When Russia and Georgia clashed in August over Georgia’s separatist enclaves, U.S. corporate media frequently evoked the Cold War as a key to understanding the conflict—and they themselves certainly played their Cold War part, generally placing white hats on Washington’s allies and black hats on Moscow’s.
On August 11, NBC Nightly News reporter Jim Maceda announced: “The powerful Russian war machine is moving ever deeper into Georgia, and teaching all of us really a lesson about what makes Russia tick.” Maceda then gave what became the standard media template for describing the conflict:
It started as a gamble by Georgia, the former Soviet republic and darling of the West: Move quickly into the breakaway pro-Russian enclave called South Ossetia and take back what is legally Georgia’s. But the plan failed. Instead, Russian forces invaded Georgia last week and crushed Georgian resistance. According to U.S. military officials, Russia is out to decimate the U.S.-trained Georgian armed forces.
Maceda concluded: “But after hundreds, perhaps thousands killed and tens of thousands displaced, tonight Georgians are asking, ‘When will the Russian bear stop?’”
Buried within this U.S. media narrative is an entirely different way to understand the conflict. In this reading, South Ossetia (like the similar enclave of Abkhazia) is an area that has been largely independent of Georgia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian forces have been present in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s, defending the separatist regions against Georgian attempts to forcibly incorporate the territories. The situation has repeatedly broken out into open combat, most recently in early August, when fighting between Georgian and separatist forces escalated into full-scale efforts by Georgia to reclaim both breakaway territories.
Georgia’s military efforts—which involved intensive shelling of civilian areas, according to reports from Human Rights Watch (8/10/08) and Western reporters on the scene (Washington Post, 8/12/08)—reportedly caused many noncombatant deaths and prompted a large proportion of the South Ossetian population to seek safety in Russia. Moscow cited this humanitarian crisis, along with Georgian attacks on Russian forces in the separatist areas, as its justification for its military intervention. (Russia and Georgia were both criticized by human rights groups for endangering civilians with their military tactics—Human Rights Watch, 8/14/08—but the criticism of Russia tended to get a fuller hearing in the U.S. press.)
Alternatives to the official media narrative were available in independent and overseas media (Just World News, 8/10/08; Real News Network, 8/12/08; Georgia Straight, 8/11/08; Guardian, 8/14/08). Meanwhile, U.S. corporate media did not completely ignore Georgia’s contributions to the escalation of tensions, but its aggressive actions were often euphemized—as in AP’s reference (8/11/08) to “a crackdown by Georgia last week”—and were rarely allowed to interfere with the preferred narrative of Georgia as victim of an expansionist Russia. Media accounts stressed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allegedly pro-democratic tendencies and Western education, while only a few outlets reminded readers of Saakashvili’s suppression of dissent and independent media outlets (L.A. Times, 8/12/08; London Guardian, 8/14/08).
Possible alternatives to the media’s favored storyline were more often denounced than presented, as when a Washington Post editorial (8/12/08) declared,
As the crisis deepened, one could hear in Washington the usual attempts to blame the victim, as if Georgia somehow deserved this fate because its elected government had opted for friendly relations with the West.
Actually, few in Washington seemed to be making such a case; there was, however, competition among U.S. pundits for the most aggressive condemnation of Russia. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote (8/12/08), “Russia, as my grandmother could have told George W. Bush, always fights dirty.” His Post colleague George Will (8/12/08), meanwhile, declared that “Russia’s aggression is really about the subordination of Georgia, a democratic, market-oriented U.S. ally.” Max Boot of the L.A. Times (8/12/08) compared Russia to Nazi Germany—while allowing that the analogy “may appear overwrought.” Post columnist Robert Kagan (8/11/08) made a similar Nazi comparison.
A striking feature of the coverage was the ability of the same pundits who dismissed sovereignty and international law as barriers to U.S. invasions to condemn Russia’s invasion on those very grounds. Seeming blissfully unaware of the contradiction, New York Times columnist William Kristol (8/11/08) wrote that “in Iraq, we and our Iraqi allies are on the verge of a strategic victory over the jihadists,” citing this as evidence that 2008 was “an auspicious year for freedom and democracy,” while two paragraphs later condemning the fact that “Russia has sent troops and tanks across an international border.” Kristol even cited Georgia’s eager participation in the violation of Iraq’s sovereignty as a primary reason that “we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty.”