Newspaper readers are like newlywed wives. For a long time, they don't know to look for lipstick stains or the scent of perfume when the husband comes home. They don't know to wonder whether headlines, like the words, "I have to work late," mean what they say. When they pick up a newspaper, they just don't know what the telltale signs of literary infidelity are.
We journalists, on the other hand, are like wives fifteen years down the road. We don't even see the actual husband when he comes home. When we pick up a newspaper, all we register is the shade of the lipstick and the magnitude of the lie. And from experience, we know that there's no sense in hoping that it isn't there, because it always is-if you look hard enough.
What follows is a guide to where to look for lipstick smudges, fugitive strands of blond hair, and even darkened crotch stains on the anatomy of your average Russia-based news article. Now, when a hack walks off the page and into your home, you should know exactly how to catch him in a lie- so long as you pay attention to:
1) Quotes attributed to "ordinary" Russians who have names like Ivanov and Romanov.
How do fabricated quotes get into print? It's really simple. Let's say you're Maura Reynolds of the Associated Press, on assignment in Irkutsk to do a cutting-edge "Times Have Changed Since Communism Piece." You've already written this same article 934 times in different geographical surroundings, so you know exactly what material you need to write it. The potato-farming engineer angle has been done too many times, so you choose the regular-guy-fishing-to-feed-his-family angle, which has the added benefit of having been done by distinguished figures like David Filipov of the Boston Globe and Michael Specter of the New York Times this past season. So you go out in the morning after your expense-account breakfast, spot some guy who's actually fishing nearby, stand 100 yards away, and let the following narrative take shape in your head:
Folks, people just don't talk like that. Imagine how ridiculous an article by a Russian reporter about American kids would read if it included a passage like this:
One should always suspect an "Ivanov" quote-most reporters aren't that creative in making up quote names-but when "Ivanov" starts saying things that sound like they were clipped from the story proposal the reporter probably sent to his editor in New York or London weeks before-like the quote the reporter needs to have to make his lead work- you know the quote is a phony. Michael Specter of the New York Times is the all-time master at phony quotes. A sample from his recent ice-fishing story:
Could any of you Westerners imagine talking the same way to a Russian reporter? No, of course not. But Specter's editors don't care-they let through a lot of other things, including:
2) The word "seems" in rhetorical declarations:
Coach didn't know that. He's impressed. "Lakhman," he shouts. "Get in there at forward. Tell Specter to take a seat!"
The stats for Lokhman's first quarter of playing time:
Lakhman starts off well by modern journalism standards, using a time-tested "Times Have Changed Since Communism" lead followed by the "visiting-American-corporate-leader-bestows-beneficent-wisdom-upon the-ignorant-masses" rhetorical double axel, which I think is part of the required program in this event these days.
But she loses us with a pair of "seems" in paragraphs two and three. After all, you needs hard proof to back up the preposterous assertion that Russian government officials clamored to get online because they were so impressed by Bill Gates's visit. As it turns out, the Luzhkov employees cited at the end of paragraph three have had a site up since 1996, long before the Gates visit. In fact, some 367 words of this 1,161-word piece are devoted to the Luzhkov site, meaning that fully 1/3 of the text actually disproves the lead assertion.
Furthermore, Lakhman doesn't put a founding date on Yeltsin's administration website, or on the news that he is considering doing an online interview. In fact, the only state internet phenomenon we know for certain had anything to do with Gates, even chronologically, is a Duma resolution to make greater use of the internet. But even here, Lakhman only says "Gates's visit spurred" the resolution without elaborating.
That leaves one unsubstantiated three-word phrase out of 1,161 words to support the lead. Lakhman also admits, incidentally, that the Duma site, like hundreds of other government sites, was up long before Gates arrived. Other telltale signs:
3) "Blowjob" coverage of important figures who give the reporter exclusive interviews.
Take Boris Nemtsov, for instance. The guy is good-looking and presumably pretty busy, in addition to being a Deputy Prime Minister. So when he agrees to an interview with Business Week's Patricia Kranz, he logically expects to get a friendly spread-what journalists call a "blowjob"-rather than have to answer for his share in Russia's financial crisis. Here is part of what Kranz wrote:
Kranz never mentioned that Nemtsov installed his personal banker, Boris Brevnov, as head of UES-RAO, and that Brevnov was subsequently reported to have rented passenger liners at hundreds of thousands of dollars cost to shareholders in order to have his American wife and mother-in-law picked up in Tennessee and brought back to Moscow. Kranz also neglected to mention that it was Nemtsov who personally intervened to have American Boris Jordan's visa renewed, and that Jordan's Renaissance bank is one of the main culprits in a recent scam to deprive minority shareholders of their rights to a new issue of Sidanko stock.
Logically, it doesn't make much sense to champion Nemtsov as the fighter against "Crony Capitalism," for "People's Capitalism." Unless, of course, he wants you to-and you're Patricia Kranz and desperate enough for an interview to do it.
Coming soon: more places to look for lipstick stains.