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NBC Sets Off International Firestorm by Mistranslating Putin – OpEd

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If you heard Putin say “Russia’s Jews aren’t worthy to be called Russian” would you take offense? I would. That’s an affront to common sensibility. It certainly sounds anti-Semitic to me.

When Senator Richard Blumenthal heard Putin imply that sentiment in a recent NBC interview he reacted strongly: “Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders.”

The only trouble is that Putin never made that statement. Blumenthal was responding to NBC’s translation of Putin’s remarks in a TV interview with Megyn Kelly. But Putin didn’t speak the words NBC claims he did. NBC distorted his message.

I don’t know if it was done intentionally with political motive or if it was just incompetent journalism. But NBC’s mistranslation set off a chain reaction. Newser.com remarked that Putin critics have “assailed the leader for his apparent implication that Russian Jews aren’t true Russians.”

The sensational story spawned headlines like these:

“Putin condemned for saying Jews may have manipulated US election” –Washington Post

“Putin suggests Jews with Russian citizenship behind election meddling” –USA Today

“Hey, Putin: Don’t pin this on the Jews” –Salt Lake Tribune

And in response to the media furor, leading Jewish organizations also chimed in:

Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt stated, “President Putin bizarrely has resorted to the blame game by pointing the finger at Jews and other minorities in his country.” He added, “It is deeply disturbing to see the Russian president giving new life to classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that have plagued his country for hundreds of years, with a comment that sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The American Jewish Committee tweeted: “President Putin suggesting that Russian Federation minorities, be they Ukrainian, Tatar, or Jewish, were behind US election meddling is eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Journalists and agitated commentators perhaps didn’t realize that NBC had altered what Putin really said. Here’s what transpired:

In the TV interview, NBC’s Megyn Kelly questioned Putin about 13 people in Russia recently indicted in the US for allegedly interfering with our last presidential election.

NBC claims Putin responded: “Maybe they are not even Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews, but with Russian citizenship…” That’s what set off the firestorm.

A more reliable translation of Putin’s comments would be: “Maybe they are not even ethnic Russians, but Ukrainians, Tatars, or Jews who are Russian citizens.”

The point here is that Putin’s antagonists prematurely had been tagging the 13 indictees specifically as “ethnic Russians.” According to BBC, “Russia is home to people from at least 190 ethnic groups and counts more than 20 different republics within its borders.”

Clearly Russia’s Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews are not ethnic Russians. They of course are citizens of Russia possessing the same rights of citizenship as ethnic Russians.

Putin was simply correcting the inaccuracies of his accusers’ statements, not deflecting blame to any particular ethnic groups. Perhaps it was not politic for him to have waded into that clarification, but he made a valid technical point. I suspect he was speaking out of frustration over the apparent ignorance of his antagonists.

But how did this get to be such a contentions issue? The Times of Israel provides the answer. It reported: “Community members say the Russian president was trying to distance Moscow from US election meddling, not blame Jews for it.”

To understand this point it’s necessary to realize that Putin used the term “Russki” when he spoke about the 13 indictees.

According to Boruch Gorin, a well-known Moscow rabbi: “Russki does not mean a citizen of Russia, but a person of Russian ethnicity. And since Jewishness is widely recognized in Russia as an ethnicity, as opposed to just a religion, Russian Jews are not really considered as ethnic Russians, though they are certainly accepted as Russian citizens.” A Russian Jew, along with every other Russian citizen regardless of ethnicity, is a “Rossianin” according to Gorin’s explanation. Only an ethnic Russian is called a Russki, the term used by Putin.

ToI reported “Gorin’s benign view of Putin’s remark is shared by the chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt.”

So strangely this was all a very big to-do over nothing.

There’s something else strange about the blowup. I contacted ADL and AJC to explain NBC’s distortion. In light of it I asked if they wanted to revise their hyper-emphatic positions, since they had reacted to something Putin never actually said. They declined to take that into consideration. I also asked Blumenthal’s office. His spokesperson responded, “The Senator stands by his comments.”

So what do you make of that?

They all severely criticized Putin for something he never said. And when that fact was brought to their attention they decided to stick with their criticisms nevertheless.

Doesn’t that speak to the integrity of the parties involved?

As for the news outlets with the sensational headlines? Where was their fact checking and due diligence? This incident reflects on their integrity and reliability as well. Certainly their audiences deserve better.


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William Dunkerley

William Dunkerley

William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut, USA. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.

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