Disregarding all past experience, journalists, politicians, and foreign policy experts have simply assumed that the claims of Russian bounties for killing American troops are true. They—and we—should know better.
“Without fear or favor.” That’s one of the hallowed mottos of The New York Times, first enshrined by its modern founder, Adolph Ochs, more than a century ago. But today a more fitting motto would be “With fear and favor.” In recent years the Times has abandoned its own high standards of journalistic objectivity and committed itself to relentless, hyper-partisan demonization of Russia as a deadly threat to America.
The sensational story that Russia paid bounties for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan is just the most recent example. The Times articles were based on anonymous intelligence officials’ statements about interrogations of captured Taliban militants or criminals in Afghanistan. The National Security Agency strongly dissented from the reported intelligence assessment. The Pentagon, which used a route across Russia to supply US forces in Afghanistan, said that it “has no corroborating evidence” to validate the allegations. The Taliban indignantly denied the claims. George Beebe, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and constitutional lawyer David Rivkin argued that the sources for the story were not very credible, particularly because the Afghan government, which oversaw the interrogations, had a clear motive: It “desperately wants the U.S. military to remain in Afghanistan.” By July 7, even the Times belatedly acknowledged that “there’s a lot missing from the reports that Russia paid for attacks on American and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.” It then urged that “emotions and politics be kept at bay,” yet it was the Times itself that had inflamed emotions and stoked partisan controversy.
Maybe one day the dubious allegations will be proven true. Until then, anonymous intelligence officials must not be allowed to drive public discussion of US policy regarding Russia by leaking statements made by drug smugglers or Islamists under interrogation. We should remember how distorted intelligence has misled us before. False intelligence about weapons of mass destruction paved the way to the catastrophic war in Iraq in 2003. False claims about a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba torpedoed ratification of the SALT II Treaty in 1979. False reports of North Vietnamese attacks on US warships in the Tonkin Gulf led Congress to give President Lyndon Johnson a blank check for waging the disastrous war in Vietnam. The New York Times infamously assisted the George W. Bush administration’s dishonest selling of the war in Iraq, initially backed demands for the dismantling of the supposed Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, and supported Johnson’s retaliation against the alleged North Vietnamese attacks.
Disregarding all that past experience, journalists, politicians, and foreign policy experts have simply assumed that the claims of Russian bounties are true and called for action. Speaker Nancy Pelosi jumped to the conclusion that in revenge for the humiliation of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan more than 30 years ago, Russia was “taking it out on us, our troops.” Senator Ben Sasse demanded a plan for putting Russian military intelligence officers “in body bags.” On the op-ed page of the Times, former national security adviser Susan Rice declared that President Donald Trump’s failure to order a response to “Russian efforts to slaughter American troops in cold blood” confirmed that the president was “actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”
Such reckless jingoism reflects the cumulative impact of a long campaign by American media. The demonization of Russia is driven by the desire to deflect attention from misconduct by the United States, to affirm American moral superiority in contrast to Russian depravity, and to smear domestic political opponents by associating them with Russia.
The campaign began in the first years of the century, when American journalists attributed the brutality of the Russian war against rebels in Chechnya to the fundamental ethos of its military and the moral callousness of Vladimir Putin (while in the same years American atrocities in Iraq were blamed on mistakes and “bad apples”). It expanded after Putin denounced the “almost uncontained hyper-use of force” by the United States during a speech in Munich in 2007. It escalated further in 2008, after Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers, and Russia’s counterattack was depicted by the American press as an unprovoked “invasion.” Putin, the Times declared, was “the dark hand behind Russia’s aggression.”
Since the election of 2016 the campaign has been even more relentless, with the Times persistently promoting stories that the Trump team colluded with Putin in a sinister plot to defeat Hillary Clinton. The Times led readers to expect that special prosecutor Robert Mueller would establish the conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt. When Mueller’s long-awaited report actually did not confirm the collusion story, the Times was left “a little tiny bit flat footed,” as Executive Editor Dean Baquet put it in a town-hall meeting with Times staff published by Slate in August 2019.
Yet the paper goes on portraying Trump as Putin’s puppet, disregarding the numerous actions by Trump contrary to Russia’s interests, including attacking Russia’s ally Syria with cruise missiles in April 2017, sending Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, trying to overthrow the government of Venezuela (a Russian client), withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, resisting Russian appeals to extend the New START Treaty, and abrogating the agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program (which Russia helped the Obama administration to achieve). Just this week The Washington Post reported that Trump ordered “a covert cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency” in 2018. While the Trump administration’s imposition of new economic sanctions on Russia stemmed from pressure from Congress, the other actions are a result of Trump’s bellicose, unilateralist, “America first” nationalism. Trump is an utterly selfish, impulsive, uncontrollable blowhard and bully. He is nobody’s puppet.
This year, as the coronavirus pandemic has afflicted the United States much more than any other country, the Times has repeatedly mocked and disparaged Putin’s handling of the crisis in Russia (where there have been far fewer coronavirus infections and deaths). In April the Times even published a lengthy article, “Putin’s Long War Against American Science,” that blamed the outbreak in the United States at least in part on Putin. The article presented no evidence to support its insinuation and even acknowledged that Putin has actually “been a staunch proponent of vaccines” in Russia. Yet it nonetheless charged that he had spread health misinformation for more than a decade, thereby encouraging “the spread of deadly illnesses.”
With the presidential election approaching, partisan politics have played even more important roles in distorted stories concerning Russia. The Times has appeared to favor Biden not only against Trump but also against his earlier Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. In March, when Sanders still seemed likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination, the Times published an outrageous story that claimed Sanders had been a vodka-downing dupe of Soviet propaganda when he visited the communist country to develop a sister-city relationship between Burlington, Vt., and Yaroslavl. The breathless Times correspondent who ballyhooed the story neglected to mention that at the exact same time that Sanders was in Russia, President Ronald Reagan, who strongly supported citizen exchanges, was in Moscow, strolling on Red Square with Mikhail Gorbachev and declaring that because of Gorbachev’s dramatic reforms, he no longer considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
By printing such smears, the Times and other papers not only exacerbate the political polarization and cynicism about the liberal media in the United States. They also shred the reputation of the American press among Russian liberals and journalists who earlier admired its independence and integrity. As Nadezhda Azhgikhina, a veteran Russian journalist and executive director of PEN Moscow, has explained, “Russiagate killed the beautiful dream of the perfection of the US system of government, respect for the law, and the excellence of the US press.”
Although readers of the Times rarely learn about how Dean Baquet and current publisher Arthur G. Sulzberger privately guide the paper’s coverage of Russia, the New York Times Company Records at the New York Public Library allow us to see how an earlier publisher shaped the anti-Russian line of the Times. The man who made it America’s premier newspaper in the middle of the 20th century, publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, explained to Editorial Page Editor Charles Merz in April 1958 that “propaganda…is not necessarily untrue.… It is a method of emphasis calling attention to that which it is desired to have known.” Sulzberger encouraged Merz to seize opportunities “to excoriate Russia” and foment “distrust of the Soviet Union” even when it had not done anything recently that warranted indictment.
Merz, who sometimes resisted Sulzberger’s desires to pound away at Russia, had a unique vantage. In 1920, he and Walter Lippmann had published a detailed study of the wildly inaccurate and ideologically distorted coverage of Russia by the Times during the Russian Civil War. The Times, Merz and Lippmann found, repeatedly published as news what the vehemently anti-communist publisher and editors wanted to see: the flight of Lenin and Trotsky; the imprisonment of Lenin; the overthrow of the Soviet regime. “The Russian policy of the editors of the Times,” Lippmann and Merz concluded, “profoundly and crassly influenced their news columns.”
The Times then veered in the opposite direction, posting the eccentric British correspondent Walter Duranty to Moscow, where he would become notorious as “Stalin’s apologist.” Yet Duranty’s tenure as the chief Times reporter in the Soviet Union ended soon after Arthur Hays Sulzberger became the publisher in 1935.
After World War II, it was under Sulzberger that the Times first cultivated a close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency. In exchange for special briefings of its correspondents by Allen Dulles and others at the CIA, the Times helped to hide and justify covert interventions in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, and elsewhere that had disastrous consequences. As the young historian David P. Hadley has shown, the CIA did not control the Times; instead, there was a “friendly confluence” of interests (or, one might say, collusion).
In some respects, however, The New York Times in the era of Arthur Hays Sulzberger presents a favorable contrast to the Times today. That Sulzberger at least felt obliged to pay lip service to his father-in-law’s injunction “to give all the news without fear or favor.” Moreover, Sulzberger allowed his correspondents in the Soviet Union wide discretion and expected them to strive for objectivity. Perhaps the best of them, Harrison Salisbury, who greatly appreciated the leeway, titled his history of the Times, Without Fear or Favor (1980).
During the Cold War decades that followed, Times reporters sometimes propagated stereotypes about drab, conformist, submissive Russians. Yet correspondents like Hedrick Smith and David Shipler also worked hard to develop sympathetic understanding of the Russian people, who, they showed, were not robots or anti-American fanatics. Instead of depicting the Soviet Union as a totalitarian menace to America, they sought to help overcome the dangerous hostility between the two superpowers. At the peak of tension in the early 1980s Shipler recognized that Americans contributed to the problems in the relationship. As he wrote in Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams (1983), Americans “hate the Russians for giving the lie to our innermost assumptions about mankind”—that freedom is man’s natural state and that all people must yearn to be like us.
Shipler’s insight was unusual: As historian Dina Fainberg shows in her forthcoming book Cold War Correspondents, most American journalists were preoccupied with affirming the superiority of the United States and casting the Soviet Union as its Other. Since the end of the Cold War, frustration with the failure to remake Russia in America’s image and scapegoating of Russian resistance to US policies has sparked much of the negative reporting by the Times and other papers, as Stephen Cohen’s Failed Crusade (2000) and Andrei Tsygankov’s The Dark Double (2019) demonstrate.
Still, the honorable and valuable work of journalists like Shipler, Smith, and Salisbury, which contrasts so sharply with depictions of Russia in the Times today, suggests that Russophobia need not always be propagated by the most influential paper in America. With more than half of the Times’ revenue now coming from subscriptions, regular readers may be in a position to demand more responsible coverage of Russia. One can also hope that reporters and editors at the Times will be more mindful of the warning from Lippmann and Merz in 1920 that “statements of fact emanating from governments…cannot be taken as judgments of fact by an independent press”—a warning that is also applicable to leaks by intelligence officials who insist on anonymity and may have ulterior motives.