What's the Washington Post up to?
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
A sweet-sounding idea of the Washington Post's seems to turn sour when you get down to the details. Here's the story:
"The Washington Post introduces its new 'Global Opinions' section which greatly expands the Post's mix of viewpoints by adding contributing columnists and fresh voices from major regions across the world." That was the lead of a May 24 story announcing the new initiative.
At first glance this seems like the Post is finally turning away from a slanted and parochial form of journalism. Presenting readers with a "mix of viewpoints" actually sounds like dedication to a pluralism of views is emerging.
But the next line calls that impression into question:
"The initiative first launches in Europe, where it will be anchored by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anne Applebaum…"
My goodness, I just wrote a very critical article about Applebaum, "Are Anne Applebaum and Ed Lucas Phonies or Just Innocently Insane?". Was I operating under a wrong impression of her journalistic ethics? Or has she had an epiphany and dramatically changed her long-established ways?
The Post's announcement went on, "In her role, Applebaum will write often as well as cultivate and grow the Post's contributors in Europe, ensuring a wide-range of voices and perspectives are represented including heads of state, political leaders, policy experts, and more."
That promise of a "wide-range of voices and perspectives" certainly sounds encouraging. The "Global Opinions" writers list includes people like Charles Krauthammer, George Will, and Fareed Zakaria. Their records certainly display commentary that seems to inflame tensions, while not having a clear basis in truth. But on the other side, the list includes Katrina vanden Heuvel who clearly has demonstrated greater dedication to the facts. I haven't examined the whole list carefully -- there may be other reliable commentators, too.
Perhaps coincidentally, on the exact same day of the "Global Opinions" announcement, the Post also ran an article by Anne Applebaum titled "A world without facts." She's not reflecting upon journalism, though. Her targets are the politicians. Applebaum remarks, "The question of what is propaganda and what is truth has plagued politics since politics began." She comes out strongly in favor of fact-checking.
I won't quarrel with her political assertion. But what about applying the same scrutiny to the media, and to Anne Applebaum herself in particular?
Writing in the Financial Times on January 30, 2015 she observed:
"Only once since Hiroshima is nuclear material definitively known to have been used as a weapon. But contrary to our normal assumptions about what terrorism looks like, the origins of this attack were not in Iran or Pakistan, but in Russia."
Fact check: At her time of writing there was no official judgment blaming Litvinenko's death on Russia. Britain had just convened a political inquiry into the Litvinenko affair. An unqualified judge was given to decide the case. It was a year later when he rendered a clearly untrustworthy verdict.
What's more, it was quite a stretch by Applebaum to compare the atomic attack on Hiroshima that killed around 100,000 people with the polonium poisoning of Litvinenko, a relative nobody. What kind of journalistic judgment is that?
Back in 2006 she wrote about polonium, "Also we have learned that Litvinenko died after somehow ingesting polonium-210, a relatively rare radioactive substance."
But by 2010 that substance was all over the place according to Applebaum. She wrote, "Radioactive chemicals are widely available -- and have indeed been used, probably by Russian agents, in the poisoning of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006."
Did she really mean to say that the "rare" polonium had become "widely available" in the intervening years? If so it would have been interesting for her to have elaborated on that. Or does she practice customizing the facts to meet the exigencies of whatever storyline she happens to be pushing?
The Post's "Global Opinions" announcement also contained another announcement:
"As the Post broadens its opinion content internationally, it also bolsters coverage of US foreign policy in Washington, DC with the addition of columnist Josh Rogin who will anchor a heavily-reported opinion blog focusing on diplomacy and foreign affairs."
Rogin was at the heart of a different journalistic scandal:
An October 2010 news story identified China and Russia as enemies of the United States. It was reported widely by news media. In Foreign Policy magazine, where the story originated, Rogin wrote,
"The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has a new chairman in Walter Isaacson, and the former CNN and Time magazine chief is calling for even more money for the BBG to combat the public diplomacy efforts of America's 'enemies' which he identifies as Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China."
I listened to a recording of the Isaacson speech from which that statement was allegedly extracted. But Isaacson didn't identify Russia and China as enemies. Rogin's story was false. Isaacson was talking about US enemies in Afghanistan. That is a big difference from the alleged "news" Rogin broke.
Applebaum and Rogin. That's quite a team the Washington Post has deployed to "broaden its opinion content internationally."
Opinion is opinion, and facts are facts. Is the Post going to try passing off unsubstantiated opinion as if it were factual?
We'll have to wait and see. And fact-check.
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