When you spend a lot of time, as I do, following the Byzantine goings on in Russia, if you do it long enough, you get to a point where you feel that nothing can surprise you. If the nation’s leader comes to the UN and takes off his shoe, or if the people vote by landslide to hand power to a proud KGB spy, you hardly raise an eyebrow.
But one thing every seasoned Russia watcher knows is that no matter how shocking things may be today, the country has surprises in store for you tomorrow. That may be one of the reasons why we stay in the game.
And so, cynic that I am, I admit to being caught unawares by a recent piece in Time magazine, that Technicolor standard bearer of the MSM, by one of the magazine’s “senior editors” named Tony Karon. Karon also operates an eponymous blog subtitled “Rootless Cosmopolitan.” Entitled “Putin’s Reaganesque Victory,” the Time piece claimed to have discovered many important similarities between former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Here’s what Karon says about himself on his blog:
I’ve worked [at Time since 1997], covering the Middle East, the “war on terror” and international issues ranging from China’s emergence to the Balkans. I also do occasional op-eds for Haaretz and other publications, as well as bits of TV and radio punditry for CNN, MSNBC, and various NPR shows. I did an ever-so-brief stint at Fox News (measured in months, I swear!) and worked at George magazine in its startup year. Having majored in economic history, I cut my analytical teeth in South Africa in the struggle years, where I worked both as an editor in the “alternative” press and as an activist of the banned ANC. And in that context, my obsession with understanding global events took root, as a means of contextualizing the choices and obstacles we faced in the struggle against apartheid.
I don’t think I’m overstating things a bit when I say that there isn’t a single word to be found in his personal statement indicating the slightest expertise in Russia, and considerable reason to suppose he may have an undisclosed ideological axe to grind. He seems quite ashamed, for instance, to have been associated with FOX News (but his Time biography says “previously, Karon was the Deputy Editor of Foxnews.com, the website for the Fox News Channel,” seeming to indicate he’s a valuable token conservative). On his blog, he published a guest writer (a Princeton computer science professor, of all things) trashing the idea of real friendship between George Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy. He himself writes: “Fareed Zakaria deserves a medal for breaking with the mainstream media pack to slap down, with the requisite rudeness, the hysteria over Iran being manufactured by the neocons, opportunist Israeli politicians and the Bush Administration.” On a website called “Commons Dreams: News for the Progressive Community” (it’s noteworthy that Time itself offers readers no such disclaimer) he writes the following about China: “It’s hardly surprising Beijing hasn’t rushed to hand over a U.S. spy plane and its 24-man crew involved in a mid-air collision with a Chinese air force fighter on Sunday. To understand why, flip the script for a moment: Imagine a Chinese plane flying a surveillance mission off the Florida coast colliding with an Air Force F-16 sent on an aggressive monitoring mission.” And he praises Vladimir Putin for seeking to block George Bush’s planned installation of a defensive missile system in Europe, stating:
The current president wants act out the fantasy of every college-age Reaganaut of the 1980s, who believes the Soviet Union collapsed because Reagan threatened to build a missile shield and made speeches demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. And it tells you how bad things have gotten with U.S. unilateralism that Vladimir Putin, almost as nasty a piece of work as Dick Cheney, can show himself to be more adept at diplomacy than his counterpart in Washington.
That’s right, folks: Dick Cheney is worse than Vladimir Putin, who’s no different from Ronald Reagan. And that’s Time magazine! Do you dare to imagine what they might be saying in Mother Jones or over at the New York Times?
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I don’t have any problem with ferocious editorializing, as long as the writer lays his cards on the table and is qualified to speak. I write plenty of criticism of Russia here, but the link to my name doesn’t refer to me as a “senior editor” of this publication. It says I publish the Russia blog La Russophobe, and if you click that link you’ll find all you need to know and more about my perspective. I write only about Russia, I don’t dabble in it from Time to Time. There’s no link to “Rootless Cosmopolitan” in Karon’s piece nor in his Time biography, nor any mention of his frenzied, rabid ideological partisanship. From the appearances, most readers would probably assume the opposite, that he’s a seasoned Russia correspondent who’s now a buttoned-down editor of a major American weekly.
Appearances can indeed be deceiving. If one were a cynic, he might even say they tell lies. Worryingly, for instance, the blogger at Elements of Power finds fault with Karon’s coverage of the Middle East, and states: “Mr. Karon has a long history of either ignorance or willful misrepresentation” regarding UN Resolution 242.
Despite the fact that his blog statement makes no mention of Russia credentials, Karon’s Time biography does state that he has “extensively covered post-communist Russia.” Well, in a 2001 article he opined that Russians were better off under Soviet dictatorship. He wrote: “Freedom and democracy were supposed to improve the lives of communism’s huddled masses; instead most Russians today are considerably worse off than they had been under the red flag.” That’s the only article about Russia you get by searching “Karon Russia” in Time’s engine, which covers the past six years. I poked around on Time’s website and found another one, from May of last year, in which Karon explained “why Russia pushes back at the U.S.,” seemingly with admiration at Russia’s boldly standing up to the American Great Satan. In October of this year, he penned a piece in which he sought to explain why Vladimir Putin made the first state visit by a Russian ruler to Iran since Josef Stalin. In it, he explained all the reasons Putin had to be “hopping mad with Washington,” seeming to revel in Putin’s attmpting to harrass the United States and undermine our security. Repeating his theme, as if speaking for the Kremlin, he wrote that the Kremlin “is pushing back against the U.S. because it sees Washington’s power as having been used to decimate Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet territories it considers its backyard.”
In the May piece, Karon wrote breathlessly: “Putin is running a booming oil state.” Booming? Throughout Putin’s terms in office Russia’s working-age population and male adult lifespan have steadily declined. Throughout that period, Rusians have worked for an average wage of less than $3 per hour, and they’ve had a per capita GDP that is a tiny fraction of what is put forth by the developed nations of the West. The infusion of oil capital, as the blog Fistful of Euros has explained, is fueling a horrifying inflation crisis that has recently forced Putin to implement draconian Soviet-style price fixing.
There’s no indication that Karon has ever spent any significant amount of time living in Russia, or that he speaks the language, or that anyone has ever recognized him to have any expertise in the subject, or that he’s spent any appreciable amount of time studying it. Nobody whose spent time at ground zero in Russia outside of the capital can claim to have visited a “booming” economy. To me, it looks to all the world like Karon has never done so. If he actually has, and is covering up the basic facts he’s seen, then he would take on the appearance of a Walter Duranty.
Of course, ideological bias, inexperience and even irrelevance is not dispositive, not if the writer’s ultimate work product is factual and cogent (although one might hope for some warning of ideological bias from the publisher), and each new essay should be judged on its own merits. So the main question is: What basis does Mr. Karon have for equating Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, accused of murdering and jailing his political adversaries, with America’s most popular post-war president and the former governor of its largest state?
I’ve scoured all 785 of his words on the subject, and my conclusion is: There isn’t any.
Karon’s main thesis seems to be: “In the sense that he has made Russians feel good once again about their country, his appeal is Reaganesque.”
At the risk of seeming harsh, there is only one word I can use to describe this thesis, that that word is: “lie.” It is an absurd fantasy to suggest that Russians “feel good” about their country, to me it sounds like a statement coming from another planet. Russian men don’t live to see their sixtieth year. Russians work for slave wages, and they lead the world in murder, death by fire, alcoholism, suicide and divorce. It’s a miserable, wretched, unhappy country, and nobody can spend five minutes there without feeling that fact in their bones. The only thing that can be said in Russia’s defense in this regard is that some people like Dostoevskian bleakness, the way some people like to be tied up and whipped.
But Karon’s statement may not quite be lie, not if you read him to be saying that although Russians think they feel good, they’re just inhaling toxic fumes of propaganda spewed out by the Putin machine. His implication would be, then, that this is the same reason Americans liked Ronald Reagan. They were very unhappy while he ruled, but they didn’t know it. Viewed that way, his statements would be just be an expression of his opinion.
There’s just one small problem with that line of rationalization: Karon never actually says it. He just says: “Reagan managed, almost as soon as he took office, to convince the public that a new ‘morning in America’ had broken, by getting tough with U.S. adversaries on the global stage.” Maybe this implies that America didn’t really have any enemies, but since Reagan couldn’t really solve any of America’s problems, he made some up and attacked them. If so, Karon either lacks the courage to say so directly or prefers to appeal to a wider readership through the subtle arts of what can only be called propaganda.
To justify Time publishing such a thing would require that his editors would have “understood” that’s what he meant, hence justifying what would otherwise appear to be a lie — and they felt no obligation to explain any of this to their readers, who they believed could figure it out easily for themselves. Such an analysis, if correct, would make the Karon’s piece as Byzantine as Russia itself, and at least in that respect would indeed shed useful illumination on the country.
Let’s be clear for the record, because Karon certainly wasn’t: Ronald Reagan didn’t rig elections, Vladimir Putin did (reading Karon, it’s hard not to conclude he thinks the only difference between Reagan and Putin is that Reagan managed not to get caught by being more subtle). Reagan didn’t preside over the ejection of the Democratic Party from the U.S. Congress, but Putin did just purge all the real opposition parties from the Russian Duma. While Reagan governed, the House of Representatives was controlled by his adversaries. Putin has never done that. Reagan’s party had repeatedly handed power to their adversaries in the past. Putin’s has never done that once.
In the piece, Karon rationalizes Putin’s massive electoral fraud rather than attacking it. He states: “While the margin of its victory might have been a lot narrower, few doubt that [Putin] would easily have won even if the election had been free and fair.” Dare we guess whether he would adopt this same logic in regard to an electoral win by George Bush or Ronald Reagan?
It seems that Karon views Reagan’s standing up to the Evil Empire in the USSR as being no different from Putin “standing up” to the Evil Empire that is the United States, and Time sees nothing wrong with presenting these views in the guise of journalism (if you click on Karon’s byline in the article, not only don’t you find out about his blog but all you get is the chance to write a letter to the editor).
How can somebody who hates America this much, taking the side of our enemies (like Russia, China and Iran) and the enemies of democracy, possibly even write for Time, much less be a “senior editor” who controls the writing of others, without disclosing his bias? To be sure, it’s a sign of America’s strength that such a thing is possible, whereas in Russia for instance it is unthinkable. (In fact, Russia doesn’t even allow a publication of Time‘s stature to exist, since that would create a competing center of power.) But is it good journalism? Is it really likely to help lead us to a more enlightened understanding of Russia and a greater ability to advance Amerian interests?
Or does Time have some other agenda in mind than that?
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the PJ Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.