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Fatwah / December 22, 2008

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)

No Apologies

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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11 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Scott Gunsaullus  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Good story. Ames should publish another book.

  • 2. kotek besar  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Kudos to you New Media types for exposing Old Media lies.

  • 3. Jay  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Good article!

    But there are somethings I’d like to add.

    First, the majority of the European media stuck to the American version of the conflict in the initial waves of the coverage.

    Even more serious newspapers as the mentioned SPIEGEL took the side of the georgians, for a long time.

    In fact there wasnt a single mejor newspaper who tried to write an objective article about it.

    They basically just copied the American point of view.

    The whole coverage of the events, struck me immediately as a deliberate act of propaganda to twist the truth in favor of a government backed by some large and powerful cooperations.

  • 4. Rune  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Danish media was just as biased as the American. One of the supposedly more serious (Weekend Avisen) newspapers even went so far as to report the ridiculous story of a communist Estonian group seeking independence (http://www.kplo.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=612&Itemid=5) as proof that Ivan was up to no good there as well. So far I have only seen one newspaper (Information: http://www.information.dk/173467) seriously try to address their obvious swallowing Georgia’s propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    Should someone be interested, then I have been collection some of the more reasonable articles in English here:
    2008 South Ossetia War

    There is one story about Saakasjvili apparently trying to stage his own assassination attempt in late November, which I haven’t been able to find an English language article for.

  • 5. geo8rge  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Didn’t you guys say you had a picture of a tank turret stuck in the side of a building? Are you every going to post it?

  • 6. Erik B.  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Solid work, Ames. If you sell out, you’ll be rich.

    The interesting thing is, that in the first 48 hours of the conflict, the mass media actually reported truthfully that Georgia was the instigator, but they soon did a 180 and toed the Washington line.

    And now we see a slew of mea culpa articles explaining how the editors and journos got it all wrong, only they weren’t despicable cheap whores as might be suspected, only incompetent morons. These reports of miraculous epiphanies and humble pleas of insanity began to appear simultaneously world wide a month or so ago.

    But we see you, fuckers! You are all on the record for telling the truth from the outset, so don’t tell us you just found out now.

  • 7. Jay  |  December 23rd, 2008 at 12:53 am

    This was definitely not a case of incompetence.

    This was a real act of propaganda.

  • 8. wArumbAnanekRumm  |  December 23rd, 2008 at 4:05 am

    I like to refer back to German news from time to time to get a different incite, but funnily enough the red-head cunt (aka Angela Merkel) claimed a pleasent silence about anything to do with Georgia… you see the EU is vyeery dyependyent on roo-sha – they are so coward that they wont even take sides against the truth.

  • 9. daikide  |  January 12th, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Look Mr Ames, if you are going to write about the war. You better understand what you are writing about and not just analyse what you have learned through the Russian media about Georgia/Saakashvili… Because it’s war and on the war people are dieing. This is serious.

    I think you are basing your points on a very wrong things: …Americans/British are Wrong… Russians Protect … and oh yeah… It’s all that Saakashvili’s fault…

    Let’s begin:

    i)Russia has quitted the European arems treaty thus allowing to move it’s military at it’s own will in large numbers.(South Caucasus falls into that treaty)

    ii) Putin has linked Kosovo independence and Polish millse defence with the fact that he also has some things “cooking up” (He stated “U nas toje est svoi zagotovki”) In January as I remember.

    iii) NATO – MAP thingy in Bucharest – April 2008. NATO stated that the MAP issue will be revisited in December 2008… so this gave Kremlin few month window to ACT!

    “From the moment Georgia launched its invasion against the breakaway region of South Ossetia this past August”

    - Indeed THAT is the REGION INSIDE GEORGIA. In fact the name “South Ossetia” is also inaccurate… The regions original name is “Samachablo” in 1921 Russian red army invaded Georgia in 1922 the name of Georgian region “Samachablo” was changed into “South Ossetia” on the other side of the Caucasian mountains the “Republic Alaniya” was RENAMED to “NORTH OSSETIA”. THE REGION WAS CREATED ARTIFICIALLY! IN FACT UP TO 4x TIMES MORE OSSETIANS LIVE IN OTHER PARTS OF GEORGIA OTHER THAN SOUTH OSSETIA! (Why Georgians don’t kill any Ossetians there? Simple – No Russian military, no criminal’s like Kokoity, no grater interests; regular people have nothing to fight, they are just neighbours.)

    “sparking a wider war with neighboring Russia”

    - NO, IT WAS NOT SPARKING anything… Russia wanted this region as Abkhazia, it DOES NOT care about Ossetians. They want a military base in that region and they want another military base in Abkhazia as well as a sea resort!

    Besides RUSSIAN MILITARY WAS THERE SINCE THE END OF JUNE! NEAR GEORGIAN BORDER AND NOONE IN RUSSIA OR RUSSIAN MEDIA MADE A BIG SECRET FROM ALL THAT.

    KAVKAZ 2008 – Military exercises that Russia held ended just few days before the war;

    Russia has sent IN VIOLATION OF ALL AGREEMENTS A 200 Strong team of RAILWAY MILITARY ENGINEERS TO ABKHAZIA A MONTH BEFORE THE WAR. They have repaired the route for the heavy armor transportation.

    The last straw which SPARKED THE CONFLICT WAS:

    1) Russians started evacuating civilian population from the region.
    2) The Region became even more flooded by mercenary’s from North Caucasus/ Chechen’s/ Ingushetian paramilitary and Cossacks as well as a larger number of Russian FSB and GRU forces.

    3) Georgian villages were permanently under attack, during the last days of July and the beginning of June the Georgian side had daily casualties among civilians and peacekeepers.

    “the Times engaged in the sort of media malpractice that it promised its readers wouldn’t happen again after its disastrous coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. “
    - If you want to be a serious journalist try to keep your personal emotions about war in Iraq at bey ok? This was a very different war. A war for land and there was a genocide during this war.

    Well you will start to argue who is the victim, it’s tell you simply:

    ETHNIC CLEANSING: (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    Who is a war criminal:

    Before 1993 – over 85% of the population in Abkhazia were ethnic Georgians!

    Before 1994 – over 92% of population in South Ossetia were ethnic Georgians!

    After brutal ethnic cleansing by Russian military, Chechens (including Shamil Basaev), north Caucasian criminals and Cossacks the population
    Has be reduced to 4% and 35% respectively.

    After last August 2008 Russian invasion the ethnic Georgian population has been reduced to 0% in both Georgian regions.

    GEORGIA HAS OVER 350.000 REFUGEES FROM ABKHAZIA AND OVER 200.000 REFUGEES FROM SOUTH OSSETIA.

    //

    Also you were writing that there was no serious reporting from the “Ossetian side”… FIRST of all There IS NO such side. THERE ARE ONLY TWO SIDES in this war! RUSSIA – GEORGIA.
    Secondly – RUSSIA DID NOT ALLOW ANY FOREIGN JOURNALISTS INTO THE CONFLICT ZONE WITHOUT THE ACCREDITATION FROM THE RUSSIAN MOF. How did you expect the journalists to get that accreditation when they were IN GEORGIA and you need to be in Moscow to get that shit… ?

    Here’s pretty much everything you need to know:
    http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-65820

    ////////////////////////

    “Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.”

    - Firstly that was a statement by a FORMER OSCE monitor who did NOT had any right to make such statements – This are not my words but words of his supervisor WHO WAS in Tskinvali during a war.

    Secondly the Georgian government has released the video footage that was showing how that British was interacting with the Russian special services in the “Tskinvali KGB HQ” (do some research, I can’t feed you everything…)

    “You saw what the Georgians did.” He slouched forward over the table. “You’re going to write what you’re going to write no matter what I show you. So what’s the point? Maybe I should give up.”

    - Oh Peace! Russia has stated 2100 dead within few hours and was screaming word GENOCIDE… but what did the investigation prove later? Russians have THEMSELVES stated that the death toll was about 160 people. NOW imagine the death toll if there were no AK47’s in every on those Ossetians or Russian/Chechen/north Caucasians hands?

    Secondly I think that that number is too few times bigger than the actual number. It is near 40-50 as I know by my own Ossetian channels.

    “Siegel charged that Sasha didn’t give us greater access to ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia”

    - You do KNOW what happened to them right? RUSSIANS HAVE LOOTED/BURNED AND RAISED THE HOUSES TO THE GROUND WITH BULLDOZERS!

    “his Times editor wanted a story on crimes committed against ethnic Georgians, which seemed to be what all Western editors wanted.”

    - You know why? Because if they even tried to go to Tskinvali the “brave” Russian “peacekeepers” were shooting at them. A Danish journalist was killed. 2 Georgian Journalists and 2 Turkish got nearly killed. One Georgian women Journalist got lightly shot in the hand while being LIVE on TV… IT WAS MUCH SAFER for them to just cover the Georgian side then to go to Russian military and try to cover that. Understood?

    “Georgian grievances were in big demand from the Western media’s home offices.”
    - Pathetic sarcasm.

    “My first day in North Ossetia, I joined Tom Parfitt of the Guardian and Andrew Osborn of the Wall Street Journal, driving around ethnic Georgian villages on the Russian side of the border, chasing false rumors that we’d heard from another Western correspondent that the Georgian inhabitants there had been attacked and cleansed.”

    “ All we managed to do by going into those villages was to frighten the poor villagers. Later that day, Osborn and I went to makeshift Ossetian refugee centers to check out their claims of tens of thousands of refugees; their claims checked out.)”

    - TAMARASHENI – GOT COMPLETELY RAISED TO THE GROUND, NIKOZI, ERGNETI, NULI ARE GONE! ALL THIS HAPPENED AFTER THE ACTIVE PHASE OF WAR ENDED. RUSSIANS DID IT BY THE ORDERS OF THE KREMLIN. GO AND TRY TO SEE THOSE VILLAGES NOW, IF YOU CAN…

    http://georgiandaily.com/repository/UNOSAT-%20GEO%20-%20Tskhinvali-Damage%208-19-08.pdf

    I think I’m waisting my time on you…

    The fact that you have been with Russians, does not necessarily mean that what you saw was the right side.

    “The Jewish Quarter, Tskhinvali. (Photo: Ames)”

    - How many Jews live in the Jewish Quarter in Tskinvali??? After 1960s their number is 0! (ZERO!) Russians remembered that name just recently and focused their propaganda on that too. I can see you are clearly joining them here without even trying to analyse anything.
    - In fact Georgian defence minister(Kezerashvili) as the minister of reintegration(Yakobashvili) are Georgian Jews.
    And WHO are the “ministers” in Tskinvali? Minister of defence – Russian general of Russian armed forces; Minister of “KGB”(Yes, they call it KGB, even today) – Russian former FSB major… ALL of those guys are ethnic Russians that have NEVER lived in that region, that CAME from Russia and have absolutely NOTHING to do with Georgia or Ossetians.

    Russia got what it wanted – Military bases in the center of Georgia in Tskinvali; Military bases in Abkhazia and a new sea resort in Suxumi.
    Georgia got even more of refugees within it’s country, the territory’s are now officially annexed and occupied, NATO integration has slowed down.
    The only thing that Russian did not manage to do was a “regime change” as Vitalii Churkin has put it in the UN…

    I respect your magazine and I understand what are it’s aims, but this is a wrong side you are standing on. No country is allowed to march across the internationally recognised parts of neighbouring country and annex the neighbours territory. I understand Russians have shown you things, but they are good. They are MUCH better than you and many western journalists can imagine and you, you are just arrogant and know next to a very little about Georgia, Ossetians or maybe even Russia.

    You do speak Russian right?

    – there – A vobshem vot ono vsio:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm745nPZm5I

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5MeUPAyJyU

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyRvj2-Oano

    Vot pro voinu v Abxazii (v 1993)Govorit Russkii soldat: http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-152958

    A vot Gruzinskii dok. vilm o tom chto predshetvovalo voine http://olegpanfilov2.livejournal.com/303463.html

  • 10. tzameti  |  April 15th, 2010 at 7:33 am

    i was going to write something critical but then i realized i’d be just another case of a pathetic russophobe who can’t handle the truth, like daikide.

  • 11. Crack Smoka  |  September 14th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Great article, suped up my faith in humanity. Even riled up Mikheil Saakashvili himself (daikide).


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