Thursday, February 26, 2015

House of Conquests

“The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
—Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances, December 1994

“There was an element of sleep-walking into the Ukraine crisis, and EU institutions and Member States did not see it coming. The Committee found that the absence of political oversight was glaring.”
—British Parliament Lords Select Committee report, February 20

Fifteen years ago I decided to add a weekly commentary to my movie blog. My very first effort consisted of my impressions of the recently telecast Academy Awards. In hindsight, my teaser for the piece seems strangely prescient. It read, Kevin Spacey and Vladimir Putin—separated at birth?.

That referred to the fact that, a couple of days after the Oscars, all the UK and Irish tabloids on the newsstands were featuring large photos of either Kevin Spacey or Vladimir Putin. Spacey was there because he had just won the Oscar for Best Actor for American Beauty. Putin too was a winner. Having become acting president of Russia three months earlier on the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, he had just been elected to the job in his own right. As you may have noticed, he’s been at the top of the Russian government ever since.

“And I couldn’t tell which was which!” I wrote, noting a bit of a passing physical resemblance between the two.

These days Spacey is best known for playing the fictional American politician Francis Underwood on the Netflix series House of Cards. Hungry for power, Underwood schemes and manipulates and even resorts to murder until he finally becomes president of his country. By contrast, Vladimir Putin is… not fictional.

So who did Putin kill to get his job? No one, as far as we know. But relentless Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens has been doing his best to connect the dots, as he did earlier this week in a piece called Staring Back at Putin (may be behind a paywall). He recounts a story that could easily be fodder for another compelling Netflix series.

In 1999 a series of apartment building and mall bombings in Moscow, Volgoddonsk and Dagestan killed nearly 300 Russians. An anonymous caller claimed responsibility for the Liberation Army of Dagestan, a group that was never heard of before or since. Outrage over this resulted in a new war in Chechnya and a major boost to the popularity of Putin, who was then Yeltsin’s premier, and ensured that he would not be relegated to obscurity like his predecessors in the job. In fact, it was so convenient that some made the accusation that the bombings were actually orchestrated by the Federal Security Service, successor the KGB and which was headed by Premier Putin.

One of those making the accusation was someone plausibly in a position to know. Alexander Litvinenko was one of several FSB officers who blew the whistle on superiors who had ordered the murder of the tycoon Boris Berezovsky. After subsequently being arrested twice, he fled with his family to London where he received asylum. There he wrote two books accusing the FSB of the apartment bombings and other terrorist acts. In October 2006 he claimed Putin ordered the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Shortly after that, he fell ill with radioactive poisoning and died on November 23. As followed by British investigators, the radioactive trail led to a former KGB bodyguard, who was subsequently elected to the Russian Duma and thus became immune from extradition.

Given that showing aggressive strength in support of Russia’s perceived interests brought him to power and has kept him there, it is no wonder that Putin did not hesitate to annex Crimea and support separatists in eastern Ukraine. He must be having a good laugh as Angela Merkel and François Hollande keep negotiating ceasefires and his proxies keep gathering more territory. And he probably has an even better laugh when Barack Obama mocks him for being so 19th century and points out that low oil prices are a drag on his economy. There is no sign of any Western leader understanding very well who Putin is or what motivates him.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare in the Western press Putin has signed agreements with separatists in preparation for the annexation of the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Feeling a bit nervous, the Baltic state of Lithuania announced on Tuesday that it was bringing back military conscription—just in case.

President Obama’s insistence that Putin is the real loser, as the Russian continues to grab up territory and intimidate his neighbors, is not very reassuring. It also just underscores that Bill Clinton’s signature was not worth very much when he signed the Budapest Memorandums (quoted above) in 1994, promising support for Ukraine’s independence in exchange for it giving up its defensive nuclear weapons. Things have definitely changed since those days.

Now U.S. administration spokespeople speak of historical spheres of influence, implying that Russia has some right to compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty. That kind of talk bolsters the impression that the president feels that aggressively standing up for the rights of Russia’s neighbors to determine their own destinies would somehow make him no better or different than Putin.

The fact is that not standing up for those countries’ rights is what would make the U.S., at least in moral terms, complicit in what Putin is doing.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Life of Brian

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
—Albert Einstein

A lot of people are now asking, can Brian Williams be trusted to deliver our news?

Some people are asking that rhetorically. Those people are mainly in the media business. People who are asking the question for real are probably mostly pretty old. Younger people are probably asking, who is Brian Williams? Or maybe they are asking, why does anyone watch Brian Williams or any of those TV network evening anchors?

Williams’s story is pretty stunning. I do not mean that it is stunning that his original (apparently accurate) account of a helicopter coming under RPG fire in Iraq in 2003 morphed into a version in which he himself was on the helicopter. I have friends whose stories, the more they tell them, “improve” like that all the time. I have probably done it myself. Williams’s story seems to have improved when he was asked about it on the air by David Letterman, and that’s the version that got repeated until he retold it in front of the wrong people (soldiers who were actually there) last week at a public tribute at a hockey match.

What is interesting is how the sweetened story was repeated for years without being questioned or corrected by any of Williams’s colleagues, editors, fact checkers or any other members of the team that is supposedly in the business of delivering accurate information. What’s illuminating is the way his “apology” was couched in the kind of evasive language and deflection that would have done any political spin doctor proud. No wonder it is so easy for the Jay Carneys of the world to transition so effortlessly from being a Time correspondent to a White House flack to a CNN pundit.

The Williams incident says tons about the TV news business. These days information is free and freely available. To the extent that old-style news readers like Williams add value, what they provide is their brand. There is a macho value system that requires anchors to head into the story they are covering. And, in war situations particularly, the story often becomes about them. If a reporter is endangered or injured during war, it inevitably gets more attention on the news shows than if it had happened to any individual soldier.

The reality is that, if you are relying mainly on the evening news broadcast for your information, you are not getting very much. If you subtract commercial breaks, that leaves about 22 minutes—at least half of which, in my experience anyway, is soft feature material. And the few minutes that you do get of hard news is largely superficial and, frankly, skewed.

So should Williams be fired?

A decade or two ago he probably would have been. (That’s assuming that his exaggeration would even have become widely known when there were not so many social media and internet news sources to spread and highlight it.) Back then a network news division’s credibility was its bread and butter. These days that seems less important. Viewers seem more interested in having their own pre-existing views affirmed than in learning something new.

Personally, I think news consumers are actually better off if Williams stays. Then it is unambiguously clear to everybody what packaged broadcast news really is. It’s all about the quality of the story, not the quality of the information. You pick your anchor based on his or her personality—and maybe his or her looks—so that you feel comfortable while hearing about the latest catastrophe or listening to digests of the latest talking points from various authorities.

If Williams were fired and replaced by someone else, it would just confuse things. Viewers might start getting the idea that the nightly news actually matters.

But more and more viewers are already figuring out that there are better ways to get informed, which explains why the audience for network news keeps shrinking. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean that those who abandon TV news are becoming better informed. For all we know, many of them are being drawn to less trustworthy sources of information. The optimistic view, though, is that many of them are being drawn to more and varied sources of information.

After all, the main down side of traditional network news was never that it was a particularly bad source of information. Its main down side has always been that it is only one source of information.