A Hall of Mirrors
MEDIA, 22 Aug 2022
19 Aug 2022 – I have long wondered whether our mainstream journalists, correspondents and commentators get dressed each morning in the same locker room, so similarly do they account for things. This has been especially so in the case of the Ukraine crisis, which is quite understandable: Keeping readers and viewers a safe distance from reality is a touchy matter. One slip and the shroud shreds.
The conflict in Ukraine is now “a brutal, years-long war of attrition,” Simon Tisdall, a Guardian columnist, told us the other day, keeping his count of “brutals” up to speed. “A grinding war of attrition,” as Tom Friedman and countless others have it. “A grinding slog,” says Helene Cooper, who, as a colleague of Friedman at The New York Times, is stuck in Washington quoting spooks, defense department officials, think tank inhabitants, and scholars who know which side of an orthodoxy it is best to stand on.
A lot of grinding and a lot of attriting, we are given to believe. Where are the cliché police now that we really need them? Have we defunded the wrong cops?
I am more certain with each passing day that this “grinding war” stuff is now an optimistic picture. The Kyiv regime should be so lucky as to grind and attrite with the Russians, given the ever more evident course of the war in the latter’s favor.
A grinding war of attrition is in any case a long way from the early accounts of a vigorous Ukrainian force on the way to clear victory. But we are not supposed to remember that far back. Let us settle now for grinding and attriting—it’s better’n nuthin.’
Daniel Boorstin, the bow-tied University of Chicago historian, got this business right 60 years ago, when he published The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream, an unjustly neglected book. “The reporter’s task,” he wrote, “is to find a way of weaving these threads of unreality into a fabric that the reader will not recognize as entirely unreal.”
O, Danny Boy, the foreign editors, the foreign editors are calling, from glen to glen, and down the mountainside….
It is grinding on my nerves each morning to read correspondents covering Ukraine from the distance they unwisely accept as they execute “the reporter’s task” as Boorstin so handily defined it. A couple of pieces out of the very many exemplify the difficulty.
We still read daily that the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia on the east side of the Dnipro River, “is being shelled,” the passive voice absolutely necessary to avoid stating the raw, perfectly clear truth that Ukrainian forces on the opposite bank are shelling it. Volodymyr Zelensky finally came out with this the other day, stating the obvious in a video published in The Guardian.
Andrew Kramer and Andrew Higgins, Times correspondents in Ukraine, are in a tough spot in this regard. They had a Zaporizhzhia dateline the other day but could not say in plain-spoken English what is going on there.
“Over the weekend,” they reported, “Russia used territory around the nuclear power station, which it seized from Ukraine in March, as a staging ground for attacks on Ukrainian positions.” O.K. This is the standard line from Kyiv: The Russians are not guarding the plant, as they have these past months: They are cynically using it as cover.
The next paragraph begins: “The intensifying battles around the power plant, which have sent residents in the area fleeing and stirred alarm of a radiation risk far beyond Ukraine…”
Hmmm. Battles around the plant mean Ukrainians must be shelling it, because Ukrainian troops are not on the east side of the river. So did Kramer and Higgins get themselves twisted into pretzels executing the reporter’s task.
A little more from these guys. The first bit repeats the Guardian video:
“In a Saturday night address to his country, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Moscow of ‘nuclear blackmail’ and warned Russian soldiers at the Zaporizhzhia plant that they had become ‘a special target’ for Ukraine’s special services and military.
“But the Ukrainian military has said it has limited options. It worries that if its forces fire back at the Russians, they might hit the sprawling Zaporizhzhia facility, the first active nuclear power plant in a combat zone.
“As the fighting rages near active reactors and stored nuclear waste…”
Jiminy Cricket, you two. Will you just tell us what is going on, please? Ukrainian forces are shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant, but they can’t shell the Zaporizhzhia plant, but there is shelling all around the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Memo to The Times foreign desk: I would counsel two years in the Trenton bureau for Kramer and Higgins, except that I assume they are executing the reporter’s task just as they are supposed to do.
Let us go briefly to the work of Michael Schwirtz, a Timesman (funny old expression) reporting in Monday’s editions from the southern front, with a Mykolaiv Region dateline. This is a correspondent with a real problem. Schwirtz has to report on the vaunted “counteroffensive” as if it is still on when it is simply beyond the Ukrainians’ capacities. He has to tell us the Ukrainians are holding their side up and making advances in the grinding and attriting way when they are radically outnumbered, outgunned, out-supplied and out–pretty much everything else.
“In their summer campaign to drive Russian troops from the southern region of Kherson,” Schwirtz writes in his lead, “Ukraine’s forces have decimated Russian command centers and ammunition depots, severed supply lines with precision strikes on key bridges, and sown terror among collaborationist officials with a spate of car bombings, shootings and, Ukrainian officials say, at least one poisoning.”
Wow. Decimating and severing. Sounds dire for the Russkies, even if Schwirtz is quoting Ukrainian propaganda without saying so.
I have to add here that Schwirtz’s use of the term “collaborationist” is stunningly disgraceful, with its shabby, undertoned reference to French traitors during the Vichy years of World War II. Get out of my face, Michael. You do not use such language cavalierly and expect your readers’ respect. This puts you up there with your colleague Carlotta Gall and her reference to Russian detention centers as “penal colonies.” Even crapola has its limits, you know.
Sowing terror, to clear the air in a way I should not have to do, is a reference to extrajudicial murders—to the Ukrainians’ practice since the start of the war of assassinating perfectly upright mayors, local bureaucrats, and others in the eastern provinces who favor such terrible things as a negotiated settlement of this conflict. You have named this well, Mr. Schwirtz. It is terror. But shame on you with your “collaborationist officials.”
Wednesday’s editions of The Times solve my riddle for me: I am now certain Michael Schwirtz and Andrew Kramer indeed get dressed in the same locker room each morning. In “Behind Enemy Lines, Ukrainians Tell Russians ‘You Are Not Safe,’” the latter describes those executing “collaborators” as “partisans,” and these partisans are part of the Ukrainian “resistance.”
This profligate use of language for its subliminal associations is getting out of hand. These two correspondents invite us to think of Ukrainian assassins and terrorists the way we think about the courageous Maquisards who resisted the Nazis in the French countryside and Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. How offensively dishonorable can you two get? No wonder I have to look at all these blue-and-yellow flags flying here and there all over my village.
It turns out that Kramer recently interviewed one of these partisans “over lemonade and cheese pastries.” His nom de guerre is Svarog, after a Slavic god given to burning things. And who is Svarog? He trained with Right Sektor and the Azov Battalion, so he is a neo-Nazi, and I have long wondered in these kinds of cases whether we need the “neo.” It was in Mr. Kramer’s newspaper, and in many other places, that I used to read about the Nazi identities of these gtroups, but again, I am not supposed to remember this. Kramer leaves it unmentioned.
Svarog recounts, among other things, “using car bombs, booby traps, and targeted killings with pistols” as he and his partisans carry out their extrajudicial murders. Holy mackerel there, Andy. You have a neo-Nazi down as a partisan when the partisans we honor for their courage fought the original Nazis? Mr. Orwell, please call your office.
Back to Swirtz. In his very next paragraph, he starts with the pretzel-like prose: The Ukrainians doing the decimating in fact “remain pinned down in their trenches.” Those severed supply lines are not actually severed. We then read of “Moscow’s overwhelming advantage in artillery, ammunition and heavy weaponry, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Ukrainian forces to press forward without suffering enormous casualties.”
If not impossible: nicely slipped in.
The entire piece reads like this. Schwirtz, like Kramer and Higgins, gives it to us every which way. The Ukrainians are on the move, the Ukrainians are in a hopeless circumstance. A counteroffensive is coming except that it simply isn’t. The net effect, and I am convinced this is the intent, is that we do not get it any way at all. This is the reporter’s task in Ukraine.
There is an endless inventory of this stuff. I mention these two pieces only in part because they are such poor journalism. My larger point goes to the serious consequences attached to the dissemination of reporting that misleads the reading public in this fashion.
Everyone remembers the run-up to the Iraq invasion in March 2003, notably the reporting, first in The Times and then everywhere else, about the weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. We are in the middle of a repeat performance.
Misleading reports of the kind just glossed are key to sustaining public support for this conflict, and so key to sustaining the conflict itself. Let us not be mistaken. What we are reading in our press each day is more than merely the follies of correspondents who will apparently do anything to be a “Timesman.” These people are culpable as this crisis goes destructively, murderously on and as the Kyiv regime refuses negotiations with the confidence we all have blue-and-yellow flags waving off our front porches.
To turn this thought another way, this kind of reporting serves to block our view of reality. While we are urged to think about the grinding and attriting, all sorts of things are under consideration behind the unreality in which we are confined.
The aforementioned Simon Tisdall is a longtime editor and foreign affairs commentator at The Guardian. Last week he published a column that turned many heads. His theme was that the West has been “other than heroic” in refraining from a full-dress, active-duty, on-the-ground, and in-the-air intervention on behalf of the Kyiv regime.
Tisdall thinks the war aims President Biden laid out in Warsaw last March—“to repulse Russia’s invasion, restore national sovereignty and score a victory for global democracy over ‘the forces of darkness’”—were kites in the breeze from the first. At this point there is but one thing left to do. Over to you, Mr. Tisdall:
“Perhaps an exasperated, emotional Biden unintentionally hit on the best idea when he concluded his Warsaw speech with an ad lib about Putin, addressed to Russians as much as anyone else. ‘For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,’ he growled.
Biden’s right. Putin is a foul ogre, a war criminal, a monstrous throwback from a bygone age.[…]
With him gone, the crisis he single-handedly engineered would not disappear—but would be more easily resolved. In fact, this may be Ukrainians’ (and Russians’) only hope of a happy ending.
Get Putin. Take him down. Lock him up. That’s a strategic aim all could and should energetically pursue.”
“Get Putin.” The guy’s a stylist, you have to give him this.
I take some comfort from my surmise that Simon Tisdall serves merely as entertainment for the warmongering, Guardian-reading wing at the right-hand end of the Labour Party and has little say or place among Britain’s powerful. But in this case I read this column as a mirror, useful for what it reflects back to us.
In this mirror I detect that, never mind what ordinary folk such as ourselves are left to think, in those circles people such as Tisdall aspire to be part of, it is now more or less accepted that Kyiv and its incautious backers in the West are on the way to defeat. I detect, in short, the beginning of panic.
“Nearly six months into the war,” Tisdall writes, “the widening gap between rhetoric and reality grows potentially fatal.” He is perfectly right about this. And his implicit question is the right one, too: Now what? We’re losing this one. Now what do we do?
Taking Putin out—God, how I detest this locution—is as foolhardy as the West’s initial decision to get this war going. This is what I mean in describing Tisdall as an entertainer. He’s good fun for the neoliberal warmongers and Russophobes.
But, looking again in the mirror and behind the grinding and attriting shroud of mainstream reporting, we appear to be on notice. As the walls fall and the end draws near, serious thought is being given to escalation, to drawing the NATO alliance more directly into the conflict.
If Washington and its allies choose this path rather than urging Kyiv to the negotiating table, and I see a good chance of this, Andrew Kramer, Andrew Higgins, Michael Schwirtz, and all their colleagues will have done their part to make such a decision possible—to make the senseless appear sensible to the reading public. They are the WMD reporters of our time, dangerous illusions every day.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century. Website: Patrick Lawrence. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.
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