It’s happened slowly and surreptitiously, but the Public Editor of the New York Times has undergone a metamorphosis. Today, she spends more time singing the paper’s praises than calling it to task. Call her the Public Cheerleader.
In May of 2011, the Russian government began inserting a color supplement known as “Russia Beyond the Headlines” into the pages of the Times. Masquerading as news, RBTH has weekly regaled Times readers ever since with all manner of Kremlin propaganda. Only if you were a seasoned Russia watcher or read the fine print and then started Googling would you have any idea about the true origins of the supplement.
Yet three years later, the Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan claimed to be blithely unaware that the supplement even existed, much less had she or anyone else in the Public Editor’s office investigated the propriety of the Gray Lady’s conduct in regard to it.
In a January 2014 column, Sullivan wrote: “Just last week, The Times began a careful foray into native advertising — paid content that looks something like news.” Her statement was simply false: The “foray” began three years ago, when RBTH first appeared. Indeed, Sullivan had “reported” in December of 2013 that native advertising was “about to arrive” at the Times “after months of preparation and scrutiny.” In fact, it had already been in place for quite some time. What is Ms. Sullivan reading, if it’s not the New York Times?
The RBTH supplement is deeply misleading. It doesn’t tell readers that it is in any way connected to the Russian government; instead, it merely discloses that it is published through the efforts of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, just another Russian newspaper as far as a lay Times reader would know. If you Google RBTH, you can find a disclosure on the RBTH website that Rossiyskaya Gazeta is “the Russian government’s paper of record,” meaning that it is wholly owned and operated by the Kremlin. Otherwise you won’t know a thing.
One can only guess how much Kremlin cash the Gray Lady takes in every week in order to publish numerous pages of color newsprint as “native advertising” that “looks something like news” and which readers could easily mistake for the NYT’s own handiwork. The Times certainly doesn’t disclose such facts (but the Public Editor, of course, could easily learn them). Needless to say, the Gray Lady’s advertising rates for even one whole page of the paper itself are very substantial.
One would think that Ms. Sullivan might have noticed RBTH after the storm of controversy that arose in October of last year when gay rights activists expressed outrage over RBTH’s failure to fairly report on the Kremlin’s crackdown on homosexuals. Or she could have noticed when the Telegraph was outed for hypocrisy in publishing the RBTH screed in the U.K. by the Guardian. Or she might have glimpsed the outcry that erupted in Australia. She might even have perused Kim Zigfeld’s reporting about the scandalous misinformation contained in RBTH.
But she never did. What she did instead was to simply look the other way, because to raise a red flag would risk cutting off an important revenue stream to the Gray Lady — you know, the institution that pays her salary. To say the least, such an attitude is not necessarily conducive to keeping the NYT on the straight and narrow.
So that now, the little experiment with RBTH having gone so swimmingly, the NYT is branching out to fully utilize all the avenues of “native advertising” and reap the attendant financial windfalls. The Public Editor, rather than urging them to reverse course, is cheering them on, confident in the paper’s assurances of “carefulness.”
It’s not only the Public Editor who should have noticed RBTH, of course. One can’t help but wonder how the flashy color supplement has escaped the notice of the paper’s editorial board. They don’t approve, of course, of his crackdown on gays, and they regularly chastise him for “clinging to the past” and continuing to fight the cold war. So one would have thought the presence of Russian propaganda in the paper’s own pages might be cause for editorial comment.
Then again, however, those same editors were willing to publish a propaganda screed from Putin himself right on the op-ed page, a screed so full of lies, distortions and inaccuracies that it might as well have been written by the Politburo. They find themselves, you see, in a quandary over Putin. They don’t like the way he crushes diversity, but they love the way he hates America and imposes totalitarian control over Russian society, something they’d love to see Barack Obama do as well.
Here’s a concise example of how RBTH operates.
In November of last year, RBTH breathlessly reported that Russia had become a top-ten international tourist destination. What it didn’t care to mention was that when financial receipts from tourists are mentioned, Russia falls flat. The #10 tourist destination, Australia, had $30 billion in receipts, while Russia had a pathetic $12 billion. The USA had $125 billion (slightly more than the GDP of Vietnam). The reason Russian receipts are so small is that the people who transit into Russia are mostly poor, not the kind of high-profile tourists that countries like to brag about.
The whole point of tourism, of course, is to bring tourist dollars to your economy. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels. RBTH didn’t care to report Russia’s failure in this regard, or that that when ranked last year for international tourism competitiveness by the World Economic Forum, Russia ranked miserable #63 out of 140 countries under review.
This is how RBTH operates. Sometimes it just tells lies, but other times it cherry-picks only the facts it likes and shows them, beaming with pride, to the world. In every case, you simply can’t get the full story by reading RBTH, only the Kremlin’s version. It’s fine, of course, for the Kremlin to spout propaganda as much as it likes, but for the American “paper of record” to help it do so by making readers think they are getting objective reporting, maybe even from the NYT itself, is flatly outrageous.