Issue #06/87, March 30 - April 13, 2000  smlogo.gif


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The Worst Journalist in Moscow
March Madness Finishes... With a Bang

by Matt Taibbi

In this issue, we bring you an account of the final game in the eXile's first annual "Worst Moscow Journalist" tournament. I know the winner, but I might as well admit right now that I didn't stay for the end of the game. I left in the third quarter.

I left in the third quarter, with John Thornhill of The Financial Times still battling it out with The Washington Post's David Hoffman, because I couldn't stand to watch anymore. The house was packed with spectators, but unlike them I was no longer finding any enjoyment in the spectacle. My emotions ran in a different direction. I wanted to kill somebody.

On the one hand, it's funny watching a bunch of blowhard hacks lie and cheat and cut corners in print, using patchwork grammar and tortured logic all along the way, pillaging their thesauruses to pad their word counts, etc. That kind of thing can't help but be funny. It's one of those immutable laws of the human experience; stupid people will always make good theater for smart alecks.

But by being so busy laughing at their brains, you can sometimes forget that these people have bodies, too. They have heads with little beady eyes, and backs bent in cringing, worshipful postures. When you picture those dumb brains packed into very real human bodies, bodies which breathe and secrete stuff, and snort and scheme and masturbate in the shower and look shiftily back and forth in crowds and change their tones of voice when their superiors call and feel an itch to salute when a dictator walks by - when you picture all of that, these people stop seeming funny. They become disgusting - physically repulsive.

Try this test. On the one hand, pick - at your own discretion - the person or persons you believe to be the vilest figures from human history, with the
caveat that they must all be leaders of men. My list, just off the top of my head, would include people like Hitler, Stalin, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Joe McCarthy. Pick someone so vile that you could imagine yourself pulling the trigger out of moral necessity should you find yourself transported back in time to a position right in front of them, with a gun pointed at their heads.

Now imagine that when you find yourself face to face with this person, you notice that he's not alone. Behind him, bent like a pretzel, is a little hanger-on with a mouth full of drool carrying a pen and paper and wedging his nose in your villain's ass. He's cooing in ecstasy as he drives his tongue up, say, King George's anus. If only his majesty would give him an order to carry out, any order, he would erupt in a paroxysm of pure pleasure. He's so happy, in fact, that he barely notices you standing there with the gun. How could he notice you? What else is there, when one already has the master's ass?

If the hanger-on was there alone, you wouldn't shoot the way you might with a Hitler. After all, he's not important enough to warrant committing murder. But ask yourself: given the choice between master and slave, who would you loathe more? Who would more make your flesh crawl to be near? Who would you be more horrified to hear had visited your home - your family, your wife - while you were away?

Hands down, every time, I bet you'd choose the hanger-on. He is not as dangerous as His Majesty, but he is infinitely more vile. He is not a man, but a bug. A virus. A growth. He has no will of his own, and no desire either, save to experience the thrill of being a useful vessel for discharge of power. And yet he visits your house every day, this human bug-virus, riding on the magic carpet of a newspaper delivered through your mail-slot.

The election of Vladimir Putin was a dark day for Russia, and for America too - and not just because he is a thief and an autocrat, but because his hangers-on have made his rise mean more than what it is. By himself, Vladimir Putin is just another petty dictator with a Swiss bank account, an army of drunken cops at his disposal, and a willingness to trample his own mother if she crosses him in public. The world has produced thousands of these monsters, they're a dime a dozen, nothing new. What is new, and what is even more disgusting than the rise of a petty dictator, is the phenomenon of a gallery of independent onlookers insisting that we believe that these petty dictators aren't bad, but good. That authoritarianism is okay as long as business is good. That snitches and spies are good people whom only the guilty have to fear. That torturers and repressors deserve some credit for dressing well and having a good serve.

Vladimir Putin is a reality I am ready to face with at least some patience. The rise of such figures is probably an inevitability, a sign from God that we all have to improve ourselves as people if we wish to avoid such political consequences. But all you people who are buried tongue-deep up his ass, you're different. You make me sick. David Hoffman, John Thornhill, John Lloyd, Maura Reynolds, all of you - you are all beneath contempt. There is no excuse for you. There is no way I could have failed as a person - or that anyone in Russia could have failed as a person - that would justify the existence of people like you. The only crime any of us are guilty of in that respect is continuing to tolerate you. But I'm renouncing my life of crime on that score. If I see any of you, I will slap you. For starters. Don't believe me? Try me. You all know where I spend my time in Moscow.

I don't expect the rest of you to do the same. But I would like you to ask yourself: should I say yes the next time David Hoffman invites himself into my home? Do I want John Lloyd around my kids? Should I let these human cockroaches in my door, these Evremondes, these junior Inquisitors and camp guards, just because they happen to write for The Washington Post, or The New York Times? It's time, I think, we stopped giving these people the respect that they get; it's time we started treating them as pariahs. If people like these are not social outcasts, then we have no society worth protecting.

Mercifully, this tournament is over. From what I saw, it was a hard-fought final. And it had all the pomp and ceremony you'd want in a major sporting event. Even I had to admit that, as I sat out the fourth quarter at home, TV off, my copy of Soldier of Fortune open to the classified ads. In any case, here's how the action went - or how I heard it went, anyway:



As expected, Maura Reynolds of The Los Angeles Times sang the national anthem before a packed house at the Starlite Diner arena. Dressed in jackboots and a gown made from a Martha Stewart bedspread, she got those rockets red-glaring as she belted out her March 24th piece, "In the West's View, Putin Very Well Could Be the Businessman's Special." The piece came with a tag under the headline: "Russia: Foreign investors predict a boom under the autocrat and expect he'll impose a little law and a lot of order on the unruly but promising economic system."

In this piece Reynolds unironically reports on the phenomenon of Western leaders embracing a regime that is authoritarian and repressive so long as it protects commerce. Here is how the piece opens:

"MOSCOW - Just days before Russian voters are expected to elect a dour autocrat as president, many Westerners share a surprising conviction: A little authoritarianism might be just what Russia needs.

"Of course, that's not precisely the way they - or the man likely to be voted president Sunday, Vladimir V. Putin - are putting it.

"'No one wants to use the word 'authoritarian' because it doesn't go over well,' says Alan Rousso, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. 'Instead, the language Putin is using and everyone else is using is 'strong state.'"

"A strong state is one that can collect taxes, enforce laws, safeguard nuclear stockpiles and manage the economy - all things that everyone agrees Russia needs. And on this score, nearly everything Putin has said and done since he became acting president Dec. 31 matches up with what the West wants.

"'He's sending all the right signals,' says Z. Blake Marshall, executive vice president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. 'Looking at all the evidence, you can build a picture that is quite promising and suggests better days are ahead.'

"In fact, Putin's economic agenda reads like a foreign investor's wish list: simplifying the tax code, legalizing land ownership, enforcing shareholder rights, stemming capital flight. And unlike former President Boris N. Yeltsin, Putin seems to have the clout with lawmakers to make those wishes come true.

"The other major area of direct concern to the West is nuclear safety."

Could you imagine any journalist during the Soviet era writing, "A little authoritarianism might be just what Russia needs?" No, of course not. Back then every chain-smoking dissident poet who ever had his rhyme scheme criticized was lionized by people like Reynolds as a champion of progressive values. It will be remembered that we cared about Russians' rights back then. But now that we run the world, we don't give a fuck. Buy your Coca-Cola and get back to lock-up, borscht-eater.

Reynolds's defense for this article would doubtless be that none of the opinions in it are her own. She herself isn't saying that a little authoritarianism might be just what Russia needs; she's saying that's what other Westerners are saying. She doesn't embrace the concept of a "strong state," she just defines what other people mean by it when they say it.

Well, bullshit. A person who disagreed on principle with this thesis - with the idea that authoritarianism is okay as long as trade routes are secured - would not write an article in this way. I certainly wouldn't. The sub-headline wouldn't read "Could be the Businessman's Special," but, "Businessmen Admit they Don't Care about Rights." Okay, you say, but Maura Reynolds can't write the latter, because the Times wouldn't allow that kind of non-objective writing.

But why not? The second version is no less slanted, no less objective, than the real version. The real version leads off with two straight quotes supporting the idea of benevolent authoritarianism, then says blankly, as a statement of fact, that the one area of direct concern to the West is nuclear safety. This last trick, the blanket statement of fact, has the effect of rendering all other considerations secondary to the issue of nuclear safety. I have to say it makes me more uncomfortable being an American in Russia, knowing that articles like these are out there. Could you imagine sitting with the parents of some kid who was slaughtered in Chechnya and explaining to them that, according to The Los Angeles Times, the only area of direct concern to your people is nuclear safety? That Putin according to your countrymen is "sending all the right signals"?

Furthermore, Reynolds deliberately confuses her rhetoric throughout the piece. She says Yeltsin didn't have clout with lawmakers - this is absurd. He bombed the shit out of them in 1993, and they didn't peep once after that. Whenever he needed them to, they got in line. Every time. What's more, what autocrat needs legislation anyway? Yeltsin willed much of the laws governing privatization into being by decree (with U.S. support, incidentally). Putin, if he needs to, will do the same. The whole point of authoritarianism is that it exists as an antecedent to participatory parliamentary democracy. If the Fuhrer needs "clout" with lawmakers, then he's not a Fuhrer at all, but an executive. Nonetheless, Reynolds allows her sources to use the word "legislation" - a word we Westerners associate with parliamentary process - as a smokescreen to distract the reader from the nature of the autocrat's business:

"In fact, after nine years of Yeltsin's volatile leadership, what Russians and Westerners appear to crave above all else is political stability.

"'We are confident that Putin will get in, and we believe he will bring stability," says Chris Lacey, head of General Motors' regional division here.

"'Whether it becomes more authoritarian, the important thing is what he does to legislation. We all need to know what the rules of the game are. What we can't have is a situation where the rules are changing all the time.'"

Since when did it become okay to say things like this in public? I always thought it was indecent for an American to think authoritarianism was okay, much less say so in public, as a spokesman for his PR-conscious employer. I don't get it. If somebody out there understands this, please don't hesitate to send in an explanation. And the home of the braveÖ



David Hoffman (1), Washington Post, def. John Thornhill, Financial Times

Big-money players always show up for the big games. Hoffman sure as hell showed up for this final. He ran away with the Worst Journalist 2000 title through his coverage of the story that was tailor-made for his peculiar propaganda skills; the Putin phenomenon and the presidential election.

Hoffman had a great game plan. He blitzed Thornhill in the first half with a revisionist history of the Chechen conflict, then switched to the election in the second half. His clever tactic in the Chechen story, as seen in his March 20 article, "Miscalculations Paved Path to Chechen War," was to race past the cautious apologies for the war favored by rivals like Michael Gordon of The New York Times, and simply declare (as implied in the headline) the whole business an understandable accident:

"The story of how Russia and Chechnya slid back into war has been the subject of debate and intense speculation here and abroad. The outbreak of hostilities coincided with the unexpected rise of acting President Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, and led to speculation that the Kremlin engineered the war in order to propel Putin to power, or at least influence the March 26 presidential elections.

"However, a reconstruction of key turning points on the road to war in Chechnya shows Russian officials and Chechen fighters were driven by a series of miscalculations, rather than by a calculated ploy.

"Russian analysts, military specialists and others interviewed for this article suggested both Russia and the Chechen fighters bungled badly as they responded to escalating tensions. The Chechen leaders and warlords, now battered and in hiding, have yet to give their side of the story."

Hoffman, as is his wont, lies here. Both Maskhadov and Basayev have blamed the apartment bombings that precipitated the war on Boris Berezovsky. Anyone who wants to find those denials can look them up on www.ichkeria.ru. This has long been a matter of public record. I was shocked (and I wasn't the only one, folks - an annotated version of this article was sent to me by an angry fellow journalist) to see him print such a blatant misstatement of fact here.

Later, Hoffman scrambles to depict Maskhadov - who I don't defend, but still - as an ungrateful traitor who turned his back on a Russian government that tried to do right by him:

"According to several officials, Russia's leadership tried to help Maskhadov, and for several years quietly supplied him with weapons and money."

First of all, why does the Kremlin get to have anonymous sources in The Washington Post on such a crucial matter? You can be damn sure no anonymous Chechen sources will ever appear in that paper. Secondly, what about the flip side to all that "money"? Would Hoffman ever print what happened to all those budget funds allocated for the "Chechen Reconstruction Fund"? Would he mention that the Russians conveniently destroyed most of the properties in Grozny they had theoretically "rebuilt"? And why doesn't Hoffman mention the fact that no Kremlin official ever agreed to meet with Maskhadov after Lebed's peace deal?

In any case, Hoffman went into the half with a big lead. While he was in the locker room, the crowd was given a real treat - the infamous John Lloyd halftime show. Lloyd wowed fans last summer with an 8,000-word piece in The New York Times magazine that excused the Young Reformers for their multitudinous fuckups on the grounds that they meant well. In this piece (March 19, "The Logic of Vladimir Putin"), again in the Times magazine, he explains away Putin's KGB past on the grounds that the post-Stalin Chekists were just a bunch of yuppies:

"The Soviet secret police became, after Stalin's death, much more of a 'thinking corporation,' and in doing so became increasingly attractive to the upwardly mobile."

To make the pill more palatable, Lloyd coats this thesis with a soothing base of tennis imagery and nice clothes:

"Aleksandr Lebedev is head of the Russian National Reserve Bank, and was in the late Gorbachev years an officer - an intelligence officer, not a KGB man" - in the London Embassy. He is still in his 30s, fluent and subtle in English, beautifully dressed, working from a sumptuous office. 'They came out of the best places - Moscow State, Leningrad State, the Moscow State Institute for Foreign Relations,' Lebedev said. 'The state was looking for people with a talent to make others feel well disposed toward them. Tennis was encouraged, so you could move easily in high society in the West.'"

So snitches dress well, speak English, and can make a fourth for doubles in a pinch. That's good enough for The New York Times, I guess.

Lloyd went on to dazzle the crowd by praising Putin's decision to protect Boris Berezovsky from prosecution as a "shrewd" move:

"Primakov, himself a former spy master (in foreign intelligence), began to move against business people and politicians he thought corrupt. Putin was ordered to investigate Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire financier and patron of the Yeltsin "family" - the extended circle of relatives and trusted associates that helped make key decisions, agreed on key appointments and drew a tight protective ring around the former president. Putin refused.

"It was a shrewd choice - to defend an ailing and politically weakened Yeltsin against Primakov, then the most popular politician in Russia, with the Communist and nationalist opposition forces in ascendancy."

I wonder what Lloyd would have written about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Macbeth was shrewd, too. He might have shown up as the "billionaire king" in a Lloyd article. This is amazing stuff, and the crowd certainly appreciated it. I was still there for that part - the noise in the stadium was deafening.

Hoffman simply ran away with this thing in the second half. As expected, most of the Western press applauded the Putin coronation. But no one got that tongue in deeper than good ol' Dave in his March 27 election wrap-up:

"This turnaround suggests a fundamental change in the Russian electorate may be unfolding, analysts and politicians said today. In the Yeltsin years, there was a huge fault line between the democrats and reformers on one side, and the Communists and nationalists on the other. Yeltsin's campaign in 1996 was cast as a black-and-white contest between the forces of reform and of communism.

"But now a different fault line is being drawn. Some analysts say it is a more pragmatic one: a division between those who have adapted to the new Russian market democracy, and those who have not. The adapters, especially young people, voted for Putin, while Zyuganov continued to pull those who have not managed to find a place in the new society - an older, more traditional electorate."

So Putin represents the electorate that has "adapted" to the fact of having no choice - er, to market democracy. The people who didn't vote for Putin were just a bunch of commies hobbling around on walkers. You see, jailing journalists and leveling civilian populations - that's just pragmatism. If you don't agree, well, then, you must be a red. Or old. So just die already! Let's move on, okay?

Hoffman's article went on, but by then I was gone. I had canned goods and hollow-points to order. This year's newly-crowned Worst Journalist will spend the year 2000 in the same place he spent 1999 - in his Moscow office, felching thugs by day, trolling cocktail parties with his hand extended for kissing by night. I'll be in the woods. I'm thinking Montana. See you there next year, sports fans.

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