Have you heard the one about how Russian President Vladimir Putin is out of touch with reality? It’s a theme that has been promoted throughout the media coverage of the current Ukraine crisis. But a look at where the story comes from might suggest there’s nothing to it.
The Russian occupation of Crimea has challenged Mr. Obama as has no other international crisis, and at its heart, the advice seemed to pose the same question: Is Mr. Obama tough enough to take on the former KGB colonel in the Kremlin? It is no easy task. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.
So “people briefed on the call” delivered the verdict: Putin has lost touch with reality.
The line soon appeared everywhere; a Times‘ editorial (3/4/14) turned it into a fact: “In a conversation with Mr. Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said she was unsure whether Mr. Putin was in touch with reality.” A Washington Post editorial (3/4/14) began: “Has Vladimir Putin lost touch with reality, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly suggested to President Obama?” And the New Republic (3/4/14) ran a piece by Julia Ioffe with the headline “Putin’s Press Conference Proved Merkel Right: He’s Lost His Mind.”
But what if that’s not what Merkel meant?
It’s noteworthy that few if any of these pieces referencing Merkel’s statement stressed the words actually attributed to Merkel–that Putin is “in another world.” That’s because those words don’t convey what the the White House spin did: that Putin was not “in touch with reality.” One phrase suggests that someone has an entirely different point of view, while the other suggests that that person is delusional.
The attraction of the latter point was raised in a remarkable piece by McClatchy‘s Mark Seibel (3/5/14), who noted that the Merkel remark “was too good to ignore and became the reporting line for every talking head and commentator for the next several news cycles.” A little too good, perhaps. Seibel writes:
Die Welt, the German newspaper, reported that “the chancellery was not pleased with the reporting on the conversation. They claim that what the chancellor said was that Putin has a different perception on Crimea, which is why she is pushing for a fact-finding mission on the matter.”
So if Merkel didn’t portray Putin as unhinged, why would the unknown Obama aide tell the New York Times she did? Because in the world of propaganda, successfully portraying your adversary as being crazy, without any rational backing to his actions, makes it unnecessary to try to understand the complexities or sensitivities of the issues. If Putin is crazy, then that’s enough. We needn’t think any further about what he has to say. And if the New York Times says he’s crazy, that’s good enough for the dozens of reporters who’ve come along since, repeating the comment to their millions of viewers and readers as if it was a confirmed statement.
It’s unusual to see someone at a mainstream US media outlet write so clearly about how “it is so easy to become a megaphone for propaganda” in this kind of crisis. It’d be nice to see the New York Times explain whether it thinks it acted as such a megaphone.