Issue #28/83, February 10 - 17, 2000  smlogo.gif


You are here
Moscow babylon
Book Review
Other Shite

march madness
The eXile’s 1st Annual Worst Journalist Competition

by Matt Taibbi

Things have gotten a little bit creepy in Moscow lately--like the world in general following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia’s community of imported journalistic hacks and their readers have been left, following the ignominious departures of such famously bad Moscow-based reporters as Carol J. Williams, Michael Specter, and Anna Blundy, without a clear enemy to bring their lives into focus. True, a few familiar demons have stayed on--the Baltimore Sun’s Kathy Lally and the Washington Post’s David Hoffman come to mind--but in the seemingly de-ideologized atmosphere of post-crisis Russia even their reports have lacked the zesty literary villainy that once leapt off the page with such defiance and vigor. One gets the impression that Russia these days has become such a bummer that even the hacks covering it have been left too disinterested in their work to screw it up properly. The news these days has been reduced to a steady flow of grim casualty figures and glibly cynical, pseudo-academic assessments of Russia’s labyrinthine political situation, leaving no room for the old-time propaganda.

Or has it? Are there newer and scarier versions of Carol J. and Mme. Blundy lurking in our midst, without our being aware of it? Is there a newer, more subtle, more insidiously innovative brand of propaganda to be discovered by examining the spectrum of today’s foreign correspondence? We at the eXile decided that it was time to find out. Who’s the worst of the new worst? We could simply speculate, but it seemed more proper to rely on the scientific process of competitive elimination than to leave things in the hands of disorganized opinion. Therefore we’ve organized our first annual March Madness Hack Tournament, in which we will pit the city’s leading foreign correspondents head to head in direct competition to find out once and for all who the city’s worst journalist really is.

The format is very simple. Our panel of judges selected 32 resident journalists from the world’s leading English-language print publications and bracketed them into pairs for head-to-head matches. Every two weeks, the eXile will take one story filed by each journalist and compare it to a story filed by his competitor. Using a variety of criteria, our judges will determine scientifically which journalist in each pair wrote the more dishonest and/or inferior article. The worst man wins, advancing to the next round. After five rounds we’ll have had our final and our winner, an event timed neatly to coincide with the NCAA basketball finals in the States. At the very moment some lucky hoopster cuts down his souvenir net-strings to toast his team’s national championship, the eXile and its readers will be raising their glasses to the newly crowned Worst Journalist of Moscow, year 2000.

To even out the competition somewhat, we arranged the brackets around the eight journalists we considered to be the leading favorites to compete for the championship. These eight top seeds, headed by the legendarily moronic Richard Paddock of the Los Angeles Times, will face only unseeded competition until the third round.

There are no real rules in this competition. What we say, goes. However, the eXile assures its readers that it has not--we repeat, has not--determined a winner in advance. This is a process for discovery for us as much as we hope it will be for you. Honestly, if we wanted to tell you which reporters we simply disliked more than the others, we’d just stick Kathy Lally and David Hoffman in the finals right away and skip this whole process. But that’s not what this tournament is about. It’s about finding out what’s really going on out there--something we’re as curious about as anyone.

What follows are the results of round one, which took place in the period of January 15--February 1.

John Thornhill, Financial Times, def. Richard Paddock (1), Los Angeles Times

Who woulda thunk it? The number 1 seed goes down! And it wasn’t even close, folks. The FT’s John Thornhill was in the zone in his Jan. 15 compare n’ contrast piece, "Right seeks Tsar appeal." Eerily similar to a piece written last year by fellow Brit Anna Blundy comparing Boris Yeltsin to Ivan the Terrible, the thesis of this Thornhill piece falls apart, believe it or not, in the very first sentence--in the very first three words, in fact:

"Russia’s rightwing politicians have discovered a new hero: Alexander III, the little-known 19th-century Tsar. They suggest his policies could provide a model for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s acting president, who now seems almost certain to be elected to a four-year term in March."

Sounds fine, right? Wrong. Thornhill’s piece continues without citing a single "rightwing politician" who either has previously or is willing now to put Vladimir Putin and Alexander III in the same sentence. In fact, it later comes out that the idea was nobody’s but Thornhill’s own. The one person he quotes--clearly Thornhill called around saying "What do you think of this idea I had?"-- dismisses the comparison out of hand and quickly pulls Thornhill by the ear back into the current century. "Russia will return to its European roots and pursue the universal values of a democracy and a market economy," [Elena Nemirovskaya, director of the Moscow School of Political Studies] says. "I think that process is inevitable although it will not be simple." Ouch! The most painful part of this is that Thornhill willing to suffer the indignity of including this revealing "illustrative" quote in his crippled analysis, so long as it meant he didn’t have to go outside that day.

In contrast, the normally plodding Rick Paddock did a fair job in his Jan. 12 Putin piece ("The KGB rises again in Russia"), even citing a Stratfor report which noted that Putin had been invovled with "theft for hard currency schemes" while a KGB agent in Germany. Most of the big bureau hacks have been cautiously ignoring the rapidly expanding mountain of evidence suggesting that Putin’s main occupation for the last twenty years has been stealing stuff. None of the bureaus, for instance, have noted that Putin once defended himself against charges by the Petersburg City council that he had used state funds to buy real estate on the Atlantic coast of France by claiming that he didn’t know where the Atlantic coast of France was. That’s true, check it out. Paddock at least makes a pass at the truth in his piece.

Geoff York, Globe and Mail, def. Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor.

Clash of the Canadian Titans. Just weeks ago, Weir and York were arrested together in Chechnya, and their experiences in getting out alive will soon be made into a Touchstone Pictures buddy-movie feature, directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Jeff Goldblum and Hector Elizondo as Weir. The film, whose working title is "Aboot 48 Hours, Eh?", is due out next spring... In the meantime, York gets a bye into the second round by virtue of the fact that he might review the eXile book soon, and we need him nervous until he finishes it.

Maura Reynolds (8), Los Angeles Times, def. Will Englund, Baltimore Sun

Is it live, or is it Memorex? One can read and reread the (almost) simultaneously-released Ryazan bomb stories written by Englund ("Russian Bombs Set Off Whispers", Jan. 14) and Reynolds ("Fears of Bombing Turn to Doubts", Jan. 15) from now until the next millennium, and hardly find a single difference, either in content or style, between either of them. Both stories contain the same chronology and quote the same sources. As for style, observe Englund donning his trusty mittens for this passage:

"On the evening of Sept. 22, a chill was in the air in Ryazan, a city of 700,000 about 130 miles southeast of Moscow. Aleksei and Lyudmila Kartofelnikov had spent the day working in the vegetable garden of their country [aren’t all dachas country dachas? -ed.] dacha..."

...while Reynolds also felt a chill in her lead:

"On a chilly night last September, bus driver Alexei Kartofelnikov saw a suspicious car parked outside the 13-story apartment building where he lives in this working-class city..."

Both were meaty, solid articles, with nothing particularly reprehensible about either of them-- unless one takes into account the fact that neither newspaper wrote stories questioning the Chechen apartment bombings, or noting this incident in Ryazan, until long after the Duma elections were over. In fact, in the end, we chose Englund’s piece as the better effort for just two reasons. The first reason, and we’re reaching a little here, is that Englund’s piece had more color. As in, literally more color. His article, unlike Reynolds’s, included the fact of the "mysterious Zhiguli" having been white-colored. Reynolds’s "Russian-made" Zhiguli could have been, say, green, for all we know. The other reason is that Englund, unlike Reynolds, had the decency to avoid closing his piece with that most maddening of journo-cliches, the "One thing’s for sure; time will tell" ending. Here’s how Reynolds’s piece finishes up:

"Vasiliev would like to forget the whole thing: He can’t believe that it was just an exercise, but he doesn’t like the line of thought that follows.

"’We have been manipulated. But by whom, and for what purpose, I can’t say," he says. "I’m afraid we’ll never know what really happened.’"

Yeah, well, thanks. Also, Englund filed a day earlier, which still counts for something in this business. Reynolds advances.

Brian Whitmore, Boston Globe, def. Paul Goble, RFE/RL

Whimore’s Jan. 29 "Free speech seen in peril" was solid all the way through, but we’re sending him through to the next round with a bye as a means of punishing his boss, bureau chief David Filipov, for sneaking away on a long vacation in order to get out of this tournament. Goble, who a little while ago fucked up a story about an alleged secret document showing Russian plans for genocide in Chechnya and was publicly called on it by an insultingly cheerful Matt Bivens, takes advantage of this lucky break to exit the tournament.

Gareth Jones, Reuters (6), def. Christian Caryl, U.S. News and World Report

Gareth Jones is a hack’s hack: a thoroughly uncomplicated organism with a single-celled brain, in which one may find floating a a vocabulary of about nineteen words-- actually about seven, if you don’t include the twelve standard-issue wire-service cliches, words like "liberal" and "hardliner" and "reformer", that Reuters supplies him with. His January 18 piece, "Russian Duma Speaker is a smooth veteran", is a classic of wire-service incompetence. Back in the good old days of the "Energetic Young Reformers", you saw stories like this every day, in which former communists were refashioned as earnest young market-friendly intellectuals the West could depend on. Jones in these piece is giving some of that same old-time religion, but in this case, the former communist winning all the praise in his biographical facelift--Gennady Seleznyov-- actually gets to remain a communist.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Seleznyov is one of the most supremely loathsome people in the entire Russian government--which is saying a lot--Jones’s piece is a shameless and inexcusably obvious blowjob. Every single paragraph, every sentence, in fact, is a worshipful paean to the Vision of Wonderfulness that is Gennady Seleznyov. According to Jones, Seleznyov is "pragmatic", "unruffled", "dapper" (dapper!), "capable", and "skilled"; he displays "dry wit and an independent style", and knows the "art of compromise". What’s more, says Jones, Seleznyov is a tough customer who fights for what he believes in. "But as speaker Seleznyov has never pretended to be an apolitical figure standing above the fray of party politics," Jones writes, noting that Seleznyov backed the Union with Belarus and the impeachment of President Yeltsin. Furthermore, he’s his own man even within the communist party:

"In contrast to the dour, often strident Zyuganov, Seleznyov, a former editor of the Communist daily Pravda, displays a dry wit and independent style which has earned him the distrust of some Communist hardliners."

So Seleznyov is one of a new breed good fairy communists, not like the wicked dour communists of the old days! He’s a Nutra-Sweet communist! And since when does being a former editor of Pravda enhance one’s credentials as a person with a sense of humor?

What’s even funnier is the idea of Gareth Jones, a conformist lapdog if there ever was one, picking on the communists for allegedly disapproving of Seleznov’s "independent style". Jones can’t even use his own words (I thought "communist hardliners" disappeared from the wire-service lexicon about two years ago), let alone have his own thoughts. And he’s picking on the communists?

What’s more, Jones got the story completely wrong. To call Seleznyov a man capable of "free thinking" and "independent style" is to miss his point entirely. What he is is a sellout of supernatural proportions. The guy sold out his whole damn party throughout the entire second half of this decade, to the point where the word "communist" no longer means anything in an ideological sense at all, negative or positive. He organized rigged parliamentary proceedings that gave the Kremlin the appearance of an opposition while guaranteeing his party’s acquiescence throughout on every single big vote that came up. He was financed by Boris Berezovsky in his latest gubernatorial run, a fact Jones conveniently leaves out. Whether you’re a communist or not, you can’t help but agree that a politician whose loyalties are in such obvious conflict with those of his electorate can’t be anything but reprehensible and an anathema to everything democracy is supposed to stand for-not an "independent" thinker who can be allowed to claim in your article that he is committed to democracy.

This Jones piece is a forecast of the propaganda spin to come on Vladimir Putin. The day before Unity merged with the commies, Madeline Albright had come out and called Putin a "reformer". Putin shot that down right away by joining up with Seleznyov’s crew, so the new line will take a different approach. Instead of letting stand the politically-embarrassing fact of a communist collaborator seizing power in the Kremlin during Clinton’s presidency, the new strategy will be, I’m sure, to make it known that the communists in the Duma are not the same communists as the old bad communists. The new guys, represented by "dapper" politicians like Seleznyov, will be presented as "pragmatic" politicans we can work with. They’ll be calling them "technocrats" any day now. This is interesting, because when it suited us to have things the other way around--when we needed a red opposition to make Boris Yeltsin seem a more legitimate democrat--reporters took the fake communists in the Duma and portrayed them as being hardliner holdouts who want to return to the old days of the Soviet Union. We’ve come full circle, and have Gareth Jones to thank for it. Ugh, what a gross world we live in. Surely even the communists preferred the days when we were enemies to the day when they became "men with whom we can do business."

Jones’s opponent, Christian Caryl, exited quietly in the first round with his January 31 piece, "Mother’s Helpers". Your basic weeping-war-mother story, nothing too fancy. The article did have a present tense lead ("Anxious parents crowd the dingy hallway outside the cramped offices of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers...") which in itself is not a crime, I suppose, but I think should be discouraged in general. The danger with present-tense leads is that they can result in Carlotta Gall-isms, i.e. long stretches of straight description, cold sleet falling in the muddy plain, in the distance a flash of light streaks across the sky as a rocket-launcher hisses, proud, majestic bearded faces stare with steely glances at the tree-line, blah, blah, blah, and you’re fucking asleep by the third graph. Anyway, Caryl’s wasn’t that bad, but the danger is always there.

Andrew Jack, Financial Times, def. Angela Charlton, Reuters

Few genres of Western feature reporting are as loathsome as the "Russia is dying even in the face of heroic Western generosity" type of article, typified by the Jack piece on the Glas literary Journal ("Writers Come in from the Cold", Jan. 22). There which the author finds some down-and-out Russian whose existence is briefly elevated to a level of near-dignity through the efforts of some Western donor, only to have his subject fail in the end to get on his feet due to the cruelty of his fellow Russians. Jack’s article includes the inevitable scene of a Russian weeping with joy the first time he/she is exposed to (take your pick) a Western supermarket, a Western restaurant, a friendly Western cop, or, in this case, the progressive child-rearing theories of Western sociologist Dr. Benjamin Spock:

"Spock’s work contrasted starkly with the more formal Russian child-rearing methods, which Perova describes as ‘designed to train revolutionary soldiers’, and when while living in Pakistan during the 1960s she came across a copy of the doctor’s revolutionary approach to child-rearing, she recalls bursting into tears of joy."

Charlton’s piece on the Orthodox Church ("Russian Church Gets Closer to State", Jan. 21) expresses surprise at the recent marriage between KGB vet Vladimir Putin and the church, despite the fact that the church has a long history of cooperation with the NKVD/KGB, particularly since the end of WWII. But Jack gets the nod here.

Michael Gordon (3), New York Times, def. Barry Schweid, AP

Gordon’s Chechnya stories have been suspiciously friendly to the Russians lately. His Jan. 19 piece, "Frontline Priests Recruited to Raise Fighting Spirit," reads like something out of Stars and Stripes. It tells of the (imagine this next sentence being announced over the base intercom at the M*A*S*H 4077th) ups and downs, the bends and breaks, the triumphs and travails of a derring-do Orthodox priest assigned to a Russian army unit to raise morale and provide moral support. Gordon opens with a standard "Times have changed since Communism" lead:

"In the days of Soviet power, the Red Army had political commissars in practically every unit to make sure the soldiers obediently followed the Communist Party line, including atheism.... So Father Safrony’s presence in the snow-capped mountains of Chechnya still seems a bit unusual. Dressed in a camouflage uniform and black knit cap, the Russian Orthodox priest is the chaplain to the Russian paratroopers who are fighting the Islamic Chechen rebels near the Chechen-Dagestani border here."

The rest of the piece is filled with ultra-patriotic gibberish spoon-fed to him by somebody in the Russian high command. An example is the conclusion of the article, a stirring quote by his priest:

"‘ How can we not defend Russian land?’ Father Safrony asked. ‘There is power. There are borders. And there is the motherland. To strengthen the state, the army has to be strengthened, and there is no army without the spirit.’"

And with spirit, we may guarantee the election of President Putin... Gordon’s unabashed Russophilia has not gone without notice in the journalism community, where there has been talk that Gordon has made some kind of deal with the Russians in order to gain access to certain places in the war zone. If anyone out there in the Western press corps knows something more about this, please give me a call. Either way, Gordon’s article is a disgrace. I thought this kind of writing went out of style with Eisenhower.

I was prepared to give this one to Gordon in a blowout, but Schweid’s January 30 piece, "Albright in Moscow to Size Up Putin", made me hesitate. In it, Schweid follows in the footsteps of virtually the entire Moscow press corps in making one of the most infuriating omissions a Moscow reporter can make while covering Chechnya--namely, leaving out the comparison between Russia’s Chechen campaign and the American attack on Kosovo. Others might have had an excuse for avoiding it, but on the occasion of Albright’s visit, Schweid was simply obligated to bring the matter up. Instead he puts in lines like this:

"Albright noted that casualties are mounting and said Russia faces more isolation in the international arena as the war drags on. ‘They have to hear over and over again that this is not working for them,’ Albright said."

That paragraph just screams out for a follow-up one which said, "Russian officials said exactly the same thing last year when it protested against the U.S. attack on Kosovo." Nothing doing. Schweid deserves to be in round 2 a lot more than, say, Owen Matthews, but he’s not going. That’s what happens when you draw Michael Gordon in the first round.

Owen Matthews, Newsweek, def. Edward Lucas, Economist

Despite the fact that Matthew’s January 30, 2000 "Chechnya; ‘Like a Meat Grinder’" piece was the best thing he’d done in years, and despite the fact that Lucas, like York, may be reviewing our book soon, we’re letting Lucas off the hook for the simple reason (other resident journalists take note) that he frequently comps us for lunches at Night Flight. One thing: the "meat grinder" phrase is in danger of becoming the new journalistic fashion craze around here, almost like that business of wearing sunglasses with the tag still on them. It’s been in the news a lot lately, and Christian Caryl of U.S. News used it the day after Matthews did in his Jan. 31 story about Russian war mothers...stay tuned. Otherwise Matthews, a born British war correspondent--a throwback to the days when writers like Saki had servants carry boxes of fine silverware and china along with cages full of wild animal pets to the front--did a fine job with this piece. Unfortunately, though, he’s through to round two, and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

Alice Lagnado, Times UK, def. Kathy Lally (4), Baltimore Sun

The second upset of the tournament, and a big one. Lally’s increasingly blockheaded and incoherent features last year prompted a number of local journalists to wonder aloud about her sanity (particularly after an article which argued that the showing of a sexy German cigarette ad on Moscow billboards proved that Russians had suffered an inexorable moral decline), but her first-round effort in this tournament left audiences scratching heads. The January 21 piece, entitled, "Russia chills journalist in reminder of old days", was, to put it blunty...pretty good. It described the attempted seizure and removal to a mental hospital of Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter Alexander Khinshtein, who was clearly being persecuted for writing articles hostile to various government officials and political heavyweights like Boris Berezovsky. The article was devoid of hysterics, fact-based, detailed, and written with some sympathy for Khinshtein and even some apparently genuine moral outrage. Lally lost a few points for not mentioning the fact that some of Khinshtein’s biggest targets lately have been Americans-- he did two television shows in November-December 1999 which made widespread allegations of CIA involvement in Russian domestic politics, mentioning former HIID chief Jonathan Hay. That fact should probably have been included, as it is entirely possible that U.S.-friendly officials/protégées in the Russian government knew of and approved the attempted incarceration. It also hardly escaped our notice that Lally came out so strongly against the attempted seizure of an obnoxious journalist less than two years after she made noises about having the eXile shut down, and was caught in one of our phone pranks considering helping the Russian government put us in jail. Nonetheless, she didn’t blow this particular piece that badly.

Meanwhile, her opponent, Alice Lagnado, has been filing a serious of, well, frankly silly Chechen war pieces, ensuring her passage to the second round. Lagnado’s basic schtick lately ("Cold Kills Conscripts In Trenches", Jan. 27; "Journey of Fear Behind Russian Lines", Jan. 25) has been to go behind Russian lines in disguise and report on what’s really going on in the Chechen side. Aside from the fact that Lagnado’s narratives read suspiciously like something out of Monty Python, or more specifically like an Al Franken skit (the Lagnado style is eerily similar to Franken’s famous "I’m coming to you live from a really bad neighborhood wearing an extremely expensive satellite remote headset" routine), her entire approach to the war seems weirdly inappropriate in the same way a lot of Western reporting out of Chechnya has been. The thing to avoid forgetting with Chechnya is that in it, Russia organized a completely rigged spectacle of mass murder and carnage, then delivered the show to voters using the vehicle of TV journalists and newspaper hacks. The reporters know this, but for some reason--either out of an urge to finally do that war journalism thing, or because the format they’re writing in doesn’t allow them to do otherwise--they all insist on covering the event as a normal war. As in, "Ok, it’s all fake, it’s all staged purely with the elections in mind, but I’ll report on the troop movements and territorial advances and do some harrowing Ôwar is hell’ features anyway." In Lagnado’s case, she uses the by--now accepted "I-want-a-book-deal-like-Anthony-Loyd’s" war reporting technique of getting herself (and other people, in her hosts) into dangerous situations and then writing about the experience with an "isn’t this thrilling?"-style narrative. At times, Lagnado’s articles read like the Bret Easton Ellis book "American Psycho", written just as badly, with the same humorously grotesque obsession with clothing and appearance in the middle of a murder story. The clearly superfluous word "chequered" in particular rubs the wrong way in this passage:

"I had clipped my hair up so it looked as if I had a bun under my headscarf like all Chechen women do. I had bought 70-rouble plastic boots and a chequered shopping bag in which I hid my rucksack and satellite phone..."

I can almost imagine the Bret Easton Ellis version of Chechen war coverage: "After getting behind enemy lines I put on a pair of velveteen Armani slacks and a Sasch pullover with the silver Tag Heuer crystal timepiece I always wear when I’m wearing black and managed to elude the Russian ‘mopping up’ patrols by wearing that CK cologne the Russians never recognize and..."

Just like presidential campaign coverage in the U.S., where journalists have seemingly accepted at the outset that the candidates are openly manipulating the media, and now cover the campaign by writing about how the candidates are doing at manipulating the media, the media has swallowed its role in Chechnya and just gone along with it as though nothing has changed. As in: "We’re here on a bogus pretext, but we have to file twice or three times a week no matter what, so we might as well make the best of it." What should the journalists do? Boycott the story? Write only about the bogusness of it all, or make the cynicism the permanent focus of the story? Take up guns and shoot the GenShtab? I don’t know. One of those responses would be better than most of what the press is doing in Chechnya. Either way, Lagnado, who’s definitely not letting these questions get in the way of her making her professional best of it down there, is through to the next round.

Giles Whittell, Times UK, def. Patrick Cockburn, Independent

Whittel advances for repeat commission of one of the oldest and most storied transgressions known to Moscow hackdom-- the gentle re-edit of Moscow Times copy for submission back home in the guise of your own work. Every hack in town does it, and Whittell was clearly never a threat to be the first exception. His January 27 piece, "Vodka Worsens Population Crisis", was basically just a shortened version of Oksana Yablokova’s piece on the same topic, published the day before. Don’t believe me? Check out these two excerpts, the first from Yablokova’s piece:

"Russia has an astonishingly high number of deaths from accidental alcohol poisoning, with 35,000 compared to some 300 a year in the United States, which has almost twice the population and a fair number of heavy drinkers as well."

Now check out this one from Whittell’s piece, run one day later:

"Russia’s death rate for both sexes is boosted by an astonishing 35,000 deaths a year from accidental alcohol poisoning. The comparable figure for the United States, with a population nearly twice as large, is 350."

Note that both excerpts used the word "astonishing", both cited the same statistics (I was amused by Whittell’s attempt to cover his tracks by confidently putting forward the exact number 350, which I’m sure he made up, to distance himself from Yablokova’s estimate of "some 300"), and both compared the number of Russian deaths to an America nearly twice as large in population. The latter fact is particularly striking given that Whittell is writing for a British audience that could just have easily (and more appropriately) grasped a comparison to an England with a little less than half of Russia’s population.

Whittell might have gotten a pass on this, had he not just lifted a different story from The Moscow Times the day before that. The day before! His January 26 piece, "Cossacks Dance to American Tune" was lifted from Yulia Solovyeva’s January 25 piece, "Balailaikas Follow Brains, Ballerinas." In this one, Whittell at least admits to quoting The Moscow Times on the story, but he conceals--or, perhaps it is better to say, he does not call attention to--the fact that literally every single piece of information in his piece is taken from Solovyeva’s piece, again right down to some of the illustrative comparisons. Here’s Solovyeva talking about the benefits of pumping gas in the States for Cossack defectors:

"Many of the artists have already found work in New York City and elsewhere, doing everything from pumping gas to performing in restaurants -- and are earning in a single day more than it took them months to earn back home."

And here’s Giles, adding a little color if nothing else, talking about pumping gas:

"The performers, among them some of the world’s finest practitioners of the gopak’s frenzied squatting and kicking, stayed on in the United States last month after a 50-city tour because, even as petrol pump attendants, they can earn more in a day than song and dance used to earn them in a month."

The female staff of The Moscow Times should probably consider filing a stalking complaint against Whittell, or at least getting a restraining order. This guy makes O.J. Simpson seem like Naomi Wolf.

The Whitell-Cockburn matchup was over in the first quarter. Cockburn hasn’t written a shaky piece since the Ford Presidency. Plus he comped us on a lunch a while ago, too, with appetizers and desserts included. Whittell advances.

Helen Womack (5), Independent, def. Anna Dolgov, AP

Mark Twain once wrote about Fenimore Cooper: "Whenever absolute silence is worth about four dollars a minute, you can be sure a Cooper hero will step on a twig...He must have gone through a whole box of twigs in his career..." In the same way, whenever Independent writer Helen Womack is struggling to find a subject for one of her trademark "insightful" columns on Russian culture, you can be absolutely sure she’ll drudge up some alleged Russian "friend" and make an ass of him in print. The latest inhabitant of Womack’s Moscow Rolodex to don the court jester hat for the bemusement of her British audience is a certain "Grisha" ("Friendship Remains a Better Investment in Russia than a career", Jan. 18), who along with other unnamed friends is shown to be ignorant of politics ("Well, it may have escaped your notice that Boris Yeltsin has resigned", Womack quips to one friend), ignorant of the Western concept of a work ethic ("Lately, my Russian friends have been losing patience with me. They have been ringing up, wanting to meet, and getting the reply that I was busy. "What do you mean, busy?"), drunk ("So I went over with the vodka and left him to get happily drunk," Womack writes; it’s understood that she’s above joining him and getting drunk herself), helpless ("I have not got an insurance policy"), superstitious ("The next thing was to find the astrologer. "There is an Age of Aquarius exhibition down near the old KGB headquarters," said Grisha, no longer limping but leaping"), ignorant of "rational" Western medical procedures ("He rang a medical friend, who repeated my rational Western advice about the X-ray but added her own Russian diagnosis. "You know," she said, "a broken limb is usually a sign of something changing in your life...") and a hypochondriac ("It turned out he had only fallen down one step and twisted his ankle"). The ironic thing is that Womack was ostensibly writing about the peculiar intensity of Russian "druzhba", which she says is where "the real action happens", but friends don’t write columns like this about other friends. Unless, that is, they’re sure said friend doesn’t read in English.

Womack frequently writes columns like this one, seemingly always angling for a theme which she knows will allow her audiences back home to feel superior in comparison to the lovably hopeless and bumbling Russian "friends" of hers she describes. Another recent example was a column late last year in which she wrote about a Russian friend for whom a visit to England was just a "dream come true". Beyond these problems, Womack’s Jan. 15 column was, like all of her columns, insufferably boring, reinforcing her status as Moscow’s dullest "slice-of-life" columnist. Compared to Womack, Jean MacKenzie was a veritable Mick Jagger of journalism.

This was the kind of matchup in which, as sportwriters say, it was a shame that someone had to lose. Anna Dolgov’s effort, the Jan. 15 "Russian Soldiers Feel Betrayed", was a perfect example of the kind of fast-food news feature writing that tempts one to call for the mass herding of journalism school teachers into polar internment camps. The lead follows strictly the classic "lead-o-matic" formula:

"EXOTIC CITY, Foreign country (Wire Service) - In the (unnecessary modifiers) (rustic local topographical feature) amid the (exotic local fauna), an (unnecessary modifiers) (authentic local protagonist) is doing (what he does) amid the (unnecessary modifiers) of the (exotic local fauna) next to the (rustic local topographical feature)."

Note the nice balance of the end phrase of the lead with the opening phrase. They teach this stuff in schools. Dolgov’s lead goes like this:

"GROZNY, Russia (AP) -- By a tumbledown wooden shack flanked by elm trees, a scraggy 20-year-old Russian conscript clutches a cigarette between his fingers and stares at the snow around his feet."

The dictates of the "pyramid lead" formula (that’s what they call it) almost always result in a secondary developmental paragraph which leads, suddenly and dramatically as it were, to a quote in the third graph. When you’ve read enough of these pieces, you can see that quote coming about six or seven words into the lead:

"...A deafening burst of artillery cracks nearby, knocking clumps of snow from the trees and sending them to the ground with a low thud. The soldier, Dima Labazov, doesn’t even look up.

"`We are tired of this war already,’ Labazov said, his voice low and expressionless. He said his platoon was promised it would be out of Chechnya by Jan. 26, but all mention of a plane trip home has stopped."

This is the kind of writing which makes TV news seem intellectually stimulating. In fact, it is TV news, only not as interesting to look at. Image, image, quote. Narration, narration, image. Quote, narration, image...and so on. Nonetheless, Dolgov, didn’t invent this formula, while Womack is an original of sorts. Womack by a hair and into round two.

Marcus Warren, Electronic Telegraph, def. Mark Franchetti, Sunday Times

This is an interesting one. Two British writers named Mark filed Chechnya stories on the same day which made exactly opposite factual assertions. Franchetti ("Feuding Chechen warlords turn war on themselves," Jan. 23) wrote a story about a shooting incident between Chechen warlords which indicated that the rebel opposition had suffered a serious schism. Warren ("Chechen foes unite against Russians", Jan. 23) wrote the exactly opposite story, which was that Chechen unity against the Russians had recently advanced significantly, that the rebel military leaders who were "foes in peacetime" had come together that week in a show of public solidarity. Warren advances here because Franchetti got the story right. There really have been stories circulating that Shamil Basayev had been shot in the stomach by rival warlord Magmed Khambiyev--and the mere presence of rumors to that effect would be enough to squash Warren’s thesis. After all, one can’t talk about any show of solidarity being "paraded" before the public when Shamil Basayev only that week had had to deny on television being shot by one of his own people-particularly when Basayev was only shown from the neck up when he made the statement.

Celestine Bohlen (7), New York Times, def. Colin McMahon, Chicago Tribune

The eXile is trying to suck up to McMahon because he might review our book, and unlike Geoff York we don’t think he would respond positively to the pressure of being put into the second round automatically. So he’s out. Also, Bohlen’s Jan. 21 article, "Many Russians Questioning Death Toll in Chechnya", contained a gnarly copy-editing mistake:

"Aleksandr V. Rutskoi, a hawkish former Soviet general who as Russia’s vice president, lead a mutiny against the Kremlin in 1993..."

Now, when we at the eXile make copy-edit mistakes, it’s evidence of our genuinness, our close-to-the-boneness... When The New York Times makes copy-edit mistakes, it means that not a single person in a chain of command stretching across some fifteen people didn’t actually read the article. How is that possible? Easy--the piece was dull as hell. And I read it in big type. Imagine what it was like for Bohlen’s New York readers. She advances.

Martin Nesirky, Reuters, def. Peter Graff, Reuters

Battle of hack co-workers. Nesirky is the Jeb Magruder of the local hack community, the sniffling hanger-on carefully toeing the party line whilst angling for a small promotion. His news analyses are distinguished by a strong tendency toward wish-fulfillment reasoning, i.e. "X would be good for Western ties with Russia, therefore we see evidence of X." A few years back he admitted to us that he and his bureau had softened the language of its reports about the Chubais book scandal because Nesirky believed Chubais to be crucial to the preservation of close ties with the IMF and the World Bank. In this case, he wishes into being an improvement of relations with NATO in his January 27 piece, "Russia Warms to NATO, but Why Now?".

"After almost a year in the deep freeze, Russia’s ties with NATO look set to thaw significantly soon, even if they take a long time to defrost completely," he writes. "Military analysts say Acting President Vladimir Putin has several reasons -- ranging from domestic politics and likely defense cuts to European and Russian security -- for wanting to improve relations with the 19-nation Western alliance now."

Nesirky quotes dependable neo-liberal talking head Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation and basically wings the rest. A good example of his sleight-of-hand analytic technique comes about ten graphs down in the article:

"Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as president on New Year’s Eve but remains prime minister. This means he cannot leave Russia because the premier ordinarily deputizes for the president.

"`I don’t intend to violate this procedure,’ Putin said in an interview in which he noted a positive trend in ties with NATO."

How exactly did Putin note a positive trend in ties with NATO? If this indeed is the point of the piece, why didn’t Nesirky include that Putin quote, instead of the one he eventually put in? My guess is that Putin’s remarks weren’t as unambiguous as Nesirky would have liked. So he stuck in the above quote and just declared the rest. A neat trick.

Graff’s Jan. 22 piece, "Putin says alliance with Communists Not Strategic", repeats the increasingly irritating oversimplification of continually describing the SPS as liberals. What have these guys done that’s liberal, exactly? What does the word "liberal" mean in the context of people this corrupt? Who knows. In any case, Nesirky’s piece was still worse, and he advances.

David Hoffman (2), Washington Post, def. John Helmer, Moscow Tribune

See notes on Anna Dolgov, above, re: the "lead-o-matic." Here’s the lead from Hoffman’s Jan. 30 piece, "Putin Steps Out of the Shadows":

"DRESDEN, Germany--In the gray villa at No. 4 Angelikastrasse, perched on a hill overlooking the Elbe River, a young major in the Soviet secret police spent the last half of the 1980s recruiting people to spy on the West."

So that’s pretty clear. Helmer, for his part, wrote an interesting and very detailed (if verbose and convoluted) story about a Russian joint venture with the Pan American Silver Company ("Putin and the Claim Jumpers" Jan. 25). Where does he get this stuff? Hoffman in a walk.

Gary Peach, Moscow Times, def. Daniel Williams, Washington Post

As much as we hate to see anyone from the Washington Post (even a token human being among their staff like Williams) exit this tournament prematurely, this one was a no-brainer. Since the departure of Geoff Winestock the Times’ ranking neo-liberal bonehead, Peach scored another memorable performance this past week with his Jan. 25 "Analyst" piece, "Murky Tatneft’s Rapid Rise Shows West’s Forgetfulness."

In it, Peach goes to great lengths for no obvious reason to disparage Tatneft, making a pile of mistakes along the way. First, he cited an SEC report filed by the company which states "current and former Tatneft employees are being allowed by the Tatarstan government to split off oilfields from the company and form separate production entities." He calls this practice "blatant asset stripping". Peach neglects to mention the fact that every oil company in Russia does the same thing, as a means of getting unproductive assets off the books, a necessity forced upon them by Russia’s regressive tax system. Peach also neglected to mention the fact that the State Duma passed a new law on oilfield licenses a few weeks ago which makes the practice legal. Why didn’t Peach make a note of this? Probably because he didn’t know it; he didn’t speak to any industry experts for his piece. Furthermore, he writes about Tatneft, whose stock rallied last week: "The company borrowed $1.2 billion on capital markets over a two-year span and has absolutely nothing to show for it." Peach here failed to mention the fact that the rally had been spurred by Tatneft’s announcement that it had just paid down $300 million of its debt.

That’s a lot of mistakes to make in one small piece. Peach advances. Williams, who’s been in Chechnya so long his teeth have probably turned gold, gets a pass.

Trading Cards
The Vault