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Incoherence in Media Coverage of Russia-Georgia War

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Joshua Foust, who also blogs on Central Asia at Registan.net, takes a look at the lobbying, PR, and information war going on between Russia and Georgia, and finds that Tbilisi is more or less winning the effort to shape the narrative in the English-language media.  Foust’s point isn’t so much whether or not it was Russia or Georgia at fault for the war, or who the bad guy is, but rather that we had better steel ourselves with a good dose of cynicism in the face of so much effort and money being thrown behind all the media influence trafficking by both parties.

Georgia has also intensified its campaign in the English-language Web–sites like GeorgiaUpdate.gov.ge exist to advance the Georgian government’s point of view to a Western audience. The Georgian government has also been adept at reaching out to Hollywood: Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist who has traveled the region, wrote recently of how Tblisi is enlisting documentary filmmakers to sympathetically portray Georgia’s experience during the August war.

Kucera himself is the target of some Russian efforts to shape the narrative as well. He recounted last year in The Atlantic how a man named Vladimir tried to bribe him into writing positive stories about Russia; he quickly had a visit from the FBI, which seemed very interested in his dealings with them.

Russia, for its part, has had less luck in getting its story to theoutside world. For one, its English-language news sites are, for themost part, pathetic: Ria Novosti,for example, doesn’t always link to English-language versions of itsRussian stories, and it’s unusual to see any major Russian figureswriting opinion pieces on the matter in American newspapers. But italso just doesn’t seem to care as much: while Georgia has adopted adeliberate policy of cultivating so-called citizen propagandists, Russia hasn’t done nearly as much effort in spreading its story to the West. There is a blogdevoted to the subject, but none of the opinion-makers voicing theirinstinctive opposition to Russian foreign policy seem to pay it verymuch attention.

Thus, while the war itself remains a bit complex, morally–Russia wasprovoking a Georgian response, Georgia responded to the provocation,and Russia’s response to that went beyond any excuse one couldconceivably muster–the reigning narrative in the U.S. is that Georgiais an innocent victim of an expansionist Russia. The New York Times has done an admirable job of getting both sides of the war into its pages, with Chris Chivers in particular writing long stories explaining how each government justifies its actions, but that’s where the balanced coverage seems to end.

But even within the Times, editors see no contradiction in first running news about the Georgian government’s repression of political opponents, and then running editorials about how President George Bush and the Russians baited President Saakashvili into a war he couldn’t win. The coverage is incoherent when viewed as a whole.