American Journalism and Russia’s Tragedy

American Journalism and Russia’s Tragedy

With few exceptions, writes Stephen Cohen in The
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
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