Issue #09/90, May 11 - 25, 2000   smlogo.gif


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by Matt Taibbi

When a person first becomes aware that he is the target of deceptive propaganda, it is the subtlety of the media deception that frightens him most. The very idea that one can be told a lie over and over again and not even notice seems terrifying; it seems to speak to an astonishing rhetorical ability on the part of the propagandist.

But ultimately the best propaganda is not subtle at all. In fact, the cruder it is, the more it tends to demoralize the sensitive intellect. That is, someone like me, for instance. If newspapers like The New York Times made their propaganda techniques less transparent, I’d feel less aghast at the public’s indifference to their crimes. But it’s the very obviousness of their method that leaves me so close to feeling bereft of hope–and tempted, ultimately, to think that complaining about it isn’t even worth the trouble anymore.

But that’s the trick, of course. By being brazen and shameless, your average media villain tempts you into feeling not horror, but despair in the face of repeated exposure to his work. But this is wrong. The horrifying must always inspire horror, no matter how many times you experience it. It must! Otherwise, they’ve won.

I feel like I’ve written this same column a hundred times–but what can I do? As of this week, in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, The New York Times has written the same evil editorial at least a hundred times. If I don’t point it out, I’m in the wrong. It’s like giving in to the Holocaust deniers!

The evil editorial goes, and always has gone, something like this:

"This week, X news event ushered in a new era for the troubled Russian state. While an old discredited leader (Gorbachev, Gaidar, Chubais, Nemtsov, Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Primakov, Stepashin, Yeltsin) passed from the scene, a new promising leader (Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Gaidar, Chubais, Nemtsov, Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Stepashin, Putin) appeared.

"This new leader (Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Gaidar, Chubais, Nemtsov, Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Stepashin, Putin) promises to ring in a new era of economic reform. He will also stamp out corruption. In contrast to the exiting discredited leader, who is old and infirm, the new leader is dynamic and young.

"Under the new energetic leader, Russia is finally about to turn the corner to economic prosperity. Signs of this new prosperity are already evident. What signs are absent are expected to appear soon, so we should all be patient.

"Though life in Russia is still far from perfect, there has been enormous progress since the era of communism. Since the communist days, times have changed for the better, and Russians have plenty of reasons to look on the bright side.

"The rise of the energetic new leader, who is anxious to maintain a close dialogue with the West, is a great opportunity for America. With the new leader in power, we should make tremendous progress, and Western business will finally be able to prosper in Russia.

"Will the energetic new leader, who has shown occasional signs of being a murderous thug in the past, turn out to be the great reformer the scant evidence we dredged up suggests he might be, if we’re lucky? At this stage, it’s tough to say. But one thing’s for sure: time will tell."

Ask yourself how many times you’ve read this editorial, or a close relative of it. I’m sure for some of you the number is over a hundred. Articles like this have accompanied the rise of virtually every major politician in Russia since the beginning of the perestroika era.

The New York Times this week made it 101 with its May 9 post-inauguration editorial, "President Vladimir Putin." This brief editorial contains at least a dozen monstrous lies. They include:

(1) "As Russians wait for Mr. Putin to make his intentions clear, they should rejoice in the freedoms that have developed since Mikhail Gorbachev first loosened the straightjacket of Communism and Mr. Yeltsin set Russia on a course toward democracy and free markets."

Four points about this passage. (A) Russians do not have to wait for Vladimir Putin to make his intentions clear. After the Chechen war, two phony elections, the ruthless seizure of control over all television news coverage, the abuse of journalists Andrei Babitsky and Alexander Khinshtein, and the handing over of Trans World aluminum to Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, they have a pretty good frigging idea of Vladimir Putin’s intentions. (B) Who the hell do the Times editors think they are to tell Russians when and at what they should rejoice, particularly since (C) there isn’t much to rejoice about, given the prolonged depression–the most pronounced in the world during the twentieth century–which took place in the new era of "freedom"? And, finally, there is (D) Yeltsin ushered democracy out just as much as he ushered it in; his economic legacy is more a system of oligarchic criminal clan tribute than free markets.

That’s just one sentence worth of errors. Try this next one:

(2) "For all the severe economic and political dislocations of the last 15 years, Russians today enjoy liberties, including open presidential elections and a largely free press, that their ancestors never attained."

Russia’s press is not largely free, as anyone who has watched television in the last nine months knows. Neither are the elections particularly open, given the lack of media access afforded to opposition candidates. Lastly, it is not necessarily a given that Russia in the age of Sergei Dorenko has reached standards for civil liberties that Russians in the age of, say, Belinsky never attained. There is not much difference between a selectively permissive Tsar with limited means and technology to police a massive agrarian state, and a selectively repressive dictatorial executive with all the police and surveillance powers available to a modern industrial nation.

(3) "Working with the moderate Parliament that Russians elected in December…."

As has been demonstrated ad nauseum over the course of the last seven months or so by every rational observer of the Russian political scene, there is nothing moderate about the Unity-led parliament. In fact, Unity’s only real platform so far has been to bomb the hell out of Chechnya–hardly a moderate position. Besides, just look at those guys. Sergei Shoigu? Alexander Karelin? Moderates?

(4) "…he has an opportunity… to reform a dysfunctional tax code…."

It is the IMF and the World Bank that have insisted on the draconian tax rates that make the Russian system so dysfunctional. Besides, as has been reported (in the eXile, among other places), Russia’s tax revenues as a percentage of GDP actually exceed those of the United States.

(5) "Mr. Putin’s choice for Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, suggests a desire to press ahead with economic reform and reduce the corruption that distorts Russian commerce."

The Times here conveniently ignores Kasyanov’s actual reputation, symbolized by his nickname "Misha Two Percent"–a name he earned on the basis of the size of his reputed usual cut for help in insider deals. On the other hand, there is absolutely no evidence the Times could possibly be relying upon here (other than its own fanciful thinking) that could justify the assertion that Kasyanov is an opponent of corruption.

There are other aspects of this editorial that are crude, but not necessarily misstatements. There is the rehashing of the theme of the "energetic new leader," a leitmotif that had already accompanied the arrival of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Chubais, Nemtsov, and Kiriyenko, among others. Once saddled with the "energetic" title, Putin loses his individual political character for Times readers, and becomes a legendary stock character the paper’s readership knows by its disguise, not its identity, which may change repeatedly behind the mask–a sort of political version of the Dread Pirate Roberts. In this case, the Times notes that "the energetic new president and his aging predecessor stepped into the bright sunshine of Cathedral Square." With that phrase, the Times officially dubs Putin the good guy in this story, basically handing over the VIP parking space–the "sunshine" of Western approval– it most recently gave to Kiriyenko and Chubais.

Then there’s this passage, which comes following the listing of reasons why Russians should "rejoice":

"Any accounting of the period since the end of the Cold War must begin with a recognition of this singular transformation–something that Americans should bear in mind in a campaign year when there is likely to be a boisterous debate about how to handle Russia."

The purpose of this passage is to inform the reader why he is being lied to, in case the reasons for the preceding misstatements escaped him. The Times, ever the status quo tool, is throwing in its chips with the Gore campaign.

Lastly, the Times editors conclude with the always-maddening "One thing’s for sure; time will tell" ending. This ending should be banned absolutely from newspaper writing, as its overuse has already left many readers’ eyes rubbed raw. There are no longer enough opthalmologists to handle the problem–emergency rooms all across New York are faced with lines of half-blinded liberal arts grads reaching out into the street. By my own count, this conclusion has been used in Western editorials something like four thousand times since the fall of the Berlin wall. The latest incarnation reads as follows:

"The Kremlin is now his to command. What he does will help determine whether Russia is able to escape its grim history."

How many times can we be force-fed the same plotline? This is like the ninth time already! When will it end?

Oh yeah, we almost forgot: Time will tell!

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