Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Travesty of Reporting


By Reginald Johnson

               I’ve always felt The New York Times is a schizophrenic paper --- alternately very good or very bad.

             The “paper of record” has won a myriad of Pulitzer Prizes over the years for coverage of a variety issues, such as environmental problems and questionable business practices abroad by U.S. corporations.

            Reporters like Charlie Savage and James Risen have turned out some great stories on civil liberties and national security issues.

            But the Times has fallen down badly on other occasions, particularly with respect to foreign policy and war coverage.  The paper’s reporting in late 2002 and 2003 on Iraq, which presented thinly-sourced stories claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, helped the Bush administration build its public case that Iraq had to be invaded and Saddam Hussein removed.

   Months later, the stories were discredited when inspection teams could find no WMD.  But the damage had already been done --- an invasion of Iraq took place in March, 2003. That set off a brutal ten-year war which cost over 5,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.

   It emerged later that the Times’ stories before the war had relied heavily on the claims of one Iraqi expatriate leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who wanted to return to power and stood to benefit from Saddam’s removal.

  Now the Times is failing again in its reporting on another overseas issue: Ukraine.

  From the onset of this crisis in early 2014 --- when street demonstrations led to a coup in Kiev and a  pro-western faction ousted the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovcyh  --- to the civil war pitting the regime’s military against pro-Russian separatists in the east, the Times coverage of Ukraine has been atrocious.

   The reporting has been decidedly slanted against the Russian separatists and Russia, and has mirrored the U.S.government view on Ukraine. It’s been heavily tilted in favor of the new Ukrainian government, despite the questionable background of some members of that regime, fascist elements in their armed forces and the fact that the regime itself is illegal, having come about through a violent coup. There’s been one-sided reporting, misuse of photos and unprofessional editing.

  In one example, which recalled the Times’ stories in the lead-up to the Iraq War, an article was done which purported to show the presence of Russian military personnel in Ukraine fighting alongside the separatists. The story, featuring photos of Russian officers, bolstered the claim of the U.S. government that Russia is directly involved in the Ukraine civil war, and committing “aggression.”

   But later the story fell apart, when it turned out the identifications of the soldiers in the photos were incorrect, and there was no proof in fact that Russian fighters were in  Ukraine. The Times later published a back-page correction.

   Another example of the Times’ unprofessional coverage in Ukraine has been the paper’s virtual whitewashing of the role neo-Nazis and fascists have played both in the regime and in the military campaign against the separatists.

   The Ukrainian government forces and right-wing militias in the past year have waged brutal assaults against cities in eastern Ukraine, with hundreds being killed. In several of these attacks, young neo-Nazi fighters, with Nazi insignias on their shirts or helmets, have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting. In an attack on a trade union building last year in Odessa, dozens of separatists were trapped inside as militias fired on the building and threw stun grenades and tear gas cannisters. The building caught on fire, and when people jumped out, fascist militants from the Right Sector beat them with bats and chains, according to one person who survived. 

  All total, 39 people perished in the attack, either from injuries sustained after jumping from higher floors, suffocating from smoke inhalation or burning alive.

   In September of last year, members of the “Azov Battalion” --- fighters who have the wolfsangel, a Nazi symbol, emblazoned on their group banner --- played a central role in the fighting with separatists at Mariupol. The Azov Battalion is under the direction of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.

   Papers such as the London Telegraph have documented the presence of Nazi elements fighting with the Ukrainian government forces, with articles and photos, but major press in the U.S., like the Times, have not. You would think that a paper like the Times that frequently has done stories in other parts of Europe detailing the rise of neo-Nazis and fascists --- such as in Germany or Greece --- would eagerly report on the substantial role that far-right extremists are playing in the Ukrainian conflict, but that hasn’t been the case.

     The Times has also avoided doing a major investigative piece on just how the coup in Ukraine took place in February of last year.  Abundant evidence has emerged showing how the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy worked to undermine the Yanukovych regime, and how State Department officials like Victoria Nuland and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. openly fanned the flames of rebellion by meeting with and encouraging the demonstrators during the Maidan protests. When those demonstrations turned violent, right-wing militias took over government buildings, and Yanukovych fled for his life.
    But the Times has taken the position that the government overthrow in Kiev last year wasn’t really a coup. According to Robert Parry, the editor of and a journalist who has done an outstanding job covering the Ukraine crisis, the Times in early January of this year wrote a long piece which claimed that the Yanukovych regime wasn’t really overthrown. Instead, the government just collapsed as allies deserted Yanukovych amid the rising tide of violence in the streets.

    The Times said that the idea that the government was overthrown in a coup as a result of attacks by fascist militants and western intrigue, was a propaganda line put out by Russia.

   As Parry pointed out, even the global intelligence firm Stratfor disagrees. The overthrow of Yanukovcyh was “the most blatant coup in history” according to Stratfor’s founder George Friedman.

   It appears during this whole process of reporting on Ukraine, The New York Times has swallowed the U.S. State Department line about events in Ukraine: Russia is a rogue nation bent on expansion; its dictatorial leader, Vladimir Putin, can’t be trusted; the Russian separatists are a ruthless group who were responsible for the shootdown of the MH-17 airliner over Ukraine last year, which killed over 283 people on board (although no investigation has confirmed who was responsible).

    Meanwhile, according the American government view, the United States and leaders of the coup regime in Kiev are simply trying to reunite Ukraine, defend it from Russian aggression and create a more prosperous country more closely integrated with Europe.

   Why is this simplistic, black and white narrative --- which is clearly contradicted by the facts --- being presented by the Times?
    There can only be two conclusions. Either the reporters and editors working on the Ukraine issue are grossly incompetent, and ignore the facts, or they essentially agree with the neo-con policy being pushed by the U.S., aimed at pulling Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, neutralizing Russia, and eventually forcing regime change in that nation.

   If the latter is the case, then we have so-called journalists engaging in deliberate propaganda on behalf of the U.S. government.

   Whatever the reason for what’s going on, the result has been the Ukraine reporting has been awful. It has been, as Parry calls it, “journalistic malfeasance.”