Media Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: This Week in Fake News / Blurred Truths

A veteran journalist's weekly critique on the state of mass media

Original to ScheerPost

Dependently ‘Independent’

Illustration by Mr. Fish — “REALITY, Inc.”

No, I still haven’t got over the report in The New York Times this spring, wherein we learned of a joint American–Ukrainian campaign to inundate Russians with propaganda intended to demoralize the public as Russian forces advanced in eastern Ukraine. “Using a mix of high-tech and Cold War tactics,” the government-supervised Times reported, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is “circulating information about the Ukraine war among Russian citizens to sow doubt about the Kremlin’s accounts… in an effort to undermine faith in the Kremlin.” 

Now is this great, disinterested journalism or what?

And here is the passage in the Times report you just have to dig: “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.–funded but independent news organization founded decades ago, is trying to push its broadcasts deeper into Russia.”

U.S.–funded but independent? How does this work? RFE/RL is a news organization now? Founded—note the passive voice here—in some distant “decades ago”?

This piece is the work of Julian Barnes and Edward Wong, and let the bylines of these two perfectly ordinary reporters be noted for the record. Let’s clean up their quite disgraceful act very briefly.

Radio Free Europe was founded in mid–1949, about two years after the onset of the Cold War, by the National Committee for a Free Europe, an anti–Communist cabal of spooks, pols, and publishers Allen Dulles set in motion as one of his numerous front organizations while he was director of the CIA. It was a big deal in the Eisenhower administration’s “Crusade for Freedom”—don’t you love the names they give these things?—during the 1950s. The CIA funded RFE, directly but covertly, until 1972.

At that point, the policy cliques decided it was poor PR for the agency to write the checks. RFE, which merged with Radio Liberty in 1976, has since been funded by Congress via the Agency for Global Media. It’s all above board now, nice and clean.

This is RFE/RL as it is. It is neither independent nor a news organization and has never been either. What Barnes and Wong did get right was their reference to Cold War tactics: What RFE/RL is up to in Russia today is a subversion campaign of exactly the kind they were founded to conduct at the Cold War’s outset.

I was put in mind of this nonsense when I read the latest last week about Rappler, the Filipino news site whose founder, Maria Ressa, won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. Rappler has been in a running battle with the government that dates to 2017, when President Rodrigo Duterte first charged the site with breaching laws prohibiting foreign ownership of Filipino media.

The Times chimes in once again. It describes Rappler as an “independent news organization” and quotes Ressa asserting, “This is harassment and intimidation.” If this were Latin America we would describe Duterte as a good, old-fashioned caudillo, and I have a good idea we may indeed be watching as he harasses and intimidates Rappler.

But what about these charges of foreign ownership? A journalist can’t go home with a Nobel for her “fight for freedom of expression” and be other than independent. Are Ressa and Rappler indeed independent?

Not by a long way is my short answer.

The Duterte government first went after Rappler in consequence of an investment Ressa had accepted from the Omidyar Network. Immediately a problem. Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of Ebay, is in the “democracy promotion” game in George Soros fashion: He uses the “civil society” dodge to subvert governments on Washington’s running list of adversaries.

Ressa’s defense, resting as it does on a legal technicality that may or may not hold up, gives off a bad odor.  Omidyar did not actually acquire shares in Rappler when it invested in it, she maintains.

For the record—remember the record?—Omidyar and some kind of investment vehicle called North Base Media own nonvoting shares in Rappler. North Base bills itself as “a pioneer in global digital-media investing” and is a partner in another something called the Media Development Investment Fund, which does what it sounds like and lists none other than George Soros among its founders.

See what I mean about odors?

Taking Omidyar’s dough was Ressa’s first big mistake. It has since been deeper into the morass for our Maria.

In 2020, Ressa accepted a grant of $180,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, a known CIA front that long ago inherited the agency’s coup function and is the ne plus ultra in civil society subterfuge. I would greatly like to lead readers to the NED page describing this grant, which I cited in a column elsewhere earlier this year, but when I attempted to open the link I discovered, “Page not found.” Where on earth could they have mislaid it?

Yes, the NED “Supporting freedom around the world,” as its logo boasts.

How Ressa could have taken NED money is simply beyond me. I would sooner give up the craft and bag groceries.

The NED’s latest escapade involves the Kyiv Independent, a year-old online “newspaper,” quotation marks required, that is financed by the NED and the Canadian and European equivalents of same. The title tells you much of this operation’s preposterous pose. These people are given to publishing wildly propagandistic junk and quoting the Azov Battalion, the infamously neo–Nazi militia whose influence suffuses Ukraine’s public space.    

CNN and Fox News, it is worth noting, quote the Kyiv Independent in turn. Three days before brutal Russians began their brutal intervention in democratic Ukraine, The Times ran an opinion essay by Olga Rudenko, a longtime resident of Sorosland and the Kyiv Independent’s editor-in-chief. And why not? The Kyiv Independent is the voice of democratic Ukraine against the brutal Russian Federation. And don’t forget your “democratic” and your “brutals.”   

Full credit here: This account of the NED’s Kyiv Independent handiwork comes from Covert Action Magazine, a grand presence in (truly) independent journalism whose distinguished list of cofounders includes Philip Agee and William Kunstler. Wonderfully enough, it is now edited by Philip’s son, Chris.

Independent: It is independent, she is independent, we are independent. Being independent, or claiming to be, is de rigueur, it seems. Those of us working in the independent press cannot be other than flattered. As I have argued severally, it is among independent publications that the dynamism of our otherwise decaying profession resides. If journalism is to find its way out of its current mess, it will be by way of those publishing or broadcasting independently of power—political power, corporate power, bureaucratic power.

The Times is on the ball in these matters, of course. The good people of Eighth Avenue told us so a few months back, when they launched a new advertising campaign to establish their bona fides. “Independent journalism for independent lives” is the tagline.

They were at least honest enough to identify this as “a new brand marketing campaign,” so we know straightaway The Times is not the slightest bit serious about the question of the press’s independence. After that, I even liked the pablum: “… spotlighting how Times journalism is inspiration for the unique lives of our readers…. We are shining a light on the power independent journalism has to make readers’ lives more fulfilling.”

What would we do without the light The Times shines on us, we independents? How unfulfilled would be our lives.   

In the course of this presentation, text and video, The Times’s copywriters rang every identity politics bell I could think of and some I couldn’t. Let them fritter away what remains of the paper’s reputation on such juvenile rubbish—this is their choice. The important point here is the profligate misuse of the worthy idea of journalism as an independent pole of power.

The Times has submitted to government supervision, usually but not always informally, at least since the Cold War’s onset in 1947 and arguably for decades prior to that. This, too, is a matter of record. It is a publicly listed company that, just as the ad campaign indicates, views the enterprise of journalism as, at bottom, a good brand and a profit center. Like the rest of the corporate-owned media and broadcasters, the unique responsibilities media bear in a (nominally) democratic society are at this point the subservient priority.

Radio Free Europe is independent. Maria Ressa and Rappler are independent. Government funding doesn’t matter: When The New York Times tells you it is independent, whatever silliness is to come may amuse, but it will no longer surprise. As I have written elsewhere, the colonization of independent media has begun.

Really, Roger?!

“Driven out of a nearby village, Natalia Holovenko, 59, was in a line to register for aid when she began sobbing. ‘We don’t have any Nazis here!’ she said, a reference to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s false justification of the war as needed to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine. ‘He just wants to kill us.’”

That is Roger Cohen, the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, reporting in mid–June from Mykolaiv, a port city lying midway along the Black Sea between Odessa and the Crimean coast. Here we have a near-perfect example of how falsehoods, repeated often enough, can be transformed into accepted truths.

Roger Cohen is a distinguished correspondent, columnist, and once long ago The Times’s foreign editor. He has some brilliant bylines in his clipping binder: He once ventured through Chongqing, ate a dinner of dog (more than I could do right there), and wrote an excellent piece of cultural crit about it. To me, Cohen proved on several occasions a supportive friend and colleague during my later Herald Tribune days.

But Roger, Roger, what is this? You now lead readers into The Times’s vast hall of mirrors, wherein what is false is true and what is true is “false justification?” Say it ain’t so, Joe. There is no such thing as a Nazi problem in Ukraine, you tell us, and in the same piece you quote an official reciting neo–Nazi ideology, which you reproduce without, apparently, recognizing it for what it is? Alas, man.

The presence of neo­–Nazis in Ukraine has been a touchy topic since the U.S. cultivated the antidemocratic coup that brought the current regime to power in 2014. Yes, antidemocratic: It brought down a legitimately elected president and reflected the sentiments of a very small fraction of the Ukrainian population.

While the putschists gathered momentum and in the years following the coup, the presence of neo–Nazis, and I sometimes wondered if we needed the “neo,” was downplayed in the major dailies but never much in dispute. There were mentions of their presence here and there if you read the coverage carefully. I often had the impression correspondents wanted to say more than their foreign editors would allow. Reflecting the new regime’s dependence on the Azov Battalion, whose  tentacles run through many of Ukraine’s public institutions, the group was incorporated into the nation’s National Guard a few months after the coup.

Nothing I write here is in dispute, or shouldn’t be. It is all documented. The BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times—they all reported at length on this. In 2018, none other than the Atlantic Council, the think tank funded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, published “Ukraine’s Got a Real Problem with Far-Right Violence (And No, RT Didn’t Write This Headline).” In it, Josh Cohen laid out the whole neo–Nazi nine. So, a matter of record even among those cheerleading the regime in Kiev.

But since brutal Russia began its brutal military operation against democratic Ukraine in February, airbrushing the neo–Nazi presence out of the Ukrainian picture has become an imperative. There simply cannot be any neo­–Nazis in Ukraine.

Graphic case in point: In early March PBS did an interview with a small town mayor named Artem Semenikhin, who was praising the heroic efforts of democratic Ukrainian forces for beating back brutal Russians. Behind Semenikhin was a photograph of Stepan Bandera, the fanatically Russophobic, Jew-hating leader of Ukrainian Nazis during World War II. Bandera is not a hero of present-day neo–Nazis: He is the hero.

PBS made my point better than I can: It blurred the photograph and ran the interview without commenting on it.

On the kooky side, we have the remarks of Andrey Melnik, Kiev’s stunningly coarse ambassador to Berlin. In an interview with a German journalist last week, the repeatedly offensive envoy defended Bandera as a “freedom fighter.” What about Bandera and his followers who, with the Nazi’s, killed 800,000 Jews in Ukraine along with massacres of 40,000 or so Poles residing in Ukraine? “There are no laws for those who fight for freedom,” saith Melnik, who likened Bandera to Robin Hood as someone “who didn’t act according to the law.”   

In effect, what we witness now with Ukraine’s neo–Nazis and its broader extreme-right scene is what the policy cliques and their clerks in the press have long done elsewhere. When al–Qaeda activated in Syria, they were rebranded as al–Nusra, which, when exposed, was renamed something else, and then something else—all along referenced in the media as “moderate rebels.” Those right-wing fanatics the Reagan administration financed to bring down the Sandinistas in Nicaragua 40 years ago were, of course, freedom fighters.

This is all we witness in Ukraine, a rebranding exercise. Not too complicated.

Roger Cohen’s piece from Mykoliav, a piece very unworthy of his gifts and intellect, is precisely in this line. I single it out because of Cohen’s stature and because it is wrong three times.

First of all, I wish I could have a quick word with Natalia Holovenko. I would like to know what she meant by “here” when she told Cohen, “We don’t have any Nazis here.” I cannot know, of course. But I am just short of convinced she meant “not here in Mykolaiv,” which would turn her exclamation upside down, making it an implicit acknowledgement that there are indeed Nazis elsewhere in Ukraine.

Cohen had no business reifying this statement and implying it meant “anywhere in Ukraine” when it is at a minimum unclear what Natalia Holovenko meant. He should have stated the case one way or the other. Finally, it beggars belief that a correspondent of his caliber would gratuitously characterize Moscow’s stated intent to de–Nazify Ukraine as false justification given the weight of evidence that this is a very good thing to do.

I was especially interested in an interview Cohen had with Oleksandr Senkevych, Mykolaiv’s mayor, who “exudes confidence, a man in perpetual motion in green camouflage cargo pants, with a Glock pistol at his hip and an almost manic gleam in his blue eyes.”

It is a little over the top as these things go, but I believe him now about the manic gleam.

Here is the quotation that caught my eye: “He sees this as a war between cultures—in Russia, the leader says something ‘and the sheep follow,’ he said, but in Ukraine, democracy has taken hold. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, everything said means the opposite: ‘protect’ means ‘invade’ and ‘military targets’ means ‘civilians.’ In Ukraine, Mr. Senkevych said, ‘we live in reality.’”

There are many good accounts of the etymology of Ukraine’s Nazis—their history, their various splits, their ideological nuances one group to the next. What looks to me a good one came out three days after Cohen’s piece. It was written by Dmitry Plotnikov, a Russian journalist who covers events in the former Soviet republics, an interesting line of inquiry. Plotnikov’s work appears in various publications; I read this one on RT. I do not know either his byline or his reputation, but he seems here to have a good command of his material.

Plotnikov’s topic in “Ukraine’s neo–Nazi Azov Battalion has built ‘a state within a state,’ and it despises both Russia and the West” is the prevalent ideology among the whole collection of extreme-right fanatics active in Ukraine. The subhead on this piece is an informative start. “The Ukrainian regiment adheres loosely to its own brand of ‘National Idea,’ loosely modeled on Mussolini’s Italy.”

It is a lengthy piece. What captivated me, having read the Cohen item, was this passage. Plotniov is citing Dmitry Dontsov, an influential far-right ideologist in the 1920s:

Dontsov equated the concepts of nation and race. The latter he divided into master and slave races. According to Dontsov, Ukrainians are a race of masters, while Russians are a race of slaves seeking to enslave Ukrainians. The clash between Ukrainians and Russians is of an absolute, existential nature and can only end with the destruction of one of the parties, Dontsov believed.

I didn’t like Oleksandr Senkevych much after reading this passage, with his gleam and his Glock and his cargo pants. I read his remarks to Cohen again, and it is clear to me that Roger had encountered a good specimen of the Ukrainian right-wing ideologue, 2022 version. This is a war of cultures, they are sheep, we are democrats: It seems to me Roger Cohen just demonstrated plainly the presence in Ukraine of exactly what he intended to tell us was not there.

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of Patrick Lawrence’s weekly media critic column. See his previous columns below:

Patrick Lawrence: The Power of Images

Foreign Policy: The Warmonger’s Game

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site

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