Issue #05/86, March 18 - 30, 2000  smlogo.gif


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And Then There Were Two...
March Madness Continues

by Matt Taibbi

What happens when the absence of talent combines with a negative talent? When extreme laziness collides with the height of reptilian venality? Which comes out looking worse in the end? It is a question that might have forever remained impossible to answer, if not for the convenient human invention of friendly head-to-head competition. In two weeks now, we'll have the outcome of that competition, when John Thornhill of The Financial Times meets David Hoffman of The Washington Post in the finals of this ugly Moscow tournament.

Thornhill, representing Britain, has been the darling of the tournament so far, demonstrating an awesome indifference to both the quality of his work and to the laws of logic in every single round. He is here precisely because he does not care whether or not he is here. David Hoffman, on the other hand, has made the finals through an active effort. The pride of America is a relentlessly cognitive animal, thinking always, working always, only working and thinking precisely with the aim of undermining everything that should be sacred and holy to God-fearing, truth-liking human beings. Like his hero, Anatoly Chubais, he is a born revolutionary, and should he win this tournament, it will be a victory of will, not carelessness.

The Final Four was just as it should be-two thrilling contests between genuine heavyweights of sport. Here's a blow-by-blow (literally, in one case) of how the contests went:


John Thornhill, Financial Times, def. Michael Gordon (4), New York Times

Basketball coaches are always on the lookout for that most elusive of athletic quantities, the "all-court player." Your one-on-one scorer types come and go - there's a reason why the Bulls never won with Reggie Theus, nor the Spurs with the Iceman, or the Hawks with 'Nique. Calbert Cheaney plays mean one-up defense, but he has bounced around, and even Manute Bol, all eleven feet or whatever of him, was a liability almost every time he stepped on the floor. No, what all coaches want, what they all crave at the very core of their marrow, is the all-court player - the guy who plays at both ends of the floor, full-bore and with fire in his eyes, for all 48 minutes. Michael Jordan. Hakeem Olajuwon. Brian Grant and Buck Williams and Joe Dumars. Hate him if you want, but Scottie Pippen is one of those guys. Never a minus on the floor, always a plus, never leaving a leak to plug. Can't leave him alone at 19 feet, can't pull a lazy crossover dribble in front of him, can't rattle him at the free-throw line. These are the guys coaches want, and they want them so badly because they're so rare. That kind of talent doesnÕt come along that often.

If the hack world had coaches, they'd all be breaking down the doors to cut a deal for John Thornhill. As far as lazy hacks go, he's the total package. He's everything you want in a bad journalist: an unhesitant devotee to whatever ideology you shove at him, telephone-averse, loath to work, indifferent to consequence, of suspect literacy. Michael Gordon may be a more elaborately cynical creature than Thornhill, but Gordon isn't quite as stupid as Thornhill - and in the fight for the title of Worst Journalist, stupidity definitely counts.

In the Final Four round Thornhill prevailed with an effort that was not at all spectacular. But that's natural. It's precisely the mere incompetence he delivers with such consistency which makes him so tough to beat.

God knows why, but there is clearly a market out there for shamelessly one-sided articles hyping the felicitous possibilities of a lengthy Putin reign, and for some reason it's business reporters like Thornhill who are leading the charge to meet demand. In his March 3 piece filed from Archangelsk, "Putin Seen as a Man for all Russians," he floods the market again - extensively quoting Unity spokesmen in a nakedly propagandistic piece that basically outlines why folks from Russia's polar regions think Putin's the pig's nuts, and why they're probably right to think so.

He begins his piece using the by-now-familiar technique of praising Putin for not being a drunken zombie like his predecessor:

"Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, appeared rather confused when he visited the northern town of Archangel before the last presidential elections. He told a startled audience that he was glad to be in Astrakhan (some 2,000km to the south) and congratulated them on producing the best black caviar in Russia.

"It is difficult to imagine Vladimir Putin making any such gaffe. Indeed, on his two visits to the Archangel region since being appointed prime minister in August, Mr Putin clearly impressed his hosts with his clarity of thought and vigour."

One wonders when readers back home will tire of this argument, making, as it does, absolutely no sense at all. Imagine, for instance, a Moscow-based Financial Times correspondent in 1918 writing the following:

"Nicholas Romanov, the former Tsar, appeared confused and indecisive when he visited the front during the last Russian offensive… He told startled troops that he had decided to mount a counteroffensive at Baranovichi because his wife's spiritual advisor, Grigori Rasputin, had seen the operation's success in a vision.

"It is difficult to imagine Vladimir Lenin making such a gaffe. He has impressed… with his clarity of thought and vigor…"

In any case, Thornhill goes on to follow this jab with a right and a left:

"'Both his visits were very business-like in contrast with the pompous trips made by previous leaders,' says Vitaly Fortygin, the general director of Severalmaz, the local diamond producing company, which is now heading the pro-Putin Unity movement in the region.

"'Putin held a series of strict, concrete and rather dry meetings without showing any personal emotion, and struck everyone as being a man of action,' Mr Fortygin says.

"'He is young and energetic and was never a real member of the Soviet nomenklatura. He understands normal life. Such a figure as Putin is simply demanded by society today.'"

I don't understand these kinds of quotes. What kind of reporter approaches a spokesman for a political party and says, "I'm doing a feature about your party's leader. Can you tell me some good things about him?" Spokesmen are fine, they're necessary, but quotes from them have limited utility in non-propagandistic journalism. Is your candidate for or against raising taxes? Does he or does he not believe the state should censor the press? Is he pro-war or anti-war? These are questions spokesmen can provide substantive answers to.

But to ask, "Is your candidate a man of action? Is he young and energetic (again, the young and energetic thing! Will it ever end?)? Does he understand "normal life"? Is he "business-like"? Answers to questions like this - whether you yourself posed them or your spokesmen posed them for you - are always bullshit, guaranteed. No reporter with less desire to be used than a $10 hooker with a heroin jones would go anywhere near this kind of stuff.

Thornhill doesnÕt care. He's filling space. As Gogol once wrote about women, he's like a sack that carries around anything you put in it. Not only will he publish anything you say to him, but he'll help sell what you have to say to the folks back home, no matter how bonkers it is. Take his next quote, for instance:

"Ivan Bentsa, editor of the city's Pravda Severa (Truth of the North) newspaper, says the campaign ahead of the March 26 poll - widely viewed as a foregone conclusion - has seen none of the high drama and intrigue that characterized the last presidential elections in 1996.

"'My impression is that people here in the provinces are tired of unending elections without any results. They do not see any change. The lack of an alternative is pleasing for them and so they will all vote for Putin,' he says."

Imagine what kind of person you have to be to search out some bought-off hack newspaper editor in the provinces and let him tell the whole Western World - on behalf of the "people," as it were - that where he comes from, people are tired of choice and are looking forward to having a petty dictator shoved down their throats. Certainly you could run this quote - why waste the interview - but you really ought to check first with the people your interview subject claims to be speaking for to see if it's true. Otherwise, you're left with this picture of Archangelsk as this distant island of primitives who are ethnically inclined to enjoy being led to slaughter. It's just plain racist, this stuff - these pat arguments that Russians don't care about human rights because they're just that sort of people.

Of course logic would dictate that there are Russians out there who do care to have some say in their fate, and if they're not visible, you have to make an effort to find them.

Thornhill doesn't. The one dissenter in his piece is a local businessman who professes to be a little bit iffy about the Andre Babitsky incident, and his criticism of Putin is sandwiched around two enthusiastic pro-Putin passages. Note the inclusion of the fact that this businessman runs a "lavish" jewelry store, an adjective obviously inserted to boost his credibility for the affluent FT readership:

"Even the deaths of at least 24 soldiers from Archangel in the latest fighting in Chechnya does not appear to have damaged Mr. Putin's popularity.

"Dmitry Taskayev, a liberal businessman, who runs the lavish Karat jewelry store, says he strongly opposes the military campaign in Chechnya and the rough treatment of Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty journalist. 'I only wish that there were many more Babitsky's given that so much of the Russian press is intimidated or bought,' he says."

In a Thornhill piece, pro-Putin quotes are never followed with a "but." Dissenting quotes like these always are, though. And here it is:

"But sitting in his subtly lit office with large paintings of Rome and Perugia on his walls, Mr Taskayev says that Mr Putin cannot be held personally responsible for these blunders. 'You cannot blame Putin for the lack of democracy in Russian society, which allows these things to happen,' Mr Taskayev says."

Thornhill sticks in the detail about Rome and Perugia to let his reader know that this Taskayev is more sophisticated than your average Russian, i.e., that very same average Russian who allows "these things" to happen. And the bit about the 24 dead soldiers not affecting Putin's popularity - where the hell did that come from? Taskayev didn't say anything about Chechnya, and Thornhill clearly didn't check with the families of any soldiers to see what they think of Putin. Imagine having your son die in a pointless, bloody war, one that was started with the sole aim of electing a president, and then reading that a British journalist is writing off criticism of that president on the supposed authority of some local jewelry salesman, who says that Russians like you are resigned to such things! Amazing!

Thornhill goes on to close his piece with the kicker - that the "only severe criticism" of Putin comes from people who are jealous of his political effectiveness:

"The only severe criticism of Mr Putin seems to come from the Communists, who complain the acting president has been stealing their ideas.

"'Putin is saying the right slogans. But he is only wanting to please the voters to get elected,' says Alexander Novikov, a local businessman and Communist supporter."

You can see Thornhill's coarse social Darwinist mind at work here. For a person like him, the only way criticism of a successful politician in power can make any sense is in the context of the sour grapes of a jealous market competitor. Putin is a winner - the losers only complain because they're losing.

The irony here is that this Archangelsk piece is an example of Thornhill not at his worst, but at his best. He seems to write two types of pieces. In one kind, the Archangelsk-Trans World genus, he gathers quotes from power-worshipping lackeys and just dumps them on the page. In the other, he doesn't quote anyone at all, and just mumbles out fanciful gibberish off the top of his head. The March 3 Archangelsk piece was followed soon after by just such an effort, the March 6 piece on Sergei Kovalev's birthday, "Romantics pay tribute to human rights activist."

I won't get into the details of this article, except to say that Thornhill makes no effort in it to disguise the fact that all he did was go to a press conference, jot down some quotes from panelists, and then wrap it all into a bizarre thesis about how the event marked some kind of revival of "political romanticism," whatever that is. You can imagine Thornhill as a sort of literary Jabba the Hut, obese to the point of immobility, lazily reaching a hand into a bowl of squirming toad-quotes and shoving them into his mouth. This is the all-court player at work - undaunted on offense, immovable on defense.

Michael Gordon seemed a lock for the finals when The New York Times Magazine ran his 3,800-word opus on Chechnya, "The Grunts of Grozny," on February 27. Under normal circumstances, publishing anything at all in The New York Times Magazine would earn a contestant an automatic bye into the next round. But one has to give Gordon his due: the piece wasn't that bad. The Times is clearly grooming their He-of-the-Hurrumphing-Anchorman-Voice for a run at the Pulitzer, and this article is obviously intended to be the crown jewel in his Chechnya series.

Gordon's conduct throughout the Chechen war has been more or less despicable - some months ago, he even bragged that he'd beaten out his rivals in other Western papers by making a deal with the Russians to gain access to the front. The Times itself has not been entirely guiltless, either, as its decision to run a bloodthirsty pro-Chechnya essay by Vladimir Putin on their editorial page was almost certainly a factor in Gordon's success in gaining access to the war. The reason all of this was villainous was because Gordon had consistently massaged his Chechnya coverage to fit the Russian pro-war line a little better than the reports of his competitors, resulting in the worst kind of moral trade-off a journalist can make, the alteration of content for the sake of access.

But in this Times Magazine piece Gordon is clearly trying, in one fell swoop, to present the ends to justify the means. While hardly a clarion call for an end to hostilities, the article is sharply and more or less uncompromisingly critical of the war effort. He makes an effort throughout to show the war through the eyes of its victims, in particular the soldiers. John Thornhill, for instance, would never write a passage like this:

"The Moscow establishment, which has hailed Vladimir Putin's war and which is trying to ride his coattails, beat the system. It shielded its own sons with student deferments. Viktor did not even think about trying to find a way out."

Gordon is an adherent of the "facts first, language second" school of journalism, which is to say the mainstream method, in which the ostensible aim is to present the reader with a stark, photographic picture of reality, with all the shapes and figures in the picture supposedly drawn to scale. My own personal opinion is that the popularization of this method to the exclusion of all others in mainstream news journalism has been hugely destructive, because news consumers now believe that everything they read is balanced and "objective" no matter how skewed the presentation of the various "facts." But within this ethic I guess there's room to try for some kind of excellence, and Gordon's article looks like such an attempt. The piece is packed with details and gives a good picture of what everyday life is like for soldiers in Chechnya. It tells us some of the slang soldiers use, what they eat, how much they're paid, how some have to urinate out the windows at night for fear of being shot by snipers, and a lot of other things far from the realm of ideology. Give Gordon his due. I still can't stand the guy, but as they say, even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then. The New York Times therefore bids farewell to the tournament; John Thornhill, armor unchinked, advances to the final to compete for the title.

David Hoffman (2), Washington Post, def. Giles Whittell, Times UK

UNCLE! Giles Whittell, left. Proctologists have seen happier-looking patients!
My burger was spicy, piled high with all the fixins - Cajun spices, jalapenos, Monterey Jack cheese, bacon, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and onion, cooked medium well. Mark ordered a trio formaggio, a medium-well burger with Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, and Cheddar, topped with two crisscrossing strips of bacon. Kevin's burger, meanwhile, was more elaborate - medium rare, with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and pico de gallo. And there were beers all around, a truly hearty hamburger luncheon - with all of it signed, sealed and paid for by Giles "Hamburglar" Whittell, the first contestant in this tournament to keenly recognize the unwritten rules of this competition by buying us off before press time.

It went down like this. About a week after Whittell advanced in the last round against Helen Womack for lifting the content of a piece from Matt Bivens of The Moscow Times, I received a curious letter via e-mail:

'Dear Matt,

"I have much enjoyed your Worst Journalist series and am of course guilty as charged. I would be lost without The Moscow Times because my Russian is miserably bad and the Exile is not a daily. In a lame bid to avoid the humiliation of continuing to the final I would now like to try to bribe you with the food / entertainment / both of your choice, not least because I will unfortunately be in London on March 30.


Giles Whittell.'

It was hard not to be impressed by this letter. We immediately agreed to Whitell's proposal, on one condition: that he allow us to photograph him paying the bill for our lunch while wearing an eXile propeller cap. Oh, and while clutching an American flag. Exasperated but still game, Whittell complied and we set a date to meet at T.G.I. Friday's - for where else can a Hamburglar get a good hamburger in this town - this past Tuesday. The results of that luncheon are shown in the photograph shown here.

It was a good lunch. The Cajun spice in my burger was not quite as spicy as I would have liked, nor were the jalapenos all that hot, but on the whole, it was a good burger, very thick and juicy. Mark's triple-cheese concoction looked a little suspicious when first served, but in the end he walked away satisfied. "It was good," he reported. "Tasty." Kevin's assessment was more sanguine: "They could have toasted the bun a little more, because when you're dealing with medium rare, you've got to be a little more careful to prevent the sogginess thing. But all in all, it was a good burger, solid."

As we munched away at our meal, lazily regaling Whittell with tales of drugs, whores, and Mark's crabs, our patron began to show signs of nervousness. He ordered a simple cheeseburger and ate it dutifully, trying not to glance at the camera, propeller cap, and American flag that had been placed ominously in front of him. The situation was made worse by Mark's ignorant insistence upon pronouncing Whittell's first name 'Gills,' as in the things fish breathe with. It wasn't intentional, Mark's just a little burned out lately. Anyway, during one break in the conversation, Whittell cleared his throat and interrupted the orgy of smacking and chewing sounds by commenting, as if offhandedly:

"The funny thing is, this won't keep me out of the next round."

I looked up at him, surprised. "Yes, it will," I said, chewing. "You've just singlehandedly put David Hoffman in the finals."

He raised an eyebrow. "It's that easy?"

"Yes," we all answered, more or less in unison, "it's that easy."

He brightened. "These are good fries," he said.

We all agreed, soon after parting on good terms. Whittell shoved the 1700-ruble bill onto his card (as Mark snapped away on the camera), then disappeared onto Tverskaya Ulitsa, presumably never to be seen again. For our part, we jumped back into the cockpit, etched out the silhouette of the city's ranking British journalist on the stainless steel panel above the altimeter, and headed back to our offices. Frankly even we were cowed by such an abject move on Whittell's part, but given the circumstances there was no way we could stand in his way. If you're buying, we're eating. We're not rich, you know.

The ironic thing is, Whittell would have been out of the tournament anyway. He was always a Cinderella in this competition, the New England Patriots of journalists, a good-natured pretender with no business being this deep into the playoffs. The Post's Hoffman, on the other hand, is a bona-fide Darth Vader, with a Washington Death Star to match. The Jedis in the universe would have to unite in serious numbers to get him out of this tournament. And he proved why once again in his March 8 piece, "Favored in Polls, Putin Shuns Campaign Ads, Debates."

The defense for the Clinton administration's policies toward Russia this decade is by now hanging by the thinnest of threads. Somehow, some way, Al Gore and his campaign handlers have to keep alive through November the illusion that democracy has not vanished for good in this country, and that Vladimir Putin is a "man with whom we can do business," whose ascent to power is not an unmitigated disaster for both Russians and Americans. In pursuit of this propaganda line the U.S. government will likely concede almost anything about Putin except for one thing - that the upcoming March elections will not confirm him as a legitimately elected leader. It is of paramount importance for the United States and its allies - not to mention the Western financial community - that the March 26 elections not only take place, but are observed and pronounced legitimate. It will happen, guaranteed, but for it all to come off without a hitch, help will be needed from the press. The big honchos from the two American "papers of record" - meaning The New York Times on the one hand, and Hoffman's Post on the other - will be called upon to get on board for the effort.

Hoffman has wasted no time in reassuring the powers that be about his loyalties on this score. The March 8 piece, which basically says that Putin has stopped campaigning because he's so far ahead in the polls that he doesn't need to, might easily have been written about, say, the George Bush, Jr., of last summer, who was so far ahead in the polls that he stayed away from debates. To read Hoffman's piece, you'd never guess that there is a vast difference between an American candidate with a giant war chest and a bloody dictator in whose hands rest the entire machinery of the state, as well as most of the country's mass media. Take, for instance, this passage describing Putin's decision to eschew TV advertising:

"Putin said of commercials: 'I think it is out of place to ascertain in the process of election campaigns which is more important, Tampax or Snickers. That's why I am not going to do it.'

"His comments come as the long-awaited campaign to succeed Yeltsin, in which there are now 11 candidates besides Putin, has gotten off to a slow start, in part because Putin's lead in the polls appears insurmountable. He has been deploying all the advantages of incumbency as the vote draws near, making official trips across the country that are getting saturation television coverage and issuing threats to the media and business tycoons to fall into line."

Putin on the eve of this election is merely deploying "all the advantages of incumbency"? Is Hoffman kidding? He makes Putin 2000 sound like Clinton '96. This is vintage Hoffman, who, as noted previously, is distinguished among other Western reporters in this town by his habit for willful dishonesty. Hoffman for sure knows that it's a gross misstatement to say that Vladimir Putin's official trips are "getting saturation television coverage," as though there was ever something elusive to "get." Putin's saturation television was commanded by fiat. His government runs the two state networks as surely as the Politburo ran Soviet television. Whatever coverage he wants, he gets. Hoffman knows this, but he chooses to write this American campaign-trail style article for a reason, i.e., to further the idea that this Russian election is like democracy as we usually know it.

Here's more of the same:

"Putin, who has never run for office, said he will forgo television and radio air time, which is apportioned free to candidates for debates.

"He missed a radio debate today with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, his leading challenger. Former president Boris Yeltsin also refused to debate Zyuganov in the 1996 campaign. The other candidates have been debating regularly, without Putin."

In these two short paragraphs Hoffman fibs three times. The first time comes when he talks about Putin foregoing television and radio air time, which he says is apportioned free to candidates. As we all know, Putin doesn't need to take his share of "free" air time, because the only two all-Russian televisions are already running an all-Putin, all-the-time program and have been for about six months. Moreover, the way Hoffman writes it, the bit about air time being distributed free suggests a functioning system of fair democratic agitation, which we all know is preposterous. If ever there was an unfair media paying field, this is it. The media may defend the status quo in America, too, but it's not as though Al Gore can call up Rem Vyakhirev to lean on CBS is he doesn't like something he saw on 60 Minutes. Of if he can, he at least can't do it openly.

The second fib comes in his unironic description of Gennady Zyuganov as a "challenger." In order to be a challenger, you have to challenge. In no serious sense of the word is Zyuganov challenging Putin, and everybody who lives here knows it. Lastly, there's the detail about how Yeltsin refused to debate Zyuganov as well. While this is true, the use of this fact to compare this election to the 1996 vote is also misleading. That election was unfairly won, too, but it was by far more of a contest - even in a behind-the-scenes political sense - than this one. To compare this vote to 1996 suggests that there haven't been the enormous erosion of democracy here that there has been in the last four years, and in particular in the last eight months.

Hoffman is no Mozart - he may not even have any greater mental gifts than Thornhill - but unlike Thornhill, he is extremely ambitious. When he works, he never mails it in. What little brains he has in his head are always whirring. And he knows a lot more about this country than Thornhill. At the very least, he knows the names of the people he's writing about well ahead of ten minutes before press time, which I wouldn't bet money Thornhill usually does. He's the thinking man's hack-athlete - the Larry Bird to the raw all-court athlete of Thornhill's Pippen or Jordan. Jordan and Pippen six-peated, sure, but any good basketball fan remembers that when they were still around, Bird and Magic both regularly waxed the Bulls. Until Jordan finally beat Magic in '89 for all the marbles, that is. Either way, they were great contests while they lasted. Hoffman versus Thornhill will be, too. We're at the edge of our seats for this final. Stay tuned!

Next issue: The Worst Journalist in Moscow!

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