Return of the Cold War Punditocracy

There are no good guys in the Georgia-Russia conflict, but the media seems hell-bent on simplifying it so that Russia is the only aggressor.

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Russian soldiers sit atop a tank in Tskhinvali, the main city in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on August 20, 2008. (AP/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Russian soldiers sit atop a tank in Tskhinvali, the main city in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia on August 20, 2008. (AP/Dmitry Lovetsky)

OK, let’s recap, shall we? On August 7, Georgia began an artillery campaign against the city of Tskhinvali, which is the capital of the independent, but unrecognized, republic of South Ossetia, which happens to be located inside Georgia’s borders. Georgia insists it was responding to shelling from South Ossetian territory. In response, Russia immediately sent its troops not only into South Ossetia, but also deep into Georgian territory. Russia’s military cut main highways in Georgia, bombed military targets, and assumed control of a port area. President George W. Bush termed the invention, “dramatic and brutal.”

These facts are neatly and fairly summed up in a few, unfortunately rare, mainstream accounts—we’d recommend Michael Dobbs’s op-ed in the The Washington Post, or James Traub in The New York Times. What these accounts make clear is that there are no good guys—Georgia overreacted and brutalized South Ossetia; Russia then did the same to Georgia.

The accounts presented in the American mainstream media, unfortunately, have simplified this complex regional conflict into black-and-white clash: evil Russia punishing the democratic and benevolent Georgia. This is not only ridiculously simplistic; it just also happens to be exactly in line with the Bush administration’s chosen spin.

Oversimplification of the conflict began right away, as the initial Georgian attack on South Ossetia was downplayed or overlooked entirely. Here are just a few examples of how the conflict was portrayed in the U.S. media:

  • On the August 9 edition of “CNN Newsroom,” host Rick Sanchez said of the conflict: “Russian war planes are in the skies there tonight. And people, rightfully so, are scared. These are some of the sounds and some of the pictures that we have been getting in throughout the course of the evening…. Russia seems to believe that people in South Ossetia are their people, and that they need defending. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, today, there you see him landing in the middle of this mess with very harsh words for the now Democratic government of Georgia.” Note that many South Ossetians are, in fact, Russian citizens, and the phrase “seems to believe… that they need defending” neatly elides why: the Georgian strikes.
  • On the August 8 edition of “Special Report with Brit Hume,” correspondent Caroline Shivley said that, “Despite the U.S. urging restraint, Russia responded with tanks, bombs, and combat planes after Georgia sent troops into a breakaway province along the Russian border. Georgia directed its troops to the South Ossetia early Friday, trying to gain tighter control over the province that attempted to declare its independence in 2006.” This characterization again minimizes the Georgian aggression that precipitated this conflict—they “directed their troops.” As noted, Georgia used artillery fire in the attack, and Russian officials say at least 1,500 civilians were killed.
  • On August 10, the New York Daily News didn’t try to describe how the conflict started, but rather just said, “Each side blamed the other for the outbreak of fighting in the region.”

The idea that Russia was the sole aggressor in this conflict became so quickly entrenched that on CNN’s“The Situation Room,” one commentator said that Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) roll call vote at the Democratic National Convention “reminds me of Vladimir Putin invading Georgia.”

Writing in the The Washington Post, Olga Ivanova, an intern there, lamented the media’s “unprofessional” coverage of the conflict: “American newspapers have run story after story about how ‘evil’ Russia invaded a sovereign neighboring state. Many accounts made it seem as though the conflict was started by an aggressive Russia invading the Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Some said that South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, was destroyed by the Russian army. Little attention was paid to the chronology of events, the facts underlying the conflict.”

Such simplification was actually trumpeted as a good thing by David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week; he noted Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) nuanced approach to the situation, and then proclaimed “nuanced doesn’t work for Democrats.” Gregory contrasted that position with the White House’s “very tough language against Russia.”

Russia’s actions are certainly deplorable, and nothing in this column should be interpreted to imply our assent for its various acts of aggression. But few things in life are as simple as they are portrayed by our punditocracy. Writing The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel notes that, “commentary in the U.S. media, almost without exception, has turned a longstanding, complex separatist conflict into a casus belli for a new cold war with Russia, ignoring not only the historical and political reasons for South Ossetia’s drive for independence from Georgia but also the responsibility of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the current crisis. So eager have commentators been to indict Vladimir Putin’s Russia that they have overlooked Washington’s contribution to the rising tensions.”

Indeed, the articles that explained Washington’s contribution—encouraging Georgian aggression against Russia, literally to the brink of war—were few and far between, although some did exist. In The Wall Street Journal, Marc Champion and Andrew Osborn wrote a deep examination of Russian-Georgian relations, concluding that, “both sides had been preparing for war for months, if not years. With the two historic enemies armed and convinced an attack could come at any time, all it needed was a trigger.” Still, that didn’t stop the United States from providing financial aid to Georgia’s military and continuing to push NATO membership for the country.

In The New York Times, Helene Cooper, C.J. Chivers, and Clifford Levy reminded readers that five months ago, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visited Washington to, “push for America to muscle his tiny country of four million into NATO,” something certain to deeply anger Russia. The reporters noted that, “At the White House, President Bush bantered with the Georgian president about his prowess as a dancer. Laura Bush, the first lady, took Mr. Saakashvili’s wife to lunch. Mr. Bush promised him to push hard for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO. After the meeting, Mr. Saakashvili pronounced his visit ‘one of the most successful visits during my presidency,’ and said he did not know of any other leader of a small country with the access to the administration that he had.” The in-depth story correctly assessed that the path leading to the current conflict was “one of miscalculation, missed signals and overreaching,” and that the United States “misread Russia’s determination to dominate its traditional sphere of influence.”

Such notable exceptions aside, journalistic transgressions were far more numerous. In one particularly egregious case of journalistic malpractice, The Washington Post editorial page allowed columnist Anne Applebaum to echo the administration line without mentioning the fact that she happens to be married to the Polish Foreign Minister. As the scholar Norman Birnbaum noted, “Foreign officials do occasionally state their views in the Post, by interview, letter, or opinion article—but these last are invariably signed.”

Of course, Applebaum’s hard line was the rule rather than the exception. It was almost as if the opportunity to take a cold war-style anti-Russian hard line came as a relief to many members of the punditocracy. For instance:

  • Max Boot, in The Los Angeles Times: “The Russian attacks on Georgia, if left unchecked, could easily trigger more conflict in the future. […] Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?”
  • The Wall Street Journal editorial board: Unless Russians see that there are costs for their Napoleon’s expansionism, Georgia isn’t likely to be his last stop.”
  • Robert Kagan, in The Washington Post: “Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama. […] The mood is reminiscent of Germany after World War I, when Germans complained about the ‘shameful Versailles diktat imposed on a prostrate Germany by the victorious powers and about the corrupt politicians who stabbed the nation in the back.”
  • Glenn Beck, on CNN “Headline News”: “I’ve been warning people for a while now that Russia is trying to corner the market. While everybody is saying, oh, they’re just waiting for us to lead the way on global warming. They’re going and they’re buying all of the carbon reserves that they can get their hands on. This is a play for the control of the globe in the long run, don’t you think?”

And what is to be done? The answer is always the same:

  • Bill Kristol, in The New York Times:“[Georgia] has had the third-largest military presence—about 2,000 troops—fighting along with U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty. Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of—and perhaps destabilizes all of—a friendly democratic nation.”
  • The Washington Times editorial board: “It is in America’s interest to exert maximum pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops and halt the interference in Georgian territory. This latest act shows the need for greater resolve in establishing a European security system that can be an effective check on Russian power.”
  • Bill O’Reilly, Fox News: “Putin is a real villain. Now, this is World War III on the horizon, ladies and gentlemen.”

What does it mean to exert “maximum pressure?” What is a “serious effort?” Six years into an apparently endless and counterproductive war in Iraq and another apparently going awry in Afghanistan, we might want to examine the fine print.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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