A Myth Disproved
In late October, the BBC aired a documentary, What Really Happened in South Ossetia, that once and for all destroyed the neocon/mainstream American fairy tale about innocent, democratic Georgia: “The BBC has discovered evidence that Georgia may have committed war crimes in its attack on its breakaway region of South Ossetia in August,” the documentary reported.
The BBC used the results of its investigation to confront Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, with these new facts; Miliband conceded that Georgia’s behavior was “reckless,” and he vowed to confront its leadership with allegations that Georgia had deliberately targeted South Ossetian civilians with tanks and missiles.
But while the European media took its politicians to task over Georgia’s culpability, John McCain and his neocon advisers were able to set the agenda and paint the war in South Ossetia in deliberately false and alarming terms, backed by the unquestioning American media, leaving Barack Obama’s team with little choice but to fall in line with the “new cold war” fever or else risk looking like appeasers. Yet because of Team McCain’s close ties to Saakashvili, and the recent unmistakable revelations about Georgia’s guilt in launching the war, a Daily Beast reporter recently asked, “Did McCain Bury the Truth About Russia?”
Like so many other serious questions, it’s unlikely that the major American media outlets will bother answering that question.
Meanwhile, the evidence showing that Georgia was no less guilty than Russia of war crimes kept piling up: Human Rights Watch has been releasing reports condemning Georgia’s wartime violations and crimes, including indiscriminate shelling of civilians and use of illegal weapons such as cluster bombs and rockets on civilian targets; Reporters Without Borders denounced Georgia’s deteriorating press freedoms, ranking the country in the cellar with odious Third World dictatorships; and Amnesty International has issued a detailed study accusing Georgia of committing war crimes right alongside Russia, as reported in the Associated Press:
Its sweeping 69-page report cites evidence suggesting that Georgian forces indiscriminately fired on civilian targets in Tskhinvali, the capital of the Russian-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia…and violated international law on the conduct of war.
In light of all this mounting evidence that there is no black-and-white good guy/bad guy reality to square with the dominant narrative, it was only a matter of time before someone in the major American media would get around to reporting the facts.
Western reporters pose in front of occupied Gori church, as Russian occupiers agree to photograph them. (Photo: Ames)
And yet the Times clung to its narrative. On September 16, just as Der Spiegel published its exposé on Saakashvili’s lies and culpability in launching the invasion and committing war crimes, the New York Times published a front-pager, “ Georgia Offers Fresh Evidence on War’s Start,” which tried to prove yet again that Russia invaded first, unprovoked.
The evidence backing the story consisted of a cassette recording that Saakashvili’s people handed to a Times reporter a month after the war.
Why didn’t the Times question the tape? In the aforementioned BBC investigative documentary about South Ossetia, host Tim Whewell is shown listening to this same tape with a Georgian Interior Ministry official, Shota Utiashvili. But instead of buying it hook, line and sinker, as the Times did, Whewell reacted skeptically:
Whewell: “So even though this tape was so important as evidence of Russia’s actions, you actually lost it for a month?”
Utiashvili (looking embarrassed): “Well we, we hadn’t, we never lost it actually because it was, it was in the files. But we had about 6,000 intercepts at the same time.”
Whewell: “So even one so important to your case, you didn’t keep it specially, separately?”
Utiashvili: “No, no. That was a mistake.”
Utiashvili’s “the dog ate my homework” excuse for why Georgia released those tapes a month after the war made for a great television moment: the triumph of serious journalism over propaganda, the shaming of a government official caught in a bad lie. But for the BBC’s counterparts at the New York Times, that same tape, unquestioned, offered the very opposite: a chance to shore up a crumbling fairy tale that the Times had sold to its trusting readership, even though the consequence of shoring up that fairy tale was a cold war nightmare.
The Kremlin press pool Hyundai, heading back to North Ossetia late at night. (Photo: Ames)
Now that even the Times has reversed itself, the question is: will it do the responsible thing and apologize to its readers for its journalistic malpractice? After all, the consequences of its slanted reporting helped shape a political supra-reality that pushed us to the brink of a new cold war. Will America’s paper of record issue an apology, however feeble, as it did for the Iraq debacle? Will anyone be held accountable?
In May 2004, in the wake of its reporting on the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Times published a feeble mea culpa, “The Times and Iraq,” in which the editors sought to expose their failures:
Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper….
We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.
Just four years later, the Times repeated those same mistakes in South Ossetia. The paper doesn’t seem to have learned from its journalistic malpractice debacle over Iraq. It promised its readers, and the public at large, that it would try never to make that mistake again. How many more mistakes will it take before the Times delivers on its promises?
I essentially posed this question to the Times when I asked the paper to comment on this critique of its war coverage. I received a lengthy response from Craig Whitney, standards editor for the Times and a former correspondent in the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1980. It began by accusing me of “a perverse distortion of this reporting, nothing less, to say that [the Times] portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression rather than as an aggressor.” There followed twenty-three pages of article excerpts spanning the last six months or so–revealing a record not of the Times getting the story right about Georgia’s guilt in launching the war but rather one of bet-hedging for journalists, just enough qualifiers slipped into the articles to indemnify the Times from criticism should the conventional wisdom on that war change.
“What we can do, and did, was try our best to sort it out after the shooting started,” Whitney stated. He may believe that–but if he does, it only points to how profoundly unaware major media players can be. Since I was there, I know how the Times created its false slant in this war, misleading its readers and helping create the grounds for a new cold war. It leaves me wondering how many other major stories the Times has been blowing this badly.
On December 3, the Times‘s lead editorial about Iraq asked for, in the words of its headline, “At Least Some Accountability“. It’s ironic that what the New York Times rightly asks of others it fails to deliver itself.
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull) and The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia (Grove). But his book by clicking the cover below:
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