The New York Times on Moldova: Twits, Not Tweets

On April 7, the New York Times ran a story titled "Protests in Moldova Explode, with Help of Twitter." It claimed that "a crowd of more than 10,000 young Moldovans" had "materialized seemingly out of nowhere" to protest against the reelection of a Communist government "by enlisting text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network." The Times breathlessly announced that the protesters had created "their own searchable tag on Twitter, rallying Moldovans to join and propelling events in this small former Soviet state onto a Twitter list of newly popular topics, so people around the world could keep track."

It was a surprising story, given that Moldova doesn't rank in the top 120 nations of the world for per capita GDP. The economy is so weak that one quarter of the nation's workforce is employed abroad, and the local population relies heavily on their remittances. Though it has over 4 million citizens, only 700,000 of them are identified as Internet users (in other words, roughly 85% of the population goes nowhere near cyberspace), the same number of webheads as there are in El Salvador. An average Moldovan earns less than $150 per month, which translates into an hourly wage of 93 cents for full-time employment. In light of this, one might have thought Moldovans might be more interested in a Twix than a Twitter. But there wasn't a single word challenging the notion of a Twitterized revolution in the Times report, so readers could rest assured the paper had vetted the claim and confirmed it beyond cavil.

Except that it hadn't. The very next day, writing on the Frontline Club website, PhD student Daniel Bennett exposed the real facts, commenting, "Not many of the people who have actually written these and similar articles have bothered to find some tweets that might hint at some kind of organizational role for Twitter." Not the New York Times, anyway. It turns out that hardly anyone in Moldova is registered on Twitter. Tweets could not have been posted from the main public square where the protests took place because there was no cell phone reception there. One of the main organizers of the rally, internationally known journalist Natalia Morar, explained on her Russian-language blog that emails and SMS cell phone messages brought out the protesters. Perhaps the Times reporter didn't speak Russian.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Writing in the Washington Post on April 21, Anne Applebaum, a well-known expert on post-Soviet space, asserted that most of the dramatic actions taken by the protesters in the central square -- events that were feverishly reported by the Times as "stop-the-presses" sensations -- including the lighting of a huge bonfire and the placing of a Romanian flag on top of the Moldovan parliament building were a sham. Applebaum says that "some of the most violent demonstrators were immediately identified by Western observers and local politicians as members of the Moldovan security services." The purpose of their actions was to discredit the protesters as traitors to Moldova who wanted to hand over the nation to the Romanians. Russia, which has its own designs on Moldova and works tirelessly to co-opt the Communist regime, was delighted. "President" Dmitri Medvedev called the protests "pretextual mass disorder" and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called them "pogrom makers."

To date, the Times has not updated its "story."

Let's be clear: This perversion of the news was not caused by mere negligence. The result was entirely self-serving for the Times, which got the chance to plug the magic buzzword "Twitter" into its headline, increase its hip factor, and drive search traffic to its website, thereby increasing ad revenue. As the paper becomes ever more desperate for revenue, readers must be constantly on guard for such possibilities.

I recently had my own disturbing experience with Times reporting about Russia, an experience that leads me to believe no reader can rely on anything the paper prints on this subject.

On April 9, a Times editorial reported: "On March 31, three people beat Lev Ponomarev, a 67-year-old human rights activist, outside his home. A month earlier, Mr. Ponomarev's passport had been revoked and he was charged with slander for statements he made in the United States about human rights abuses in Russia." This information surprised me because I follow Ponomarev on my Russia blog La Russophobe and I'd heard nothing about it. I searched the Times archives and could find no such report. I Googled and still remained unsatisfied. I wrote to my friend and fellow Russia blogger Robert Amsterdam, the lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is in regular contact with Ponomarev as well as many other leading human rights defenders around the world. He'd heard nothing about it either.

So I wrote to the Times to ask for clarification. I wrote to the letters page, the opinion page, the opinion page editor (twice, once to his e-mail and once to a forum he was hosting at the time), and the public editor. Not only did I ask for the source of this report, I suggested that in the future the paper consider publishing hyperlinks in its editorials to its sources, a practice that would have instantly resolved my dilemma.

None of them replied with anything more than an automated response. To date, I've still heard nothing. It seems the Times is too busy searching for ways to avoid going bankrupt.