should also be aware of the fact that the Ukraine described by Levy in his 2010 article still exists, despite the State Department’s 2014 coup d’état. There is much more about the history of the last eight years and beyond that, despite the terrifying consequences playing out day after day, US and Western media have now chosen to studiously ignore, if not suppress.
One salient point that readers of Levy’s article will relate to today, however, is the remark of the director of the Stepan Bandera museum in Lviv: “For Ukrainian nationalists, there is no such word as capitulation.” That is even truer when those same nationalists dispose of a billion dollars worth of American weaponry to keep the war of resistance going as long as possible. The citizenry of Western Ukraine will follow the lead of the nationalists — not all of whom are neo-Nazis — and refuse to capitulate, while suffering what deserves to be called severe if not sadistic cultural, political and military abuse from two enemies fighting a proxy war on their land: Russia and the United States.
But if the continuing destruction of Ukrainian cities and loss of thousands of lives is the price to pay for the pleasure of reading reams of Obsessive Accusatory Reporting, then, as Madeleine Albright might say, “the price is worth it.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.