If there were a guide for corporate media treatment of Official Enemies, the first rule might be that you can hardly ever go too far. So Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimean region of Ukraine meant that he was either “taking a page out of the Hitler playbook,” as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (3/3/14) put it, or was, as Washington Post columnist George Will (3/17/14) said, “Stalin’s spawn.”
Those are the extreme examples, but corporate media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine demonstrated a Cold War eagerness for increasing the conflict, a panic over the US failure to control events and a failure to properly examine relevant history.
The negative feelings about Putin were intense. ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz (3/4/14) called him “the bully Vladimir Putin. ... He is hammer-handed. This is how he operates.” In the Washington Post (3/23/14), he was “animated by nationalist impulses and historic grievances that have proved immune to the modern tools of diplomacy,” while in the New York Times (3/23/14), he was deemed a “wiry martial arts master” with a “deep sense of grievance.” New York Times columnist David Brooks (Meet the Press, 3/23/14) called him “this radioactive individual who wants to create history: large ego, large Russian nationalism.”
Some dug deeper. On ABC World News (3/7/14), Jonathan Karl described a “Pentagon study on trying to read Putin’s body language,” which apparently suggested “that his walking style may provide insight into how he operates.” The report, Karl told viewers, found “‘Putin’s movement style shows a man struggling to move forward’...a weakness he compensates for ‘by a dramatic need for internal control, which he seeks through external display of power.’”
While the conflict over Crimea would seem to be primarily about Ukrainians and Russians, many in the media saw the conflict as really about the United States and its Cold War rival. “Game on between the two superpowers,” ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer announced (3/17/14). “President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin locked in a kind of duel.”
The idea of the crisis as a personal challenge to Obama was widespread. As a Washington Post news article (3/1/14) asserted: “Rarely has a threat from a US president been dismissed as quickly—and comprehensively—as Obama’s warning Friday night to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” And the paper’s editorial page (3/1/14) warned that in response to this “naked act of armed aggression in the center of Europe…Obama must demonstrate that can’t be done.”
NBC Nightly News (3/1/14) tapped Meet the Press anchor David Gregory for analysis: “There is US prestige on the line.... Why is it that Russia seems to disregard these warnings from the administration?” It was a theme Gregory reiterated several times on his Sunday show (3/2/14):
This is a conversation about Obama’s leadership, pure and simple. This is a major test for whether the rest of the world, particularly bad actors, take him seriously when he says to not do something.
His NBC colleague Chuck Todd concurred: “This is not the first time with Putin. Putin acts, Obama warns. Putin acts, Obama warns. This is a pattern that he can’t afford to stay in here and just continue to warn.” Weeks later, Gregory was still flummoxed (Meet the Press, 3/23/14): “What does it take for the US to regain the upper hand in this fight with Vladimir Putin?”
Not only was Putin not listening to US admonitions, he didn’t seem to be living in the same reality. That storyline was most notably advanced in the New York Times (3/2/14). Reporter Peter Baker asserted that the “Russian occupation of Crimea has challenged Mr. Obama as has no other international crisis”—a pretty dramatic overstatement—and then added:
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sun-day 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.” CNN host Jake Tapper (3/3/14) recounted the Times story to ask one guest: “Is this an unstable individual, Mr. Putin?” A Washington Post editorial (3/4/14) wondered if Putin had “lost touch with reality,” 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.”
It’s noteworthy that many of these pieces emphasized the “out of touch with reality” spin over the expression directly attributed to Merkel—that Putin is “in another world.” The latter phrase suggests that someone has an entirely different point of view, while the former suggests that that person is delusional.
As McClatchy’s Mark Seibel (3/5/14) noted, 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 wrote that the German government disagreed with this interpretation of the phone conversation, but “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.”
For some media, evidence of Putin’s disconnect or delusion could be found in his explanation for Russia’s action in Crimea. The New York Times (3/4/14) noted that during Putin’s much-discussed March 3 press conference, he “delivered a version of the crisis that was fundamentally at odds with the view held by most officials in the United States, Europe and Ukraine.” So what had he said? The Times pointed to his claim that there are “double standards that justify American or NATO military operations in the name of protecting human rights or democracy but disregard Russian concerns.”
While “you do it too” may not be much of a justification, it’s hardly delusional. The Times noted that Putin had mentioned US military attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; he could have also mentioned Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada, which was presented as a mission to protect a small number of American students. The 1991 Panama invasion was accompanied by a similarly flimsy rationale about protecting US citizens.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry was making declarations like, “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” and Iraq War booster Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (3/23/14) wrote that “Putin has engineered the baldest violation of state sovereignty since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.”
Such sentiments are, to put it mildly, at odds with the historical record. Some drew attention to this inconvenient history; USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham (3/24/14) drew a compelling parallel between Russia’s actions in Crimea and the US taking Panama from Colombia in 1903.
But more typical was the New York Times’ derisive comment about Russian media (3/6/14): “Detailed and grisly descriptions of the United States’ past interventions…have become a dominant theme in Russian reporting on Ukraine and its Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula.” Their propaganda can be so clunky.
So Putin is delusional—such that he might be bent on reclaiming Russian power by reconfiguring some of the former Soviet Union. For many in the press, that theory made sense, based on a comment Putin made in 2005. ABC World News reporter Terry Moran (3/4/14) explained it by showing viewers a shrinking giant:
Here is what his country looked like back then, a colossus. And this is how it shrunk when the Soviet Union collapsed, which Putin called “the greatest catastrophe of the century.” His world view, shaped by the loss of an empire.
That phrasing has been repeated by Republican Sen. John McCain and conservative columnist George Will, and the New York Times (3/18/14) referenced Putin seeking “the restoration of Russia after a period of humiliation following the Soviet collapse, which he has famously called ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.’”
But the official translation of Putin’s remarks is different—calling it “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” (He cited post-Soviet problems like mass poverty and a dramatic economic downturn to make that case.) The translated difference between “a” and “the” is, of course, significant—the difference between “very bad” and “worse than Hitler.”
And as PolitiFact (3/6/14) noted, most Russia experts do not believe that Putin has any intention of reconstituting the former Soviet Union. But in corporate media, this comment became a sign of Putin’s master plan.
Tracing the conflict back to its origin, minus the Cold War histrionics, yields a far less alarmist take. The protests that would eventually topple the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were portrayed as a country’s choice between modern, forward-thinking Europe and Russia’s repressive Putin. ABC anchor Diane Sawyer (2/20/14) explained it as a “duel between protesters who say they want Western freedom and police enforcing the alliance with Russia and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and all that he represents.”
In reality, it could be argued that the Yanukovych government—which was undoubtedly corrupt—would have gotten a better economic rescue package from Russia than from the European Union (Reuters, 12/19/13).
And Putin’s tendency to portray the protesters and ringleaders of the Ukrainian coup as fascists and Nazi-sympathizers was often belittled by US commentators—but it is undeniable that extreme right forces were a key part of the coalition that toppled the government—and in the new government that emerged (FAIR Blog, 3/7/14).
The lopsided results of the March 16 referendum in Crimea in favor of rejoining Russia (which it had been separated from by the Soviet Union in 1954) was presented as evidence that Russia, as Richard Engel put it (NBC Nightly News, 3/16/14), “took Crimea by force. Today’s vote was just about the paperwork.” But few major news outlets pointed out, as Pando’s Gary Brecher (3/17/14) did, that in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Crimeans had had a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia again—and a similar 93 percent voted in favor.
A Washington Post editorial (3/4/14) worried that Putin “may actually believe his own propaganda.” He might. But there’s little doubt that US politicians—and elite media—believe their own.
A Convenient Crisis: Oil, Gas & Ukraine
If you want to be called a conspiracy theorist, bring up the role of oil whenever the United States gets involved in a military confrontation. In the case of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, though, energy politics were out in the open, with domestic drilling for oil and gas being touted as part of the solution to the problem.
The reliance of Ukraine and parts of Europe on Russian natural gas led an overwhelmingly anti-Russian US media to wonder if two policy goals could be achieved simultaneously: drilling for more oil and gas here in the United States, and turning some of Vladimir Putin’s customers into US buyers.
Editorial boards of major papers were united behind the idea. As the Washington Post (3/22/14) put it, “There’s an obvious path forward that coincides with the United States’—indeed, the world’s—economic interests. That path is lifting irrational restrictions on exports and making it easier to build natural gas export terminals.”
The New York Times (3/6/14) asserted, “Increasing natural gas exports could serve American foreign-policy interests in Europe,” while USA Today (3/20/14) cheered: “The good news is that the West can turn the tables on Putin, freeing Europe from its dependency and in the process making Russia pay dearly.” For them, it wasn’t just about US exports: “Germany could become much less dependent on Russia by approving hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) and reversing its foolish decision to abandon nuclear energy.”
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (3/5/14) advised that the United States should go after “the twin pillars of [Putin’s] regime: oil and gas.” The correct policy, Friedman advised, would be “investing in the facilities to liquefy and export our natural gas bounty (provided it is extracted at the highest environmental standards) and making Europe, which gets 30 percent of its gas from Russia, more dependent on us instead.”
Of course, why not take an all-of-the-above approach? Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (3/3/14) advised that “the Keystone Pipeline must be approved” because “Russia is blackmailing Europe over energy.... The more oil and natural gas the USA and Canada can produce and distribute, the weaker Russia becomes on the world stage.”
But making Russia “pay dearly” is harder than it sounds, especially since the recent completion of the East Siberia/Pacific Ocean pipeline gives it direct access to the Asian market—meaning that Europe needs Russia more than Russia needs Europe, now more than ever (Pando, 3/17/14).
And for all the enthusiasm for the US replacing Russia as Europe’s energy source, there are tremendous obstacles. The fact that there is not a single facility in the United States that can ship liquefied natural gas abroad (In These Times, 3/19/14) is as clear a sign as any that this is not exactly a quick and easy way to make Russia feel pain. (In case the political motivations behind all of this aren’t explicit, one bill in Congress is actually named the Fight Russian Energy Exploitation Act.)
In These Times reporter Cole Stangler (3/26/14) noted that the Ukraine crisis sparked intense congressional interest in exporting natural gas, as industry-friendly analysts pushed their line with receptive lawmakers. “We didn’t gin up the Ukrainian crisis,” he quoted the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas President Bill Cooper saying, who went on:
We didn’t gin up the idea that it ought to be connected in some way to LNG exports. But Congress did, obviously, and a lot of editorials, experts and geopolitical analysts have all jumped on that. We appreciate the attention that LNG exports are receiving, and if it does provide a catalyst to make something happen that heretofore has not, then we’re going to be very happy with that.
And Stangler pointed out that amidst all this enthusiasm for fossil fuels, very few brought up climate change—which requires the US to curtail, not expand, drilling. The future of the planet is not as important, it seems, as teaching Putin a lesson.