The Washington Times seems not to know the difference between an opinion and a lie.
What indeed is the difference?
Item: A newspaper editorial says Burger King’s Whoppers are tastier than McDonald’s Big Macs.
Analysis: That’s an opinion that’s being presented as a consensus of the publication’s editorial leadership. An opinion is not necessarily arrived at through a rational process.
Item: A newspaper editorial says Big Macs are made from road kill.
Analysis: That’s not an opinion. It’s either a fact or a lie depending upon the truth of the matter.
With that distinction in mind it’s clear that the Washington Times lied in its December 31, 2019 editorial titled “Vladimir Putin’s 20-year reign.”
It may be true that Putin is not to the taste of the Times‘ editors. He’s clearly not to the taste of many Americans that participate in our country’s political discourse.
The editorial says that “Vladimir Putin’s 20-year reign as president and, for a brief interregnum, prime minister, has been disastrous for Russia.” That’s certainly a valid opinion. Many but not all Americans likely agree. On the other hand many if not most Russians disagree. That’s their opinion. So there are distinctly different points of view.
But the Times‘ editorial crossed the line when it presented facts that are not factual to justify its distaste for the Russian leader.
For example in expressing its negative opinion of Putin, the editorial states, “But don’t take it from us. Ask the Russian people. They’ve been voting with their feet by fleeing in droves. Not only has there been a steady exodus from Russia during Mr. Putin’s rule, but more people than ever want to hop the next train or plane abroad.”
The Washington Times quotes the Moscow Times on a Gallup survey: “A record one-fifth of Russians would like to leave the country if they could.” That 20 percent sounds pretty damning of Putin, doesn’t it.
But the cited record level does not correlate with “Putin’s reign.”
There was in fact a dramatic change in the number of Russians dreaming of emigration. But the Gallup data shows it started in 2017. That more closely correlates with the US Democratic Party’s anti-Russia campaign known as Russiagate.
In the 10 years prior to that, Russians with wanderlust averaged 12.4 percent. That’s well below Gallup’s report on residents of European Union countries. For much of that same 10 years about 20 percent of them wanted to get out if they could, and still do. The Times also neglected a Moscow Times February 4, 2019 headline, “Share of Russians Unwilling to Emigrate Hits 7-Year High,” citing a Levada Center survey.
That’s just one of the flimflams in the Washington Times editorial. Here’s another:
The editorial asserts that in the year 2000, at the dawn of the Putin era, the Russian media were “largely unfettered.” Now, however, thanks to Putin “the media are muzzled,” reports the Times.
Perhaps in coming to that conclusion the Times‘ editors read a Sense of the Congress Resolution that explained, “…freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Russia today is being threatened by elements within the Russian Government…”
Surely that supports indicting Putin over his clamp-down on Russia’s free press.
But that resolution in reality is not implicating Putin. It was introduced in 1995 by then-Congressman Thomas Lantos. Now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was a co-sponsor.
The resolution was taking Boris Yeltsin to task, not Putin. At that time Putin was still just a city official in St. Petersburg.
The truth is that when Putin was elevated to the presidency, there was no free press for him to clamp down on. Yeltsin era laws had made it virtually impossible for Russian media companies to operate profitably and freely. That thrust them into the clutches of oligarchs and governmental officials, central, regional, and local. They provided the funds to prop up the bankrupt media companies in exchange for the ability to color the news. The media were conscripted, not free.
Because of the mass scramble to control the media, there was lots of plurality in the press, but not enough truth. Media outlets were not free to serve the needs and interests of their audiences. They were kowtowing to their financial overlords. Any reportorial latitude they had was strictly at the largess of the money bosses.
The American Congress may have been fooled by what was going on back then. But the Russian people were not. By the time Putin was voted president, polls were showing that more than two-thirds of the population would rather see a return to censorship over the prevailing nonsense.
Putin actually went along with a plan to free the press. In 2001 I led an initiative to change the Yeltsin-instituted laws that were thwarting press freedom. My partners were the International Center for Journalists in Washington, and the Sreda Media Research Center in Moscow. We requested and received an invitation from the Putin administration to study the laws that constrained the press and to recommend changes.
Almost all of our recommendations were accepted and the laws were changed. For the first time the legal environment existed to let press freedom ring throughout all Russia. Media companies could finally operate independently. What was left was to assist the Russian media managers to abandon their corrupt business model and take advantage of the new opportunities.
The benefit of those changes was seriously muted by another development, however. The White House National Security Council came to insert itself into the issue. It mounted a program that competed with our project that was already underway. The Council claimed an objective to help the media outlets. But it was clear to my partners and me that its initiative lacked the expertise for the job. In the end, sadly, that ill-fated intervention muddied the waters so badly that my partners and I were unable to marshal the international financial support to do the job competently. Some outlets managed to transform themselves. But the sweeping potential of the legal changes wasn’t realized.
There are other problems in the Washington Times editorial. But I think by now you get the gist of things.
My purpose in this analysis is not to exonerate Putin across the board. Certainly he is a problematic leader in some respects. For example, when he chased Russia’s most corrupt media overlords out of the country, he said he was taking custody of their media properties “temporarily.” But that central control has become permanent and that plays into the hands of his critics.
Now, in trying to put Putin under the microscope the Washington Times has actually called its own integrity into question.
In today’s Internet Age, Americans have a multiplicity of sources at their fingertips. In general, newspapers no longer play a leading role in making news available to the public. Newspapers present a curated assortment of news stories. But now people can curate on their own according to their particular interests.
The only remaining value of a newspaper is if it reports and curates with integrity and reliability.
Presenting falsehoods and misleading information masquerading as opinion demonstrates a very fundamental lack of integrity. I commend that observation to whoever at the Times is responsible for its irresponsible editorial. What a “disastrous” thing it is, appearing in this period of dangerously heightened world tensions.