American Journalism and Russia's Tragedy

| December 13, 2000

American Journalism and Russia's Tragedy

With few exceptions, writes Stephen Cohen in The Nation, American journalists covering Russia committed malpractice throughout the nineties. In a fascinating article, Cohen analyzes the mainstream media coverage of Russia after the Soviet breakup in 1991 and zeroes in on various fundamental biases and assumptions that led venerable institutions, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, to vastly overstate economic progress in Russia during the Yeltsin era.

Underlying the journalistic misrepresentation, Cohen finds, is an almost Pollyanna-like belief in the Clinton Administration's misbegotten foreign policy to 'transform post-Communist Russia under President Boris Yeltsin into a replica of America through US-sponsored 'reforms.'' A desperate desire to believe in Russia's purported transition to free-market capitalism and democracy led reporters, editorialists and columnists alike to view the degenerating economic situation in Russia through rose-colored glasses. In response to 'doom-and-gloom' stories about unpaid wages and pensions, and chronic malnutrition, for example, one Newsweek correspondent, apparently in denial, counseled the poor to continue living on bread. 'They could do worse,' he offered in an insensitive moment that is uncomfortably close to Marie-Antoinette's famous 'Let them eat cake!'

By failing to accurately recount Russia's struggle, Cohen contends, American journalists performed a disservice not only to the American public, but to the pitiable Russian citizens who labored to survive under Yeltsin's policies. Nearly a decade after the Soviet breakup, Russia is suffering the worst economic depression in modern European history: nearly three-fourths of Russians live at or below the poverty line and the average male will not live to see sixty.

'It was, and in significant ways continues to be,' he reflects, 'a bleak chapter in the history of American journalism.' Nonetheless, the brutal details continue to be glossed over in most American accounts of the on-going Russian tragedy, most notably in the media's early endorsement of Russian President Vladmir Putin, a lifelong member of the KGB. As Cohen wittily puts it, 'Facts may be stubborn things, but in this case no more so than many US journalists.'
--Anjula Razdan
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