The Meta-War in Georgia, One Year On

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by Joshua Foust on 8/18/2009 · 3 comments

I have a new article in the Columbia Journalism Review today, looking at how the media is covering the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War of last year. A brief snippet:

That doesn’t mean the meta-war over Georgia and Russia has ended. It is to say that Georgia has a big advantage in the English-language press (in Russian, obviously, their fortunes are reversed). We still have right-wingers decrying heartless Russian aggression. There are scattered stories here and there that Russia is not, in fact, the genesis of all evil in the Caucasus, but they get buried by news about America’s wars. There are Russian news agencies trying to get the word out, but would any red-blooded American trust the pages of the Moscow News to give them the truth about the topic? Meanwhile, the op-ed pages are oddly silent about Georgia’s own role to play in the conflict, and the arrogance with which President Saakashvili assumed America would ride to the rescue when Russia inevitably pushed back against his strike into Tskhinvali.

Comments, as always, are much appreciated.

Photo: Tblisi, from flickr user Maykal.

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– 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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anand August 18, 2009 at 1:10 pm

I am more concerned about winning the war against global Takfiri extremist networks which includes their branches in Pakistan and Afghanistan, than I am in fighting Russia over Georgia. Does this make me a bad person?

Russia could help significantly in Afghanistan, including with respect to CSTC-A and actually paying some ANSF bills. The Haqqani Network, Punjabi Taliban and Quetta Shura Taliban pose an arguably bigger threat to the Russian homeland than to the American homeland. So lets not let the Russians free ride any more, but bring them into CSTC-A. {Afghans don’t want Russian combat troops for obvious reasons.}

I feel really sorry for the Georgians, and sure we should give them economic aid and try to speak to the Russians “AS RUSSIAN FRIENDS WHO ALSO HAPPEN TO BE FRIENDS OF GEORGIA.” But we can’t fight Russia for Georgia.

Hope this isn’t too off topic.

Cynic August 18, 2009 at 1:23 pm


I guess I’d comment that, for the most part, coverage of foreign affairs tends to be a zero-sum game. There’s not much space devoted to it, and not many reporters left practicing it. A good deal of any story needs to be devoted to giving readers the background necessary to understand a part of the world about which they know relatively little. And most won’t read the thing at all unless it presents a clear narrative.
So it’s not uncommon to find, particularly in coverage of less prominent parts of the world, a good vs. bad narrative. Or, to put it a little differently, we tend to project our own conflicts on to the fights in which others are engaged. I don’t think this is unique to Georgia. I don’t expect newspaper stories to say, in essence: “We’re not exactly sure what just happened, the evidence is somewhat contradictory, both sides share responsibility for the conflict, and neither side is particularly pleasant.” Chivers’ coverage is, considering this, remarkable for its complexity.
The other thing I’d point out is that, as a piece of media criticism, your article oddly conflates classic reportage with opinion journalism. The best coverage I saw of the conflict was written by veteran foreign correspondents, there on the ground. The most outrageous distortions were penned by opinion journalists, back here in the States. That strikes me as a very significant distinction. Even the confrontation of Tskhovrebova, by a reporter, took place in Washington, not in South Ossetia. (I actually think that there are some very reasonable questions to be asked about her independence, but agree that the AP did a poor job of it.)
When you write that the Times’ “coverage is incoherent when viewed as a whole,” I’d have to agree. But that’s because its reported coverage has been superb, while its opinion pieces have not. Incoherent? Well, yes, but the same charge could be leveled against most categories of coverage. The two sides aren’t intended to cohere – they function entirely separately, reporting up to different editors. That’s the whole point of editorial independence – and the fact that the Times’ foreign correspondents feel completely free to disagree with the paper’s stated editorial line suggests that it works.
My own critique would largely align with yours, with this important exception. I think that the conflict over Georgia laid bare the dangers of so many newspapers shutting down their foreign bureaus. To a disturbing extent, Americans learned about the conflict from op-eds and opinion journals, and not from reported content. Too many talking heads on the cable news, and too few eyewitnesses. Whenever that happens, one side will shout loudest, and we’ll lose the big picture.

Joshua Foust August 18, 2009 at 2:15 pm


That’s a powerful point, and one I tried to say but didn’t actually spell out explicitly.

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