Georgia Is No Lamb, but Neither Are Journalists

by Joshua Foust on 10/27/2008 · 8 comments

Mark Ames—yes, the same guy who used to run the much-lamented Exilehas something to say about how the media covered the Russo-Georgian war of last August.

The real question, then, is why the Times waited until this late to question its own position–why wait until the war was long off the front pages, to publish an article about what everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiousity already knew–that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius?

The push in the West by outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a new cold war on hinged on two major fallacies: (1) that Russia invaded Georgia first, totally unprovoked, because Georgia is a “democracy”; and (2), that Georgia is a “democracy.”

It’s as if the Times deliberately forgot what it already reported about Saakashvili last year, after he sent in his goon squads to crush opposition protests.

This is being a little unfair to Georgia—they actually are a democracy, since Saakashvili did win his snap election fairly—but it gets at the building of narratives I’ve been tracking here. Indeed, one angle Ames misses in his desire to expose the New York Times‘ perfidy is the rise of citizen propaganda, in which regular people take to the Internet to push a spun version of events. News agencies don’t necessarily thrive in this environment, since it starts to call into question the very idea of reliability (which is another angle Ames forgot—or does he now suddenly see the U.S. Intelligence Community as a trustworthy source?), and sifting through the noise is damned difficult.

Which is why I cut CJ Chivers a bit more slack in his reporting than Ames does. Chivers, for one, is going after a story, and reporting what he can find. Ames, on the other hand, has the luxury of waiting two months before pronouncing judgment on Chivers’ inability to suss out who’s lying and who isn’t.

This is a different sort of media criticism. It’s one thing to note how a media narrative is slanted—hell, that’s a legit complaint, especially when the narrative is not your own. But it’s something else to complain that a story written skeptically just wasn’t skeptical enough, as if a reporter should (or could) know in advance which piece of information is unreliable. There is a reason journalism is often called “the first draft of history.”

But Ames’ larger point, about questioning the frameworks in which the news reports the world, is an absolutely god one to make. It’s one we make often, as well—the ways you frame events can drastically affect perception of those events. It’s as true for Georgia as it is for Afghanistan or Kazakhstan.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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James Schneider October 27, 2008 at 10:55 am

Be nice to the Exile, it’s a fun read and often well ahead of mainstream media. Gary Brecher is tasteless but actually a rather good analyst.

Joshua Foust October 27, 2008 at 11:08 am

Hey, I called the Exile “much lamented” for a reason. Not lamentable, I’m sad it can’t be published in Russia any more. The War Nerd is fun to read, but a lot of times he gets WAY ahead of himself. Which is still fun to read 🙂 And I actually like Mark Ames, and Matt Taibi (or however you spell it) can be really damned entertaining as well.

rod October 27, 2008 at 11:43 pm

Georgia’s a democracy?


Chris Merriman October 28, 2008 at 5:25 am

oyun 112 site seems to be spamming every post going – any chance of an IP ban/url entered in comments section ban?

Nathan October 28, 2008 at 5:45 am

Chris, thanks for the reminder. The spam system seemed to not let me block those comments, but I think I may have convinced it to be a bit more cooperative.

Chris Merriman October 28, 2008 at 7:55 am

Thanks for the speedy response, and apologies for taking this comment thread off topic for a moment…

a October 30, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Actually, CJ Chivers was the best reporter at South Ossetian war bar none. If you read through the lines of his reports you can see his clear disgust with Saakashivili and disbelief at Saakashvili’s claims.

Do a google News search for his reports and you will see that. Writing about Saakashvili on Aug 14th:
“Last fall, he deployed riot police with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons against unarmed demonstrators. He also used his police to destroy an opposition television station, which went off the air as masked officers stormed it. His critics say that while he is an unwavering American ally, his record as a democrat was long ago checkered.

For his part, Mr. Saakashvili was characteristically undeterred. He was asked Wednesday night whether if he could turn back the clock to late last week, when he said he received signs of Russian troops moving to the border, he would order an attack again.

“Absolutely,” he said, and couched the answer in terms of his own political survival. “We have an obligation to react to it. Any Georgian government that wouldn’t have reacted to it would have fallen instantly.”

I suspect that the bias was editorial. Otherwise how to explain that more and more space was devoted to others, less than straight, reporters, or that was Chivers suddenly stopped reporting on South Ossetia on Aug 17th, in the middle of the conflict.

Joshua Foust October 31, 2008 at 4:44 am

If you’re saying Chivers is a really good reporter, then I agree with you. If you’re saying that one report he wrote about hearsay and rumors in the Georgian War was a really good report, then I’d say it wasn’t his best.

But anyway, there’s a good reason I’m defending him against Ames’ criticisms. They’re unfair.

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